Every NBA Contender's Most Vital Ingredient

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Every NBA Contender's Most Vital Ingredient

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    Each NBA contender has one player who just makes everything go. 

    It may be the team's best player, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Glue guys and secondary stars can also be the most vital ingredient, spurring the squad on to victory night in and night out. Maybe it's through stellar offense, maybe suffocating defense. 

    Maybe stats don't matter to this player. 

    In order to determine the representative for each of the Association's eight leading contenders, I'm turning to a two-category metric. Here's how each representative was determined, in step-by-step fashion: 

    1. I eliminated all players who hadn't recorded 500 minutes at this stage of the season. That's both to account for lengthy injuries and to disqualify non-rotation members who might otherwise earn a spot due to small sample size. 
    2. Using Basketball-Reference, I looked at the on-court/off-court differentials for each player. That's meant to quantify a player's impact on the team's success, as a more positive difference in points per 100 possessions is a good sign. 
    3. Using 82games.com, I looked at the player efficiency rating disparity, subtracting a player's PER allowed from his PER earned. That's meant to quantify individual impact, as a more positive disparity indicates a victory in the head-to-head matchup. 
    4. I ranked each team's players in each category, then summed the ranks of the stats generated in the previous two steps. The lower the number, the better, as a score of two would indicate a top finish in both relevant categories. 
    5. In case of a tie, the winner was determined by finish in on-court/off-court differential, as team play should be considered more important. This only mattered for the Indiana Pacers. 

    Throughout this article, you'll see three relevant pieces of information on each slide: the featured player (aka the most vital ingredient), an honorable mention (the No. 2 finisher) and the dishonorable mention (the last-place finisher). 

    Some players will surprise you. Others won't. 

    See if you can guess them all, but good luck. You'll need it. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and 82games.com. They're current through games played on Feb. 25. 

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    Is Stephen Curry one of the best shooters in NBA history? Absolutely. 

    Is he just a shooter? Absolutely not. 

    Not only has the dynamic point guard made serious strides on the defensive end of the court, but he's also consistently racked up the assists for a struggling (relatively) Golden State Warriors offense. Curry ranks No. 7 in points per game and No. 2 in dimes per contest, making him and LeBron James the only players in the top 10 for both categories. 

    After a recent victory against the Detroit Pistons, Curry said, via WXYZ Detroit, "I tried to press a little in the third quarter. It didn't work out my way, so I tried to stay positive. Other guys were making plays, so it was kind of a team effort."

    That's the difference this season, as the floor general has figured out when to stop pressing and start involving his teammates. 

    The all-around excellence is what's allowed the Dubs to go nuts on offense when he's playing. With Curry on the court, Golden State puts up 112.8 points per 100 possessions. Without him, the number drops by 18.2. 

    Even though the defense is slightly worse with the baby-faced assassin suiting up, the offensive margin is so great that Curry still trails only Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson in on-court/off-court differential. It's the PER difference that puts the point guard over the top, as he generally dominates his individual matchup. 

    The gap between Curry and Iggy isn't too large, but there's still a gap. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Andre Iguodala

    Dishonorable Mention: Jermaine O'Neal

Houston Rockets: James Harden

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    Yes, James Harden is just that good at offense. 

    But with that out of the way, it's also possible that the numbers are skewed in his favor. Harden's PERs allowed to shooting guards and small forwards are 12.5 and 10.2, respectively. Both of those seem unreasonably low. 

    Harden has a reputation as an atrocious defender for a reason. He's notoriously lazy, and he often takes possessions off, which makes it almost inconceivable that he could hold players to those elite marks. 

    In fact, there's a chance he looks better because he's so far away from the action that it can't be counted against him. 

    Regardless, Harden has the top PER differential on the Houston Rockets, and only Patrick Beverley has a better on-court/off-court split. That combination is enough for the bearded 2-guard to sneak away with a victory over Dwight Howard and the rest of his teammates. 

