There are thirty professional basketball players on the rosters for these two teams. Some players, take Kawhi Leonard for instance, are really really good at basketball; some players are merely good at basketball; and some players rarely play basketball on an NBA court because the other basketball players on their teams are better at basketball.
So let’s rank these 30 players in terms of importance to their teams winning this series. (This is a far different discussion than ranking the best players. Decoding importance requires more subjectivity, nuance, and probably some flat-out guessing. Enjoy!)
30. Chandler Parsons (injured)
This is not why the Grizzlies signed Chandler Parsons to a four-year, $94 million contract. Hard to be important in a series you can't play. Sorry, Chandler.
29. Joel Anthony
Finished second in this season’s Spurs victory cigar of the year award. He must be devastated.
28. Deyonta Davis
During the 2016 NBA Draft, Davis was on my Spurs wish list as he fell down draft boards and eventually slipped to Memphis in the second-round (31st pick). Before the draft, Jonathon Givony and Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress called Davis a “terrific athlete, smooth, agile and highly fluid, running the floor exceptionally well, with great quickness and the ability to elevate effortlessly around the rim in the blink of an eye.” Davis, undersized and raw, was labeled as a mid-level first-round talent. Memphis is working him into the NBA game slowly, with Davis exceeding 10 minutes only eight times this season. Odds are, we won’t see much of Davis this series unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong.
27. Jarell Martin
Fun fact: Jarell Martin is not a created player in NBA 2K. I looked him up twice to confirm.
26. Dejounte Murray
The proud winner of this season’s Spurs victory cigar of the year award. It’s Murray’s first postseason and he’s sitting behind Tony Parker, Patty Mills and maybe even Bryn Forbes (if you consider him a point guard) in the rotation. He’s also battling back from a groin injury that caused him to miss 17 games during March.
I don’t anticipate Murray playing any significant minutes this series, but he showcased effortless athleticism and a nose for the rim in limited time as a starter. Memphis’ bench doesn’t figure to give him much trouble either, if Popovich is willing to loosen the reins on the young point guard and gift him some valuable playoff experience.
25. Bryn Forbes
If Gregg Popovich rested Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili for the entire series, Forbes would slide up this list at least 24 spots.
24. Wade Baldwin
Memphis was outscored by a whopping 16.9 points per 100 possessions in Baldwin’s 405 minutes on the court during the regular season. That’s not good.
Counter-point: Baldwin is listed as Memphis’ only point guard outside of Mike Conley.
Conley can’t play the entire 48-minute game if the Grizzlies have any hope of winning. Perhaps (?) Baldwin gets some run with bench units a. If he (and others) can prop up the offense just enough while Conley sits, it would be a huge plus for the Grit-n-Grind crew. Memphis’ offense struggled mightily without Conley during the regular season, so I’m dubious in that regard.
23. Andrew Harrison
22. Davis Bertans
I’m monitoring Bertans’ usage this series because I have literally no idea how often he’ll be deployed and in what situations. He’ll always retain some value if Gregg Popovich wants to put the fear of god in Memphis bigs who aren’t willing to check Bertans’ from 3-point range.
21. Jonathon Simmons
I love Jonathon Simmons. If this was a list about fun, he’d be much, much higher. But, alas, this ranking covers “importance” and Simmons’ value can change game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter and minute-to-minute depending on how he plays, and what Popovich’s trust level is with him.
Irrelevant aside: if the over/under for Simmons poster dunks was 1.5 this series, I would take the over. Let’s just hope his victim isn’t 40-year-old Vince Carter, because he might disintegrate into a million tiny pieces afterwards.
20. Kyle Anderson
He plays slow, but makes surprising plays on defense. He can’t hit threes consistently, but creates scoring opportunities in unorthodox ways. He sits the bench for weeks, then steps into the starting lineup when injury strikes. He’s a Tale of Two Cities in Silver and Black.
19. Wayne Selden
The undrafted rookie from Kansas only played in 14 games this season (11 for Memphis), but he is an interesting player to watch with Tony Allen (calf) likely out for the series. Somebody has to guard Kawhi and the stocky 6-foot-5 Selden could be next in line if Memphis waves the white flag with Vince Carter and James Ennis early in the game.
18. Brendan Wright
Let me list Memphis’ frontcourt rotation: JaMychal Green, Zach Randolph, Jarell Martin (who is a real person), Marc Gasol, Wright and Davis.
Which means Wright figures to get some bench minutes against arguably the best collection of backup bigs in the league (Pau Gasol, David Lee, Davis Bertans).
17. Troy Daniels
Attempted 5.3 3-pointers per game and made them at a 38.9 percent clip. He’s Memphis’ answer to Patty Mills. On a team transitioning from one era of basketball to the next, Daniels’ penchant for shooting 3-pointers and hunting down shots should come in handy when the Grizzlies stars need some rest.
