The belief an NBA team needs a superstar to win a championship is strong, especially whenever the lottery and draft creep up, tempting fans and maybe even front offices to gut a roster for that magical ping-pong bullet. One major problem with that is the belief is wrong.
It doesn’t seem wrong, I grant. But lots of things seem credible that aren’t. Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy. Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Jan Hendrick Schon’s experiments. Bernie Madoff’s unreal returns. The dragons that live beyond the edge of a flat world.
Just because an idea is popular or intuitive doesn’t mean it’s correct. Especially when objective evidence to the contrary exists.
What evidence? Well, you could read this post from the excellent statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight. Or, to make it simpler, we could look at who actually has won championships and who the most productive players were on those rosters.
Such as the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons. Their “superstar”? Take your pick: Chauncey Billups (18.6 PER, .198 WS/481), Rasheed Wallace (18.8 PER, .171 WS/48), or Ben Wallace (17.3 PER, .160 WS/48).
Given that Derrick Favors’ numbers the past two seasons2 have been as good or better than any of those champion Pistons’, the claim of superstar necessity for ring collection is dead.
But it’s only one instance, the exception that proves the rule! you might say.
That might be true if there weren’t other instances. But there are.
League lore holds that 12 seasons ago the Pistons became the “last” team without a superstar to win a title. That is true given a definition of superstar based on social reputation, on sneaker sales, highlight appearances, and other assorted glitz. But on-court production tells a different story.
Case #1: 2013-14 — The Starless Superteam
The Spurs’ systematic demolition of the social mania known as the Miami Heat obscured an interesting fact: that lethal unit included no superstars.
Their most productive player that season, a 37-year-old Tim Duncan, managed a respectable 21.3 PER and .164 WS/48. A good season, no question. But nothing nearing consideration of All-NBA selection, much less MVP talk; not even an All-Star selection.
Tony Parker made the All-Star team that season because, on a squad that good, somebody had to. An 18.9 PER and .141 WS/48 were good enough, apparently3.
Tim Duncan may be cemented as the least glamorous superstar in NBA history, but at 37 that legacy was just that: legacy. This championship iteration of the Spurs followed a very Piston-like formula to the franchise’s fifth ring. Five different players on that squad posted a PER between 18.7 and 21.3: Duncan, Manu Ginobili (20), Kawhi Leonard (19.4), Parker, and Patty Mills (18.7).
The playoffs displayed the same formula with Duncan (21.1) and Ginobili (20.3) leading the way and five contributors scoring an 18.3 or better PER through a 23-game romp to the title.
Perhaps the single greatest testament to the egalitarianism of this championship team is that no player reached 30 minutes of play per game in the regular season.
Case #2: 2009-2010 — Kobe Takes the Credit
The definition of NBA superstar is a gold icon of Kobe Bryant dripping spittle from every fanbase in the league except his own. That image clouds the empirical reality: the 2009-10 version of Kobe didn’t produce like a superstar. In fact, it was arguably the least impressive of his prime seasons.
The superstar image of Bryant is an MVP-caliber player who posted a PER of plus-24 and .200 or better WS/48 six times each. In his last championship season, however, those numbers dipped to 21.9 PER and .160 WS/48. The player who closest matches those numbers this last season is the Bucks’s Greg Monroe4, a good player but far cry from even a definite star.
Kobe’s rep and egomania hid the genuinely most productive player on that championship squad: Pau Gasol.
That season Gasol produced to the tune of a 22.9 PER and stellar .220 WS/48. He was, simply stated, the best and most important player on that team in terms of production.
Did he reach superstar levels? In popularity and perception, certainly not. In production, probably not. As good as his season was, it is closely akin to this past year’s production of LaMarcus Aldridge: certainly worthy of All-Star and All-NBA 3rd Team honors, but not in the realm of the prodigious output of genuine superstars in the LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry mold.
Case #3: 2010-2011 — Nowitzki Blurs the Lines
Dirk Nowitzki is a superstar. An MVP-winner and four-time All-NBA First Team selection, he posted a plus-24 PER six times5. Yet his championship season was not one of those, and thus becomes an interesting study in the difficulty of defining superstardom.
