Ranking the Most Indispensable NBA Superstars
The line has been repeated to the point that it feels cliched, but history has proved its value: The NBA is a superstars' league.
Championships are rarely—if ever—won without them, and even playoff runs are incredibly difficult to navigate if one isn't leading the way.
But not all stars carry the same level of importance. Some are more irreplaceable than others, be that for the impact they make on the court or the way their teams play without them.
Rankings have an inherent subjectivity about them, and this list has been compiled with significant input from the eye test. But objectivity is stressed here too, with all-encompassing statistical categories like net efficiency and ESPN.com's real plus-minus used to separate these elite players from one another.
Their respective clubs would all suffer greatly without them, but that sting would only increase the higher on the list these players rank.
Both Durant (foot, ankle) and Westbrook (hand) have been slowed by injuries this season, and the Thunder have understandably suffered without them. In the 14 games that the dynamic duo both missed, Oklahoma City went just 4-10.
But these are two of the NBA's top players, so it's tough to call either more indispensable than the other. Westbrook leads the team in scoring (26.2) and assists (7.1), while Durant ranks second in points (25.0), third in rebounds (6.2) and third in assists (3.6).
The Thunder can still be really good if only one takes the floor, but OKC's recipe for greatness calls for both of these key ingredients.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
In four of the last six seasons, James has taken home the league's MVP award. While some players' value shows up on the stat sheet, James' can also be seen in his trophy cabinet.
But during his first year back with the Cavs, he has had a tough time making his presence felt the same way. Cleveland has been dreadful without him (1-8 in games he's missed), but this on-paper superpower has rarely resembled a championship contender even when it's been at full strength.
James' rebounding has dropped to a career-low 5.3 per game, and his scoring has tailed off to its lowest level since his rookie year (25.2). The Cavs are 14.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when James plays, but similar on-off splits are seen in his All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving (plus-14.5) and Kevin Love (plus-8.9).
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
In some respects, Rose's importance to the Bulls is near where it's always been. There likely won't be a parade through the Windy City streets if the former MVP can't get back to his levels of consistent and efficient production.
But the Bulls are better equipped to handle his absence now than they have been at any point of his career. Rose still leads the team with 15.7 field-goal attempts per game, but Jimmy Butler's 21.0 points per game and Pau Gasol's 18.7 points a night both check in ahead of Rose's 16.9.
The Bulls need Rose if they're going to make a title run, but for the first time in a long time, he's no longer their lone source of hope.
The San Antonio Spurs
It's best to view the reigning champs as a whole, which is the reason the Alamo City won't be represented here. The Spurs wouldn't be the same type of force without Tim Duncan. Or Tony Parker. Or reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Or arguably the best supporting cast in the business.
The Spurs may send several individuals from this group to the Hall of Fame, but history is likely to remember this team as a brilliant collection of well-fitting parts. That starts with the vision of head coach/president of basketball operations Gregg Popovich and trickles down to these selfless players who all understand the importance of trading good shots for great ones.
San Antonio has its share of praise-worthy players, but the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts.
10. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
This is why it's important to process more than numbers with these lists. A straight statistical ranking would have left Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol well outside of contention.
Gasol sits tied for 36th with a 2.73 RPM and 31st with 3.47 wins above replacement. The Grizzlies have produced at nearly an identical rate with him (plus-3.0 net rating) and without him (plus-2.9), which may leave some to wonder just how indispensable he really is.
But anyone who has digested even a minute of Memphis' action this season can attest to how critical the intelligent 7'1" center is to this team's success.
"Gasol's offensive and defensive prowess are hard to match individually, let alone as a total package for a player," wrote CBS Sports' Zach Harper. "He's currently only the 15th player (42nd season overall) in NBA history to average at least 19.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in a season."
Gasol is a masterful passer, underrated scorer and all-around offensive force. He has simultaneously posted career highs with a 22.4 player efficiency rating and a 26.1 usage percentage this season, while lifting the Grizzlies to 10th in offensive efficiency.
Gasol has a capable backup behind him in Kosta Koufos, which not all of the players on this list do. But there are reasons Gasol sits ahead of Koufos on the depth chart. The former brings more offensive range, a better distributing touch and superior defensive paint protection than the latter.
In other words, the Grizzlies wouldn't retain their elite status without Gasol manning the middle.
9. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are great, in part because they don't rely on a single player to lift them to that level. Chicago can have different leaders on different nights at either end of the floor.
