NBA Playoffs: Which Superstar-Less Team Has the Best Odds at a Championship?
Basketball, it is said, is the true team sport. No other sport fully depends on the ability of all five individuals to, ironically, cease being five individuals, and become something more.
More than in football, where there are different teams for offense and defense, more than in baseball, where hitting involves the skill of one player, and some would say more than hockey, where individuals are more important.
Though this moniker is, to a certain extent, valid and should be implanted in the minds of anyone striving to be a good basketball player, it hasn't exactly held weight in the NBA.
Examining the last 15 years, only teams with a player of top-10 talent have won the championship. The one exception to this rule is the Detroit Pistons who, it should be noted, still had three stars on the team (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace).
Looking at the past five NBA champions, we've had Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant (twice), Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan. All were unequivocally top-10 talent.
Yes, they all had good supporting casts, but it somewhat runs away from the whole premise of "a good team will always trump a good player" that has surrounded any player since pee-wee ball.
So, the question is, in a league that, evidently, is the most star-powered (and favored) league in North America, could a team without a true superstar win a championship?
How do you define "superstar" status? Well, the easiest way is simply to determine if the player is top-10 talent.
First, let me state my top-10 talent, in no particular order: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and Rajon Rondo. Let me also state, though, that these are the most talented players, not most valuable, because then someone like Kevin Love would take the place of Rondo.
All of these players have teams sitting somewhat comfortably in the playoffs, except for Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks.
That leaves us with six teams that have none of the players on the list. Heading into the postseason, could any of these teams win a championship?
One of these squads even making the championship would be an enormous feat in itself, and a huge step forward for the epitome of team basketball. But that isn't what we're talking about here.
The championship would be the "be-all, end-all" for a team without a superstar.
Let's examine each team and see first, their actual chances, and second, what they would have to do to increase said chances.
Teams will be mentioned from least likely to win it all to most likely, and all predictions will be assuming that the playoff picture stays the way it is.
6. Houston Rockets
The Rockets currently find themselves in seventh place in a very competitive Western Conference, yet seventh place really means nothing when you have a one-game advantage over the 10th seed in your conference.
They are slowly moving forward from the tragic end to the Yao Ming era, but it's hard to say who the team's best player is.
Kevin Martin is their leading scorer and can take over games but is unbelievably inconsistent. An MVP-caliber night followed by a "what's he doing in this league" night happens more frequently to Martin than anyone else in the league.
Kyle Lowry may be their most consistent player, but can rarely take over games.
Luis Scola is talented, but six rebounds for a big man is borderline embarrassing.
Not having a go-to player generally hurts a team and has at times hurt Houston, but for the most part they have kept it together with different players being the best player in different games.
The Rockets, much like Martin, can win seven straight games as they did earlier in the season and then subsequently lose five in a row.
Depending on whether they head into the playoffs on a hot or cold streak, they could potentially turn some heads and win a first round matchup.
As it stands now, that matchup would be against the Spurs, which could be a replay of the Spurs' first-round nightmare against the Grizzlies last year. Much like Memphis, Houston is young, fast and has no superstar.
Perhaps a team without a superstar could win it, but of all of them, these Rockets have the least chance.
To improve, they just have to make sure that Kevin Martin realizes when he's on and off. Too frequently, he shoots only 10 shots in a game where it seems he can't miss, and then 25 in a game where he will only make a fourth of them.
Prediction: Five-game, first-round exit.
Odds of Winning it All: 3/100
5. Denver Nuggets
What a strange season this team has had.
They started off as the one non-superstar team that could have a shot at deep playoff run. They held that title for a bit before they became that team that could ultimately miss the playoffs.
It seems they've settled somewhat right in between, yet more toward the "can't make the playoffs" side than the "title aspirations" side. They find themselves the eighth seed in the West, which means they have the toughest first-round opponent to face in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In my opinion, they made a smart move trading Nene, who had underachieved since his contract and had become quite injury-prone, for an extremely talented Javale McGee, whom they hope can mature his game and mentality.
This is another team whose best player is extremely hard to identify. At this point, I would say it's Ty Lawson. The point guard is leading the team in both points and assists, and is the only one with very special skills on offense.
But their most dominant "take-over" player is undoubtedly Danillo Gallinari, who also unfortunately has been plagued by injuries, which has been a common theme in Denver this year.
To improve, they have to start making Ty Lawson the player whom they run everything through. It's very hard to keep up with him, which is what makes pick-and-roll situations so ideal with McGee and Kenneth Faried.
Prediction: Five-game, first-round exit.
Odds of winning it all: 3/100
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Another roller-coaster season on this list, and it's certainly no coincidence.
The Sixers started off where they left off at the end of last season, tearing through the earlier part of the year. Recently, though, they lost hold of the firm grasp they had on the Atlantic Division, and find themselves in seventh place and slotted to face the Miami Heat.
The Sixers had one player make the All-Star squad, Andre Iguodala (12 ppg, five apg), though it could very easily be argued that Louis Williams (15 ppg, three apg) is their best player.
The team has a weird mix of the young (Williams, Jrue Holiday) and the old (Elton Brand, Iguodala) and it will very interesting to see which age group will do the heavy lifting come playoff time.
To improve, they absolutely need to get to the free-throw line. Right now, they're on pace for the fewest free-throw attempts in the league by a large margin. They need to start driving and stop settling for mid-range jumpers.
Prediction: Six-game, first-round exit.
Odds of Winning it All: 1/25
3. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers currently hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, and as it stands right now would play the Boston Celtics in the first round.
Of all the teams listed so far, the Pacers are the hardest to judge regarding who their most valuable player is.