16. David Lee
Memphis doesn’t have a backup big man that can keep up with the Spurs whirring machine once Lee steps on the court. San Antonio is besting opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor this season. A bunch of credit belongs to Lee, this season’s Boris Diaw, for his part in activating a Spurs-y offense with his whipsmart basketball IQ, finishing at the rim and deft passing touch.
15. Manu Ginobili
This might be the last playoff run for the ageless Manu Ginobili and it makes me really really sad.
Just kidding. Manu will play forever.
14. Patty Mills
Here’s a fun matchup to watch: Mills vs. Daniels, in a battle of high-volume bench gunners. Mills averaged 9.5 points and 1.8 3-pointers per game, while shooting 41.3 percent from deep. Daniels put up 8.2 points and 2.1 3-pointers per game, shooting just a shade under 39 percent from deep.
Mills is better, and an increasingly important cog in the rotation as Tony Parker slowly fazes out, but he has some competition this series.
13. Pau Gasol
Let’s play a revealing game of two truths and a lie.
- “Pau Gasol” means Steph Curry in Spanish.
- Pau Gasol led the NBA in 3-point percentage this season.
- One his nicknames is “Kung Pow.”
If you think #1 is the lie, you win. Congrats.
Yes, Pau led the entire league in 3-point shooting (53.8 percent) in his 15th season. He made more 3-pointers (56) in 2016-17 than his first 13 NBA seasons combined (50). Moving to the bench where’s the ultimate X-factor did wonders for his shooting efficiency. How many basketball teams have the luxury of playing a guy like Pau off the bench? Not many.
And, yes, according to Gasol’s Basketball Reference page, one of his listed nicknames is “Kung Pow.” Which is terrible and perfect for Pau Gasol at the same time.
12. James Ennis
Slotted this high because because of Allen’s injury. He’ll likely start in place of the All-Defense caliber guard in the series, ensuring him playing time while the best Spurs players on the floor. Ennis needs to provide enough defense to make up for Allen’s absence to justify his time on the floor. Otherwise, David Fizdale has to pivot to the end-of-bench (Selden? Harrison? A really tall fan wearing a Wookie costume?) to solve the ever-present issue of stopping Kawhi Leonard.
11. Vince Carter
He. is. 40. years. old. and. still. balling. out.
10. Tony Parker
He’ll lose the head-to-head matchup against Mike Conley, but the key here is to keep from being cooked like a tasty souffle each game.
At times this season, Parker has been an effective member of the Spurs rotation, diving to the rim and creating points for his teammates. Even at 34 years old, he averaged 0.91 points per possession the pick-and-roll ball handler according to NBA.com. He made 51 percent of his shots as the ball handler, the highest field goal percentage in the league among qualified players.
For context, Parker’s pick-and-roll efficiency is right behind Stephen Curry (0.92) and ahead of Westbrook (0.89) and Wall (0.86), players with elite-level athleticism. And Parker is, uh, no longer elite at anything. (It’s not like this is a small sample size either; Parker had 315 possessions listed as the pick-and-roll handler per NBA.com).
Leonard will be asked to do more in the postseason, but he can’t possibly do everything for the offense at risk of reducing his effectiveness on the defensive end. That’s where Parker can chip in.
Other times, though, Parker has looked old, slow and unproductive. If he can make up the sizable difference, and turn back the clock a bit, San Antonio could oust Memphis in a short series. If he continues to fall off a cliff, Memphis has a puncher’s chance to make this interesting.
9. Zach Randolph
San Antonio doesn’t have a clear answer to defend the bruising Randolph. He’s coming off the bench this time around, averaging 20.7 points per 36 minutes, his highest mark since the 2008-09 season.
He’s always been a thorn in San Antonio’s side. Gasol can’t match his physicality. Lee flat-out can’t guard him. And Bertans just allowed an easy lay-up while I was typing this sentence.
Perhaps Gregg Popovich lets Randolph go gangbusters, while eliminating the other bench options from the gameplan entirely. Either way, Randolph will get his points.
8. JaMychal Green
JaMychal Green is a former Spurs outcast, averaging 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He’s this high in the rankings because:
- He’ll guard Aldridge a lot.
- He’s Memphis’ most versatile defender, activating other potential avenues to defend the Spurs.
- He’s very good at basketball.
Actually, that’s all the reasons. But it’s good enough for me.
7. Dewayne Dedmon
Dedmon’s first playoff series of his career matches him against one of the best centers in the league (Marc Gasol). He finished with the second-best defensive real plus-minus in the league at center behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, took advantage of a fortuitous opportunity to start to the point where Popovich named him the full-time starter.