What we know about that season:
Nowitzki averaged a very strong but not remarkable 23.4 PER and .213 WS/48.
He earned All-NBA 2nd team honors but would never make 1st or 2nd team status again6.
He averaged 23 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes per game.
Is that superstar-level production? If so, then 2005-06 Shawn Marion (23.6 PER, .214 WS/48, 21.8 pts, 11.8 rbs and vastly superior defense) probably counts as well.
A Little Context on Clear Superstardom
Add your choice of the 2004 Pistons to this list, and that makes four championship squad leaders that may not have checked the superstar box the year they won a ring. What are the average season metrics by the alpha male on the other eight teams to win titles in this span?
A PER of 28 and .265 WS/48, both astronomically high numbers indicative of the clearly elite in the NBA7.
That’s a superstar.
Implications for the Jazz
In the past 12 seasons, these players have led their teams to NBA titles: a 37-year old Tim Duncan; Pau Gasol in his prime; a very good Dirk Nowitzki not at his best; and your pick of Chauncey Billups or either of the Pistons’ Wallace boys. Them’s the facts.
How do the Jazz stand currently in their chance to replicate such a superstar-less formula?
These champions were mostly, but not always, All-Stars in their title-winning seasons. They were sometimes back-end All-NBA teamers. Their nearest comparable seasons were produced by players like Carlos Boozer, LaMarcus Aldridge, Shawn Marion, and Andrei Kirilenko. Their average production: around a 21.5 PER and .192 WS/48 at an average age of 31.
Derrick Favors is 24. In the last two seasons, he’s produced a 21.7 PER and .174 WS/48.
Gordon Hayward is 26. In the last two seasons, he’s produced a 19.2 PER and .153 WS/48.
Rudy Gobert is 23. In the last two seasons, he’s produced a 19.6 PER and .184 WS/48.
What are the chances any of the three become an All-Star in the next five years? Maybe makes an All-NBA 2nd or 3rd team? I suspect Vegas would offer pretty good odds. History has shown that has been good enough to win a title.
It requires other elements, certainly, elements I would argue are less likely than an emerging title-worthy alpha dog.
Such as an award-winning coach. Every one of these non-superstar players benefited from playing for a coach who has won at least one Coach of the Year award. What is more likely: Rudy Gobert makes an All-NBA team or Quin Snyder wins Coach of the Year?
Or an award-winning general manager. Three of the four non-superstar players were surrounded by talent procured by a recipient of General Manager of the Year. What’s more likely: Derrick Favors as an All-Star or Dennis Lindsey taking home his profession’s version of the MVP?
A team can win a title without a superstar. It isn’t easy. Nothing about winning a title is easy, nor should it be.
Finding a true superstar isn’t easy, and even when you have one, there are no guarantees. Just ask Oklahoma City and Cleveland, neither of which, believe it or not, have yet leveraged a combined 17 seasons with LeBron James or Kevin Durant into a ring for their city. Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to scrap the Jazz’s “potentially plateaued” rebuild to chase Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons in the draft.
Developing Favors, Hayward, and Gobert into a dominant trio of stars won’t be easy — but that’s what the Lakers did with Bryant, Gasol, and Andrew Bynum, all of which posted PERs above 20 their final title-winning season. Is it likely for Utah’s big three? Maybe not. Is it impossible? Certainly not.
It won’t be easy for Quin Snyder to win Coach of the Year, or Dennis Lindsey to earn the equivalent award for general managers, but I can absolutely see either happening.
It won’t be easy for the Jazz to take last seasons’ three players with better than league average PERs8 and turn them into seven, such as the 2013-14 Spurs roster boasted. But neither is it impossible.
“You need a superstar to win a title” is a logical fallacy of the grossest sort. It is both an oversimplification and an open denial of fact.
Winning a championship does require very good players to lead a team, and lots of good players to support them, all put together by elite decisions of a general manager and orchestrated by superior coaching. Just as importantly, it requires maturity and experience in those players who must find a way to beat playoff teams led by the Jameses, Durants, and Currys of the world.
Right now, the Jazz have none of those things. But with their current core and present trajectory, they reasonably could in the next handful of years. Which means their path to title contention, though unlikely, as all such paths are, is real.