But this equal-opportunity setup is tough to execute without a glue guy holding all parts together. That's the invaluable role Jimmy Butler plays for this team, molding his superstar talents to fill whatever vacancy his team has on any given night.
"He's a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler, per NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "He's just an amazing player. We've had him play the point, we've had him play the 2, the 3 and the 4. … He's smart, he's tough, he does whatever the team needs."
Butler's greatest gift might be his motor. He leads the NBA in minutes (39.8) and distance traveled (2.8 miles) per game. He's a lunchbox-toting hustler, who is willing to hit the floor or go crashing into the stands for a loose ball like any good energy guy would.
Only he's not a high-energy role player. Rather, he's the leading scorer and top perimeter defender—if not top defender overall—on a team with realistic championship hopes.
His scoring average has climbed nearly eight points since last season (21.0, up from 13.1), and his PER has seen an even greater spike (21.6, up from 13.5). He is shooting more often (14.4 attempts, up from 10.3) and with more success than last season (.466/.333/.827 shooting slash from .397/.283/.769), and his aggressiveness is also seen in his career-high 7.9 free-throw attempts per game.
At the opposite end, he has accepted and aced Chicago's toughest perimeter assignments. Opposing shooting guards have posted a 16.8 PER against him, per 82games.com, which is a remarkable number considering the quality of his matchups.
In terms of minutes, mileage and two-way responsibilities, Butler carries as heavy a load as anyone in the league. Imagine trying to replace that.
8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry isn't quite halfway through his third season with the Toronto Raptors, yet he has twice pulled this franchise back from the brink of disaster.
Last season, he pumped the brakes on an apparent fire sale and helped the Raptors win 42 of their final 64 games after trading away Rudy Gay (19.4 points per game) for a handful of reserves. This year, Lowry helped weather the loss of prolific wing scorer DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors have gone 12-8 without their lone representative at the 2014 All-Star Game.
Lowry seemed to hit his peak in 2013-14. He set or matched career marks in points (17.9), assists (7.4), rebounds (4.7) and PER (20.1) while helping the Raptors snap their five-year playoff drought.
But somehow, Lowry has uncovered an extra gear this season. And it comes equipped with previously unseen levels of quantity and quality.
His points (20.7), assists (7.6) and PER (23.9) are once again better than ever, as is his 44.3 field-goal percentage. Two things make that last number really impressive. First, he is shooting more than he ever has (16.1 field-goal attempts per game). And second, he is easily the main focus of defensive attention with DeRozan on the shelf since late November with a groin injury.
Lowry, appropriately lauded for his bulldog toughness, is the perfect leader of a team trying to establish itself among the NBA's best. He is supremely confident of his ability and never intimidated by the moment.
"He's our Porsche, he's our everything that makes our team go," Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri told SheridanHoops' Shlomo Sprung. "He's a bulldog, a leader and he's a winner. And I think he pushes our team, which is what you want in a point guard."
Lowry's talent and temperament both make the Raptors better. That's the truest mark of a superstar.
7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
On the surface, it isn't easy identifying the Portland Trail Blazers' best player. There are only two players in the running—point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge—but the gap between the two initially appears wafer-thin.
Aldridge has a narrow edge in scoring (22.9 points per game to 22.2), while Lillard has a minuscule advantage in field-goal shooting (45.8 percent to 45.7). Aldridge provides Portland with 10.5 boards and 1.2 blocks per game, while Lillard puts up 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the identity of Portland's No. 1 option becomes obvious.
Lillard ranks fourth in real-plus minus (6.31) and second in wins above replacement (6.47). Aldridge checks in at 51st in the former (2.27) and 36th in the latter (3.08). Portland also sees a wider net efficiency swing in Lillard's on-off splits (plus-11.4) than Aldridge's (plus-6.1).
But even these numbers aren't needed to determine who sits atop the totem pole. Just look at where the Blazers turn when it's winning time.
Lillard leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring with 232 points, per NBA.com (media subscription required). The prolific point guard has attempted 12 shots and made six in the final minute of close games (difference of five points or less). Aldridge has only taken five such shots and misfired on all but one.
"He's probably saved four or five games for us this season, probably more, as a one-man show," Blazers center Chris Kaman said of Lillard, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.
The Blazers need all five of their starters to make a long playoff run, but no one means more to this team than Lillard. Few players in the entire league mean more to their teams than him.
6. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
DeMarcus Cousins won't win the 2015 NBA MVP award, but if the honor is truly given to the player most valuable to his team, Boogie belongs in the discussion.
"Have you ever watched the Kings in games when Cousins doesn't play? They're a completely different team on both sides of the court," wrote Bleacher Report's Sim Risso.
That isn't an opinion, by the way. It's an observation based around irrefutable empirical evidence.
Cousins has missed 11 games this season. The Kings have gone just 2-9 in those contests. Strip those games from Sacramento's record, and this team would be standing 14-12. That's a .538 winning percentage, which would move the Kings up to ninth in the Western Conference. Instead, they sit 12th in the standings with a .432 winning percentage.
During Cousins' 857 minutes of action, the Kings have outscored their opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions. That's a better net efficiency rating than 29 of the league's 30 teams have. But when Cousins sits, Sacramento has been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves and demolished Philadelphia 76ers have lower net ratings.
No other big man is having a year like Cousins. He is the only player averaging at least 23 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks. Only 10 players have ever hit those marks for an entire season, the most recent being Kevin Garnett in 2003-04. Garnett, by the way, took home MVP honors that year.
The Kings won't have the team success needed to launch Cousins to the top of the MVP race. There is too much ground to cover and too many good teams blocking their path in the overloaded West.
But individually, Cousins has been nothing short of brilliant. And it's scary to think how much worse things would be in Sacramento if he weren't around.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are never going to fly under the radar as long as James Harden and Dwight Howard are around. But few may realize just how much Houston has had to scrap on the offensive end this season.
This offensive attack was hit hard over the offseason by the departures of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. And the hits haven't stopped coming since the season started. Howard and starting point guard Patrick Beverley have each missed a dozen games due to injury. Starting power forward Terrence Jones has only made four appearances all season thanks to a lingering nerve issue in his right leg.
With so many moving parts, Houston has struggled to find any continuity at the offensive end. After sitting fourth in offensive efficiency just last season, the Rockets now hold the category's 18th spot.
But that number would be significantly worse if not for Harden. The bearded baller currently leads the scoring race with 26.8 points per game and paces the Rockets with 6.6 assists a night. Add in the 16.5 points he creates with his passing on a nightly basis, and Harden is directly involved in 43.3 points per game. For context, the Rockets average 101.5 points as a team.
"I really don't see how they are doing it," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said of the Rockets, per Randy Harvey of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required). "It's been all James Harden. He's been incredible."
With Harden, the Rockets have a 106.7 offensive rating, which would rank fifth overall. Without him, that number plummets to 90.2, which is worse than any team has put up this season.
Harden has been an offensive superstar, but his talents are no longer restricted to that side of the ball. He is tied for second overall with 2.4 defensive win shares, tied for seventh with 1.8 steals, and 12th with a 99.7 defensive rating.
The Rockets look like contenders with Harden. Without him, this might be a lottery team.
4. John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall's critics have long maintained that the face of the Washington Wizards would need to change his game in order to become a pure point guard. But the 24-year-old has dominated to the point that hoop heads have changed what they expect from the position, instead.
Wall is a tremendous athlete. He is quick as lightning off the dribble and explosive in the air. Because that apparently isn't already an unfair combination, someone decided he needed superhuman vision, too.
But above all else, Wall is a point guard. An elite-level point guard, actually.
He is dominating the "traditional" point guard categories. He leads the league in assists (10.2 per game) and ranks third in steals (2.1). His 2.7 assists per turnover slot him ahead of fellow floor generals Jeff Teague, Mike Conley and Stephen Curry, among others.
Wall has grown in the areas critics needed him to mature in. His shot selection, decision-making and leadership have all enjoyed significant progress.
"I just read what the defense gives me," Wall told The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo. "I'm picking and choosing what I want to do at times and not letting anybody speed me up and just reading what the defensive is giving me and what my coaches call at the same time."
He is playing like a traditional point guard but molding that role around his freakish physical tools. If he finds a crease, he'll exploit it. Since he's strong enough to finish drives at the basket and capable of burying shots from mid-range, he can keep defenses under constant pressure. His career-best 45.9 field-goal percentage shows that he is getting where he wants to go and converting once he arrives.
