NBA Leftovers: How Bad Would Your Team Be If Its Best Player Vanished?February 5, 2018
NBA Leftovers: How Bad Would Your Team Be If Its Best Player Vanished?
Both NBA squads are gearing up for their nationally televised game, preparing for the proceedings by going through their typical layup lines. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers are ready to do battle as their best players get ready for yet another clash of wills following their offseason split.
But as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving dart in for finishes on opposite ends of the floor, with showstopping warm-up conversions that will dazzle any fans who got to the arena early, the lights in the stadium briefly flicker before the entire venue is plunged into darkness. When visibility is restored just seconds later, the two megastars are gone.
No one knows where they went, and reports slowly trickle in that every single organization is also attempting to figure out the disappearance of its best player.
Assuming these men can't be found before the end of the season, which squads would be in the best shape?
That's the hypothetical we're seeking to answer today by picking out each team's best player (determined by my joint rankings with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale of the league's 100 best contributors for the rest of the 2017-18 campaign). We're then using their off-court net ratings as a baseline for analysis. That number, though not always truly telling because of rotations, quality of opponent and other confounding factors, will serve as an initial indicator of team quality. After all, it's the literal representation of how the team in question performs without its best player.
Then comes the fun part as we try to figure out how the team would look and, in some cases, the accuracy of the listed figure.
Atlanta Hawks: Kent Bazemore
Net Rating Without: minus-4.6
Kent Bazemore hasn't just improved his offense enough to make moving him at the trade deadline a possibility. He's also made a serious case for the Atlanta Hawks to keep him, no longer under the once-true impression that his contract qualifies as an albatross.
Here's Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution breaking down the wing's defensive excellence as one reason the Hawks should only move him for a strong return:
"Bazemore's steals and blocks percentages rank in the 97th and 91st percentile, respectively, for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. Few players produce as many defensive deflections: Bazemore's 5.1 per 48 minutes rank tied for sixth-most among players with at least 1,000 minutes played, according to NBA tracking stats.
"CTG also ranks Bazemore in the 80th percentile for defensive rebounding among wings. And ESPN's Defensive Real-Plus minus, which adjusts for quality of teammates and opponents, ranks Bazemore sixth among players listed as shooting guards who play at least 25 minutes per game and 16th among all wings."
Naturally, losing that defensive ability would hurt.
But the Hawks—in this analysis, at least—benefit from Bazemore not being too much of a standout. They'd still feature Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins and Dennis Schroder, all of whom can perform like the team's best player on a one-off basis. Plus, they'd still have Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and Taurean Prince to keep them at least somewhat competitive.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving
- Kyrie Irving: 24.9 points per game, 28.4 percent of twos assisted, 53.1 percent of threes assisted
- Jaylen Brown: 14.2 points per game, 57.8 percent of twos assisted, 97.5 percent of threes assisted
- Jayson Tatum: 13.9 points per game, 55.2 percent of twos assisted, 94.4 percent of threes assisted
- Al Horford: 13.6 points per game, 57.4 percent of twos assisted, 95.7 percent of threes assisted
- Marcus Morris: 12.1 points per game, 51.7 percent of twos assisted, 97.6 percent of threes assisted
Net Rating Without: 2.1
The Boston Celtics would be a fundamentally different team without Kyrie Irving, but they'd also be good enough on the defensive end to negate much of the inevitable offensive decline. Just imagine the damage Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford could do on the preventing side when unleashed for even more run.
Already, that quintet has posted a stingy 84.6 defensive rating in a minuscule sample of just five minutes, per PBPStats.com. But we'd surely see it appear far more frequently if Irving no longer existed.
Of course, the offense would get so much worse.
Boston already struggles to generate consistent points, though it's often able to overcome the scoring droughts through sheer suffocation. Irving has been one of the few reliable scorers who creates shots for himself on a regular basis, as we can tell by analyzing the percent assisted for each of the squad's leading bucket-getters:
Not that anyone in the Association boasts a comparable player, but the Celtics have no way to replace Irving's production with internal options. And for an offense that struggles even with the dynamic floor general available, that's deeply concerning.
Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie
Net Rating Without: minus-8.8
The Brooklyn Nets are a great initial example of why we don't want to treat these off-court net ratings as gospel.
Yes, they've been outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Spencer Dinwiddie riding the pine during the 2017-18 campaign. Yes, that places behind nearly every other organization in the Association. Yes, they'd be bad without the pick-and-roll maestro who has broken out upon receiving an opportunity to run the show.
But D'Angelo Russell exists, and he couldn't play for the vast majority of Dinwiddie's surge to prominence.
