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The start of this NBA season has been marred by a rash of injuries to many players who are crucial to their team’s fortunes. Whether its been Derrick Rose, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Andre Igoudala, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis or Stephen Curry, each has left their team with varied levels of adversity, depending upon severity of injury, the length of time missed, and maybe most importantly, their teams’ ability to replace them. This all made me think about who’s important to what teams and why.
So, I’ve decided to present my 1st annual player importance rankings. Essentially, I’m going to rank the top 6 players on each team in the order of importance to their respective teams. In other words, which players, if injured, would have the most adverse effect on their teams’ won/loss record. It’s not necessarily who the best players are, just the most important. I am well aware that some of my friends who use analytics primarily would say that net rating with a player on and off the floor would be a simple metric to define importance. However, net rating is not going to take into account how an injured player’s replacement fits into said teams’ schemes and it is imperfect in defining the importance of a player’s role. For example, as important as Chris Paul is to Los Angeles, having a capable backup point guard like Darren Collison cushions that blow, even though Collison isn’t a pimple on Paul’s backside. These lists will be strictly qualitative, which is more fun becomes it leaves the results wide open for debate.
There is one other important element to this piece. I’ll preface it by saying that in my heart, I believe NBA power rankings to be a colossal waste of time. To me, it’s a matchup league. If you want power rankings, pay attention to college football because that’s the only sport where they belong. However, I am sensitive to the fact that a lot of people enjoy reading power rankings and they can create an enjoyable foundation for debate. So, as my gift to my readers, in this piece, I will list the teams Player Importance Rankings in the order I would have them in power rankings. Please don’t get used to this because this is the only column I will do containing power rankings all year.
1) San Antonio Spurs- Parker, Duncan, Leonard, Green, Ginobili, Splitter. Tony Parker is obviously the straw that stirs San Antonio’s drink. The dynamic nature of his offensive game is the Spurs’ irreplaceable part. As deep as the Spurs are up front, their ability to compete for a title is only as good as Tim Duncan’s health. He may not be what he was, but the Spurs aren’t who they are without him. Ginobili comes in behind the young wings because if two reasons. First and foremost, the years are wearing on Manu, probably more than any of his other big 3 brethren. The second reason is the addition of Marco Belinelli, who isn’t Ginobili, but has the ability to play him on TV for short stretches.
2) Indiana Pacers- George, Hibbert, West, Stephenson, Hill, Scola. Paul George has become a superstar and an MVP candidate all rolled into one. Their stay at home defensive philosophy does not function the same way without George’s ability to shut down opposing wing scorers and create turnovers on the perimeter. Ditto for Hibbert and his elite rim protection skills. They funnel the ball into the paint towards Hibbert’s enormous frame. The drop off beyond them is significant. West is a very good player, but he ranks this high because of his leadership and what he means to Indiana’s chemistry. George Hill comes in last for the starters not because he isn’t important, but more because the skill set needed to execute his role is not incredibly uncommon.
3) Miami Heat- James, Bosh, Allen, Wade, Chalmers, Anderson. First question has to be why did I put Wade behind both Bosh and Allen. The Heat need Bosh to compete physically with big tough teams and Allen provides essential floor spacing that allows James to operate in the places where he’s most effective. The other somewhat tough choice was including Birdman Andersen instead of Shane Battier. Battier has been a playoff hero but Birdman’s rim protection is something that looms more valuable and impossible for the Heat to replace.
4) Oklahoma City Thunder- Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Sefolosha, Collison, Jackson. The first three on this list are pretty obvious. I have Ibaka being closer than Westbrook than Westbrook is to Durant, which is a tribute to how much they need Ibaka. Sefolosha is a very unheralded player. He saves Durant from many energy zapping defensive matchups. The fact that Nick Collison makes this list ahead of Kendrick Perkins is an indication that the Thunder have a depth problem in the front court. I also believe that Reggie Jackson can climb up this list.
