Playoffs a Reminder of the Best Player Theory

Darius Soriano —  April 19, 2017

Basketball is one sport where having that one singular difference maker can matter most. With only 10 players on the floor at one time and each team’s 5 man unit responsible for offense and defense simultaneously, having the guy who is the best player matters a great deal. This is one reason why trades are often viewed through the prism of the team who won the trade is often the one who got the best player. The value of that guy is simply too high to be adequately replaced my multiple, lesser talents or a cadre of draft picks.

I have been thinking about the idea of the best player more and more in recent days after we got through our first weekend of playoff basketball (and, in some cases, into game 2’s). At the time I am writing this this is where each playoff series stands:

  • Warriors 1, Blazers 0
  • Spurs 2, Grizzlies 0
  • Rockets 1, Thunder 0
  • Clippers 1, Jazz 1
  • Celtics 0, Bulls 2
  • Cavs 2, Pacers 0
  • Raptors 1, Bucks 1
  • Wizards 1, Hawks 0

Looking at those results, I’d argue the best player theory is well on its way to holding true. Here’s who I’d label the best guy from each series (in some cases, I’ll name two guys if I think it’s close):

  • Kevin Durant, Steph Curry (both Warriors)
  • Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)
  • James Harden (Rockets), Russell Westbrook (Thunder)
  • Chris Paul (Clippers)
  • Jimmy Butler (Bulls)
  • LeBron James (Cavs)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
  • John Wall (Wizards)

Of course basketball remains a team sport and there will be cases where even if a team has the best player, an accumulation of really good (to legitimately great) players on the other team will make the difference in a playoff series. After all, playoff preparation, with its hyper-focused game-plans can mean that even the best player in a series can be neutralized or simply overcome by a more complete roster on the other side. We’ve seen this throughout history and this year will be no different.

That said, look at that Celtics/Bulls series or how the Bucks are playing the Raptors really tough. Some of those results might be part of the parity which exists in the East, but I’d also argue that Butler and Giannis are clearly the best guys and are making a huge difference for their teams (not to mention the Bulls just being a bad matchup for the C’s due to their offensive rebounding prowess and there being no one for Isaiah Thomas to guard).

What does this have to do with the Lakers? Well, I’m glad you asked. I don’t know what Magic Johnson or Rob Pelinka will value this summer. I don’t know if they’ll be patient with the young guys or not. We don’t even know if they’ll have their own draft pick — which, I’m guessing, will play a big role on what decisions they make in how to improve the team. What I do know, though, is that Magic was, for years, a guy in the discussion as the best player and that Rob Pelinka, for years, represented a guy in the discussion as the best player. In other words, I’m thinking they might place even more value in having one of those guys than others (who already value it a great deal).

This also leads to an interesting conversation about the Lakers’ young players and where they can be in 3-5 years and how that will impact team building. Can one of the young players end up being a best player? If not, can they, as a group, end up being the core of one of those teams who even without that singular talent have enough depth of excellence for it to not matter? These are questions worth pondering as the team heads into the off-season.


Darius Soriano

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to Playoffs a Reminder of the Best Player Theory

  1. I think Magic and Rob will look to get 1-2 all stars w/o giving up DAngelo or Ingram. That will allow them to blossom and put the Lakers in the playoff picture!

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  2. TempleOfJamesWorthy April 19, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    My observations of the NBA over the years suggest the following guidelines:

    0 superstars = first-round playoff meat at best

    1 superstar = Can win a first-round series and ***maybe*** a favorable second-round matchup

    2 superstars = Can get to the Conference Finals

    2.5+ superstars = Championship contender

    by 2.5 superstars, I mean that one of dominant players can be limited to an offensive or (more commonly) defensive specialist (e.g. Dennis Rodman, Dekembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, etc.)

    This doesn’t always work. For example, the late-1980s Hawks had Moses Malone, Dominique Wilkins, and several 1/2-superstar candidates (Reggie Theus, Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis), but their on-court chemistry was horrid. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers champion teams got their 1/2-superstar contributions by an amalgam of Horry, Fisher, and Fox. But, in general, the guideline holds up.

