10 NBA players most important to their team, including Nikola Jokic

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In the two NBA seasons before this, the Memphis Grizzlies won 56 and 51 games. In those seasons, point guard Ja Morant missed 15 games in 2021-22 and 21 games in 2022-23.

The Grizzlies had a capable backup in Tyus Jones, who was traded this offseason to the Washington Wizards. Jones was a stabilizing force without Morant.

This season, Morant has missed every game because of a 25-game suspension, and the Grizzlies are on pace to have their worst season since 2017-18. Without a solid backup, Morant’s loss has been devastating to a team that has aspirations of going a long way in the playoffs.

Losing a star player can be hard on a team, but it’s not always equal.

So we decided to take a look around the league and pick out the players whose absence would hurt their team the most.

10. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to point to one player most responsible for moving the Pacers from missing the playoffs last season to the thick of the Eastern Conference race this season, then look at Tyrese Haliburton.

Haliburton’s game has improved tremendously in the past three seasons and in his ascension this season, he is taking the Pacers with him.

He is scoring 26.3 points per game this season, up from 20.7 a year ago. He leads the league in assists with 12.2, up from 10.4 last season. The Pacers are scoring 12.2 points per game more this season than last and Haliburton is a big reason for this improvement.

9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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The 76ers haven’t missed a beat since trading James Harden to the L.A. Clippers on Nov. 1 and you can give the credit to Joel Embiid.

Since the Harden trade, Embiid has averaged 33.8 points per game. His best game was a 50-point night against the Washington Wizards on Dec. 6. Embiid leads the league in scoring and has led the past two regular seasons.

The only thing missing for him is a chance at an NBA Finals, as his teams have never gotten to the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, without Embiid, the Sixers wouldn’t even be in playoff position.

Related: Top 2023-24 NBA MVP candidates

8. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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Jayson Tatum has been one of the best players in the NBA for the past five seasons. He has led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and to the Finals once.

He leads the team in scoring and rebounding this season and has the Celtics at the top of the Eastern Conference. Earlier this season, he became the youngest player in Boston Celtics history to score more than 10,000 points.

  • Jayson Tatum stats (2023-24): 27.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, 50% shooting

With the moves the Milwaukee Bucks made in the offseason, as long as the Celtics have Tatum in the lineup, it’s going to be hard to knock them off.

7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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As mentioned earlier, Ja Morant’s importance to the Grizzlies can’t be overstated.

The young, hungry team was on its way to becoming an annual Western Conference contender. Morant’s problems and suspension were his own fault. But his absence has really hurt the Grizzlies.

The good news for Memphis is that Morant is set to return on Dec. 19 against the New Orleans Pelicans.

6. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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Nobody has been bigger in Oklahoma City’s rebuild and quick return to competitiveness than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Drafted in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets in 2018 and traded on draft day to the L.A. Clippers, Gilgeous-Alexander spent one season in Los Angeles before being shipped off to OKC with multiple picks and players for Paul George.

With the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed. He leads the Thunder in points (30.4), field goal percentage (55.0) and assists (6.2). With him running the show, OKC is a dangerous team.

His quick rise to star player has vaulted the Thunder to near the top of the Western Conference. His play is a reason this team could be scary in the playoffs.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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Not only does Jimmy Butler have the best haircut in the NBA, but nobody in the league turns on the switch in the playoffs like him.

The Miami Heat finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last season and made the Finals with Butler leading the way. Against the defending champion Bucks in the first round last year, he averaged 37.1 points. He led the Heat to the Bubble Finals of 2020, dragging a fifth-place team to a series against the Lakers.

It looks like the Heat are not taking the regular season seriously again this season, so watch out for Butler come playoff time.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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Has anyone changed the NBA more in the last 10 years than Steph Curry? A game dominated by giants for most of its history saw the champion of the little guy come in (an aside, Curry is 6-2, so in the real world, he’s not a little guy) and change the game with his shooting.

Shooting from all over the floor, Curry fired up every person who wasn’t the tallest one in the room so that they could take over a game with the long jumpshot.

In the past four seasons, Curry has averaged right at 30 points per game and he has led the Warriors to six NBA Finals and averaged 27.3 points. He has led the league in 3-point field goals eight times, and has the most in NBA playoff history and in a career.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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Tough crowd. One of the greatest players in the history of the game comes in at third on our list. You could certainly make a case for him to be higher.

Nobody has scored more points, played more games, and contributed more to the NBA than LeBron James.

As great as he has been this season, at age 39, which James hits at the end of December, he won’t be asked to play the number of minutes he has in the past. That means that for the Lakers to win big, James will need the help of teammate Anthony Davis.

Those two were the reason the Lakers won the NBA In-Season Tournament. James was incredible in getting them to the finals, and Davis took over in that last game. A similar situation needs to happen in the playoffs.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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At 6-11, Giannis Antetokounmpo is listed as a power forward, small forward, point guard and shooting guard. The only reason he isn’t listed as a center is, well, we don’t know. He can play that position, too.

He’s not called the Greek Freak just because it rolls off the tongue. He leads the league this season in total field goals, total points and usage rate.

He’s so important for the Bucks that they were willing to give up the farm to bring in Damian Lillard to show Antetokounmpo they would do anything to keep him around.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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It’s hard to believe how far Nikola Jokic has come since he was drafted by the Nuggets as the 41st pick in 2014. Scouting reports said his lack of athleticism would lead to poor defensive play, limiting his minutes. Did anybody get fired over this?

Jokic is the active No. 1 player in the player efficiency rating and has been the best in the category for the past three years. He’s the best rebounder in the game, has led the league twice in triple-doubles and has a career win-shares rating that is better than Bill Russell.

The Nuggets are title contenders as long as he’s on the roster. If he’s not on the floor, they’re not nearly as good and yet they have a great surrounding cast. Denver never won a title before Jokic got there and if he’s not on the floor, they’re not winning another one.

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