5) Portland Trailblazers- Aldridge, Matthews, Lillard, Lopez, Batum, Williams. I put Matthews ahead of Lillard because he’s harder to replace in terms of both his skill set and his position. Matthews’ perimeter shooting and tough perimeter defense are essential to Portland’s early success. He’s managed to increase his production while using fewer possessions. Lillard has improved a lot, but with Mo Williams behind him, the drop off when he’s not on the floor isn’t incredibly drastic. I put Lopez ahead of Batum because of the effect he’s had on the Blazers defense. He covers the pick and roll well and protects the rim just enough. Batum’s inconsistent and sometimes, erratic play pushes him down this list. An honorable mention goes to Thomas Robinson who didn’t make this list but has been a very valuable bench weapon for the Blazers.
6) Los Angeles Clippers- Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick, Dudley, and Barnes. There is a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the first three and the second three. Chris Paul’s importance speaks for itself and even with a very capable backup in Darren Collison, there’s only one CP3. Because the Clippers are so thin depth wise in the frontcourt, there is a mountain of responsibility on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. If one of these two would go down, the Clippers are in a world of hurt because there’s nothing of any quality behind them. Redick’s shooting puts him ahead of Dudley and Dudley’s defense having its lapses puts Barnes on the list.
7) Houston Rockets- Harden, Howard, Parsons, Jones, Lin, Beverley. James Harden comes in ahead of Dwight howard primarily because Omer Asik is still on the Rockets. When Asik is finally traded, that could reverse because of Houston’s guard depth. I put Terrence Jones ahead of Jeremy Lin because on a team where very few defend the perimeter well, Jones is a good perimeter defender. Patrick Beverley makes the list for the exact same reason.
8) Golden State Warriors- Curry, Bogut, Igoudala, Barnes, Thompson, and Lee. Stephen Curry as the first name isn’t rocket science. Andrew Bogut’s rim protection, rebounding, and outstanding screen setting ability is a skill set that the Warriors cannot replicate at all. And Andre Igoudala has made himself an essential part in a short amount of time by being a secondary and sometimes primary ball handler plus capably defending the opposition’s best perimeter player every game. I put Harrison Barnes ahead of Klay Thompson because of his versatility, size, and ability to score in the post. David Lee’s scoring and rebounding are easily replicated for the Warriors.
9) Dallas Mavericks- Nowitzki, Ellis, Marion, Carter, Calderon, Dalembert. Dirk Nowitzki has been the straw that stirs their drink and will be for the immediate future. Ellis is a no brainer behind him. His ability to break down defenses in the half court off the dribble is essential for Dallas’s success. Shawn Marion still does the little things and as long as he draws breath, he’ll do more than hold his own as a perimeter defender. Vince Carter gets in ahead of two starters because even at his advanced age, he still has creative shot making ability plus he defends adequately.
10) Minnesota Timberwolves- Love, Rubio, Martin, Pekovic, Brewer, Cunningham. Kevin Love is their franchise player. Even with their depth at point guard, Ricky Rubio’s skill set is crucial. His passing is the blood running through the Timberwolves’ offense veins. His defense is essential because the Wolves have crucial parts that are offense first guys like Love and Kevin Martin. Nicola Pekovic slides in ahead of Martin because the Wolves can’t replicate that size. Martin’s scoring is important, but when Chase Budinger is back, he can pick up a bunch of that. Dante Cunningham makes the list because of his versatility and the fact that he holds his own with bigger stronger players on a nightly basis.
11) Denver Nuggets- Lawson, Chandler, Hickson, Foye, Faried, Mozgov. The gap between Ty Lawson and everyone else is wider than the Grand Canyon. He’s the most underappreciated star in the NBA. Putting Randy Foye ahead of Kenneth Faried may seem surprising, but Foye’s perimeter defense is enormously important for Denver and Faried is a more replacable part. Timofey Mozgov’s entry on this list ahead of Nate Robinson and Andre Miller may seem surprising, but he’s a very important part of what they do defensively. For the Nuggets, Miller and Robinson’s skill sets are easily replicated on the Nuggets’ roster.