Now that the ex-Los Angeles Laker is healthy, the Nets can stagger their two leading guards and ensure the omnipresence of a shot-creating, facilitating floor general. They've actually posted a minus-9.3 net rating with Russell on the floor and no Dinwiddie, per PBPStats.com, but that's come during an exceedingly small sample because of the former's injury—just 418 minutes.
As Russell gains more comfort operating alongside his new teammates (remember, this is his first season in Brooklyn), that number is sure to trend up.
No combination of Nets turns this organization into a playoff squad, but a lineup comprised of Russell, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Tyler Zeller/Jarrett Allen should still be one that avoids flat-out embarrassment. Even if Dinwiddie disappeared, a healthy version of Brooklyn would be better than this objective baseline indicates.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Net Rating Without: minus-12.5
Kemba Walker, one year after making his first appearance in the midseason festivities, is not an All-Star. He wasn't named a starter. He wasn't selected by coaches. Andre Drummond was chosen as the injury replacement for John Wall, and Walker got snubbed again as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver picked Goran Dragic as a stand-in for Kevin Love on Team LeBron.
(Fun fact: The Miami Heat have a minus-4.6 net rating with Dragic playing, while the Hornets have outscored the opposition by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with Walker leading the charge).
Nevertheless, he most assuredly has the impact of an All-Star because the Charlotte Hornets fall apart when he's not present. With or without individual accolades, that doesn't change.
Take away the diminutive floor general, and a team just four games outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture suddenly becomes the least talented squad in the NBA. Dwight Howard's defense and Marvin Williams' shooting can't save the Hornets when they lack an offensive initiator.
Charlotte's main problem the last few years has required only a simple explanation: a dearth of point guard talent behind Walker. None of last season's options passed muster, and Michael Carter-Williams has followed the trend in 2017-18 with his woeful shooting (31.3 percent from the field).
Howard, Williams, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky should make for a talented core, but they flounder without a capable 1-guard. Sans Walker, the Hornets can score just 96.1 points per 100 possessions, which would easily be the league's most embarrassing mark.
Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn
Net Rating Without: minus-6.5
This was originally Nikola Mirotic's featured slot before the Chicago Bulls were finalizing a trade that would send the Montenegrin sniper to the New Orleans Pelicans. Lauri Markkanen should eventually challenge for supremacy, as well.
But with Mirotic no longer in the picture, Markkanen growing during his rookie season and Zach LaVine still finding his footing, Kris Dunn takes the proverbial cake.
Just last year, the NBA-watching world was worried about the Providence product becoming a draft bust for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead of validating those concerns, Dunn has maintained his defensive prowess in a new location while drastically improving his offensive game—his shooting percentages and distributing acumen look nothing like what we saw from the rookie point guard.
And that would make losing him rather painful.
How in the world would the Bulls replace the only quality point guard on the roster, especially now that Mirotic's high-scoring habits are out of the picture? Jerian Grant would be the next man up, and Chicago shouldn't be counting on much from Cameron Payne when he eventually returns to action.
The Bulls began to improve and no longer function like a true bottom-feeder when the now-departed power forward made his debut. But Dunn's confidence gains were a major factor, as well. Any lineups without him would now feel rather empty, and the shifting roster composition make this feel like an overly optimistic baseline.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
Net Rating Without: 0.9
Bet you didn't expect this.
Since LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after his Miami Heat stint, his team has typically fallen apart without him on the floor. During the 2014-15 season, the Cavs posted a net rating of minus-6.9 in that situation, and that changed to minus-5.4 throughout the 2015-16 campaign. Last year, the off-court margin was minus-8.5 points per 100 possessions.
But everything has changed in 2017-18.
For the first time in, well, forever, Cleveland has found more success when its best player is off the floor.
Perhaps that's because the bench has meshed nicely behind Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson. Maybe that's the product of them getting to work against opposing second units, whereas James typically plays when the other team is strongest. It could even be the result of a small sample, given that the four-time MVP is on the floor for all but 11.1 minutes per game.
Though this almost certainly wouldn't hold true now that Kevin Love is out of action, Cleveland might be able to find some success if it spent more time operating without its fearless leader's ball-domineering style. But let's be real: Does anyone really think the Cavaliers sans James would be a top-five outfit?
