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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.

  • boyer

    I don’t know why I was hoping for something more, but I forgot your site here is mostly just advanced stats. While interesting to see some comparisons even with just advanced stats, it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. I guess you don’t realize it, or else you wouldn’t have used it, but WP is possibly the worst stat ever made up. Who in their right minds would think 2011 Dirk or 2010 Kobe weren’t top 100 players? I don’t know why I look at the WoW website sometimes, maybe just for some good laughs. But, those guys over there think Bargnani is the worst Raptor player and actually hurts the team by playing, and that Kobe was only the 5th best SG in the West last year just to name a few examples I’ve seen recently. How stupid is that? What’s the pt. to use metrics continuously if they tell you that type of stuff?

    What’s the most ridiculous thing about stat gurus is that they think somehow think their stats aren’t subjective but somehow objective, and everything else is objective. I could make up a stat any way I want to, and it’d be as subjective as anything. Just for the record, I’m not against advanced stats. They have their place and probably should be used to a degree, but with context, and not used blindly and thought of as actual facts that can be proved. Basketball is a fluid game, many variables constantly changing, no advanced stat will ever completely accurately portray this. I would say PER seems like one of the better advanced stats, but there’s no way to prove that. I think it’s good to use for a generalization, but it gives us in no way a definitive answer to anything.

    Now, back to the ‘superstar’ question. Over the past 13 champions, the spurs have 4, lakers 5, c’s 1, heat 1, mavs 1, pistons 1. Over the past 13 years, the top 5 players have been shaq, kobe, duncan, kg, and james. Every champion, except 2, has had at least 1 of these players on their team. Shaq played alongside a future HOF guard for each title. Duncan had HOFer Robinson and then 2 AS guards for his titles. KG played with 2 future HOFers. Kobe played with future HOFer Shaq for 3, and borderline HOFer Pau for 2.

    Every once in awhile, a rugrat team like the pistons can squeak through, but that was a weaker year in the nba. The top 2 teams out west was seriously banged up, while the pacers weren’t that daunting of a contender that we see most years. The pistons had great defense, great chemistry, were very deep, very talented, and had 4 AS caliber players. They’re unlike any upstart team we see today, but they still only won 1 title. Let’s go back to the blazers and kings teams around 2000. These teams were stacked, probably the #2 team in the nba each for at least 1 year, but neither one ever made the finals. The lakers had very little after shaq/kobe, but that was enough for them to win 3 titles and make the finals 4x in 5 years, quite an accomplishment, especially in the deep west. conf.

    Dirk’s been an elite player for years now and a lock for the HOF, even before his title. He carried his team to 67 wins one year, and was pretty close to winning a title in 06, even while the mavs basically replaced nash with just terry. Dirk’s had great teammates and a very deep team most years, but never another elite player to play with. Whoever was questioning Dirk’s ability to carry a team is/was mistaken. Dirk just isn’t better than shaq/kobe/duncan, but still great in his own right. I’m pretty sure people are questioning whether james can carry a team through 4 rounds of playoffs, as they should, since he’s had 2 abysmal finals appearances and has quit on his teams during each of the last 2 playoffs, but 99% of people still have no qualms with saying he’s the best player in the league, and most of them say he’s the best player in the league by a wide margin. He is a superstar, obviously, but there’s always a few superstars every year.

    Good luck with that Iguodala theory, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. But, I’ll say the first part of your last paragraph is pretty much right on. There’s always a degree of luck involved, but I say you make your own luck, too. This is a lockout season, so it’s a messed up season. If we were to see a different type of champion, this would be year, but I think it’s going to be hard anyone other than the bulls, heat, or thunder to win, unless current rosters change via trade or FA, such as someone acquiring Howard.

    • ilevy

      I hope that my using Wins Produced doesn’t ruin the whole analysis for you. Although it rates the players very differently than PER or Win Shares, my point was just that by statistical measures the rough cut off for championship caliber stardom is about a top fifteen player. I’m very familiar with the plusses and minuses of Wins Produced, and I actually used to cover the Pacers for the Wages of Wins. I think it’s still a valuable tool for certain situations, but even if you throw that out, my point is still made. As far as objectivity, subjectivity, those metrics are objective in their inputs (points, rebounds, etc.). They are subjective in how they assess the value of those inputs. That means subjectivity is still part of the equation, but I find that reduced role for subjectivity much more useful than relying on it for evaluation exclusively. However, my point with that whole section was that no one really buys the argument that stats can define which superstars are suitable to leading a championship team. Otherwise the Jazz and the Blazers would be done. Even the people who say they rely purely on stats still go beyond that when it comes to this argument.

