The Super-Star Theory or How to Win an NBA Title

Posted on August 5, 2007 by


Disclaimer: As I note at the end of this column, I do not necessarily believe “The Super-Star Theory”. Still I think it is interesting.

Last May I wrote a column published in the New York Times entitled “The Short Supply of Competitive Balance.” In this column I noted, “Of the 30 current N.B.A. teams, 14 have never won a championship. Five franchises — Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Pistons and Spurs — have won 70 percent of all titles.”

The distribution of championships in the NBA stands in stark contrast to what we see in the other major North American sports. In The Wages of Wins we observe, “If we look at other sports, championships are distributed a bit more equally. If we look at the past twenty years, eleven different franchises have taken the Stanley Cup in hockey. Football does a bit better, with twelve teams winning the Super Bowl in the NFL over this time frame. In baseball, the sport that supposedly suffers from a competitive balance problem, fourteen different teams won a World Series from 1986 to 2006. Of these fourteen, only four won multiple titles: the New York Yankees, Florida Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, and the Minnesota Twins” (p. 65).

The disparity in how championships are distributed in the NBA was explained in both The New York Times and The Wages of Wins via a discussion of The Short Supply of Tall People. This argument has already been discussed in this forum in the following posts:

The Short Supply of Tall People

Why Have a Draft?

Obviously for regular readers of this forum, the “Short Supply” argument is yesterday’s news. My purpose in bringing this theory up again is to build upon the post entitled The Pareto Principle and the New Boston Celtics. The Pareto Principle story was offered last Thursday, and appears to have been well received (WordPress indicates this post has been viewed over 6,000 times and thus far there have been 35 – mostly positive — comments). The basic argument offered (in this odd application of a 19th century Italian economist’s work) is that most wins (about 80%) come from just a few players (about 20%). In other words, the vast majority of NBA players don’t contribute much to their team’s level of success.

When we think about the Short Supply argument – which argues there is a limited supply of extremely productive basketball players – we see why the Pareto Principle would work in the NBA.

The Importance of the Super-Star

This point can be further illuminated via a review of the teams who have won the NBA championship since 1980. Here is a list of those teams and the player who led each franchise in Wins Produced when it won its title (or is most cases, titles).

– Los Angeles Lakers (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988): Magic Johnson

– Boston Celtics (1981, 1984, 1986): Larry Bird

– Philadelphia 76ers (1983): Moses Malone

– Detroit Pistons (1989, 1990): Dennis Rodman

– Chicago Bulls (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998): Michael Jordan

– Houston Rockets (1994, 1995): Hakeem Olajuwon

– San Antonio Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007): Tim Duncan

– LA Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002): Shaquille O’Neal

– Detroit Pistons (2004): Ben Wallace

– Miami Heat (2006): Shaquille O’Neal

What do Magic, Bird, Malone, Rodman, J0rdan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Shaq, and Wallace have in common?

Let’s note first what they don’t have in common. Every position on the court is represented in this list. Plus we see players who are scorers and those who are not. In essence, this is a fairly diverse list of talent.

What they have in common, though, is that every single one has a career average WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) that is in excess of 0.300. An average WP48 is 0.100 (because an average team will win 0.500 games per 48 minutes), so each of these players, for their career, was three times as productive as the average player. And not a single team has won a title since 1980 without one of these players, who I think should be called Super-Stars.

Small Exceptions

Okay, a couple of issues to note before I paint a bigger picture. First, I have Hakeem’s WP48 at 0.299 for his career (which is pretty damn close to 0.300). And Shaq didn’t lead the Miami Heat in 2006 in Wins Produced. Dwyane Wade was the leader (although Wade’s WP48 that season was 0.301). But despite these small exceptions, we do seem to have a general rule of thumb.

An NBA team must have one player who is truly exceptional to take home the title. Or in other words, teamwork is nice and wonderful, but you need a Super-Star to be a champion.

The Kevin Garnett Trade

All of this brings us to the Kevin Garnett trade. There have only been six players whose careers began after 1991 who posted a career WP48 in excess of 0.300 (of those who played more than two seasons). These six are Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Shaq, Duncan, Wallace, and KG. Kidd and Marion just clear the 0.300 barrier, with marks of 0.302 and 0.303 respectively. The other four each clear the 0.330 mark for their career. And of these four, only KG has failed to win an NBA title. In fact, the last nine titles have been won by teams employing Duncan, Shaq, or Wallace.

And hence we come to the point of this post. A necessary, although not sufficient, ingredient in building a title team appears to be the employment of a Super-Star. Such players are exceedingly rare in the NBA. And it appears that winning a title without such players is very difficult.

But just because you have such a player, it doesn’t mean you get to win a title. And Kevin McHale, the only general manager KG knew in Minnesota, has spent the past twelve years demonstrating this point. Twelve times McHale tried to build a champion around KG. Twelve times he didn’t even come close.

The magnitude of this failure is hard to exaggerate. Given the scarcity of these players, most NBA teams never employ a player like Garnett. Again, there have only been six in the past 16 seasons. This means – if we take this theory to be literally true (which I will express some doubts about in a moment) — most NBA teams really have no chance to win a title.

McHale, though, was given twelve chances. And this means if you are a Timberwolves fan, you might be just a tiny bit unhappy over what happened this past week.

Significant Qualifying Comments

Okay, let me take a huge step back and qualify all I just said. The evidence presented suggests that you must have a Super-Star – which is defined as a player with a career WP48 in excess of 0.300 – to win a title. But theoretically, why would that have to be the case?

It’s certainly not the case that each playoff series is won by the team with the best player. And it’s not the case that you can’t build an extremely good team without a Super-Star. A case in point is the Dallas Mavericks this past season. The Mavericks won 67 games last year and didn’t have a Super-Star (Nowitzki’s career mark is 0.232, although he was at 0.306 in 2006-07). Does the evidence presented here tell us that the Mavericks with Nowitzki are doomed to finish each season with a loss because they don’t have one of these players?

I find that hard to believe. What I do believe is that a team must have a player or two who are extremely productive to win consistently (and the Mavericks do have very productive players, so they qualify).

Still if the Super-Star theory is literally correct, only Boston, Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, Phoenix, and San Antonio can win a title in 2008. Of course, I would emphasize, although the Super-Star theory has held for 28 consecutive years, I can’t believe this is an iron clad rule that will never be broken. So fans of the remaining 24 franchises – including the Mavericks — shouldn’t despair. Well, at least some of them shouldn’t despair just yet.

By the way, if you want to read more on Kevin Garnett and Kevin McHale, the following posts might be of interest.

The Tragedy of Kevin Garnett

The Decline of Kevin Garnett?

The Timberwolves Change Coaches

But You Are Consistent

Speeding Up Time for Bill Simmons

– DJ