I didn't think so.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
Net Rating Without: 0.6
As Dirk Nowitzki explained in the middle of January, per Mavs.com's Bobby Karalla, he's finally starting to feel like himself:
"I'm just feeling so much better, honestly, than I did earlier in the season. The first couple weeks were tough, to kind of get my legs under me and really get going in the season. I guess you can practice all you want, and shoot all you want, and run on the treadmill all you want. But there's nothing like guys pushing on you when you go up and down, and showing and helping on pick-and-rolls. There's no way you can simulate that."
Since the start of January, the German 7-footer has averaged 12.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists while shooting 43.2 percent from the field, 44.1 percent from downtown and 87.4 percent at the stripe. The penultimate number, though, is what makes him so hard for the Dallas Mavericks to replace.
Harrison Barnes is a solid go-to scorer, and he nearly earned the nod over Nowitzki for this featured spot (in the interest of full disclosure, both players were listed as notable exclusions in the top-100 rankings that served as the basis for these choices). But asking him to play some minutes at the 5 would be disastrous, and Dallas doesn't have another big man who can capably draw frontcourt defenders away from the painted area and out to the three-point arc.
Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell and the rest of the Mavs could keep the team respectable. They might even remain an average unit, as they've been throughout the season when Nowitzki isn't on the floor. But replacing him is still a tough proposition, even when the future Hall of Famer is playing only 24.9 minutes per game.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Net Rating Without: minus-4.4
Without Nikola Jokic's awe-inspiring passing chops, the Denver Nuggets' offensive identity would fundamentally change.
The big man does plenty of good on the basketball court. He's an underrated defender with strong positioning instincts. He's deadly from mid-range zones, can baffle foes in the post and is capable of stepping out to the three-point arc and elongating a defensive scheme. But the most impactful part of his game is his distributing, and not just because he averages 5.5 assists per game—the second-most among players listed 6'10" or taller, behind only Ben Simmons (7.2).
If you remove his distributing from the equation, someone else has to start passing more. And not only would they be unable to replicate the touch feeds to cutting wings and backdoor dropoffs along the baseline, but they'd have to sacrifice scoring responsibilities in order to do so.
So, who's the best candidate?
Would the Nuggets be forced into playing Emmanuel Mudiay more? Would they rely on Jamal Murray, who's blossoming as a scorer but having trouble developing as a natural point guard? Do they need Will Barton to sacrifice his in-control-but-seemingly-out-of-control drives in favor of setting up teammates?
This roster is built around the idea that a traditional 1 isn't necessary. Removing the piece that makes that philosophy work would have disastrous results.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin
Net Rating Without: minus-3.3
This is a tough one.
Following the out-of-nowhere blockbuster trade between the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin immediately becomes the best player in the Motor City, narrowly edging out Andre Drummond for that honor. Except at the time of this analysis, he's only played a few minutes for his new organization, which means its net rating without him is almost simply the season-long mark.
And that's misleading.
The Pistons didn't just get Griffin for nothing; they had to part with Avery Bradley (massively disappointing after leaving the Boston Celtics) and Tobias Harris (the team's second-best player prior to the swap). So more realistically, the mark without Griffin should be the season-long net rating when both Bradley and Harris are off the floor.
Do the positives and negatives cancel out? Pretty much, though losing Bradley actually pushes this toward net-gain territory. He was that bad on both ends of the floor prior to Los Angeles acquiring him and granting him a sorely needed fresh start.
Without either departed member of Detroit's opening quintet, it outscored opponents by 0.005 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats.com. And allowing subjectivity to factor in, that's probably a slight overestimate, given the dearth of depth in this Griffin-less situation.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
Net Rating Without: 4.3
Without Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors can put together a lineup comprised of Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia. That still leaves Andre Iguodala, David West, Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell (when healthy) coming off the bench while Nick Young, Omri Casspi and JaVale McGee serve as even more depth.
Breaking news: The Dubs aren't fair.
That rotation without Curry would still compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. After all, it contains three All-Stars and plenty of depth, led by an apparently ageless West who's quietly in the midst of a fantastic season off the bench.
The point guard pushes the Dubs to that unreachable echelon with his three-point marksmanship, defense-warping play and ability to inject terror into the heart of the opposition on a nightly basis. He's one of only two players whose removals would push Golden State below the listed net rating boasted by any other team in this breakdown.
Without Klay Thompson, the Warriors fall to 5.0. Take away Kevin Durant or Draymond Green, and you're looking at 7.7 and 8.1 net ratings, respectively.
Though Curry's absence has the biggest effect, the defending champions are effectively impervious to the removal of a single contributor.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
Net Rating Without: 5.7
This is why Chris Paul was acquired.