    My feeling about the current Laker young core is none of them are full superstar material. Maybe Russell will blossom into it. Maybe Ingram has much more than he’s shown. But I think the Lakers will have to import their two superstars to get back to championship contention and the current roster talent will be the support players.

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  3. willie williams April 19, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    Ingram can be a Very good player with All Star potential….
    The rest I see as Complimentary pieces..I haven’t bought into the Russell hype…

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  4. Hello.

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  5. Reading this article made me think about the young, inconsistent Lakers.

    Here are the per 48 minute stats for the second seasons of five players who are roughly the same size and play the same position. Three became All-Stars, the fourth is a starter and the other is a young Laker:

    A) 22.0 pts, 14.3 reb, 5.9 ast, 1.1 stl, 0.8 blk, 3.9 tov, .487 fg%, .723 ft %

    B) 27.5 pts, 14.4 reb, 4.2 ast, 1.1 stl, 1.0 blk, 2.3 tov, .549 fg%, .521 ft%

    C) 24.0 pts, 12.7 reb, 1.5 ast, 1.5 stl, 0.5 blk, 2.3 tov, .513 fg%, .758 ft%

    D) 13.6 pts, 10.9 reb, 4.1 ast, 2.7 stl, 1.9 blk, 2.4 tov, .407 fg%, .667 ft%

    E) 14.9 pts, 12.3 reb, 3.2 ast, 2.7 stl, 1.3 blk, 1.9 tov, .526 fg%, .738 ft%

    Who is the Laker? Who are the All-Stars? And is the young Laker on a similar enough trajectory to someday become an All-Star?

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    • Ok, Lon, I’ll bite. I looked around for awhile and couldn’t figure it out. I’m guessing Randle is A, but the others? Thx! bg

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  6. Regarding the Celtics comments in the previous thread. I’m not a Celtics fan by any stretch of the imagination. There are two ways to look at the Celtics. Here are my thoughts:

    A. They HAVE bungled their opportunity to dominate the East for the next decade.

    Boston did do many of the right things — they never hesitated to sell anything/everything for picks or young players. The picks were used to assemble a young team with lots of cap space. They had a plan and executed it. However, the problem is that Ainge has not spent his assets wisely:
    1. Hiring Brad Stevens is a genius move but he got the Celtics competitive too soon — many of their own draft picks have been further down the draft order.
    2. Along the same train of thought, Stevens may well have coached these guys beyond their talent level. They don’t have a superstar on their roster and as this thread suggests — you need at least two superstars to make a dent in the post season.
    3. Al Horford has always been a nice player but he’s not a great player and he’s certainly won’t be a great player for the years he’s under contract (age 30 through age 33). $113M/4yrs is a bad deal — especially for the value he will deliver in years 3 and 4. They should have cashed in their chips in at the trade deadline for either Butler or George. Parting with the 2017 Nets pick and some kids would have done the trick.
    5. Their best player is 5’8” tall and whose game seems to be a better fit for the regular season — not the intensity of the post season.

    B. They HAVE NOT bungled their opportunity to dominate the East for the next decade.

    Boston has gone about their business exactly the right way. The Stevens’ Celtics have had records of: 25-57; 40-42; 48-34 and 53-29. Steady consistent progress. Aside from the Horford signing they have been patient with their rebuild and have cap space and assets to leverage in an effort to take the next step.
    1. They have the best young coach in the NBA
    2. They had the best record in the East — even with a flawed roster.
    3. They will have the likely #1 pick in the upcoming draft.
    4. They will have Brooklyn’s #1 pick next year, which is virtually assured of being another lottery selection.
    5. They have two players from last year’s draft stashed overseas. Both of whom play the front court — positions of need for the Celtics. By the way ESPN recently rated both of these players (Guerschon Yabusele, PF and Ante Zizic, C) as being among the top 5 prospects from the 2016 draft (Ingram was rated 6th).
    6. They still have enough cap room to sign Gordon Hayward this off season.
    7. They have Danny Ainge who has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to trade anyone if the deal is right.

    It will be interesting to see how the Lakers’ and Celtics’ respective futures play out.

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    • TempleOfJamesWorthy April 20, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      It pains me to say it, but I like the Celtics’ immediate future prospects better than the Lakers’.