12) Memphis Grizzlies- Conley, Gasol, Randolph, Allen, Pondexter, Bayless. You may be surprised to see Mike Conley first on this list. He doesn’t get accolades because of the league wide depth at the position, but he’s the difference between the Grizzlies being a contender and being an unqualified mess. I put Marc Gasol ahead of Zach Randolph even though Memphis has a capable backup center in Kosta Koufos. Memphis runs much of their half court offense through Gasol at the elbow and Koufos handles the ball like it’s a cracked egg. I put Jerryd Bayless on this list over Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince because even though he’s stunk this year, Bayless’ ability to be a streak scorer serves the Grizzlies better.
13) Atlanta Hawks- Horford, Teague, Millsap, Korver, Carroll, Williams. There aren’t a lot of surprises on this list. Al Horford is an outstanding player who’s caught in a situation with a ceiling at this stage. Jeff Teague has vastly improved his game. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver both do their jobs quite well. Lou Williams was included on this list even though he just came back from injury. Williams can give them points in bunches and this team doesn’t have a lot of that.
14) Chicago Bulls- Noah, Deng, Hinrich, Butler, Boozer, Gibson. It pained me to do this list without including Derrick Rose because he is their most important player. So, it ends up being almost a dead heat between Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. I give Noah the nod because there’s much less (Nazr Mohammed) behind him than there is behind Deng. (Mike Dunleavy). If they lost Noah, it would be more painful. I put Kirk Hinrich next because without Rose, he’s irreplaceable from within. I also moved Jimmy Butler ahead of the two big forwards, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson, because they are not as effective on either end of the floor without him. Boozer and Gibson essentially suffer on this list because of the presence of one another.
15) Phoenix Suns- Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, Dragic, Plumlee, Tucker, Marcus Morris. This team was a tougher task to rank with much slimmer degrees of separation between the players. Eric Bledsoe has been their best player and will mist likely be the centerpiece of their future. Markieff Morris edged out Goran Dragic because he’s been a revelation this year on both ends and gives the Suns a skilled inside presence they desperately need. Also, as good as Dragic is, his value is a little diminished in this situation because of Bledsoe’s apparent role as a franchise point guard. P.J. Tucker got on this list for a lot of the intangible toughness he brings the Suns both mentally and physically.
16) New Orleans Pelicans- Davis, Anderson, Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Smith. This list was somewhat predictable. Of course Anthony Davis is their most important player. Since Ryan Anderson returned from injury, it’s quite obvious how important he is to the Pelicans. I ranked Jrue Holiday ahead of both Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans because Holiday gives them a stable, yet athletic presence at point guard and defends much better than both Gordon and Evans as well. Jason Smith made the list because he gives the Pelicans a physical big man that they need.
17) Washington Wizards- Wall, Nene, Gortat, Webster, Beal, Ariza. There isn’t anything too surprising on this list. John Wall is clearly their most important player by a large margin. The Wizards are a very different (not as good) team without Nene on the court. The drop off is great after that. Martell Webster ends up ahead of Bradley Beal because although Beal is playing a lot of minutes and accumulating numbers, he’s not very efficient and his defense is not good. Webster has been shooting the lights out and is a bigger more versatile defender right now.
18) Los Angeles Lakers- Gasol, Blake, Hill, Young, Meeks, Farmar. When Kobe Bryant returns to the Lakers, he instantly goes to the front of this list, but for now, its Pau Gasol, whose interior scoring and presence on the glass is essential to this Laker team keeping their heads above water without Kobe. Steve Blake comes next because he has given them more than they ever could have asked Steve Nash for, let alone Steve Blake. Jordan Hill is a guy who doesn’t play as much as he should and complements Gasol very well. Nick Young gets a slight nod over Jodie Meeks and Jordan Farmar makes the list over Wesley Johnson largely because of the Laker depth on the wing.