If James Harden is off the floor (whether for rest, injury or a Leftovers-style disappearance), the Houston Rockets still have an all-world point guard leading the charge. Better still, Paul can control the proceedings while Eric Gordon steps into the lineup and keeps the pressure on the defense as yet another scoring presence.
According to PBPStats.com, Paul, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela have logged 103 minutes together and posted a 6.2 net rating. That should be a sustainable number with a diverse cast of offensive athletes, plenty of floor-spacing (with a rim-runner to boot) and impact defenders at the 1, 3 and 5.
Oh, and the Rockets would still have plenty of depth. We can't just overlook PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green and Nene.
Houston would obviously prefer if Harden were spared from this type of event. He's the MVP front-runner for good reason, capable of posting 60-point triple-doubles and racking up historic offensive numbers almost every time he takes to the hardwood.
But thanks to the savviness and aggression of general manager Daryl Morey, this roster is still carefully crafted to endure an extended absence from the guard with a famous follicular forest.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo
- A 10-point loss to the Boston Celtics on November 25
- A four-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks on December 27
- A 12-point loss to the Chicago Bulls on December 29
- A 17-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 31
- A 21-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on January 3
Net Rating Without: minus-8.6
Injuries have already given us a sneak preview of what the Indiana Pacers would look like in this unfortunate situation. Victor Oladipo has missed five games during his first go-round back in the Hoosier State, and the results haven't been promising:
If he were to disappear from the face of the Earth, the Pacers would be able to get out of their dry spell without him and win a game at some point. Maybe. But they'd plunge outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and struggle to generate any offense without the man averaging 24.0 points and 4.1 assists per game while slashing 48.7/39.0/80.7.
Losing Oladipo's defense would be painful, but the removal of his offensive production would be far more detrimental to a team without any other established options.
Darren Collison is an efficient machine who rarely misses shots or turns the ball over, but he's not suited for a high-usage role. Ditto for the ever-inconsistent and mercurial Lance Stephenson. Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis aren't takeover players.
As such, the team's 104.1 offensive rating without Oladipo feels a bit generous, given how the incumbent players would be forced to overextend themselves in his absence.
Los Angeles Clippers: Lou Williams
Net Rating Without: 0.7
Lou Williams has served as a phenomenal offensive presence for the Los Angeles Clippers, but that doesn't mean he'd be impossible to replace in this hypothetical. In fact, his team has seen its net rating decrease by 0.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, thanks to the defensive porosity that comes with the high-scoring habits.
This should in no way discredit what Williams has done during his career year. Some players are just tougher to build around because of their limitations.
Plus, we're running into the same issue that has popped up over and over again: Off-court net ratings can be misleading for key players, because replacing them for more than 15 minutes per game unnecessarily tasks lesser contributors and forces them into becoming less effective.
Such would be the case for the Clippers without Williams, especially now that Blake Griffin has departed for the Detroit Pistons and they're attempting to incorporate Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley. Perhaps more so for LAC than any other organization, we genuinely have no idea how the numbers would look in our scenario.
Subjectively, at least, we can assume that a core of Milos Teodosic, Bradley, Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, Wesley Johnson, Harris, Montrezl Harrell and DeAndre Jordan would still be competitive enough to hang with most fringe playoff teams.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
Net Rating Without: minus-1.5
You might have a different opinion about who serves as the Los Angeles Lakers' best player.
Thing is, it almost doesn't matter.
Kyle Kuzma is our choice, given his well-rounded scoring chops and ability to shoulder a high-usage role as a rookie. Fellow first-year contributor Lonzo Ball is a valid choice, thanks to his defensive potency and table-setting habits. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Brook Lopez are justifiable selections. You can even make a case for Brandon Ingram, more because of his role than his actual production.
This is a well-rounded team full of developing pieces, and none have emerged head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. That's great news in this unofficial competition, since removing any one piece doesn't depress the Lake Show too far beneath its overall level—a season-long minus-3.4 net rating.
Kuzma is ostensibly the best player, but that doesn't mean he's the most irreplaceable. Quite frankly, that honor might go to Ball, given how no one on the roster can replicate his distributing skills and create such easy shots for everyone else wearing purple and gold. Even then, removing Ball sometimes makes opposing defenses have to work harder and cover one more player whose shot they're forced to respect.
The Lakers, in a sense, are Leftovers-proof.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Net Rating Without: minus-3.8
The world has already witnessed what the Memphis Grizzlies look like without Mike Conley (who remains the team's best player, though he's been hampered by injuries all year). It ain't pretty. So instead, allow us to shift gears slightly and tackle a different question.
What if Grind City suddenly lost both Conley and Tyreke Evans?
