LeBron James is the best player on the Miami Heat, but is he the most important one?
In the NBA playoffs, every possession is important. Each shot matters, all the defensive stops count and every single player makes a difference.
Nonetheless, one player still manages to stand out on each of the 16 playoff squads as the single most important guy. He's the one most crucial to the team's success.
The most important player isn't necessarily the best player. He's not always the X-factor, although in some cases, he very well could be. An X-factor is usually more of a wild card, a player capable of exploding and swinging the balance of either a game or a series.
These players are expected to perform at a high level, but it would be absolutely devastating if they didn't.
If you're a fan lucky enough to be rooting for one of the 16 teams competing in the NBA postseason, you better hope that your most important player lives up to the expectations and does his job.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals, 17.82 PER
Danny Ferry has assembled enough talent that the Atlanta Hawks have a serious shot at pulling off an upset in the playoffs, but it all hinges on the shot selection of Josh Smith.
When you watch a game in Philips Arena, I can virtually guarantee that Smoove will rise up for a jumper as the crowd—well, the part of the crowd that's actually there—falls into a nervous hush. That'll be the only falling that happens in the next few seconds, because Smith's shot almost certainly won't.
The forward is an incredible athletic specimen capable of dominating a game in a variety of ways when he approaches it in the right manner. He must make sure that he's using his athleticism, not his ineffective jumper.
If Smith fires away from the outside too often, he'll possibly be shooting himself out of both the postseason and an Atlanta uniform.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.3 steals, 8.89 PER
Avery Bradley has established himself as one of the league's best perimeter defenders, but the Boston Celtics need for their floor general to emerge as an offensive option during the postseason. If he can't, the C's won't be able to score enough points to keep up with the New York Knicks in the opening round.
Ever since returning from his own injury and taking over for a crippled Rajon Rondo in the starting lineup, Bradley has been serviceable offensively.
During the regular season, he averaged 9.2 points, 2.1 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game while shooting 40.2 percent from the field. It's not like he drained enough three-pointers or worked his way to the free-throw line often enough to make up for his lack of efficiency, either.
Again, serviceable. Not much more.
Boston relies on Bradley's perimeter defense, already making him important to the cause, but the need for some offense from the combo guard pushes him over the top.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 2.1 blocks, 0.4 steals, 24.81 PER
Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Nets were actually better defensively and rebounded more effectively when Brook Lopez was on the court. That's a bit strange, seeing as the seven-footer has a reputation for struggling on the glass and in the less-glamorous end of the court.
According to NBA.com's stats, the Nets allow two fewer points per 100 possessions when Lopez is playing, and the total rebounding percentage climbs up from 51.2 to 52.9 percent.
Lopez is a phenomenal offensive player, but it's important he helps the Nets maintain these subtle advantages when he plays. The Stanford product has developed into a quality shot-blocker during the 2012-13 campaign, and this is a role he must continue to fill.
He also needs to end possessions by grabbing the defensive rebound after a missed shot, especially since each trip down the court becomes all the more valuable during the postseason.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.2 steals, 18.16 PER
The Chicago Bulls have managed to survive the season-long absence of Derrick Rose, but they won't be able to make it past the Brooklyn Nets without Joakim Noah in the lineup.
According to ESPN's Doug Padilla, Tom Thibodeau has admitted that his star center is day-to-day for the opening-round series. Between Noah's defensive excellence and his versatility on offense, the Bulls can ill afford for him to sit out the entirety of the matchup.
Noah may only be a single player on Chicago's roster, but he's the most important one. His energy gives the team life, and his play is the foundation upon which so much is built.
Without the Florida product, the Bulls are looking at giving Nazr Mohammed major minutes, and that's a thought that should make everyone in the Windy City shudder.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.0 steals, 16.61 PER
Danilo Gallinari was incredibly valuable for the Denver Nuggets in the regular season, but after tearing his ACL down the stretch, he's not going to provide any production for the team in the playoffs. Someone has to replace him on both ends of the court.
