The 7 Most Important Players for the Rest of the 2019-20 Season
Between playing every game in the Orlando bubble, home-court advantage being non-existent and not allowing fans in the arena, at least one thing about the NBA hasn't changed: stars will still decide who wins a title.
Three main stat categories were used to help judge their importance to their respective teams:
VORP (value over replacement player): Estimate of points added by a player per 100 team possessions over a replacement-level player.
Usage Rate: Estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.
On/Off Rating: The number of points per 100 possessions the player improves a team while he's on the floor, both offensively and defensively.
Of the 10 players who made the final cut, a ranking is given in parenthesis to show how they stacked up against their star opponents on the list.
While these stats help tell the tale, other factors (additional stars on the roster who can replicate some of the same production, for instance) were considered as well.
Jimmy Butler, SF, Miami Heat
VORP: 3.4 (8th)
Usage Rate: 25.2 percent (9th)
On/Off Rating: +5.1 (9th)
Butler deserves a spot on this list thanks to his ability to lead Miami to a 41-24 record to this point.
Ranking first on the team in scoring (20.2 points), assists (6.1) and steals (1.7), Butler is the bona fide No. 1 option on a playoff team after previously sharing the spotlight with players like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid.
Even with his impressive traditional and advanced stats and leadership qualities, the Heat boast a talented and deep lineup throughout, including first-time All-Star Bam Adebayo. Butler is needed, of course, but other teams rely on their stars more than Miami.
Chris Paul, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
VORP: 3.2 (9th)
Usage Rate: 23.2 percent (10th)
On/Off Rating: +10.1 (4th)
Despite being his team's fourth-leading scorer this season, there's no doubting Paul's importance to the Thunder.
OKC's future may be in the hands of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but how far they make it in the playoffs this season will depend on Paul.
No player has made as positive an impact on the Thunder as Paul, leading the team in assists (6.8), steals 1.6) and win shares (8.1).
Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
VORP: 5.1 (4th)
Usage Rate: 26.6 percent (8th)
On/Off Rating: +5.6 (8th)
Skinny Jokic is ready to take over the league, or at least get the Nuggets to a Western Conference Finals at some point.
Outside of Paul Millsap, Denver is still a pretty young team that revolves around its sweet-passing center. Jokic leads the team in scoring (20.2 points), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.9) and is a good three-point shot away from being completely unstoppable on the offensive end.
While Millsap (plus-11.4), Will Barton (plus-7.2) and Jamal Murray (plus-6.7) all have higher on/off ratings than Jokic, the 25-year-old big man is still the Nuggets' most important player.
No. 7: Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
VORP: 3.0 (10th)
Usage Rate: 28.6 percent (7th)
On/Off Rating: +11.5 (2nd)
On a team loaded with guards and wings, Tatum still stands apart as Boston's most important player.
A first-time All-Star, Tatum has taken over as the team's leading scorer (23.6 points), tied for fifth in the East with Pascal Siakam.
Even on a team with All-Star starter Kemba Walker, former All-Star Gordon Hayward and 20.4 point-per-game scorer Jaylen Brown, Tatum leads the Celtics in on/off rating, VORP, win shares and usage percentage.
His importance will become even more magnified if Walker's sore knee persists, an injury that is projected to sideline the 30-year-old point guard from the team's first scrimmage. With Walker being the team's second-leading scorer and assists leader, even more ball-handling, playmaking and scoring would fall on Tatum's shoulders.
What saves the Celtics should Tatum have to miss time is the play of Brown and Hayward, and Marcus Smart could move into the starting lineup if needed.
The Celtics have more positional depth than most teams featuring a star like Tatum, but his value as a 22-year-old making his third trip to the playoffs is growing by the day.
No. 6: Luka Doncic, PG, Dallas Mavericks
VORP: 4.7 (6th)
Usage Rate: 37.0 percent (2nd)
On/Off Rating: +1.2 (10th)
Doncic is already an All-Star starter in year two, and at age 21 he has combined some eye-popping numbers with team success.
Only Giannis Antetokounmpo has a higher usage rate than Doncic, the Mavericks' leader in points (28.7) and assists (8.7). Those same figures rank sixth and fourth in the league, respectively.
Despite his rather modest on/off rating, there's no one in Dallas who can replicate what Doncic does. He's by far the team's leading shot-taker and also assists on 45.3 percent of all baskets while he's on the court.
The Mavericks have built their roster around his skill set, with Seth Curry (45.3 percent) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (40.7) both connecting on career-high percentages from three. Both Curry and Hardaway are shooting 5.5 percent higher from three off passes from Doncic compared to backup point guard Delon Wright, per NBA.com.
Dallas is just 6-7 in games Doncic has missed this year, compared to 34-20 when he plays.
No. 5: Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
VORP: 5.0 (5th)
Usage Rate: 30.2 percent (6th)
On/Off Rating: +8.9 (6th)
Lillard's role with the Blazers hasn't gotten any easier, even with the returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
Enjoying a career year with 28.9 points (fifth-best in NBA), 4.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.0 steals and a 39.4 percent shooting mark from three, Lillard needs to keep up his productivity while also adapting to a new starting lineup.