      Dirk may have been a lock for the Hall of Fame before winning the title, but I wasn’t arguing about how we viewed his HOF or All-Star credentials. I was arguing about how people viewed his ability to be the alpha on a championship team. There are countless HOFers who are viewed as a tier below because of their inability to break through. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone have incredible statistical resumes but they are not mentioned in the same breath as Jordan, Bird or Magic because they couldn’t get their teams over the hump. I would say that people very much thought Dirk belonged in this category until he proved he didn’t.

      James will ultimately end up in one of those two categories. If he breaks through and starts winning titles he’ll be part of the Jorda, Bird, Magic discussion. If he continues to come up short he’ll be part of the Barkley, Malone group. But either way he’s still a star player. The only thing that will cement him as a star capable of winning a championship, is actually winning a championship. It’s that mythologic snake eating it’s own tail. The name escapes me right now.

      • boyer

        Well, what about the jazz or blazers? Are you or anyone else really worried about either of those teams doing much in the playoffs? Sure, they have a fighter’s chance, but that’s about it. Very rarely does a team in the nba go from first round defeat to nba champion unless something ridiculous happens in the offseason such as with the 08 celtics. They are middling to decent teams that can put up a fight, but that’s about it.

        I think KG is a perfect example. He was a top 3-4 player for several years, despite only making it out of the first round once in minny. He was certainly a bonafide superstar. Now, is most people’s view of Duncan being better than KG based solely on titles? Maybe, maybe not. I would still take Duncan over KG in a heartbeat, but the fact that he’s up 4-1 in titles have anything to do with that? Maybe, maybe not. Barkley and Malone were phenomenal players and elite players for several years, it’s just that the c’s/lakers/bulls had better teams, and bird/magic/jordan were all better than barkley and malone, that’s a given. Was Malone better than Pippen, though? Probably. Jordan was better than malone, pippen was better than stockton, and rodman was certainly better than anyone else that the jazz had. And the bulls always had good role players then. So, naturally, the bulls should’ve won those series. If you put rodman on the jazz, and ostertag on the bulls, then what? I’d have to say the jazz would’ve won at least one of those series then, but nobody will know for sure. Jordan was surely great, but he had a load of help.

        Maybe other people’s views of Dirk changed, but mine didn’t. Barkley and malone were still better players than Dirk is, maybe not by much, but they are, and still are. I’d take those jazz teams over last year’s mavs team for sure, but it’d be a good series probably.

        James is a totally different thing. His teams have been favorites for 3 years running, and only made 1 finals. And he bailed out on his teams each of the past 2 playoffs, that’s certainly a red flag. His team is stacked right now. They’re the most talented team in the league by far, and they’re a very deep team with 3 of the top 10-15 players in the league all in their primes, which I can’t remember any team ever having.

        Another thing to consider. If you’re using the above stats, which the stat gurus who made them up use, then they think their stats are basically flawless, then their predictions of james winning titles each of the last 3 season not happening should be a signal as to their stats being more or less worthless, especially since james, wade, and bosh were 1, 2, and 4, respectively, I think, at least in PER in 2010. James has been the best reg. season performer for the past few seasons, but not consistently in the playoffs over the past 3 postseasons. It’ll be hard to ever able to trust james again in the playoffs with the way he’s played the past 2 playoffs. Why he didn’t give full effort is beyond me. Only he knows why. If your star player can’t give full effort, especially when a title is so close and within reach is quite confusing. But, the heat have a built in advantage, similar to the thunder, because if durant or james is sucking, then westbrook or wade can still take over games. And even harden or bosh can do so as well at a lesser extent. None of these so-called upstart team have these types of options. Nobody on the sixers has even made an AS game yet, except Brand, but he’s way past his AS self, and he only had 2 at that.

  • http://wagesofwins.com Dre

    http://wagesofwins.com/2011/08/28/does-a-team-need-a-superstar-to-win-the-nba-championship/

    Ian interesting take. I think the problem is with the word “star”. People think things like All-Star games, All-NBA and yes even things like the MVP can quantify title worthyness. The point is your team does need very productive players to win. Which makes sense because to win a title you need to well…win. So a team can win without a popular player. But a team does need one or more very good players to win and I don’t think anyone disagrees that all title teams have had this. My question for the Nuggets and Sixers is if their players can keep it up.

