The modern-day NBA is firmly in the Big Three, Superteam, free-agency arms race era of basketball. In peak 2018 NBA fashion, the Golden State Warriors won their third championship in four years and proceeded to add a fifth all-star to their roster last offseason.
But even in today’s game, some individual players just seem to do it all for their teams. Russell Westbrook is a triple-double machine. James Harden has scored 30 or more points in seven straight games. And Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all rank in the NBA’s top 10 for both Offensive and Defensive Win Shares.
Statistically, every NBA team has a leader. And in some cases, that leader is surrounded by a weak supporting cast, resulting in an outsized contribution from the team’s top dog.
Percent of Team VORP
One way to quantify this difference in team contribution is by looking at the Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) statistic across NBA rosters. VORP, a comprehensive stat and method for evaluating players, provides an estimate of each player’s overall contribution to their team compared to what a theoretical “replacement player” would provide. The analysis in this piece uses a methodology similar to what is described here by Todd Whitehead: calculating the VORP contributions from top players as a percent of overall team VORP.
For example, this season LeBron James has a VORP of 2.9, while the Lakers, on the whole, have a team VORP of 6. One note: Team VORP here was calculated using players with positive VORP only, to avoid having teams with negative overall team VORP. In this example, LeBron makes up 48 percent of L.A.’s team VORP (2.9/6 = 48 percent).
Below is a graphic displaying every NBA team, its top player by percent of team VORP, and the percent of VORP contributed by the rest of the team — the supporting cast.
Note: three teams (NYK, SAC, SAS) had two players tied for highest VORP. In that case, minutes played was used as a tiebreaker.
As seen above, no player is doing more for his team than Nikola Vucevic is doing for the Orlando Magic. The 7-foot center is showing off an improved game this season, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and nearly four assists, and is all but guaranteed to appear in his first All-Star Game in February. That production — buoyed by better 3-point shooting this year — helps explain Vucevic’s 2.0 VORP, out of a total team VORP of 3.2 for the Magic. That means the 28-year-old rising star has contributed 63 percent of Orlando’s total VORP, a greater share than any other individual player thus far this season.
Following Vucevic is another player doing a lot for an underwhelming team: Larry Nance Jr. on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Nance’s 9 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3 assists per game aren’t eye-popping, though his 1.4 VORP is good enough to rank 31st in the league, just behind Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry. The 8-26 Cavaliers, additionally, have a team VORP of just 2.4. Thus, Nance contributes a healthy 58 percent of Cleveland’s VORP compared to the 42 percent delivered by his supporting cast, second-most in the league behind Vucevic.
Third on this list is a player more frequently mentioned in the MVP conversation: Anthony Davis. Following the departure of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis has solidified his position as the clear star in New Orleans and ranks in the NBA’s top ten for rebounds, blocks, and points per game. His 3.0 VORP is second-best in the NBA behind James Harden, and that makes up 52 percent of the Pelicans’ total team VORP.
Top players and their sidekicks
One alternative way to examine players and their supporting casts is to look at the largest gaps in VORP between a team’s top and second-best player. In the analysis above, we illustrated the difference between a top player and the rest of his team; In this case, we are able to see that top player compared to his singular “sidekick.”
For example, LeBron’s 2.9 VORP this year is good enough to rank number one across the Lakers roster. Second to James is JaVale McGee, with a 0.9 VORP — making for a 2.0 VORP gap between L.A.’s number one and number two players.
Below are the biggest gaps in VORP between a team’s top player and their “sidekick,” the team’s second-best player.
Measured by VORP, LeBron, James Harden, and Nikola Jokic are the NBA players with the biggest gaps between their contributions and the production of their running mates. In L.A., it is no secret that LeBron could use a second-in-command — the Lakers tried and failed to find a second piece this past offseason, though trade rumors are heating up once again. Harden had hoped to find a partner in Carmelo Anthony, a test that failed resoundingly, and will have to settle for the efficient but perhaps less dynamic Clint Capela as his number two. And Jokic, who ranks top-five in VORP across the league, has stepped up to be the leader for a well-rounded but injury-ridden Nuggets team.
By contrast, the Knicks (Kanter and Robinson), Kings (Fox and Bjelica), and Spurs (DeRozan and Gay) have top duos with identical team contributions by VORP. Despite this even distribution, just one of those three teams — Sacramento — is currently holding a playoff spot.