Unfortunately, this isn't hypothetical.
Conley has now undergone season-ending surgery and won't suit up until the 2018-19 campaign. Evans is firmly on the trade block, and, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, the team won't play him again while it looks for his next home. Memphis is doomed to operate without either guard for the remainder of the campaign.
Yes, the Grizzlies still have Marc Gasol, though the center is finally succumbing to the advances of Father Time. Maybe Mario Chalmers, James Ennis III, JaMychal Green and Chandler Parsons can eventually get healthy at the same time. But this is still a team laden with elderly veterans that has to operate with a talent deficit almost every night.
Throughout the 2017-18 season, Conley and Evans have found themselves together on the bench for 843 minutes, per PBPStats.com. Memphis has posted a minus-11.4 net rating in that situation, and there's no reason to expect that to trend up during a season that should soon be filled with tanking proclivities.
Without the team's two best players, the Grizzlies are true contenders for the ignominious "worst squad in basketball" title.
Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside
- Hassan Whiteside, 2.08
- Kelly Olynyk, 2.01
- Josh Richardson, 1.52
- James Johnson, 1.18
- Wayne Ellington, 0.44
- Bam Adebayo, 0.3
- Udonis Haslem, minus-0.58
- Tyler Johnson, minus-1.36
- Justise Winslow, minus-1.36
- Okaro White, minus-1.46
- Goran Dragic, minus-1.51
Net Rating Without: 0.0
Yes, you'll note that the featured player here is not Goran Dragic, who was tabbed as the All-Star replacement for an injured Kevin Love. Unless it's billed as a lifetime achievement award, that was a strange choice, rewarding a point guard who hasn't been his team's premier contributor—or even close to it.
In fact, look where he ranks among Miami Heat members in ESPN.com's real plus/minus:
But the point here isn't to denigrate Dragic, who has filled a vital role on the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed. It's to highlight the egalitarian feel of this organization, which really should be sending head coach Erik Spoelstra as its lone All-Star representative instead of any singular player.
Because of that, it's nearly impossible to make Miami a bad team, even if its overall record in 2017-18 is misleadingly positive. Whether Hassan Whiteside or Dragic is doing the disappearing, Spoelstra will be capable of adjusting the scheme and cobbling together a workable bunch.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Net Rating Without: minus-9.0
One player isn't supposed to be capable of averaging 28.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks. In fact, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of only five players in league history to clear 28/10/4/1/1 during a qualified season, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Bob McAdoo and David Robinson.
So how do you replace a go-to scorer who also functions as a glass-cleaning monster, leading facilitator and all-around defensive menace?
Without the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak, the Milwaukee Bucks would be devoid of any identity and struggle on both ends of the floor. They'd likely turn to Eric Bledsoe for more offensive production (and get a nice scoring infusion from a healthy Jabari Parker) while asking Khris Middleton to shoulder a far heavier defensive burden.
But these aren't easy changes. The whole team would have to pitch in and attempt to replace the well-rounded production provided by one player who's capable of excelling in every area of the game inside the three-point arc.
And that's an impossible task.
Milwaukee's minus-9.0 net rating without Antetokounmpo is already bad, but it comes while the do-everything star has suited up in in all but four games and led the league in minutes per game. Expanding that to a larger sample won't yield positive results.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler
Net Rating Without: minus-7.3
This is not ideal.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are not devoid of star power.
Jimmy Butler is the fringe MVP candidate, and he's only barely been more valuable than a dominant, fully realized version of Karl-Anthony Towns, who's finally starting to show some defensive growth. Andrew Wiggins is...athletic? Jeff Teague has pedigree as a high-quality point guard. Tyus Jones and Jamal Crawford have been useful off the pine, while Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng make for unheralded but effective frontcourt pieces.
And yet, everything falls apart without Butler.
You'd expect a Teague-Crawford-Wiggins-Gibson-Towns lineup to remain at least somewhat successful. But that quintet has been used for only 19 minutes this season, per PBPStats.com, because head coach Tom Thibodeau is notoriously averse to mixing together starters and bench players or experimenting with different lineup combinations. The starters have to play as close to 48 minutes as possible.
The Wolves should be able to improve upon this nauseating mark if a Butler disappearance forced Thibodeau's hand. We just don't have that much data about what would happen, since the All-Star swingman is logging a whopping 37 minutes per contest.
Would the offense get worse? Of course. Would the defense decline? Most assuredly, considering Butler is the only All-Defense candidate on the roster.