      It will take multiple problems (e.g. Thomas blows out a knee, Horford declines rapldly, the Celts’ high pick in 2017 goes bust) to knock them out of their perch as one of the best teams in the East, while they are arguably one to 1.5 superstars (e.g. Jimmy Butler and a dominant scorer off the bench) from being a real title contender.

      Maybe around 2020 the Lakers-Celtics rivary will be rekindled. We can but hope.

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    • Good post. Very well reasoned IMO. I agree Ainge should have traded for Butler/George at the deadline.

      I hope Scenario A is the reality: That Ainge is letting the fruit on his tree get too ripe and overplaying his hand by overvaluing his treasure chest of assets.

      He has a KungFu Grip on the unproven and has appeared overly conservative in trading the unproven for the proven.

      Maybe Ainge should stop eating at Chipotle EVERY DAY OF HIS LIFE. Its clouding his judgment. Of course, he DID NOT sign Deng or Mozgov so maybe his judgement is decent…..

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  7. I hope the Lakers search for a superstar doesn’t include Westbrook. Talented, yes, but not the way to go for the future.

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  8. I’m tentatively supportive of getting a star depending on the details. Still my head wants to explode. Fans weren’t too appreciative of the strategy of pursueing all-stars in free agency and fans didn’t react kindly to the idea of trading the young core pieces for one. Both those things sound like they are on the table an people are reacting positively?

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  9. Vasheed, it really depends on who the all-star is and what do you give up for him. We would all like to see Butler or George joining the Lakers but not if it cost us Ingram, Randle and more. But is that really too much to give up for someone of their caliber?

    So, the real assessment that the Lakers, and we as fans, must make is: are the young players good enough? People usually have purple colored lenses and tend to overvalue the players and undervalue the coach. What does the rest of the league think of Russell, Clarkson, Ingram and Randle? What about Zubac, Nance and Black? Would Deng and Mozgov be a positive or a negative in a trade? My point is: we’re severily biased, even if we’re able to engage in rational discussions about the Lakers.

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    • Renato, I wish I could “like” your comment one hundred fold. I think the phenomenon you are describing is called ownership bias. And, I submit that it plagues sports fan sites, even one as together as this one. See? Ownership bias in action!

      I keep coming back to this: the Lakers are frankly and objectively talent starved. Trading for an all-star is likely to strip them of much of the talent they DO have. This is a really big problem they can no longer buy their way out of. If they lose their first round pick this year (and thereby in 2019 as well), the situation is even more dire.

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    • Good post.

      My opinion about the young guys is well-known, but I am not eager to see MagicRob make a big deal. Paul George and Jimmy Butler are very, very good players, in their primes, but go back to the old NBA Title=Climbing Everest analogy: the Lakers are too far away from the summit to try to make a rushed, overnight climb to Camp 2 in bad weather. We have to hope that the team has the right Sherpas now, and that some of the new young climbers can be there if and when the team tries once more to make the final ascent in a few years, but right now, the Lakers need to move carefully, and not lose the very low footholds they have.

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      • The R’s have it right. The lottery selection in two weeks may well impact the team to the extreme (positively or negatively) for many years to come.

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  10. I like the best player analysis up to a point. Whoever has the best power forward who can pass, play defense, and shoot at high levels will win everything. That makes LeBron and Draymond Green the two most important players. The rest of the Warriors would have a hard time making the WC Finals without Green. No other team has a PF nearly as good as LeBron and Green. Yes LeBron and Green can play other positions but both have been blessed with unique strength, size and athleticism. The Spurs were able to break through and win with a more normal PF but the rest of the team was just that much better.

    In the Celtics – Bulls match up, it looks like Rondo was the most important Bull on the court. He uniquely matches up well with Thomas including being able to score on him and slow him down on offense. We will see how well Butler can do without him.

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  11. I think it is that way due to the emphasis on fouls and fts in the playoffs. Superstars get more latitude both offensively and defensively that allows them to thrive on the FT line more, although obviously some stars’ styles are better suited to that than others.

    The key then is having one more than the other team, so that when your franchise stars cancel each other out, the next person makes the difference.

    All of this of course can be overcome by a smart system or if the superstars aren’t really good at getting FTs or not good at hiding their fouls from the refs.

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