Can a Team Without a Bona Fide Superstar Win an NBA Title?

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Can a Team Without a Bona Fide Superstar Win an NBA Title?

The Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers are talented, well-coached and entered the playoffs at the No. 3 seed in their respective conferences. 

Their success has prompted the question: Can a team without a superstar win an NBA title?

The question hinges on the meaning of the word "superstar," a vague term used loosely by sports fans and journalists that has been co-opted by sneaker companies and other commercial brands.  

In a general sense, a superstar is a player who can dominate a game and carries his team on a regular basis. A more precise definition is tougher to nail down.

Some people believe that the term superstar should be reserved for athletes who are capable of being the best player on a championship team. Of course, that is a circular argument for our purposes. It also excludes legendary competitors such as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.

We could use the Hall of Fame as a means for distinguishing superstars, though it would be difficult to predict which current players will be enshrined in Springfield. 

That approach also would not account for players who performed at a Hall of Fame level the season their team won the championship, but fell short of the Hall. Then there are Hall of Famers like Robert Parrish and Joe Dumars who were great players on championship teams but were not considered dominant players.

Should we confine use of the word superstar to the top five or 10 players in the game? And, if so, how should those rankings be determined? We could look at Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) or All-NBA First Teams, though they do not tell the whole story.  

Since the NBA implemented a salary cap prior to the 1984-85 season, only five teams have won a championship without a player making the All-NBA First Team: the Detroit Pistons in 1989, 1990 and 2004, the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

Hakeem Olajuwon (All-NBA Third Team) won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year while leading the Rockets to the championship in 1993-94. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki (All-NBA Second Team) also had an MVP to his credit and had been named to the All-NBA First Team in four previous seasons. It is hard to argue that Hakeem or Dirk were not superstars.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki was a superstar for the Mavs in 2011, despite not making the All-NBA First Team.

The 1988-89 and 1989-90 Bad Boys Detroit Pistons had three future Hall of Famers in Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman. Isiah is one of the greatest point guards in league history and was selected to three All-NBA First Teams.

That leaves just the 2003-2004 Pistons. Ben Wallace was the lone All-NBA selection (Second Team) from that team. Wallace was Defensive Player of the Year four times, but was never selected to an All-NBA First Team and was not capable of carrying a team.

Now let's examine PER as a measuring stick for superstardom. Over the past 50 years, only eight championship teams failed to have a player rank in the top ten in PER: the 1968, 1969 and 1974 Boston Celtics, 1978 Washington Bullets, 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, and 1989, 1990 and 2004 Pistons (via basketball-reference.com).

The 1968 and 1969 Celtics were anchored by the great Bill Russell. The 1974 team had John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. The 1978 Wizards boasted an overpowering front line of 12-time All-Star Elvin Hayes and 1969 MVP Wes Unseld, and the Pistons of '89 and '90 were led by Isiah Thomas, a 12-time All-Star.

That leaves just the 1978-79 Sonics, and once again, the 2003-04 Pistons. Based on multiple indicators, it is fair to say that both teams lacked a superstar.

Dennis Johnson, a defensive standout who won two more rings with the Celtics, is the lone Hall of Famer from that Seattle team. Gus Williams and Jack Sikma had great careers with the Sonics and other teams, but were never among the elite players in the game.

Four of the Pistons starters, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton made multiple All-Star appearances. Billups, considered by many the team's best player, is a borderline Hall of Famer. Neither he nor Dennis Johnson dominated.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups made multiple All-Star teams.

The key to success for the 1979 Sonics and 2004 Pistons was a stifling defense. Seattle led the league in defensive rating (100.5 points per 100 possessions) and Detroit finished second (95.4), trailing only the 2003 and 2005 champion San Antonio Spurs.

Great defense is essentially a pre-requisite for winning a championship whether a team has a superstar or not. In the past 40 years, only two championship teams finished outside the top ten in defensive rating, the 1994-95 Houston Rockets (12th) and the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers (21st).

However, teams without a superstar have less margin for error on defense because they are at a disadvantage on the other end of the floor. While many superstars are great defenders, they typically distinguish themselves on offense.

They put immense pressure on a defense by getting to the foul line, creating scoring opportunities for teammates and hitting difficult shots, especially when the shot clock is winding down. Team like the Nuggets and Pacers that lack of a superstar must compensate offensively by minimizing mistakes, sharing the ball and shooting a high percentage from behind the arc.  

Star-less teams also require perfect timing to win a championship. The '79 Sonics won their title while the previous year's MVP (Portland's Bill Walton) was sidelined for the season and right before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league. The '04 Pistons came out of a relatively weak Eastern Conference and were fortunate to face a dysfunctional Lakers team in the Finals.

The Nuggets and Pacers do not possess enough of the requirements mentioned above to win a championship this year (even with Indiana's Paul George playing like a superstar through the first two games of the playoffs). Denver must survive a very competitive Western Conference, and both teams would have to beat an historically great Miami Heat squad.

Indiana's stingy defense surrendered the fewest points per 100 possessions (99.8), but they shot a league-worst 32.7 percent from behind the arc (via basketball-reference.com).

2012-2013 Offensive and Defensive Rankings (sorted by defense)

Rk Team ORtg DRtg ▴
1 Indiana Pacers* 104.3 99.8
2 Memphis Grizzlies* 104.9 100.3
3 San Antonio Spurs* 108.3 101.6
4 Oklahoma City Thunder* 112.4 102.6
5 Washington Wizards 100.2 103.0
6 Chicago Bulls* 103.5 103.2
7 Boston Celtics* 103.1 103.3
8 Los Angeles Clippers* 110.6 103.6
9 Miami Heat* 112.3 103.7
10 Atlanta Hawks* 104.8 104.4
11 Denver Nuggets* 110.4

105.1

 

Denver finished 11th in both defensive rating (105.1) and three-point shooting percentage (36.3) (via basketball-reference.com). They took a hit in both areas when Danilo Gallinari (37.3 percent three-point shooter) tore his ACL in early April. George Karl's team does not have the firepower or defensive prowess to overcome the lack of a superstar.

The new collective bargaining agreement may create greater opportunities for teams without a superstar in the future, as owners are hesitant to incur the luxury tax that will come with signing multiple stars. Until then, the Nuggets and Pacers of the league can continue to look to the 1979 Sonics and 2004 Pistons for inspiration.

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