Two things keep him outside of the top three here, though. First, he still isn't a good shooter from distance (29.5 three-point percentage), so defenses at least have a way of trying to contain him. Second, his backup Andre Miller is capable of keeping things moving without him. The Wizards would take several steps back if they lost Wall, but his absence might not be as devastating as the next three players' would.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Remember when pictures like the one above used to best capture the potential of New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis? The go-go-gadet arms, the soft touch of a former point guard, the endearing effort of a formerly lightly recruited high school afterthought.
But at some point over the past 12 months, the reality of Davis started creeping closer to that intoxicating idea of him. The NBA's "next in line" as Durant dubbed Davis last summer, per Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer, decided he wasn't going to wait around for his number to be called.
"I think he's one of the elite players right now," LeBron James said of Davis in December, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "For him to be as young as he is, he plays above his age and that's part of the reason he can continue and probably be one of the greats to play this game."
Davis' upside is staggering and probably impossible to project considering he only turns 22 in March. But his present level is already carrying a historical significance.
He is on course to become only the fourth player in NBA history—and first since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995-96—to average at least 23 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals. If Davis maintains this pace, he would also lead that exclusive group in effective field-goal percentage (56.5) and free-throw percentage (81.0).
In other words, Davis is doing things that have never been done before. And he's really only scratching the surface of what he can become.
The Pelicans have disappointed this season but only when Davis hasn't been involved. The difference between having him on the court or on the sideline has been a swing of 12.7 points per 100 possessions.
But he can blame his team for holding him out of the top two. He might be every bit as valuable as the players in front of him, but the lack of a championship ceiling keeps him from climbing any higher.
2. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
It's far too easy to overlook Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul as one of the NBA's premier players.
The 10-year veteran has been so good for so long that it's tempting to bump him down the rankings for a younger, flashier, more athletic player. The Clippers have also had an underwhelming start to the season, which doesn't exactly boost Paul's value in the eye of the public.
But here's where numbers are needed to help bring us back to our senses.
Take Paul's 4.80 assists per turnover ratio, for instance. That's almost 1.5 assists per giveaway higher than that of the closest starting point guard (Ty Lawson, 3.37). To make that number even more absurd, realize that Paul ranks fourth in passes per game (72.8) and second in total touches (3,604). He isn't keeping his turnovers down because he can afford to pick his spots. He's doing it because he's an elite decision maker.
Paul sits fifth in RPM (6.17) and fourth in WAR (6.29). The Clippers are a staggering 17.8 points per 100 possessions better with him than without him. That's a bigger gap than what sits between the efficiency ratings of the Golden State Warriors (plus-12.9) and Utah Jazz (minus-3.3).
And Paul's impact might actually grow from here if he continues to aggressively look for his shot. That goes against his instincts as a playmaker, but it's hard to argue with the results: 19.6 points on .540/.480/1.000 shooting over his last five games.
"For him, he's such a point guard that it's hard for him to do that, but I think hopefully he sees what happens to our team when he does that," coach Doc Rivers said of Paul shooting more, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. "Like, it's easier for everybody."
The Clippers need Paul at their best, because Jordan Farmar has really struggled his first year with the team (38.6 percent shooting). If the player at the top of the list didn't have a similar importance to a better team, Paul would claim the No. 1 spot.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
It might seem like Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry claimed the top spot by default—a winner of the best-player-on-the-best-team award. After all, it seems a bit awkward to say a team that has won 29 of its 34 games and outscored opponents by a league-best 12.9 points per 100 possessions could have one indispensable player.
But the numbers say that's exactly what Curry is for this team.
He leads the NBA in both RPM (8.32) and WAR (7.37). The Warriors go from obliterating opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor to being outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits. No one else on Golden State has a negative off-court net efficiency mark.
Curry leads the Warriors in points (22.9), assists (8.0), total made threes (101), steals (2.2) and PER (27.1). He is the only player in the entire league who ranks among the top six in points (tied for sixth), assists (fifth) and steals (tied for first) per game.
The Warriors have been the NBA's best team by any measure. And they have their best player to thank for that rise.
"He's the head of the snake; he's the guy who sets the tone for us," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per CBS Sports' Zach Harper. "He's such a talented player."
The Warriors obviously have other talented players but none quite like Curry. Klay Thompson can also provide lethal three-point shooting, but he isn't the same caliber of playmaker. The opposite trade-off is true for setup men Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Curry has the total package, and the Dubs wouldn't be having any championship dreams without it.