San Antonio won 24 of 31 games in which Dedmon started, allowing just 97.5 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor. There’s more than enough statistical evidence out there to suggest Dedmon is up for the defensive task in this series.
Not to mention Dedmon’s offensive game, albeit limited, does require Marc Gasol and other help defenders to pay attention to his rolls to the rim or when he’s hiding on the weak-side of the play. Unless they wish to be printed on a poster like rookie Brandon Ingram. He dunked 65 times this season, second-most on the team behind Kawhi, and exhibited enough comfort on that end to not make him a liability. All in all, Dedmon unlocks the starting lineup’s full potential when he’s on the court.
6. LaMarcus Aldridge
This might be a bit for a borderline All-Star. He’s still plenty important, since San Antonio needs him to elevate his game offensively to another level in the postseason in order to make a deep run.
Sustaining his regular season defensive production is important too. Opponents scored just 0.75 points per possession on isolation attempts per NBA.com, placing Aldridge in the 77.8 percentile of all defenders against the play type. He allowed fewer points per isolation attempt this season than acclaimed defenders like Al Horford (0.95 PPP), LeBron James (0.88 PPP), Andre Roberson (0.85 PPP) and Draymond Green (0.79 PPP). Aldridge is no spring chicken anymore, but his late-career renaissance on the defensive end means he has more utility than ever before.
5. Danny Green
Should spend plenty of quality time guarding Conley this series, making him an indispensable part of the winning gameplan. Successfully making Conley’s life hell means reducing Memphis’ 19th-ranked offense to Gasol and some tall dudes.
On the other end of the floor, Green’s shooting generates enough gravity and spacing for Leonard and Aldridge to do their thing.
I will die on Danny Green Supporter Island.
4. Tony Allen (injured)
I’m cheating here. Allen probably won’t play in the series, but this is where he’d rank if he makes a miraculous recovery, a la Serge Ibaka in 2014. Yes, he can’t make a lay-up or dribble or shoot or pass, or do anything remotely competent on offense.
Anyone tasked with guarding Kawhi Leonard — and actually being equipped to do the job — is a lock for the top five.
Kawhi, the man with brilliant cornrows and an other-worldly basketball game, scored just 19 and 22 points in the two regular season matchups against Allen.
Allen wasn’t active in the fourth and final regular season game; Kawhi dropped 32 points.
If Allen plays — and it’s an iffy if at best — he’ll improve Memphis’ chances significantly.
3. Marc Gasol
Gasol is at worst the second-best offensive player on his team and still the best defender. He’ll be tasked with protecting the rim, an area in which smart basketball teams like the Spurs try to attempt a lot of shots at.
Gasol earned the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year award and he’s still a defensive whiz. And as long as he’s sitting on the Grizzlies backline, surveying the entire floor for potential help situations, Memphis is well-positioned to make San Antonio work hard for their offense.
Beating the Spurs in a playoff series requires discipline and attention to detail on both ends of the floor. Gasol happens to be well-equipped to do both for his team.
2. Mike Conley
The case for Conley being more important than Gasol is outlined in this year’s on/off court numbers. Memphis outscores opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with Conley on the court. When Conley rests, the Grizzlies turn into a bottom-five team, losing by a margin of 3.9 points per 100 possessions. The difference amounts to 7.0 points — the distance between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat.
Gasol’s on/off court numbers, while still quite good, aren’t close to Conley’s. The Grizzlies score more efficiently with Gasol, but are taking a small hit on the defensive end.
All of this is to say: Conley is the best basketball player in the world that has never made an All-Star team.
1. Kawhi Leonard
I often imagine Kawhi Leonard in the context of the Game of Thrones universe. He’d either be a soulless White Walker or this badass dude that said few words but everyone loved and revered. He’d probably get killed off in Season 2, because we actually enjoy his presence.
Here’s an imaginary scene, involving Lord Kawhi Leonard:
[Kawhi sits at his throne made of the skulls of his previous opponents that he eliminated in a playoff series. You can see the 2013-14 Miami Heat in the back right corner.]
[A servant requests to see Lord Leonard and he allows them entry into his chambers.]
SERVANT: “Uh, yes, Lord Leonard? I am in dire need of assistance. It is urgent.”
LORD LEONARD: “I, Kawhi Leonard of the House Leonard, First of His Name, the Unguardable, King of the Two-Way Players, Best Player on a Championship Caliber Team, Legitimate MVP candidate, Breaker of Basketball Spirits and Adopted Son of Lord Timothy Theodore Duncan, must hear the rest of your argument before I come to a reasonable solution based on the options outlined by my staff. Go on.”
Of course he’s the most important player in this series. No more questions.