Can A Team Win A Title Without Superstars?

Dec.30, 2012


This has been a subject of conversation for many NBA fans for a lot of  years: can a team win the title without at least one legitimate superstar? Looking back at past title winners, it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that you need at least one superstar  to win a title. Of course, last year’s Miami Heat had three supposed superstars in Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. I would argue that only James could be considered a true superstar.  In fact James was the best player in the league and is arguably one of the top five of all time. Wade and Bosh are excellent players, and Wade was a true superstar for many years.

I don’t throw the title of superstar around lightly,  as that there have  never more than four or five superstars in the league at any one time. And of course,  players who were once legit superstars can “unbecome” superstars through age or injury. Nevertheless, Miami had three players who  are considered in the top five at their respective positions. Wade might not still be the superstar who carried Miami to the the title in 2006, but he’s still a formidable player when healthy. Ditto for Bosh.

Those three were expected to win the title the previous year, ’10-11, but were upset in the finals by Dallas who had another legitimate superstar in Dirk Nowitzki. Before that the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and won two in a row. They also had Pau Gasol who was/is considered one of the top five pfs in the league if not the best. Then there was the Celtics in 2008 with superstar Kevin Garnett.

Then you have the Spurs with Tim Duncan and company winning four titles in a decade  and before them the Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal mowing down the opposition.

The nineties was the Jordan era with the Bulls winning six titles. The only break in the run was the two years Jordan played pro baseball. Houston won twice in a row with Hakeem Olajuwon one of the best centers of all time.

In the eighties the Celtics and the Lakers were the dominant teams led by superstars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The Piston won twice in a row with Isiah Thomas.

And along with their superstars most of the title winners had players who could be considered the best at their positions or in the top five. For instance, the Celtics of the eighties had maybe the best frontcourt ever in Bird, McHale, and Parish. A number of people considered McHale a superstar and maybe the best pf in league history. Parish was a top five center if not a superstar.

Besides Johnson, the Lakers had a lot of excellent players who were top five or superstars. James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are both in the HOF. And even though he was getting on in years, KAJ was still a top five center in the eighties and probably in the top two.

The Sixers with Julius Erving and Moses Malone won one title in the  early eighties and went to the finals four times. The Sixers were somewhat unlucky during that period as with Andrew Toney, they had one of the best shooting guards in the league and looked poised to win several more titles with an aging (but still formidable) Erving, Malone, Toney, and Charles Barkley. But it was not to be as the Sixers were combating two of the NBA’s best teams ever in the Bird-led Celtics and the Johnson-led Lakers. All those teams were loaded, but the career crippling injuries to Toney, who might have been the best shooting guard in the eighties after Jordan, put the Sixers  aspirations of multiple titles to rest. They simply weren’t good enough despite winning one title in ’83.

The incidences of teams winning the title without a legitimate superstar are pretty rare. Even when the Pistons won the title in 2004 without great scoring, Ben Wallace was considered by many to be the best defensive center in the league.

Before that you have to go back to the late seventies and the Seattle Supersonics before you find another champion with no real superstars. Certainly Seattle had a lot of excellent players but none that struck fear in the hearts of opponents when they heard their names mentioned. Does anyone remember Seattle leading scorer Gus Williams? Dennis Johnson played on that team as well, but he was no superstar.

And if you go back to the mid to late seventies you had superstars like Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes, winning titles for their teams. The Warrior’s title in ’75 was maybe the only title won by a team with just one superstar,  Barry, and no other top-five player. The early seventies were still dominated by the Knicks, Celtics, and Lakers. MIlwaukee won its only title with KAJ and Oscar Robertson. Robertson was still a superstar even though he didn’t score as many points with Milwaukee as he did with Cincinnati.

The Knicks had Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. The Celtics had John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. The Lakers had Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.Of all the teams that should have won a few more titles, the Lakers with West, Chamberlain, Goodrich, and a few others are that team. Injury more than age destroyed the Lakers hopes for more than one title during their time together.

And of course, for a period of thirteen years the Celtics with Bill Russell was the dominant team. But Russell also had help in Havlicek and Sam Jones who themselves were in the top five at their positions. Like Russell the latter two are in the HOF. The Celtics reign of terror was only broken by the Sixers in ’67 with Chamberlain and the Hawks in ’58 with Bob Pettit. Chamberlain has been written about extensively, Bob Pettit not so much. But Pettit was a legitimate superstar and probably the second best player in the NBA of the mid to late fifties behind Russell. Pettit scored 50 points in the last game of a seven game finals with Boston in ’58 to give the Hawks franchise their only title ever.

In ’56 the Philadelphia Warriors won the title with two superstars Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston both in the hall. In ’55 the Syracuse Nationals won with Dolph Schayes another HOFer.

And before that there was the Minneapolis Lakers and George Mikan era. Mikan was considered the most dominant player in the league, but he had three other HOFers with him in Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, and Vern Mikkelson.  They won five titles in six years.

So what conclusions can we draw from the history of title winners? For the past sixty years or more, the overwhelming majority of champions have had at least one superstar on the roster and usually have had a few other players who were top five at their positions if not HOFers themselves.

While the Lakers of the Mikan era started four HOFers with Mikan, Pollard, Mikkelson, and  Martin, the Cetlics teams of the Russell years  were the only teams that maybe had five HOFers on the floor at one time. The Celtics with Bob Cousy and Sam Jones at guards, John Havlicek and Tom Heinsohn at forwards, and of course Russell at center might be the only teams in league history to do that. But even then Havlicek came off the bench in those days, so he might have replacing another HOFer. But it’s very possible those five might all have been on the court together at a certain time.