Not only will Lillard be responsible for integrating Nurkic and Collins back into the offense, but Carmelo Anthony will be switching positions from power to small forward as well. As the point guard, it falls on Lillard to get everyone else going and maximize the team's ceiling. Not only do the Blazers have to stay within four games of the Memphis Grizzlies, but they also have to come out on top of the New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns as well.
Lillard isn't just among the league leaders in scoring, assists and usage this season; he's also first in the NBA in minutes per game (36.9). While CJ McCollum can pick up a fair share of the team's offense, Lillard is assisting on nearly twice the number of baskets when he's on the floor (34.1 percent to 19.3 percent).
The Blazers could use the absences of Nurkic and Collins as an excuse for their 29-37 record to this point. With both returning, the excuses are gone, and the play of Lillard will be crucial for Portland to grab the final playoff spot in the West.
No. 4: Kawhi Leonard, SF, Los Angeles Clippers
VORP: 4.6 (7th)
Usage Rate: 33.2 percent (4th)
On/Off Rating: +10.0 (5th)
Even with arguably the best "Robin" in the league with Paul George, Leonard is crucial to the Clippers' title chances.
As good as George is on both ends, he's never led a team to a championship round, much less won two Finals MVPs like Leonard. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year leads the Clippers in scoring (26.9), rebounds (7.1), steals (1.8), win shares (7.6) and player efficiency rating (26.7).
Leonard is one of just three players participating in the bubble (LeBron James, Andre Iguodala) who has won a Finals MVP, with his being by far the most recent (2019, Toronto Raptors).
Having someone who has proved himself as the best player on a championship team has to present a mental advantage for a team facing difficult competition. With Leonard still very much in his prime at age 29, his lead-by-example mentality trickles down to the rest of the team.
For all the talent the Clippers possess throughout the rotation, Leonard still possesses the seventh-highest usage rate in the entire NBA, proof that everything L.A. does runs through its superstar forward.
No. 3: James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
VORP: 6.3 (1st)
Usage Rate: 36.4 percent (3rd)
On/Off Rating: +6.7 (7th)
No one has registered a higher value over replacement player score than Harden, also the league's leading scorer at 34.4 points per game.
Harden also averages more assists than starting point guard Russell Westbrook (7.4 to 7.0) and has proved himself as one of the game's most lethal scorers from all areas of the court.
No player in the league has accumulated as many win shares as Harden this season either, as his 11.5 estimated wins added to the Rockets best even that of MVP front-runners Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
While Westbrook brings a lot of similar qualities to the table in being able to get to the basket and make plays for others, even he isn't on the same level as his All-Star teammate. Harden is the far better outside shooter (35.2 percent to 25.4 percent), and his advanced stats often double or triple that of Westbrook's. While Houston is 6.7 points per 100 possessions better with Harden on the floor, Westbrook's on/off rating is a dismal minus-1.2.
The Rockets have been specifically built around Harden for years, and their new small-ball style is designed to give him maximum floor spacing to operate offensively.
Perhaps no team in the NBA has tailored its roster to its star as much as the Rockets have to Harden, making his value even more substantial.
No. 2: LeBron James, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
VORP: 5.7 (3rd)
Usage Rate: 31.6 percent (5th)
On/Off Rating: +10.8 (3rd)
There's an argument to be made that James has been the NBA's most important player for the past 15 years, and having just four MVPs on his resume seems far too low.
James still brings plenty of scoring to the table at age 35 (25.7 points per game), but his ability to create offense for others has become far more important to this Lakers team.
Now with backup point guard Rajon Rondo out with a broken right thumb, L.A.'s second-leading playmaker is power forward Anthony Davis, with 3.1 assists per game. No other healthy Laker outside of James and Davis is even averaging two.
James is assisting on nearly half of his teammates' baskets while he's on the court (49.7 percent) while leading the NBA in assists (10.6 per game) in his first year as a full-time point guard.
Beyond his physical gifts, is there any player more equipped to navigate his team mentally through a playoff series? James has seen every defense, knows every player and possesses a razor-sharp memory.
The Lakers can still lean on Davis for stretches, but James is by far the team's most important player.
No. 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks
VORP: 6.0 (2nd)
Usage Rate: 37.4 percent (1st)
On/Off Rating: +11.8 (1st)
It's no surprise that the likely MVP of the league is also the most important player in the bubble.
Antetokounmpo has the highest usage rate in the NBA and is the only forward to rank in the top six players overall. He leads the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists and minutes, and there's no one else in the league who combines his size (6'11"), strength and skill level.
While Khris Middleton has deservedly developed into an All-Star, asking him to replicate Antetokounmpo's skill set in anything other than outside shooting would be unfair. While Middleton is the second-leading rebounder on the team (6.2 per game), Antetokounmpo more than doubles his glass cleaning on a nightly basis (13.7 per game, fourth-best in the NBA).
No player makes more of a difference among these stars in on/off rating as well, as Antetokounmpo's 11.8 points per 100 possessions improvement is nearly equal to that of Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Jimmy Butler...combined.
While LeBron James has the Los Angeles Lakers at the top of the West and is Antetokounmpo's biggest challenger for MVP, the 17-year veteran doesn't even lead his own team in scoring or rebounding.
With Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have the NBA's best record and have a real chance at a championship. Without him, they may not even make it out of the first round.