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Power Ranking the Most Irreplaceable Stars in the NBA Today

Stephen BabbFeatured Columnist IVOctober 9, 2016

Power Ranking the Most Irreplaceable Stars in the NBA Today

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    Voting for the NBA's MVP can mean a lot of different things to different people depending on what metrics you use and how you weigh them.

    Is it a question of talent and skill alone? Are the numbers the final arbiter? Should we account for how valuable a player is to his particular team? Little consensus emerges with respect to these kind of first-order question, so it's a good thing that some measures will lead to the very same conclusion.

    By most accounts, LeBron James deserved the award in 2011-12—and by almost all accounts, no one came even close to James and Kevin Durant.

    After taking a look the 10 players who mean the most to their respective teams, it's time for a slightly different analysis. 

    This time we're ranking the 15 most irreplaceable players without taking the strength of their teams into account. Let the debates begin!

15. TIE: Tim Duncan–F/C, San Antonio Spurs and Kevin Garnett–F/C, Boston Celtics

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    No two players in this league are more frequently overlooked these days than Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

    As if they'd already had their turns to enjoy the limelight, attention has turned to a new generation of big men led by the likes of Kevin Love and Blake Griffin. There are good reasons for acknowledging the next wave of talented power forwards, but not at the expense of a couple of guys who are still setting the bar.

    KG and Timmy remain two of the most efficient, skilled and defensively sound big men in the game. 

    Their minutes were limited during the regular season, but that changed in the playoffs precisely because neither is anywhere close to being washed up—they're just so indispensable that their coaches opt to keep them fresh for the games that count. Both are capable of serving as their team's first option for stretches at a time, and they anchor the interior defenses of two of the league's very best teams. 

    Add to that an ability to score from inside or the mid-range, uncanny passing skills for big men and the kind of leadership a veteran MVP brings to the table, and you can see neither the San Antonio Spurs nor Boston Celtics were eager to part with their aging superstars this summer.  

14. Dirk Nowitzki–PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    Dirk Nowitzki took the slightest of steps back in 2011-12 as his Dallas Mavericks did the same, but there's no question he remains one of the most unique talents in the league.

    The smooth-shooting 7-footer can score from anywhere on the floor, off the dribble, in the post or assisted. Even at 34 years old, Dirk remains in an elite category of scorers capable of serving as a go-to scorer in key situations, even when the defense knows exactly what's coming.

    His game is all but unguardable. Last season was the first time Nowitzki shot the ball under 46 percent since 2004-05, and that's saying a lot given that so many of those shots come from the mid-range or perimeter.

    If he played defense befitting a mobile 7-footer, he'd be higher on this list.

13. Deron Williams–PG, Brooklyn Nets

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    Deron Williams' numbers don't look quite as good as they did during his best seasons with the Utah Jazz, but that has more to do with the state of the New Jersey Nets when he arrived. Appropriately, the Brooklyn edition should afford Williams the opportunity to return to his more efficient self.

    Without having to carry his team's scoring burden so single-handedly, Williams will take better shots and improve upon last season's 41 percent shooting percentage—the lowest of his career.

    He'll also settle into the facilitating role with which he's more accustomed, taking advantage of a scoring arsenal he hasn't had as his disposal thus far with the Nets (including Joe Johnson, a healthy Brook Lopez, a full season of Gerald Wallace and a more experienced MarShon Brooks).

12. Tony Parker–PG, San Antonio Spurs

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    On the face of things, some will make the argument that Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook or Steve Nash belongs ahead of Tony Parker.

    That might have been true once upon a time, but the Tony Parker we saw last year was playing at a different level. His mid-range game has been much-improved, and he's still one of the league's very best when it comes to getting in the paint and either finishing or kicking to an open scorer.

    Parker also mastered a command of the San Antonio Spurs' offense, picking his spots and making an unheralded supporting cast look like the deepest roster in basketball. He tallied 18.3 points and 7.7 assists per game while shooting an efficient 48 percent.

    The proof is in the results. Parker was the spearhead of the league's best all-around an offense, a machine that looked as good as any we'd seen in recent history up until those four games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals.

11. LaMarcus Aldridge–PF, Portland Trail Blazers

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    After his second straight season scoring nearly 22 points a game, it's about time to give LaMarcus Aldridge the credit he deserves.

    He was already one of the league's very best pick-and-pop threats, but he's become a consistent threat in the post to boot. With a more well-rounded offensive game in hand, Aldridge earned a well-deserved spot at the All-Star game for the first time in 2011-12 and looks poised to return for the foreseeable future.

    We'll probably see Aldridge get more attention as his Portland Trail Blazers improve, but in the meantime there remains little question that he's one of the most talented big men in the game.

    In many respects, he's become the next Pau Gasol, and he occupies a spot on this list that Gasol may well have deserved two or three years ago.

10. Kevin Love–PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The case for Kevin Love is straightforward enough.

    There's no one in the NBA who comes even remotely close to making a similar impact both on the glass and the perimeter alike. He made over 37 percent of his 5.1 three-point attempts in 2011-12 while collecting 13.3 rebounds per game.

    Oh, and he dropped 26 points a contest for a Minnesota Timberwolves' team that desperately needed it while he was at it.

    Love's numbers are a tad inflated on account how heavily those middling Timberwolves relied upon him last season, but that shouldn't detract too much from how valuable he was. If anything, it's evidence of exactly that.

9. Carmelo Anthony–SF, New York Knicks

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    Whatever you think about Carmelo Anthony's defense or willingness to pass, there are a few things to keep in mind.

    He's one of the very best rebounding small forwards in the game, and he's even more obviously one of the very best scorers at any position. Anthony scored 22.6 a game last season and shot the ball at an atypically low 43 percent clip.