That man is going to be Wilson Chandler, who has absolutely thrived in eight games as a starting forward. He and his tattoos have averaged 18.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per game during that time while shooting 52.5 percent from the field.
Chandler might not be much of a facilitator, but he has to keep up his scoring numbers while locking down one of the Golden State Warriors' talented wing players in what's bound to be a high-scoring first-round series.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 5.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.7 blocks, 0.6 steals, 13.81 PER
Andrew Bogut was entirely ineffective for the Golden State Warriors during the regular-season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers. In 17 minutes of action, he shot 1-of-8 from the field and recorded two points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
That's not going to cut it, especially as the Dubs will need to shut down the paint against a Denver Nuggets team that loves nothing more than shooting the ball at the rim.
When healthy and on top of his game, Bogut thrives on defense. He's a tremendous—and underrated—rim protector with top-notch skills around the hoop.
The best way to beat the Nuggets is to make them into a jump-shooting squad. If Bogut plays like he did during his prime, that's exactly the type of effect he can have.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.1 blocks, 0.6 steals, 14.89 PER
In the postseason, there's more of a priority placed on defense. That's bad news for the Houston Rockets, unless Omer Asik can up his already impressive defensive game.
The Oklahoma City Thunder thrive on dribble-drive penetration, and both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are likely to have field days with the turnstiles known as James Harden and Jeremy Lin. Neither of the Houston guards is particularly adept at preventing players from reaching the interior of the defense.
Asik will have to serve as the stabilizing force in the center. He's going to be faced with a lot of layup and dunk attempts, so staying out of foul trouble and competently protecting the rim isn't just important.
It's a necessity.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 2.6 blocks, 0.5 steals, 17.32 PER
Even with Paul George and David West on the court, the Indiana Pacers can sometimes struggle to put up enough points. Frank Vogel's squad might boast a ridiculously suffocating defense, but the offense is rather lackluster at times.
Having a solid interior threat would do wonders for the offense, and Roy Hibbert has to hit shots in order to become that paint presence. The big man struggled to find the bottom of the net during the first half of the season, but he averaged 15.7 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field after the All-Star break.
We know that Hibbert is going to play DPOY-worthy defense throughout the Pacers' first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, but he's got to force his opponents to respect the inside on offense.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.2 steals, 22.44 PER
Blake Griffin began the 2012-13 campaign in terrific fashion. He was making strides in each area of the game and looking every bit the part of an All-Star.
As the season progressed, though, Blake took a step backward. Then another one. Then one more.
He was more and more disengaged out on the court, noticeably less involved in the Los Angeles Clippers offense and not quite superstar material. Take a look at these per-game monthly splits, courtesy of ESPN.com:
Griffin has remained a productive player thanks to his penchant for making the right play with his passes, but the Clippers desperately need for him to become more involved in the scoring and rebounding columns once more.
While Chris Paul is clearly the best player on the Clippers, Griffin is a strong No. 2. It's time he starts playing like it again.
If he doesn't, the team could be doomed to an early exit from the postseason.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 blocks, 0.5 steals, 16.75 PER
While this spot would usually be reserved for a certain shooting guard named Kobe Bryant, his Achilles tendon prevents him from holding on to it.
Now, in the Mamba's absence, everyone else has to step up.
That's exactly what Pau Gasol did at the end of the regular season, recording two triple-doubles down the stretch and averaging 19.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 0.4 steals per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field over the last five contests.
The Los Angeles Lakers need that type of production from the 32-year-old if they hope to somehow swing an upset and take down the San Antonio Spurs.
Gasol is an incredible facilitator, and the offense can run through his hands, especially if Steve Nash continues to miss time.
If Pau's form from late in the regular season can't carry over into the postseason, the Lakers' season is basically toast.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.3 blocks, 2.2 steals, 18.38 PER
Mike Conley better be ready for playoff pressure, because there's going to be a lot riding on his shoulders when the Memphis Grizzlies take on the Los Angeles Clippers.
First, he gets the unenviable task of containing Chris Paul. Conley may be a defensive specialist, but matching up with CP3 is never easy, as the Clippers floor general has so many different ways of beating you.