Arguments could very easily be made for four different players: All-Star selection Roy Hibbert, leading scorer Danny Granger, versatile swingman Paul George and undisputed locker-room leader David West.
At different times, each one of them has carried the team.
In a league with a dearth of true big men, Roy Hibbert has slowly carved a named for himself as one of the more dominant bigs in the game, and this was exemplified in his All-Star selection.
Granger is still their leading scorer, averaging 17 points a game, and is learning more and more to trust his teammates. Yet when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter the ball is generally thrown in his direction, making him indispensable in the playoffs.
Paul George has the most potential on the roster, and by far the most versatility. He is frequently asked to defend the opponent's best perimeter player, and when hot, has the offense run through him.
Finally, we have the one who scores the fewest points and plays the fewest minutes, but many would say has become the most valuable of the four. That, of course, is the unheralded David West.
This is a team that could very well make a splash in the playoffs, but also has definite promise for future years.
To improve, Danny Granger will have to find his stride, or stop shooting as much as he is currently. If he's only converting 40 percent of his attempts in the first round, the Pacers won't win.
Prediction: Seven-game series, first-round exit.
Odds of Winning it All: 1/20
2. Atlanta Hawks
I hesitated putting the Hawks on this list.
True, at the beginning of this slideshow I said that as long as a a team didn't have top-10 talent, they would be considered a superstar-less team. Still, it deserves mention that Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are extremely talented players, and on some nights do look like top-10 talents. On other nights, though, they don't—and thus the Hawks find themselves on this list.
Re-reading this, it should seem that the Hawks should be serious contenders and not merely a pretender that can make the second round and nothing more.
They have two very talented players, a good point guard in Jeff Teague and, though injured for the majority of this season, a very good center in Al Horford.
But season after season, they find themselves in the land of the above-average and nothing more. Even more damning, or should I say saddening, is that management and even players seem content with that.
Management hasn't made a big move in free agency besides signing Johnson to a bloated $100 million contract. The Hawks are paying someone like a superstar, but still don't have one.
In the first round matchups as they stand now, the Hawks would play the Orlando Magic, a team they have recently had the better of.
They use a simple man-to-man on Howard, letting him get buckets while also frustrating him with aggressive defense. Unlike most teams that the Magic beat, they don't get beat by three-pointers, and rather than focus on solely containing Howard, they focus on shutting down everyone else.
To improve...well, actually, the Hawks have recently improved a lot. Now, they have to remain consistent, especially at the point guard position.
Josh Smith has to learn to stay in the games without fouling out, because he will be called on to defend the best opposing player—perimeter or not perimeter—in the majority of Atlanta's games.
Prediction: Six-game series, second-round defeat.
Odds of Winning it All: 1/20
1. Memphis Grizzlies
If the head counselors at basketball camps nationwide don't want to spend time rewriting the speech they give at the beginning of every summer, they better cheer for Memphis come playoff time.
Or else, like every year for the past five, the moniker of "teams win titles, not individuals" loses even more credibility than before.
The Grizzlies should be considered the only team of the six mentioned with any capability whatsoever to even have a shot at making the finals.
If they are to make it, momentum will surely play a big part, and it will become a whole new season for that team.
After beating the Spurs last year in the first round as the eighth seed—without Rudy Gay, who many believe to be their best player—before taking the Thunder to an intense seven-game series, the Grizzlies instantly became a team experts loved to label a contender for this season.
Things didn't go exactly as planned.
Big man Darrell Arthur was declared out for the season in the early going, and more importantly, playoff hero Zach Randolph was forced to sit out a significant amount of time.
Thankfully, Randolph has returned, and for the most part the Grizzlies have improved—just not as drastically as many had predicted. They currently find themselves in sixth place in the West, meaning they would face the Lakers in the first round.
In many ways, this is great. The Grizzlies have one of the few players in the league who can defend Kobe Bryant (Gay), and have bigs (Randolph, Marc Gasol) who can hang with the Lakers.
Unlike last year, the playoff hopes of Memphis do not lie on Randolph's shoulder. This season, I believe the Grizzlies will win and lose with Rudy Gay.
Rudy Gay is the epitome of a superstar on the fringe, and someone who's just fine in that role.
Talent-wise, he's up there with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. His assassin mentality? Not nearly on par with those two. He very rarely takes over a game and is the master of racking up points quietly.
He doesn't score them in bunches, they don't come in key moments and they're not flamboyant, unless it's a fast-break, wide-open windmill dunk. But he still scores, which certainly counts for something.
On paper, Memphis could very easily compete for the title. They have:
- A great wing-man who can score at will (Gay)
- A top-tier defender (Tony Allen)
- A scoring big man (Randolph)
- A bruising big man (Gasol)
- A smart point guard (Conley)
- A scorer off the bench (Mayo)
- A good coach (Lionel Hollins)
Therein lies the recipe for a championship team in the NBA. The Lakers had exactly this same recipe when they last won a championship:
- A great wing-man, who can score at will (Kobe)
- A top-tier defender (Ron Artest)
- A scoring big man (Pau Gasol)
- A bruising big man (Andrew Bynum)
- A smart point guard (Derek Fisher)
- A scorer off the bench (Lamar Odom)
- A good coach (Phil Jackson—this is an understatement for him)
And yet there is a world of difference between these two teams.
Sure, it's unfair to judge Gay with Kobe, the most instinctive killer the game has ever seen, but Gay should want to take over a game when the going gets tough—but he doesn't. He's content with scoring here and there, getting his 20 and then loafing.
If Gay truly wants to win, the Grizzlies just might.
To improve, I think you got the gist of it. It all depends on Gay.
Prediction: Six-game, first-round defeat.
Odds of Winning It All: 3/50