    Chances are that had more to do with difficulty adjusting to Mike D'Antoni's offense early in the season than anything else, though. He was remarkable in April, averaging nearly 30 points and shooting at nearly 50 percent.

    Yes, Anthony can still mix it up with the best of scorers so long as he's put in a position to succeed. When in that position, he's an absolute beast from anywhere on the floor and arguably one of the best isolation scorers the game's ever seen.

8. Dwight Howard–C, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Dwight Howard changes game plans on both ends of the floor, and it's hard to replace that.

    It's even harder when you're talking about an athletic hulk who's been named Defensive Player of the Year three times. Whatever you think about Howard's contributions (and distractions) off the court, he's quite simply one of the most dominant players on it.

    Before anyone gets carried away, though, he's not even close to approximating the kind of offense we saw from the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson. Howard's scoring ability remains relatively one-dimensional, making it at least somewhat possible to counteract.

    That said, he's one of the very best defenders we've seen in the paint, and his explosiveness on the offensive end largely make up for his other shortcomings.

7. Dwyane Wade–SG, Miami Heat

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    He's more efficient than Kobe Bryant, one of the more underrated defenders at his position, and a two-time champion who overcame knee problems to remain relevant in the Miami Heat's 2011-12 title push.

    Yes, in context, LeBron James and Chris Bosh make Wade theoretically expendable (at least for a game here and there), the same could be said of Dwight Howard now that he's surrounded by Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.

    But even with the help, this guy averaged over 22 points a game last season along with 1.7 steals, 1.3 blocks and—as usual—more rebounds and assists than you'd expect from a 6'4" guard who spends so much of his time off the ball.

    Wade may not be quite as explosive as he was when leading Miami to a title single-handedly, but he still got to the basket and finished, so nothing's broken just yet.

6. Derrick Rose–PG, Chicago Bulls

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    How hard is it to replace Derrick Rose?

    The Chicago Bulls know exactly what that's like after suffering through a first-round upset at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. They'll know that much better after going most of this season without him as he recovers from that torn ACL.

    And here's the more important question: How many point guards would you take ahead of Rose?

    Maybe Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo in my book, and you could certainly make an argument that a healthy Rose is even more valuable.

    Last season didn't quite live up to his MVP performance, but you can chalk a lot of that up to injury. The next time this guy is healthy enough to get a full season under his belt, watch out.

5. Kobe Bryant–SG, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Yes, Kobe Bryant can hurt his team by overshooting the ball. If you still don't believe that after watching his games last season, there's a very real possibility you're in a bit of denial.

    Of course, Bryant isn't necessarily to blame for any of that. He was playing the role that was expected from him, and that role wasn't to be a LeBron James-like play-maker. It was to score and score mercilessly.

    That Bryant did.

    The results weren't quite as efficient as he'd have liked, but they were enough to make him the league's second-leading scorer, and they proved Bryant could still log over 38 minutes a game and look awfully good in the process.

    It goes without saying that Bryant offers the broadest of skill sets, scoring from everywhere on the floor with or without the help of his teammates.

4. Rajon Rondo–PG, Boston Celtics

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    Rajon Rondo doesn't show up so prominently on this list just because he led the league in 2011-12 with 11.7 assists per game.

    Nor is he ranked so high just because he scores when needed, rebounds a ridiculous amount for a guy standing 6'1" and runs an intricate offense with the patience and acumen of a long-tested veteran. Those reasons may very well be good enough to prove his value, but there's more to it.

    The Boston Celtics' floor general is also one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders, a skill that pays huge dividends in a league increasingly dominated by point guards. He brings physicality to his defensive assignments and has the lateral quickness to cut off penetration.

    That might be just as hard to replace as Rondo's distribution, but the combination is virtually one of a kind.

3. Chris Paul–PG, Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies both had rosters loaded with above-average talent last season.

    The difference in that tight first-round series?

    Chris Paul.

    Paul was the difference all season for the Clippers, making the young Blake Griffin even better and making Caron Butler looks five years younger. Outside of Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash, it's hard to think of a point guard who manages a game so well, mixing his scoring and facilitation into a perfect and unguardable concoction that keeps defenders off-balance and guessing.

    You could certainly make a solid argument that the gap between Paul and the rest of the league's point guards is narrowing, but his success from the perimeter still sets him apart from guys like Rondo and Tony Parker.

2. Kevin Durant–SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    He's led the league in scoring three times, done so efficiently and proven he does the little things too (by averaging eight rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.3 steals and 3.5 assists in 2011-12).

    There's a reason Kevin Durant was the only player who came even remotely close of catching LeBron James during the MVP race. He's the best scorer in the game, and he's not just a scorer—a combination we haven't seen in recent years outside of Kobe Bryant.

    KD's ability to shoot the ball from range and rise up over virtually any defender also makes him effective in ways his numbers don't always show.

    He instantly spreads the floor and commands defensive attention that would otherwise be allotted to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. It isn't easy to find a player who makes the rest of his team so much better even when he isn't passing them the ball.

1. LeBron James–SF, Miami Heat

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    Is there any list that doesn't have LeBron James in first place?

    Even if there should be, there won't be. 

    The reigning MVP is just as effective in the paint as he is running the point or working from the wing. His versatility is unmatched, and so is his ability to go from serving as a triple-double machine to his team's go-to scorer.

    Without LeBron James, the Heat would be a borderline contender at best and nowhere close to the dominant force that's made it to the NBA Finals in each of the last two seasons. His value may differ from Kevin Durant's only negligibly, but his ability to defend so many different positions so effectively keeps him on top of this list for now.

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