How about the teams the champions defeated in the finals?  Again, those runner-up teams didn’t lack for talent. Like last year’s runner-up OKC with Keven Durant considered by many the second best player in the league behind James and a sure HOFer.  Russell Westbrook is not on the same level as Durant, but he is certainly one of top point guards in the league and might be in the hall some day. The recently traded James Harden was the best sixth man in the league and some day,might be in the hall as well as Westbrook and Durant.

Other runner-ups have the same history. There’s very few teams that have made it to the finals without a superstar or one or two top five players at their respective positions.

So in the course of the last sixty plus years I can give only two examples of teams with no superstar(s) winning the title. Unless you count Ben Wallace whose contributions were mostly on defense. But even though Wallace won defensive poy four or five times, he didn’t win that title the year the Pistons won the championship in ’04. And he only averaged 9.5 ppg. Nevertheless, many people might considered Wallace a superstar.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. What is a true superstar? A superstar is a player who changes the fortunes of the teams he arrives at and/or leaves. When Kevin Garnett went to Celtics in 2007-08, the previous year they only won 24 games. With Garnett they won 66 and the title. Lebron James’s last year in Cleveland they won 61 games. The next year without James they won 19. Jason Kidd did the same thing with the Nets in ’01-02 taking a Nets team that only won 29 games the previous year  to one that won 52 games and went to the finals.

There are numerous examples in league history of players joining clubs and changing their fortunes dramatically for the better.  Maybe not quite as dramatically as what Garnett did for the Celtics, but often times taking a good team to the title like Magic Johnson did with the Lakers in ’79-80. the Lakers had KAJ who although in his thirties was still the best center in the league. They just needed that final piece to the puzzle that Johnson provided to make them the best team of the eighties.

So how about the league today. Are there teams who have a lot of good to excellent players but no true superstars who could possibly win the title? I’d say Denver comes the closest with a lot of great athletes and real good players but no real offensive stud. We’ll see how far their best player, defensive-specialist Iguodala, can take them.

The facts are when the chips are down, all teams need one player they can throw the ball to for points. In key situations if you don’t have a player like a James, Wade, Nowitzki, etc, you have major problems. Nowitzki proved his superstar credentials in the ’11 finals when he took over in the last game. James certainly absolved  himself of the loser tag after years of criticism by people who said he couldn’t win the big one. He proved them wrong last year with great performances in the finals.

Of all the teams that are considered contenders to the throne  this year, every one has a player or player who is considered a superstar or in the top five. Being in the top five does not necessarily make a player a superstar. There is maybe only one center in the league, Dwight Howard,  who could be considered a superstar. Tyson Chandler is an excellent center, and he did win a title with Dallas.  But after those two, the talent starts dropping off.   Although there are some excellent up and coming young centers, none of them rival Howard.and Chandler.

And remember virtually every team that has won a title has additionally had one or two more players in the top five. The Garnett-led Celtics have had Garnett,  Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo comprising a formidable triple threat. The Spurs for almost a decade have had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to go  along with Tim Duncan. Kobe Bryant has teamed with Shaquille O’Neal  and Paul Gasol. And of course there is the Heat with James, Wade, and Bosh.   Even the Dirk-led Mavericks had Chandler who was a top five center and Kidd who while past his prime,  was still a vital cog for Dallas.

So are there teams that have the ingredients to go all the way? Not just one superstar or best player in the league at their position but two or three? The Clippers appear to finally have the ingredients to challenge Miami and OKC. Chris Paul is considered by many (including me) to be the best point guard in the league. Blake Griffin is one of the top five power forwards. Some people think he’s the best. He’s close. The Clippers also might be the most athletic team in the league and have excellent bench players. How did the Clippers do last year? They were thumped by the Spurs in four games in the western conference semis.

Paul had an overall poor series while Griffin played fairly well. So if the the Clippers get to the finals this year, they will have to get past two teams with legitimate superstars of their own, the Spurs and OKC.  And the Lakers still have Bryant  and Gasol and have  added Howard and Steve Nash. So there are four teams in the western conference who are considered the favorites, and all four have superstars and top five players. Even Denver with no superstars has top five or top ten players in Iguodala, Ty Lawson, and Kenny Faried. And Danilo Gallinari is considered one of the best sfs in the league.

So the Clippers have a formidable challenge ahead of them. Would going all the way make   Paul and Griffin legitimate superstars? Maybe. It would certainly help. But the west looks loaded with tough teams/contenders, and I’d still pick OKC to make it to the finals. In Durant they have,  next to James and possibly Carmelo Anthony,  the most unstoppable offensive force in the league.  When you need a player to throw it to for points, Durant might be the best in the league. Even  Paul and Griffin, while tremendous players, have never been considered unstoppable one on one offensive players. And in Westbrook,  OKC has another player who is considered to be almost impossble to guard one on one as evidenced by his 43 point game against Miami in game four of last years finals.

The only team in the east possibly dethroning Miami as conference champ  is  the Knicks. And in Carmelo Anthony the Knicks have another one of the league’s almost impossble to guard players. Plus the Knicks have Tyson Chandler, and he’s still a formidable defensive player and top five center.

So what is my prescription for the rest of the league if they have aspirations for winning a title? Get yourself at least one superstar. The facts are indisputable. There’s simply been too few teams in league history who’ve won a title without a legitimate superstar on the roster. And even with the superstars those champion teams usually had at least one or two  other top five players to help. It means that teams like Denver who have excellent and top five players but no superstars on their club still might not be good enough.







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