19) Charlotte Bobcats- Walker, Jefferson, Kidd Gilchrist, McRoberts, Henderson, Biyombo. This one was tough because the Bobcats are so young and some of their more important players also happen to be their most erratic. Kemba Walker is their most important player despite his erratic shooting and somewhat inefficient overall game. Walker is a leader with a knack for making the right play in the right spot. Despite some real ugly games this season, he always brings defensive intensity and continues to lead. Al Jefferson got the 2nd spot because Charlotte is desperate for this type of veteran presence. I ranked Michael Kidd Gilchrist ahead of both Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson largely because of his very good perimeter defense. Bismack Biyombo makes this list because he’s developing nicely as a productive bench big man.
20) Toronto Raptors- Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Valanciunas, Hansbrough, Johnson. This was a very tough choice on who to put first. Because both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are wings, and there’s a somewhat interchangeable nature to their respective games plus they have a capable wing backup in Terrence Ross. Kyle Lowry’s role as point guard is irreplaceable and essential for Toronto. I put DeRozan ahead of Gay because although his shot selection is almost as bad, his athleticism and defense put him a smidge above. Then there is a major drop off. Jonas Valanciunas is important when Toronto is playing big, but they like to go small often with Gay as a small ball 4. Tyler Hansbrough and Amir Johnson kind of cancel each other out.
21) Detroit Pistons- Drummond, Jennings, Smith, Monroe, Stuckey, Singler. The Pistons have a strange roster for this exercise. They have depth at the positions that their best players occupy. Ultimately, Andre Drummond is their most important player because they can’t replicate his skill set despite the fact that he shoots 28% at the free throw line. I listed Brandon Jennings next, which frankly is indicative of the fact that I don’t think the Pistons are very good. Josh Smith and Greg Monroe are lower on this list because they play the exact same position and would both fill in quite capably for one another. Rodney Stuckey has played great but in the long run, he’s not essential. Kyle Singler has played his way onto this list.
22) Orlando Magic- Vucevic, Afflalo, Oladipo, Nelson, Davis, Nicholson- Nicola Vucevic was the shining star of the Dwight Howard deal and heart of this team on defense and on the glass. Arron Afflalo has had a great year, but it’s just a matter of time before Victor Oladipo hurdles him as the Magic’s 2nd most important player. The rest of the list is pretty irrelevant except for Andrew Nicholson who will become more important as a valuable piece of big man depth.
23) Philadelphia 76ers- Turner, Young, Carter-Williams, Hawes, Allen, Anderson. This is such a strange drill with a team like the Sixers who is built merely to increase veteran trade value and develop young players. Evan Turner takes the top spot because in spite of some pretty poor defense, he’s had a good year for Philadelphia and has played a big role in their exceeding expectations at this point. Thaddeus Young and Michael Carter Williams are almost in a dead heat for who’s second most important. The presence and development of Tony Wroten as a backup point guard to Williams, gives an ever so slight nod to Young. Spencer Hawes is next. He’s having a phenomenal year, but the skeptic inside me tells me that 16 points per game, 10 rebounds, 2 blocked shot and shooting 46% from three point range are not necessarily sustainable production from a player who has been serviceable at best throughout his career. The rest of the list is just filler and isn’t all that relevant.
24) Brooklyn Nets- Lopez, Williams, Johnson, Garnett, Kirilenko, Pierce. Brook Lopez is clearly the most important player to the Nets. He’s their best source of easy baskets and he has become a very good rim protector. He’s a heart and soul player for Brooklyn, and much less replaceable than Deron Williams. Joe Johnson is their 3rd most important player because his scoring may be more important for Brooklyn to sustain than any other player but Lopez. I put Kirilenko ahead of Pierce because they’ve desperately missed Kirilenko’s defense and Pierce has struggled to fit in and has been more of an on court liability than an asset. The time that he spends injured will actually be good for him and the Nets.
25) Cleveland Cavaliers- Irving, Thompson, Varejao, Bynum, Waiters, Jack. Despite his very uneven start to the season, Kyrie Irving is still leaps and bounds Cleveland’s best player. Many were a little quick to dub him a superstar, but in time he has a chance to get there. He needs to understand that defense matters too. The next three guys on this list are their 3 best big men because Cleveland’s size advantage is so crucial if they’re going to have any success. Their attack is lessened by the loss of any of these 3, even Andrew Bynum, who is starting to make a meaningful contribution. Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack bring up the rear of this list because they’re playing similar roles right now and neither is doing it very well. Between the two of them, they’re averaging over 5 turnovers per game.