But Minnesota has the talent necessary to figure things out all the same.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
Net Rating Without: minus-4.9
This baseline might've seemed more reasonable a few weeks ago, back when the New Orleans Pelicans could turn to a healthy DeMarcus Cousins in Anthony Davis' stead. But not anymore.
When the unibrowed big man suddenly disappears, the Pelicans don't get to sprinkle fairy dust on Cousins' Achilles and watch him magically return to health. He's still out for the remainder of the season, which leaves Jrue Holiday and the newly acquired Nikola Mirotic as the team's premier players.
According to PBPStats.com, the Pelicans have been undeniably atrocious without either member of the fire-and-ice combo on the floor. Sans Boogie and the Brow, their foes are outscoring them by a staggering 10.8 points per 100 possessions—most akin to the No. 30 Sacramento Kings' season-long mark (minus-9.4).
Of course, this makes sense. The Pelicans would look putrid without either frontcourt centerpiece, likely rolling out a lineup comprised of Rajon Rondo, Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Mirotic and Alexis Ajinca. That's just not a competitive bunch, though the addition of the ex-Chicago Bulls power forward would at least help them salvage some offensive ability.
The Pelicans wouldn't be as decent as the original number atop this description would indicate, given the Cousins injury. They also wouldn't be as terrible as that minus-10.8 net rating would indicate, since Mirotic's presence is just barely sprinkled into the equation.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis
Net Rating Without: minus-4.1
Unicorns standing 7'3" with three-point range and elite rim-protection skills don't grow on trees. It's not like the New York Knicks are working with a plug-'n'-play situation where they can just substitute in someone to fill Kristaps Porzingis' role, which is why the ill effects of losing him would probably dwarf the minus-4.1 net rating listed above.
Porzingis' individual excellence this season has probably been a bit overblown, thanks to his inconsistent shooting percentages and shocking unwillingness to pass the basketball. He's filling the old Carmelo Anthony role in ways different than anyone could've expected, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
His impact on the team, however, can't be overstated.
The Knicks have plenty of quality pieces already playing significant minutes. Courtney Lee, Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn have all impressed in big roles, while Frank Ntilikina and Doug McDermott have shown flashes in smaller spurts. Tim Hardaway has continued to put up big point totals when healthy, while Trey Burke has displayed some staying power as a backup point guard.
But who among them can increase their roles and step in for Porzingis, who's averaging 22.9 points per game? Even factoring in the bench-riding Willy Hernangomez, who could become a devastating rim-protector capable of sparking New York's interior defense?
Those pieces don't exist. The Knicks are overextending Porzingis and depressing some of his individual metrics, but that's happening through sheer necessity.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
Net Rating Without: minus-4.9
Russell Westbrook still means everything to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even during a season in which he's taken off more defensive possessions and struggled to find a working jumper (or free-throw stroke, for that matter), he's been the unquestioned impetus behind his team's success, propelling OKC to bigger and better things with his high-usage habits.
If you remove him from the equation, OKC can still put together a defensive juggernaut. Even without a healthy Andre Roberson, it has an ace perimeter defender in Paul George and a strong pivot in Steven Adams. That's enough for a foundation.
The offense, however, falls apart.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder have only been able to muster 99 points per 100 possessions. For perspective, the Sacramento Kings have a league-worst offensive rating of 100.5. And while they'd surely improve on that mark out of sheer necessity, adjusting to the ball no longer living in the point guard's hands, it's hard to imagine the Thunder submitting an above-average unit—or even close to it.
The best possible lineup would involve Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines, George, Carmelo Anthony and Adams. That quintet hasn't been used for even a single minute this season, and it's hard to imagine it thriving with a ball-stopping power forward and no high-level initiator, especially with a limited big suiting up at the 5.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
Net Rating Without: minus-6.2
"You think I'm a scoring guy? That's nice, man. I appreciate that..." Aaron Gordon said in response to being called a "scoring guy" at an Orlando Magic practice, per Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. "That's love, man. I'm an all-around basketball player. I can score, do a lot of different things, but getting my teammates involved is better for the motor of our offense."
He's not wrong, which is why he'd be so difficult for the Magic to replace.
Though injuries curtailed his early-season All-Star momentum, Gordon remains a versatile threat who can score from all areas of the floor, thanks to an improved deep stroke. He's also growing in importance as a facilitator and has made notable defensive strides, most of which relate to his increased discipline around the basket.
Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton can often function like the team's best player for a single game at a time, and they'd combine to ensure Orlando doesn't suffer too large a drop-off without Gordon. But thrusting Jonathan Isaac into more of a featured role during his rookie season wouldn't do anything but push the Magic even closer to the top of the lottery pile.