    It would be unfair for the entire text here to be negative, because Harden has been quite valuable for the Rockets. He's an elite point creator, whether he's doing the scoring or distributing the ball around to his talented teammates. 

    That's why Houston scores an additional 7.0 points per 100 possessions when he's out on the court. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Dwight Howard

    Dishonorable Mention: Francisco Garcia

Indiana Pacers: David West

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Now you get your first surprise. 

    Many of you likely expected Paul George here, but it's David West who continues to be the heart and soul of the Indiana Pacers. His grit and toughness set the tone defensively, and his versatile offense allows the Pacers to grind out points with a slow tempo. 

    Indiana puts up 9.8 more points per 100 possessions when he plays, and while it gives up an additional 0.4 points, the 98.5 defensive rating is still undoubtedly impressive. 

    Only Roy Hibbert beats him in the combined on-court/off-court splits, but West's PER generated and PER allowed make up for the difference. Not only is he an elite team player, but he also tends to get the better of his individual assignment on both ends of the court. 

    In early January, Scott Agness of Pacers.com tweeted out a rather telling quote from Frank Vogel, one that essentially underscores what the power forward means to his team. 

    "He's leading our team in sacrifice and team play," stated the head coach, and he couldn't have hit the nail on the head any more firmly. 

    Even though George is drawing MVP consideration and Hibbert is the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner, West is the heart and soul of this Indiana squad.

     

    Honorable Mention: Paul George

    Dishonorable Mention: Ian Mahinmi

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin

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    Maybe Chris Paul will have a chance to dethrone Blake Griffin as he gets his sea legs back after separating his shoulder and missing a lengthy stretch of the season, but this spot belongs to the power forward. 

    Griffin has been on an absolute tear during the 2013-14 season, putting up gaudy scoring numbers and steadily improving his game throughout the year. The post moves are coming, as is an increasingly potent mid-range game. 

    Oh, and the Los Angeles Clippers have basically decided to run everything through Griffin, even with CP3 back in the lineup. Possessions in which he fails to touch the rock on the blocks or elbow are quite rare at this stage of the season. 

    To put his growth into perspective, just read how B/R's Kevin Ding recently opened an article: 

    Now that we're starting to realize how wrong we were to think this guy is just some gimmick who jumped over the hood of a car in a dunk contest, let's brace ourselves for two next-step concepts we need to ponder:

    Right now, is Blake Griffin—not Chris Paul—the best player on the Los Angeles Clippers?

    And someday, will Blake Griffin—not LeBron James or Kevin Durant—be the best player in the NBA?

    LAC was a shallow team without Paul. It's been even shallower in the frontcourt throughout the season, and that makes it hard for players to post significant on-court/off-court disparities. Despite that, Griffin still makes the Clippers 6.6 points better per 100 possessions when he plays, which is—by far—the best mark. 

    To put that in perspective, J.J. Redick is No. 2 out of the rotation members, and he only makes the Clippers 3.9 points better. DeAndre Jordan (2.6) and Paul (2.5) are the only other players on the right side of two. 

    Griffin doesn't win the individual battle to the same extent that CP3 does, but the team impact pushes him significantly ahead of his point guard. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Chris Paul and J.J. Redick

    Dishonorable Mention: Willie Green

Miami Heat: Chris Bosh

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    I know you're all thinking it. So for your viewing pleasure, here's a breakdown of the relevant stats for both LeBron James and Chris Bosh

    PlayerOffensive Rating DifferenceDefensive Rating DifferencePERPER Allowed
    LeBron James8.5 points better7.0 points worse31.112.7
    Chris Bosh5.1 points better6.5 points better21.119.6

    In the individual categories, LeBron blows Bosh out of the water. But that's only one of the two components. 

    When it comes to impacting the Miami Heat, it's actually the big man who stands out. 

    Thanks to his lackluster effort on the less-glamorous end of the court, Miami is actually much worse defensively when LeBron is on the court. Even his offensive prowess isn't enough to make up for that, though increased hustle in the postseason will likely reverse the trend. 

