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“You must have a star to win a championship” – Everyone
The early season success of the Nuggets, Pacers and 76ers means we’ve been able to discuss this idea for the past few weeks. And by discuss, I mean nod vigorously in unison and pat ourselves on the back for our deep knowledge about the game of basketball. Any suggestion that this tightly held truism may be a mirage is usually followed closely by an admission that none of those teams are likely to throw down the gauntlet of proof this season.
Even the most ardent supporters of statistical analysis recite this statement like a mantra without offering any objective analysis. Occasionally the 2004 Pistons are presented as a bizarre outlier where chemistry and defensive cohesion substituted for that central star; admission of a singular negative as proof of the ubiquitous positive. By contrast every other recent champion has had at least one player, publicly agreed upon as being of suitable star quality. But what do those players have in common? Is there a level of statistical production that makes one a qualified star, capable of winning a championship?
I put together some statistical resumes to try and identify what that threshold for championship stardom might be. Theoretically a star would provide multi-channel production, so I used the comprehensive metrics PER, Win Shares/48 and Wins Produced/48. The table below shows the numbers and league rank for each champions ‘stars’ going back to the 2004 Pistons.
[table id=39 /]
If we build our definition on evidence, like the rest of the scientific world, a team needs a player roughly in the top fifteen in overall production, depending on the metric, to win a championship. That means quantitative analysis gives the Nuggets and 76ers plenty of star power to win the title this year, based on the play of Danilo Gallinari, Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams. We can also included Portland, Utah, and Atlanta thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap and Marvin Williams. I’m not talking about a team’s overall chances at winning a title this year, the prevailing wisdom is that it takes a star AND a strong enough team. I’m simply pointing out, that by this simple comparison, those teams would appear to have the star component in place.
So, does anyone feel comfortable saying Utah doesn’t need to pursue another top-tier player because they’re set with Millsap? If not it’s probably because we’re venturing off course into those vague shadowy places that give Bill James nightmares. These are places where you hear things like ‘killer instinct’, ‘clutch’, ‘experienced’, ‘warrior’s mentality’, ‘can get his own shot’, ‘can carry a team’ and other clouds of fairy dust. These are gaseous ideas in that they take the shape of their container. If we are defining a star by these subjective qualities, we must accept that everyone may have a different definition and that those definitions are liable to change.
Last season’s title run by the Mavericks fits this star-driven narrative perfectly. However, it fits it perfectly based on one key factor – hindsight. Dirk Nowitzki was enough star, because he was ‘clutch’, ‘experienced’ and could ‘carry his team’. The only problem is that all of those labels were solidified by winning the title. Eighteen months ago there was legitimate argument about whether he could ‘carry his team’ or whether he was just a talented offensive player without the mental makeup to push his team over the hump. No one argues about what tier of stardom Nowitzki belongs in now, but that argument was settled by his winning a ring. Is it inconceivable that Andre Iguodala could raise his game to new levels in the playoffs and, surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, lead his team to a championship, in doing so become star enough to win a title?
The Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics on the list above do all have something in common that the Pistons didn’t in 2004 – reputation and renown. They were recognized as elite players before they won titles. They were players of high profiles and high visibility. In every place except this specific discussion it’s generally acknowledged that popularity and public acceptance is a component of stardom. The fog of popularity exists here as well, it’s just not acknowledged. Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups were every bit as starry as Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in their production that season. But because that wasn’t previously adopted as their nature, we end up with a view of the Pistons as a super-starless team.
The idea that there is some line in the sand, and that to win a championship a team must have at least one player on the other side of that line is ludicrous. Especially when the line is invisible, can be moved by personal preference and doesn’t even have an agreed upon set of dimensions. The idea of requisite stardom is a mirage. We look at the NBA and see what we expect to see, because it’s what we expect to see.
To win a championship takes several very good players. If there happens to be a great one among that bunch, so be it. To win a championship your good players have to play well, at their very best even, for an extended stretch of time. Luck, health, effort, versatility, coaching, intensity, focus and chemistry are also pre-requisites. The Nuggets and 76ers may not win the title this year, but if they do it will be because of a combination of all those factors, not because Iguodala or Gallinari is not starry enough.