What's the one secret to building a highly successful NBA roster?
There isn't just one, and that's sort of the point.
Now, I know what you're probably thinking: You need to have a superstar. Or a great coach. Or an owner willing to spend.
And while that all may be true and can help a great deal toward success, those aren't automatic qualifiers alone.
We're often prone to a sort of revisionist's history when it comes to quantifying those things, anyway. Rick Carlisle wasn't considered an elite coach until after he won a championship. Tony Parker wasn't mentioned with the league's best point guards until he had more rings than everyone else did.
Basically, it's easy to point to a top-tier team and deem it a success because it's winning. It's much more difficult to hone in on why the team is achieving.
Maybe that's because the strength of most successful teams is their diversity. That's not to say that great teams don't often have an identity, because they do. A team's fast-paced style or its specialized way of defending can be calling cards, but the best teams have rosters capable of checking all the boxes.
It's funny, because the way roster diversity is often accomplished is through specialists who just do one thing. That's why three-point specialists find roles where jack-of-all-trade types struggle to find jobs. Not everyone can be a superstar, but successful teams always seem to find multiple players who can do one thing at a superstar level.
That said, it's important to know which skills can overlap and which skills can't. A team probably can't have enough great individual defenders, but it can have too many shoot-first guards, like the Milwaukee Bucks did with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. There is only one ball to play with, after all.
While there's a strong argument for teams to take a ton of three-pointers, those looks need to be created and manufactured. Now lacking a pick-and-roll threat, the New York Knicks are a good example of a team that has an identity but not enough skill diversity.
Some skills can overlap. Phoenix Suns point guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are two pesky perimeter defenders who can get to the rim, but that's not something that needs to be compensated for. Creating turnovers and scoring efficiently at the rim can mesh with just about everything.
In particular, defense is something that more readily translates to success, as I found earlier this year when discussing the Lakers for ESPN Los Angeles:
There have been 160 playoffs teams in the last ten years. 53 of those teams ranked below 15th in the league in offensive efficiency during the season. Basically, one of every three playoff teams had a below-average offense in terms of efficiency. Those aren’t bad odds for teams that struggle to score.
It’s much tougher to make the playoffs for below-average defensive teams, though. Of the 160 playoff teams, only 32 ranked below 15th in defensive efficiency. Exactly 80 percent of the league’s below-average defenses have missed the playoffs over the last decade.
The path to success is easier achieved through an above-average defense than it is with an above-average offense. Still, you'll see general managers put points on a pedestal and build rosters with the hopes that having a bunch of scorers will translate to success.
It's combinations like DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay that exemplify that line of thought. Having one wing who can post up and score on the block is a unique luxury, sure.
But having two wings who do that as a primary source of offense? Then it becomes burdensome and high maintenance more than anything. Maybe that played more than a small part in Toronto's success since moving Gay and replacing him with a better floor-spacer in Terrence Ross.
Read between the lines of DeRozan's comment to Grantland's Zach Lowe, and you get the impression he feels the same way.
The ball is just constantly moving. We don't care who scores, or who shoots the ball. Masai [Ujiri, the team's GM] made the best decision for us to win. You hate to see a close friend go, but he made a good decision. It's paying off now.
Of course, it probably would have helped if Gay didn't shoot below 40 percent at historically bad levels, but the point remains the same. Successful teams are usually built around good defenders, specialists who bring an elite skill and offensive players who mesh with one another.
And yes, there will almost always be a superstar somewhere in that equation, or at least someone capable of earning that reputation retroactively.
But whether or not a team is blessed with a star who can do it all like LeBron James, creating roster and skill diversity while avoiding offensive redundancy is a viable way to regularly achieve success in the NBA.