    Bosh, however, makes Miami significantly better on both ends, lending credence to his case for being the league's most underrated superstar. 

    Not only is he better than he gets credit for on the defensive end, but his floor-spacing tendencies on offense are also invaluable to the Miami cause. 

     

    Honorable Mention: LeBron James

    Dishonorable Mention: Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant

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    Duh.

    Unlike LeBron James, Kevin Durant has left absolutely no doubt that he's taking no prisoners during the 2013-14 season. He's going for both MVP and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and he's not content letting anything or anyone stand in his way. 

    There's just no question about Durant's importance to the Oklahoma City Thunder, as he's grown into an all-around stud. Don't make the mistake of calling KD a scorer, because he's been distributing the ball well and playing some elite defense night in and night out. 

    Partially because he has to play next to Kendrick Perkins for a large portion of each game, Durant doesn't have the best on-court/off-court differential on the OKC roster. That honor would belong to Nick Collison, which should underscore just how valuable a glue guy can be. 

    But when PER is brought into the equation, Durant rises to the top—just like cream. 

    Here are the top PER disparities among the Thunder rotation members: 

    1. Kevin Durant, 22.2
    2. Serge Ibaka, 7.0
    3. Russell Westbrook, 5.7
    4. Perry Jones III, 0.8
    5. Jeremy Lamb, 0.6

    That should say everything. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Reggie Jackson

    Dishonorable Mention: Kendrick Perkins

Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Can we start giving LaMarcus Aldridge more credit? 

    Even though the Portland Trail Blazers have gone 3-1—with the sole loss coming by two points to the San Antonio Spurs—since the power forward left the lineup with a groin injury after the All-Star break, he's still incredibly important. 

    Rip City outscores opponents by 7.0 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, which is better than anyone else in the starting lineup. Damian Lillard is second in that category, 1.1 points behind his team's star big man. 

    On top of that, Aldridge is—by far—the leader in PER disparity. Nine points ahead of the opposition, that differential is more than double the second-best mark on the team, which belongs to Wesley Matthews. 

    Aldridge is one of the few players in this analysis who paced his team in both on-court/off-court disparity and PER differential. In fact, the next featured player is the only other guy who could match that achievement, though James Harden and Blake Griffin were both close to doing so. 

    Given that the Blazers are still right near the top of the Western Conference standings, it's unbelievable that Aldridge doesn't get more MVP hype. I'm not suggesting he should win, but he should at least be part of the conversation. 

    NBA.com's Feb. 21 update of the MVP Ladder has Aldridge at No. 9 in the award race, trailing luminaries like DeMar DeRozan, James Harden and Goran Dragic. 

    It's time that changed. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum

    Dishonorable Mention: Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson 

San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili

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    Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

    It's safe to say that last postseason's rumors of Manu Ginobili's decline were overblown. 

    During the 2013-14 season, the Argentine 2-guard is averaging 12.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.2 blocks per game, and he's done so while shooting 45.3 percent from the field, 34.5 percent beyond the arc and 86.3 percent at the charity stripe. 

    Those numbers, combined with his penchant for taking care of the ball, have resulted in a PER of 19.4. Plus, he's done that while making a concerted effort on defense and actually staying healthy for most of the season. 

    The San Antonio system is so good that on-court/off-court differentials are almost hard to come by. The backups don't usually skip a beat when they replace the starters, and Gregg Popovich does such a good job coaching that it's really him that should be featured on this slide. 

    For that reason, the fact that Ginobili makes the Spurs 11.3 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the court stands out in a big way. Patty Mills is actually the only other player on the right side of five. 

    Additionally, the Spurs almost universally have higher PERs than the opposition. Among rotation members, only Tiago Splitter, Jeff Ayres, Cory Joseph and Matt Bonner have failed to do so, which makes it even more impressive that Ginobili swept the two categories. 

    Father Time just continues to move right past San Antonio and on to its next victim. 

     

    Honorable Mention: Patty Mills

    Dishonorable Mention: Cory Joseph