Every now and again, NBA fans are given a lesson on the blueprint to building around an NBA superstar.
Some teams, like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, seem to have figured everything out. But others, like the Washington Wizards, not so much.
Although it's not easy, there is a general blueprint on the subject. Though the best teams may differ in terms of roster and style of play, most of them were built using similar methods.
There are a series of steps that have to be taken to follow this blueprint. Whether done progressively or in different orders, most contenders follow the same basic strategy.
Step No. 1: Find at least one (preferably two) All-Star-caliber sidekicks
As Kevin Garnett and LeBron James can both testify, it’s tough to win a title without being backed by a true All-Star. If a superstar isn’t given a suitable sidekick, they’re forced to play each game thinking that if they're off tonight, their team might lose.
That philosophy proves doubly true when the playoffs roll around and the intensity ratchets up.
Teams need a guy who can share some of the burden. If not, their superstar is bound to burn out at some point. It’s just too much pressure to put on one player.
The ideal sidekick complements the superstar’s game, can carry the team if the superstar is having an off night and embraces the supporting role when the superstar is feeling it.
The very best teams have a third All-Star-level player. It’s generally someone who’s perfectly happy being a steady contributor but, on the rare occasion that the best two players are off, is capable of putting the team on his back.
The “Big Threes” of the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Thunder are obvious examples of teams built like this, but there are less obvious ones as well.
Take, for instance, the championship 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks team. They had a clear superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, an underrated yet All-Star-caliber sidekick in Tyson Chandler and a third guy to lean on in Jason Terry.
Terry may not have been at an All-Star level, but he could be counted on to carry the team during key stretches, like he did in Game 6 of the 2011 Finals (in which Dirk went 1-for-12 in the first half).
Superstar or not, every player needs at least one guy that they can lean on from time to time. Every Batman needs a Robin (or two).
Step No. 2: Find the right collection of role players
This is where the wing defenders, the shooters, the game managers and the energy guys come into play.
We all know that role players can swing games, and even entire playoff series. Just look at what Mike Miller did in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals or at Derek Fisher’s miracle buzzer-beater to beat the Spurs in the 2004 playoffs. Heck, Robert Horry made an entire career of stepping up and winning big games.
Basketball is a team game. Most teams have just one or two legitimate superstars. Six or seven other guys are going to get big minutes. And while simply having All-Star players is good enough to out-talent the majority of the league, games between the best teams are determined, in large part, by the role players.
The important thing is not only finding guys that are good at their respective roles, but those who accept their roles. Not everyone is willing to play 20 minutes a game and only put up a shot or two.
But as soon as backups start complaining about touches or minutes, things go downhill fast. To effectively build around a superstar, a team needs to find players that are happy just to be contributing to a contender. It doesn't need guys trying to boost their stats, no matter how talented they are.
Of course, exactly which players to put around a superstar depends on the star himself. For example, when Dwight Howard was a member the Orlando Magic, team management opted to surround Dwight with offensive-minded players and shooters. They trusted that Dwight could hold his own on the defensive end and that he would take up enough space in the paint to give his shooters open looks.
On the other hand, the Chicago Bulls have built a defensive juggernaut around Derrick Rose. Rose is primarily a scorer, and all of their defense-oriented players cover up for any deficiencies he might have on that end of the floor.
Step No. 3: Find a coach that can put it all together
Honestly, there aren’t that many brilliant Xs and Os coaches in the NBA today. There are definitely a few (Gregg Popovich comes to mind), but the most important skill for an NBA coach to have is the ability to internally manage a team.
Phil Jackson didn’t coach his way to 11 rings because of any brilliant original schemes. The reason he was such an incredible coach was his uncanny ability to work with players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant—two of the most difficult to manage players in NBA history.
The best coaches get all of their players to accept their roles, buy into the team concept and to play hard. That’s really all that it takes.
Of course, a fair bit of on-court knowledge is required. Good coaches employ sound rotations and manage the clock well. But, with a true superstar in tow, the most important thing is to find a coach that can properly deal with egos and get the team playing hard. Anything else is gravy.
Step No. 4: Establish an identity
With everything else in place, the final part of the blueprint is to establish a team identity.
The best teams in the league tend to have an identity that matches that of their superstar. A glance at a few of the championship teams over the last decade tells the whole tale.
The title-winning Spurs teams always played exactly like Tim Duncan—with steady, machine-like efficiency. Similarly, the Kevin Garnett-led 2007-08 Celtics squad played with an unmatched defensive intensity, flying around the court and refusing to give up any easy baskets.
The 2010-11 Mavs were, much like Nowitzki, focused on ball movement and outside shooting. Last year’s Heat squad, led by the league’s most versatile player in LeBron James, played a fluid, adaptable style that denied the idea of traditional basketball positions.
Every superstar has a defining quality, and in most cases, a team identity is established around that quality. There are exceptions of course, but in the end, the final step to building around a superstar—and building a championship team—is to establish a concrete team identity.
While every team has its own unique blueprint—the steps may not be in this particular order—this is the general guide. It won’t always mean a championship, but it does at least mean a shot at one. And in today’s league, that’s about as good as it gets.