In my Twitter-storm post last week, I laid out my predictions for the Western Conference regular season, including the eight teams I believe will make the playoffs. Those predictions assumed normal good health for the teams, which got me to thinking: Which player’s good health on each team is most crucial to that team’s success? In other words, which player is the Most Indispensable Player (MIPL) on each playoff team?
I decided to go back through my top 8 teams and determine just that, and what the net result of losing that player would be. My thoughts, starting from 8th place to 1st:
San Antonio Spurs (8th Place)
One of the easiest choices is LaMarcus Aldridge as the Spurs’ MILP. A worrisome fact – LMA is the oldest player on this list. While he has a worthy back-up in Jakob Poeltl, Poeltl has no such worthy back-up. No, I am not buying stock in Trey Lyles. Even if I was, the drop-off from LMA to a Poeltl/Lyles tandem is a big one. The only possible upside from an extended LMA absence would be less Twin Tower line-ups — but that would not make up for the loss of Aldridge on both ends of the floor.
NET EFFECT: Spurs’ long playoff streak would likely end.
Portland Trail Blazers (7th Place)
While not as easy as the Spurs’ choice, the Blazers MIPL is hands-down Damian Lillard. While CJ McCollum can replace much of Dame’s production (and was, like Dame, a four-year starter from a mid-major), McCollum cannot replace Dame’s floor-stretching capability. While Dame has seemingly unlimited Curry-like range, McCollum’s strength comes via a Spurs-like mid-range focus. As a result, the other Blazers will all need to work in a more constricted space.
NET EFFECT: Blazers would struggle to keep their more modest six-season playoff streak alive.
Golden State Warriors (6th Place):
While the first instinct would be to select the Warriors’ best player (Stephen Curry) as their MIPL, much of his scoring and playmaking can be replaced by their new All-Star (in the East) guard, D’Angelo Russell — though that would lead to some of the same spacing issues as with the Blazers. However, in my opinion, this season’s Warriors can least afford to lose Draymond Green. All the former Warriors who could have replaced Green’s defense, intensity, toughness and smarts (Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, David West) are on other teams, injured or retired.
NET EFFECT: A Warriors team without Draymond Green would miss the playoffs, a long fall from the Death Star planet-destroyer of years past. Indeed, it would likely look like this:
Utah Jazz (5th Place)
Utah’s MIPL is the Stiffel Tower Rudy Gobert, as he keys everything for the team’s outstanding defense. Also remember that his primary back-up the last several seasons, Derrick Favors, has moved from Salt Lake City to New Orleans. (Side question: Is there a bigger difference in culture, music, fun and overall decadence than the one between Utah and New Orleans?) While the Jazz have other excellent players, the addition of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic means that the players other than Gobert have much more capable and nearly-equivalent replacements than Gobert.
NET EFFECT: Jazz would still make the playoffs, but lose the chance to challenge the top contenders.
Los Angeles Lakers (4th Place)
I wrote last week that LeBron James and Anthony Davis are 1A and 1A on the Lakers, meaning that neither is the Pippen to the other’s Jordan. Instead, they are both Jordans, with LeBron already in the discussion for GOAT, and AD potentially in that discussion in five years (or two). But we aren’t writing about GOAT here, we are choosing the Lakers’ MIPL. I would select AD. We saw what the Lakers could be with LeBron and parts last year — a middling playoff team until he got hurt — which is what they would be this year without AD, except worse than last year because the team gave up two starter and a valuable reserve to get AD.
NET EFFECT: Without AD, the Lakers would struggle to make the playoffs, though they would likely squeak in (if LeBron stayed healthy).
Houston Rockets (3rd Place)
The obvious choice for the Rockets’ MIPL would be James Harden. But why go with the obvious? I nominate Russell Westbrook. People wonder how he will fit off-ball with Harden, with good reason. Westbrook’s inability to be a real threat off the ball could gum up Harden’s game. But if Harden was out, Westbrook could run the pick and roll with abandon, as the Rockets’ three point shooters would prevent defenders packing it in against Westbrook like they did in OKC. But if Westbrook was out, the Rockets’ would be the same team as last year – but without Chris Paul – and thus no longer a serious threat.
NET EFFECT: Without Westbrook, the Rockets would be like the Gobert-less Jazz: still a playoff team but no longer a serious threat to the top teams.
Los Angeles Clippers (2nd Place)
The Clippers are another team whose best players might not be the team’s MIPL. As shown by the opening night win over the Lakers, the Clips can beat another top contender even with one of the Clips’ two best players wearing this uniform:
Although Kawhi Leonard is unlikely to duplicate that tux if he sat out, Paul George would be able to duplicate many of Kawhi’s skills in his absence. As a result, the Clippers’ MIPL might be Montrezl Harrell, who played the 5 spot for virtually the entire game against the Lakers, despite the Lakers’ insistence on playing either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard most of the game. Against those traditional bigs, the Clippers’ own traditional big, Ivica Zubac, played only 10 minutes. While only one game, the same thing happened all last year, with Harrell gobbling up post-guy minutes like he does rebounds. While the Clippers with both George and Kawhi and the team’s extraordinary depth would remain contenders, losing Harrell would make it much more difficult to win the crown.
NET EFFECT: Still contenders, but with a much rougher road to win it all.
Denver Nuggets (1st Place):
This is the only choice easier than Aldridge with the Spurs. The Nuggets MIPL is undoubtedly and enthusiastically Nikola Jokic. While Mason Plumlee is a capable back-up, everything the Nuggets do runs through the Joker. The only difficult question here is how far the Nuggets would fall in the West without him. I say: A lot.
NET EFFECT: Without their MIPL, the Nuggets would fall out of the top 5 spots in the West, perhaps further.