26) Boston Celtics- Green, Sullinger, Crawford, Bradley, Bass, Wallace. I’m leaving Rajon Rondo off this list because he hasn’t played a game yet this year and I believe in my heart of hearts that when Rondo does return for the Celtics, he’ll be traded as soon as he proves himself healthy. Jeff Green is clearly their most important player. His scoring is essential for them and they can normally find a match up that fits his defensive skill set. Jared Sullinger has improved leaps and bounds on both ends of the floor and is one of the few guys on this roster that’s part of Boston’s future. I put Jordan Crawford ahead of Avery Bradley because in Rondo’s absence, Crawford’s ability to play point guard has been crucial. Gerald Wallace hits the back end of this list because of his defense and his lack of tolerance for less than 100% effort. Those factors mitigate the minor issue of Wallace being the offensive equivalent of George Costanza.
27) Sacramento Kings- Cousins, Thomas, Thornton, Vasquez, McLemore, Thompson. Once the Kings signed DeMarcus Cousins to a max contract extension, it was a clear acknowledgement that he was their most important player. Cousins has a lot of growing up to do, but the improvement is his game this year is tangible. The problem for the Kings lies in what comes after Cousins on this list. Isaiah Thomas is a dynamic, exciting offensive point guard but the next guy he defends will be his first. Marcus Thornton’s shooting is important for the Kings with a post up center like Cousins, but at 38% from the field and 30% from 3 point range, he’s not having the desired effect. Greivis Vasquez is an assist machine, but he treats the guys he’s assigned to guard like they have a contagious disease. I put rookie Ben McLemore next on this list because if they’re not getting the perimeter shooting from Thornton, they’ll need it from McLemore. Jason Thompson makes the list not because of his efficiency but because of his versatility.
28) Utah Jazz- Hayward, Favors, Burke, Burks, Kanter, Williams. Gordon Hayward is Utah’s most important player even though he’s miscast in the role of lead dog. Would be more effective as the 3rd or 4th most important player on a team. Derrick Favors comes next because he gives Utah a legitimately tough inside presence. If isn’t there, there’s no one else who really does that job for them. Even though he’s just back from injury, I put rookie Trey Burke next, which is both a tribute to Burke and an indicator of how far the Jazz have fallen. Since Burke returned, this has been a much better basketball team. I put Enes Kanter as their 5th most important player because there’s been times this season where he’s been so bad, they’ve chosen to play small ball with Marvin Williams at big forward to keep Kanter off the floor.
29) New York Knicks- Anthony, Chandler, Smith, Felton, Shumpert, Prigioni. For as much as a superstar as Carmelo Anthony is, the disaster that has been the Knicks’ season thus far shows us that Tyson Chandler is every but as important to New York. I gave Anthony the nod because J.R. Smith has been so bad, that there’s no one else to score if Anthony doesn’t. I placed Smith and Raymond Felton next largely because of the coach’s unconditional commitment to both players no matter how bad they play or how out of shape they both are. I put Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni next because they both should be drawing more crunch time minutes than Smith and Felton. Andrea Bargnani didn’t make this list because with Chandler healthy, his skill set only has limited value to New York.
30) Milwaukee Bucks- Sanders, Henson, Knight, Mayo, Ilyasova, Udoh. The Bucks have had an injury riddled season but none that has hurt more than Larry Sanders. Without Sanders, they have virtually no defensive identity. I put John Henson next because his development is huge for the Bucks. The same goes for young guard Brandon Knight, who I put 3rd. The next two players on the list, O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova, are on this list because of their ample contracts. For the amount of money the Bucks are paying both of these guys, they need production out of both of them to have any degree of success. Veterans Caron Butler and Gary Neal don’t make the list because they aren’t going to get any better than they already are and the Bucks need upside.
Every single one of these lists is debatable. None of this is empirical fact and all of it makes for lively conversation.
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