If Conley can control Paul, though, that will go a long way in helping the Grizz advance.
And that's not even the extent of his responsibility, as Conley has morphed into a major offensive contributor for Lionel Hollins' squad. Since the All-Star break, the southpaw has averaged 16.7 points and 6.3 assists per game while making 46 percent of his shots from the field and turning the ball over less often than he did early in the season.
For Memphis' offense to keep humming, he'll need to average similar numbers during the postseason. Once more, doing that against CP3 isn't just a walk in the park.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.7 steals, 31.67 PER
LeBron James isn't just the most important player for the Miami Heat because he's the best player on the team. He's so vital to the cause because he impacts the game in every way possible.
No one else can contribute across the board like LeBron, guarding a big man in the post on one end of the court, dribbling it down the floor after corralling a rebound and then serving as a point guard. If Erik Spoelstra needs him to do something, he'll do it.
On both defense and offense, LeBron makes the Heat significantly better.
In fact, according to NBA.com's stats, Miami outscored the opposition by 14.1 points per 100 possessions when the reigning—and future—MVP was playing, but it was on the wrong end of a 1.6-point margin per 100 possessions when James sat.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.4 blocks, 2.1 steals, 16.30 PER
If Good Monta Ellis shows up, the Milwaukee Bucks have a chance of winning a few games against the Miami Heat before watching the rest of the playoffs from the comfort of their own living rooms. However, if Bad Monta Ellis is playing shooting guard, a sweep is all but guaranteed.
Bad Ellis doesn't realize that he's one of the league's least valuable three-point shooters. Good Ellis plays to his strengths, trying to penetrate into the paint on every possession, where he can either finish through contact or kick the ball to an open teammate.
Bad Ellis can't realize when his shot is off and keeps hoisting up bricks until he's shot Milwaukee out of a game and built a house in the process. Good Ellis is more self-aware, either catching fire and keeping his team in the game almost single-handedly or morphing into a facilitator during the action.
Which one shows up is crucial.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 blocks, 0.8 steals, 24.83 PER
I hate to be the bearer of bad news for Carmelo Anthony, but his burden isn't magically lifted now that postseason play is beginning.
Melo won the regular-season scoring title, but now the real part of the season begins. If he isn't competing for the points-per-game crown during the playoffs, the New York Knicks aren't going to be able to generate enough efficient offense to win more than a few games.
Yes, games. Not rounds.
While J.R. Smith is a scoring talent, he's not nearly on the same level as Anthony. New York is going to be incredibly dependent on the forward's scoring prowess, especially against a Boston Celtics squad that is sure to bring out some solid defensive schemes.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.8 steals, 23.98 PER
During the Oklahoma City Thunder's 60 wins, Russell Westbrook averaged 23.3 points, 7.5 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from downtown on 18.2 and 3.5 attempts, respectively.
In 22 losses, the dynamic point guard took 20.3 shots from the field and 4.1 from behind the three-point arc, converting them 39 and 25.3 percent of the time en route to averaging 22.9 points, 7.2 assists and 4.0 turnovers per game.
Westbrook is never going to stop shooting, and the Thunder are at their best when the 24-year-old is actually having some success with his attempts. For Westbrook, hitting a few early jumpers is crucial, as that forces defenders to respect his perimeter game. And, of course, that opens the door for some blow-by dunks.
Picking and choosing when he lets it fly is vital. If Westbrook displays good shot selection—even if he shoots a lot—the Thunder are awfully difficult to beat.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.7 blocks, 0.7 steals, 24.45 PER
With Kobe Bryant out for the season and Steve Nash either sitting out or attempting to play his way into shape, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to run their offense from the inside out. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will be the focal points.
That means that Tim Duncan's job is even more important, because he'll be tasked with holding down the fort in the paint for the San Antonio Spurs while slowing down the hotter of the two big men.
Even at 36 years old, Duncan has played well enough to earn some serious DPOY consideration, and he'll have to live up to those standards during the playoffs. If he can neutralize the Lakers frontcourt, it makes it even easier for Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard to wreak havoc on the perimeter.