And what other option would Orlando have? Do you go with super-small lineups involving Mario Hezonja and Fournier as forwards? Does Khem Birch start playing? Could head coach Frank Vogel experiment with Bismack Biyombo and Vucevic working in conjunction?
None of those choices sound appealing.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Net Rating Without: minus-5.7
Without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers still have Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Trevor Booker, Richaun Holmes and Amir Johnson. They don't, however, have Joel Embiid.
That may seem like an obvious statement. It is one. And yet, we can't possibly overstate the importance the squad's leading big man has on the proceedings.
Which of the aforementioned players—a list that contains plenty of quality contributors capable of filling myriad roles—is going to take over as an interior scorer who can mesh together post moves that make Hakeem Olajuwon giggle, drain face-up jumpers over undersized defenders and put the ball on the floor around the three-point arc? Which of them is going to stuff the opposition at the rim and become such an effective paint presence that foes actively avoid entering his domain?
No one and no one, respectively.
Embiid may not be the NBA's original unicorn, but his skill set is unique and hyper-valuable to this young collection of growing talents. That's why we've seen the Sixers experience success with Embiid and no Simmons, though the reverse situation doesn't hold true. Per PBPStats.com, Philly has a 3.2 net rating in that first situation, but it falls to minus-8.1 in the latter.
Led by head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers could scrape together a palatable rotation sans their Kansas product. They would still fall closer to earning another No. 1 pick than making the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
Net Rating Without: minus-4.8
Here's your shocking stat of the day.
With Devin Booker on the floor, the Phoenix Suns have been outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. When he's riding the bench alongside interim head coach Jay Triano, that net rating improves to minus-4.8. From a purely objective standpoint, the Suns have been (significantly) better without him.
Of course, context helps us realize why.
Booker is tasked with shouldering an inordinate offensive load, which forces his defense to suffer. He's so obviously Phoenix's best option that it's easy for foes to key in on him and put the Suns into a detrimental situation—something that will change as more foundational pieces develop alongside him.
After all, what are you left with when Booker disappears? How in the world could a starting lineup of Tyler Ulis, Troy Daniels, TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss and Tyson Chandler find even the tiniest modicum of success?
Phoenix has gone 3-8 when Booker isn't wearing a basketball uniform this season, and that winning percentage (0.273) is significantly worse than the one accrued (0.366) when he does play. This is just a situation where context supersedes the on/off figures and leads to an obfuscating baseline in our analysis.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
Net Rating Without: minus-2.7
Remember those widespread concerns about the feasibility of a Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt?
This was before both made strides on the defensive end to avoid serving as total turnstiles, but the theory went as follows: You might be able to survive having one sieve in the starting backcourt, but two was certain doom. Of course, the counterargument is that having two players with overlapping skill sets allows you to survive an absence from either man.
Portland grows noticeably worse without Lillard playing. In fact, he has the team's worst off-court net rating, outpacing Al-Farouq Aminu (minus-1.9), Shabazz Napier (minus-1.4), Ed Davis (minus-1.3) and Pat Connaughton (minus-0.2). Rip City remains in the green when any other player heads to the pine, including the shooting guard who recently dropped a 50-spot in three quarters.
But the Blazers can still survive the Weber State product's truancy. They don't thrive, but the combination of McCollum's scoring prowess and Napier's steady hand as a backup point guard prevent Portland from plunging toward putridity.
They'd likely fall further if Lillard just flat-out disappeared, since that would be even more taxing on the other key players. But even then, Portland should be able to avoid total disaster and continue playing respectable basketball with defensive inclinations and a go-to scorer at the 2.
Sacramento Kings: Willie Cauley-Stein
Net Rating Without: minus-11.1
Picking the Sacramento Kings' best player is a difficult task. They were one of only two organizations without a single player featured among the top-100 rankings that served as the baseline for this article's choices, but they were the lone franchise without someone even in the notable exclusions. That forces us to subjectively pick between a number of notable options.
Willie Cauley-Stein's two-way growth makes him the selection, but he only barely outpaces contributors such as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph. And ultimately, the choice is fairly irrelevant. Just look at the net rating without each of the aforementioned men:
- Bogdanovic: minus-10.7
- Carter: minus-10.3
- Cauley-Stein: minus-11.1
- Hield: minus-12.8
- Hill: minus-6.9
- Randolph: minus-6.5
In any situation, the Kings struggle.