  • boyer

    Well, the writer of that article is only going off of WP, which is ridiculous, and his conclusion is still that you basically need a superstar. And he thinks Chandler was the best player on the mavs last year. That should tell you something.

    With some exceptions, AS appearances, MVP voting, and all-nba teams are the best ways to define who’s the best in the league. The fans may vote for the AS starters, but rarely do they vote for someone who shouldn’t be there, and then the coaches pick the reserves. So, picking the AS is a pretty accurate process. There’s always going to be some griping about the last few guys, though, no matter what the year.

    I’m confused about the popularity comment. I guess it’s mostly a given the best players are the most popular. But, duncan is as boring as they get, but yet he was an elite player for several years, and won 4 titles. So, the conclusion of both these articles is that a champ. team needs good players? Wow, you really hit it there. Duh. Of course you need really good players. I guess it’s kind of chicken and egg for some players. Jordan was the best player in the league and probably the most popular player before winning his first title, but after winning the first, then his status was greatly elevated, causing Magic to say that you couldn’t even look at him without getting a foul called. Exaggeration? Sure, but not by much. But, take Billups. He was never a superstar before, during, or after his title. But, now he has the nickname as Mr. big shot, even though he rarely makes any big shots. He earned his title, and has been a solid player, maybe a HOFer, but that’s about it, and nobody really thinks he was an elite player. Pierce is similar. Pierce may have dabbled approaching superstar status, but nobody really confused him with one of the true superstars in the league.

    • ilevy

      I’m sorry, but I completely disagree on AS appearances, MVP voting and All-NBA teams as appropriate measures of who’s the best in the league. AS voting in particular is a ludicrous measure. I think the point we’re making is that having a lot of very good players, and possibly one who rises to the occasion and becomes great in those big moments (Pierce, Billups) is enough.

      • boyer

        Who amongst the starters this year shouldn’t be an AS? And keep in mind, this is a messed up year. The only starter in recent memory that shouldn’t have been in the game at all was Iverson. But, the starters are the players the fans want, so I’ll give when we’re saying it’s not necessarily the top 5 by position in each conf., but normally it pretty much is, and the starters are almost always a top 12 player in their respective conf. The coaches then pick the next 7 most deserving players. And sometimes the #2 center in recent memory might not be worthy, but that’s debatable. For the most part, you’re getting at least the top 10 from each conf., and the last 2-3 are always debatable, no matter what system you create.

        That’s why I say you when couple all of these factors in(AS appearances, all-nba teams, mvp voting), you don’t get absolute exact answers, but you get a pretty good generalization of who the top players were in each era. And as I go back and look at these lists, they seem to be pretty good. There’s sometimes exceptions to these things, but generally you get the top 15 players in the league for that season on all-nba teams. Obviously, you have to have 3 centers, so it’s not going to be exactly correct.

        Seriously, though, if you think AS voting is ludicrous, I’d like to know about just the past 10 years or so of AS voting, which is just the starters. That’s 100 players over the past 10 years. How many of those players didn’t deserve an AS appearance? Maybe they didn’t deserve the start, but they deserved to be at the game. I’m most concerned with who amongst starters aren’t top 12 in their conf. Nobody really remembers AS starts, just how many AS appearances. Of course, you’d probably do it with some sort of advanced stat, which wouldn’t interest me as much, but it would be interesting to explore.

        I think that ideally I would want a team with 4-5 really good players, rather than 1 superstar, 1 AS, and 1 near AS. But, if I had 2 superstars, that might be different. It depends on the superstar. If it was shaq/kobe, then yes. If it was rose/wade, then probably not, depends on how the rest of the team shakes out. The celtics had 5 very good players in 08, while the lakers had 3, it’s going to be tough for the lakers to win that series, if the c’s are healthy, as that is what happened, and the c’s were much deeper as well.

        Also, instead of looking just at the reg. season for PER, etc., you should also look at the playoffs PER, etc. for each player, or maybe that’s what you did. I don’t think you said it was for reg. season or playoffs, so I’m not sure about that.

        • boyer

          I looked at the past 10 AS games, not including this year, so that’s the past 11 years. I only see Iverson in 09 and 10 not deserving of AS status based on performance. That means the fans are correctly choosing AS based on performance 98% of the time. I’d say that’s pretty good. And the coaches don’t sloppily pick the next 7. You may say Duncan didn’t deserve it last year, but he was the leader of the team with the best record in the west, that should count for something. But, like I said before, the last 2-3 spots are always up for debate no matter what system is being used.

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