One way or another, stars determine who wins the NBA championship.
Any prospective title-winner must either have one of the league's elite, top-10 studs on the roster, or have the good fortune of its proverbial stars being perfectly aligned.
Digging back through the data of past champions, we see superstars pop up on virtually every club to have ever hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Per B/R's Paul Knepper: "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."
The definition of "superstar" is inherently hazy, but using the All-NBA First Team as a measuring stick is one good way to go.
Knepper trimmed the edges of his list further, pointing out how Hakeem Olajuwon was the league's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 1993-94. That would seem to take the 1995 Rockets out of the title-without-a-star conversation.
The same is true for the 2011 Mavericks, who had Dirk Nowitzki, a guy with an MVP and four All-NBA First or Second Team nods in the quartet of seasons leading up to the Mavs' title.
And those Bad Boys Pistons teams had Isiah Thomas plus a couple of other Hall of Famers. They weren't exactly hurting for stars either.
That leaves only the 2004 Pistons, everybody's go-to example of a starless champion—including former Memphis Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who said, via Jeff Caplan of NBA.com:
If you look at the NBA, winning championships is more predicated on franchises being able to acquire players that are the greatest that have ever played. Go back to when Bird and Magic entered the league. You had the Sixers with Dr. J, Julius Erving, the Pistons with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Then you had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe [Bryant] and [Shaquille O'Neal] and the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Heat had Dwyane Wade and Shaq, and now Wade and [LeBron James].
The only team that didn’t really have a superstar was the Pistons.
Oh, those plucky Pistons! How did they ever overcome their vast talent void, their glaring lack of a top-10 superstar?
Well, it turns out they actually had one of those guys.
The Myth of Ben Wallace
See, we tend to get stuck on worn-out convention when we label certain players stars. Usually, we get pretty close to the mark, but there's a real danger of missing certain players when we focus on scoring points, signature styles and offensive brilliance.
If you're using conventional criteria, the Pistons didn't have anything close to that type of player. But Ben Wallace begs to differ with your thoughts on stardom.
He was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year four different times, including the seasons before and after Detroit won its supposedly starless title. He also led the NBA in individual defensive rating from 2001-02 to 2003-04, per Basketball-Reference.com.
In Detroit's title season, he accumulated 9.1 defensive win shares, the 12th-highest single-season total in NBA history. Nobody topped that figure in the 30 preceding seasons, and no one has even sniffed it since.
Only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Dave Cowens were ever better in a single season.
Wallace played in an era just before we all finally came around to the obvious conclusion that defensive greatness is at least as valuable as offensive greatness—and perhaps even more valuable given its relative scarcity.
Something tells me we would have labeled him a top-10 player if he were performing at that elite level today.
He was nothing less than one of the single greatest defensive players in NBA history during the 2003-04 season. That's not hyperbole; that's a statistically irrefutable fact.
We shouldn't readily concede, then, that the 2003-04 Pistons lacked a top-10 star. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose they did.
That supposition gets us to the only other conceivable way a team can win a ring without an elite player on the roster: It has to get a little lucky.
The Eastern Conference was soft when the Pistons won their 2004 championship. The Indiana Pacers won 61 games but posted a per-game differential (plus-5.8 points, per ESPN.com) identical to that of the 54-win Pistons. And outside of the 47-win New Jersey Nets, no other playoff team in the East won more than 42 games during the regular season.
Four playoff teams were .500 or worse that year. By contrast, this season's much-maligned Eastern Conference had just one such playoff entrant.
After taking care of the ho-hum Nets and overrated Pacers, Detroit drew a Los Angeles Lakers team in the NBA Finals that was coming apart at the seams. Kobe and Shaq were in the final year of their contentious partnership, and the rift was clearly tearing the team apart.
The Pistons couldn't have asked for an easier road to the title.
Ultimately, the Pistons probably had a top-10 star in Wallace, and they also benefited from a relatively easy championship run.
There'll be no smooth paths to a title this season, so if we're on the lookout for a team capable of winning with the "Pistons model," we'll have to find one that lacks a widely accepted star, plays good team ball and relies on chemistry to get the job done.
We can safely rule out the usual suspects. Of the teams with realistic title hopes, we can exclude the Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Pacers. All of those teams have players we'd readily toss into the league's top 10, or at least ones close enough as to brook little argument (looking at you, Paul George).
The Toronto Raptors present an interesting case. They certainly don't have anyone you'd confuse with a top-10 star, and they look capable of making a run by playing scrappy defense and relying on chemistry. But it's tough to argue they're a safe bet to advance out of the first round—let alone go deeper than that.
Of the remaining clubs in the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies stick out as the one best fitting the 2004 Detroit profile. They have a great defensive center in Marc Gasol, play without any real flash and boast a roster with some interesting similarities.
Zach Randolph has a little Rasheed Wallace in him (minus the defense), Mike Conley is the steady, gritty point guard who fills the Chauncey Billups role, and Courtney Lee works as a poor man's Rip Hamilton.
And hey, there's Tayshaun Prince! He seems a lot like, uh...Tayshaun Prince!
I'm not sure how realistic Memphis' title hopes are, as the Western Conference gauntlet ahead of it is as brutally tough as any in decades. The Grizzlies would have to knock off the likely MVP in Kevin Durant, somehow survive two more West squads with more than a few top-10 talents and then (probably) take down the best player of the past decade in LeBron James.
Pin your hopes to Memphis, though, if you want to see a team buck the trend of superstars hoarding all the titles. If it somehow gets the job done, it'll usurp the largely miscategorized Pistons as the best "starless" team to pull off a championship run.
Just don't bet on it.
If we've learned one thing in all this, it's that it really does take an elite, top-10 superstar to win a ring. And if we've learned two, it's that we should give Ben Wallace a little love once in a while.
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