Taking away a star from any team hurts. But when a roster lacks celestial power and has spent the season operating like the league's worst squad, removing the No. 1 contributor is far less impactful. Frankly, Sacramento is lucky the Charlotte Hornets have failed to find a secondary point guard, or else it would remain at the bottom of the heap with room to spare.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Net Rating Without: 2.9
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is a genius. Can we move on now?
The Spurs were finally supposed to succumb to the pressures of mortality this season. Kawhi Leonard has only been healthy enough to suit up in nine games, while Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of the aged roster is yet another year older. Rudy Gay was a questionable fit. The young talents were largely unproven.
But the Spurs are as consistent as death and taxes. Here they are again, on pace for another season of at least 50 wins—a milestone they've met during each of the last 19 go-rounds. One more time for emphasis: nineteen.
San Antonio can't be slowed by mere events like injuries to the man who's quite obviously the best player in the Alamo City. Popovich will just milk every ounce of talent from the rest of the roster, managing to overcome every obstacle and still emerge as a contender to sit near the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Spurs posting a 2.9 net rating without the former Finals MVP might seem bizarrely impossible. It's still the truth. And at this point, we shouldn't be expecting anything other than top-level success from this model organization.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
Net Rating Without: 7.0
Little doubt should exist that the choice of Kyle Lowry will spark some debate about who deserves to be called the leading member of the Toronto Raptors backcourt. DeMar DeRozan is scoring more points than his point guard and earned a spot in the starting lineup of the 2018 All-Star Game, but so much of what Lowry provides doesn't show up in the box score.
Truthfully, either pick would be just fine. Lowry and DeRozan are fantastic guards with different ways of impacting the proceedings, and the margin between the two is thinner than ever. Plus, the Raptors' net rating without DeRozan is 9.3, so they'd still outpace the off-court marks posted by every other organization without their best player.
Therein lies the beauty of this year's squad. This is different than previous iterations, which were far more reliant on isolation proclivities and didn't feature nearly as much well-rounded play from the starting 2-guard.
These Raptors have a highly effective bench led by overlooked players such as Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. These Raptors pride themselves on sharing the ball and getting offensive contributions from everyone.
These Raptors are built to last in the playoffs, especially because they can put together such compelling units even when one of the leading stars is watching the action in sweatpants.
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert
Net Rating Without: 0.4
In the 26 games Rudy Gobert has played this season, the Utah Jazz have gone 13-13. When he sits out with an injury, they've played to an 11-15 record. The difference isn't overwhelming, and that's the direct result of two different factors.
First, Gobert has been more replaceable this year, solely because his offensive gains from 2016-17 have vanished. He no longer looks as comfortable patiently waiting for opportunities on the interior, and he's unsuccessfully attempted to expand his range beyond the restricted area.
Second, Ekpe Udoh has been phenomenal on the defensive side.
The 30-year-old's return to the NBA has been successful. He's holding opponents to 58.6 percent shooting at the rim (Gobert sits at 59.1 percent). He's posting a 6.1 defensive box plus/minus (Gobert is at 4.3). His score in ESPN.com's DRPM sits at 2.69, behind only 16 players throughout the Association (Gobert is at 3.24, which is No. 7 overall).
Typically, the Jazz would undergo a massive decline without their best player. But the offensive strides made by Donovan Mitchell and the good fortune to have another dominant defensive big on the bench have mitigated the negative impact in a way we didn't see last year. During that 2016-17 campaign, even with Gordon Hayward still on the roster, Utah's net rating plunged from 8.1 to minus-2.9 when the starting center left the court.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
Net Rating Without: minus-0.6
As Neil Greenberg explains for the Washington Post in painstaking statistical detail, the Washington Wizards might not fall as much as some surely expect after the loss of their fearless leader. Here's the primary takeaway following John Wall's injury (a real-life version of our hypothetical):
"Using the win rates that fuel our weekly power rankings, which take into account a team's actual record and what its record should be based on points scored and allowed—also known as its Pythagorean win percentage—Washington could have been expected to win 46 games in 2017-18 with Wall available for the entire rest of the season. That falls to 43 victories by season's end with him sidelined for six to eight weeks. There is, however, a 42 percent chance they exceed that mark."
That chance to exceed the expectations should rest upon the sturdy shoulders of second-year point guard Tomas Satoransky. The 6'7" backcourt member has averaged 11.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from downtown, but maintaining those numbers over the course of a larger sample makes for a more interesting challenge.
Still, the Wizards do have a serious chance to remain decent without Wall. Bradley Beal is capable of handling a massive offensive burden, while Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and others can form a solid supporting cast for the still-present All-Star.
Don't be too quick to write off the Wizards, regardless of whether Wall is injured or disappeared.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games on Feb. 5.