June 10, 2012

Do Superstars Equal NBA Titles?

     I began the Wilt 2.0 Project as an excuse to write about a video game in a mildly artistic way.  But when my Chamberlain doppelganger took a group of low level starters to the 3rd best record in the conference, William W. of Sports and Stuff was inspired.  (I was just shocked that people were actually reading the series, but I ran with it.)  Mr. W. posed an interesting theory:  You need one and only one superstar to succeed in the NBA.  He said that having good role players is important, but adding extra superstars does not add a lot of value to the team, and lacking a superstar puts a team at a disadvantage.

     After clarifying the details of William's ideas, I set out to classify every NBA team in the last 10 seasons by counting the number of players they had in each of two groups.  The first is superstars:  in this case, players who were in the top-10 in points per game in a given season among those who played at least 41 games (33 games in 2011-12).  The second category is fringe stars:  players in the top-50 in points per game among those who played at least 41/33 games, but not in the top-10.  Using this method, I separated the teams into 11 different team structures.

     Which team type averaged the most wins?  The 2 superstar/1 fringe star teams performed the best, with 57.67 wins per season (with the 2011-12 figures adjusted to an 82-game schedule).  However, only three teams met that criteria (the '10-11 Heat, '11-12 Heat, and the '11-12 Thunder), so the data is very inconclusive.  Grouping the teams by superstars alone is a little more telling.  Having zero of them yields 39 wins a season, having one yields 45, and having two yields 53.  Among superstar groups, having one fringe star is better than having none, and having two is better than having one.  Oddly enough, those teams with three fringe stars were not that good, maybe an issue with overpaying for players that can't crack the top-10.

     How about the playoffs?  Again, the 2/1 teams reigned supreme, with all three of them making the NBA Finals.  In general terms, each superstar added increases the average number of series won by a playoff team.  For those teams with one or no superstars, two fringe stars again seems to be the target.  (Though thanks to the '07-08 Celtics, 0/3 teams performed very well in the playoffs despite only making it there 23.5% of the time.)

     And for those pesky ESPN analysts, let's see what happens when we look at just championships.  Both 1/1 and 0/2 teams have won 3 championships in the last 10 years, though there were twice as many 0/2 teams as 1/1 teams.  6 of the past 10 champions (including this year's) have had a top-10 scorer on the team, almost twice the percentage (31.5%) of all teams that have had one.  Two of the champions have won with just a top-10 scorer and no top-50 guy, just as William proposed.  However, using percentages, the 2/1 teams rise to the top in this category.  Out of only 3 entries, one of those teams will have a championship within the next few weeks (both Miami and OKC are 2/1 teams), giving them a 33.3% success rate, compared to the next highest at 7.7% (the 1/1's).

     What does this all mean?  The idea of the Big Three is by far the best team configuration you can have in the NBA.  The only caveat is that they all have to play well enough so that two of them are top-10 scorers and one is a top-50 scorer.  This is why the Knicks' faux Big Three didn't work:  they really only had one superstar and one fringe star.  Tyson Chandler, although he is an excellent defender, doesn't score enough to make his team a real threat.

     As for the William W. theory, it is both right and wrong.  Having that one go-to scorer makes a huge difference for a team, and that alone can lead to a title.  However, the second superstar and extra fringe stars matter just as much, and are often necessary to push a team to the top of the league.  A perfect example is the Heat, who with just Wade were a middling playoff team, and by adding LeBron and Bosh they became a conference champion in just one year.  And this year they have a chance to achieve even more.


  1. I also think that the Cavs with LeBron compared to the Big Three...I expect the Heat to win out, but not by much...I would say the Nuggets with Melo are very similar to the modern day Knicks...THATS more what I was getting at...

  2. So a simulation between, say, the '08-09 Cavs (the 66-win team) and this year's Heat? And the '08-09 Nuggets vs. this year's Knicks?

    If that's what you were looking for, WhatIfSports would be perfect for that.