Why Jack Sikma and Gus Williams were a more impressive duo than LeBron and Wade

Who the heck is Jack Sikma?

In 1979 an amazing thing happened. The Seattle Supersonics won an NBA title. What makes this event truly spectacular is that the team did it without a star player. James Brocato analyzed championship teams for the turnover era (1978-present) and a scary fact stood out:

  • To win a title you need a player playing a season that ranks in the top 5% of all time! 

Dave Berri has in fact pointed out you likely need more than one such player to truly compete. It’s a fun notion to talk team work but if your team doesn’t have at least one star then your shot at a title is non-existent. The lone exception is the 1979 Seattle Supersonics who won a title behind their “star” duo of Jack Sikma and Gus Williams. Here’s a break down of the NBA’s “stars” in 1979. For this exercise I’ve included all players with a WP > 9.5 (admittedly I used 9.5 instead of my usual 10.0 so Gus Williams would make the cut)

The Top Tier in 1979

Season Player Team Pos G MP WP48 WP
1979 Moses Malone Houston 5.0 82 3390 0.333 23.5
1979 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar LA Lakers 5.0 80 3157 0.348 22.9
1979 Cedric Maxwell Boston 3.8 80 2969 0.294 18.2
1979 Artis Gilmore Chicago 5.0 82 3265 0.235 16.0
1979 Marques Johnson Milwaukee 3.4 77 2779 0.265 15.4
1979 Dan Roundfield Atlanta 4.0 80 2539 0.287 15.2
1979 George Gervin San Antonio 2.0 80 2888 0.253 15.2
1979 Rich Kelley New Orleans 5.0 80 2705 0.269 15.1
1979 Larry Kenon San Antonio 3.3 81 2947 0.246 15.1
1979 Norm Nixon LA Lakers 1.0 82 3145 0.217 14.2
1979 Wes Unseld Washington 5.0 77 2406 0.277 13.9
1979 Kevin Porter Detroit 1.0 82 3064 0.205 13.1
1979 George McGinnis Denver 3.6 76 2552 0.240 12.8
1979 Kermit Washington San Diego Clippers 4.0 82 2764 0.223 12.8
1979 Alex English Indiana 3.0 81 2696 0.222 12.5
1979 Elvin Hayes Washington 4.0 82 3105 0.190 12.3
1979 Otis Birdsong Kansas City 2.0 82 2839 0.205 12.1
1979 Paul Westphal Phoenix 1.2 81 2641 0.214 11.8
1979 Robert Parish Golden State 5.0 76 2411 0.223 11.2
1979 Tom Owens Portland 4.4 82 2791 0.193 11.2
1979 John Lucas Golden State 1.0 82 3095 0.173 11.1
1979 Jack Sikma Seattle 5.0 82 2958 0.173 10.6
1979 Walter Davis Phoenix 3.0 79 2437 0.203 10.3
1979 David Thompson Denver 2.0 76 2670 0.183 10.2
1979 Don Buse Phoenix 2.0 82 2544 0.191 10.1
1979 M.L. Carr Detroit 3.0 80 3207 0.147 9.8
1979 Gus Williams Seattle 1.0 76 2266 0.208 9.8
1979 Julius Erving Philadelphia 3.0 78 2802 0.166 9.7

Additionally here’s some brief perspective of how teams with more than one star looked.

  • Denver had 47 wins with the 13th and 24th best players
  • Detroit had 30 wins with the 12th and 27th best players
  • Golden State had 38 wins with the 19th and 21st best players
  • The Los Angeles Lakers had 47 wins with the 2nd and 10th best players
  • Phoenix had 50 wins with the 18th,23rd and 25th best players
  • San Antonio had 48 wins with the 7th and 8th best players
  • Seattle had 52 wins with the 22nd and 26th best players
  • Washington had 54 wins with the 11th and 16th best players

The Top Tier in 2011

Season Player Team Pos G MP WP48 WP
2011 Kevin Love Minnesota 4.2 73 2611 0.474 25.8
2011 Dwight Howard Orlando 5.0 78 2935 0.382 23.4
2011 LeBron James Miami 3.2 79 3063 0.356 22.7
2011 Chris Paul New Orleans 1.0 80 2865 0.358 21.4
2011 Dwyane Wade Miami 2.0 76 2824 0.322 18.9
2011 Zach Randolph Memphis 4.3 75 2724 0.291 16.5
2011 Pau Gasol LA Lakers 5.0 82 3037 0.258 16.3
2011 Blake Griffin LA Clippers 4.3 82 3112 0.248 16.1
2011 Kevin Garnett Boston 4.0 71 2220 0.323 15
2011 Kris Humphries New Jersey 4.0 74 2061 0.344 14.8
2011 Steve Nash Phoenix 1.0 75 2497 0.283 14.7
2011 Landry Fields New York 2.0 82 2541 0.273 14.4
2011 Lamar Odom LA Lakers 4.0 82 2639 0.260 14.3
2011 Rajon Rondo Boston 1.0 68 2527 0.265 14.0
2011 Kevin Durant Oklahoma City 4.3 78 3038 0.216 13.7
2011 Al Horford Atlanta 4.8 77 2704 0.242 13.6
2011 Jason Kidd Dallas 1.0 80 2653 0.241 13.3
2011 Paul Pierce Boston 3.1 80 2774 0.221 12.8
2011 Derrick Rose Chicago 1.0 81 3026 0.197 12.4
2011 Gerald Wallace Charlotte-Portland 3.0 71 2693 0.217 12.2
2011 Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City 1.0 82 2847 0.201 11.9
2011 Andre Iguodala Philadelphia 3.0 67 2469 0.228 11.7
2011 Tim Duncan San Antonio 5.0 76 2156 0.260 11.7
2011 Tyson Chandler Dallas 5.0 74 2059 0.269 11.6
2011 Kobe Bryant LA Lakers 2.1 82 2779 0.200 11.6
2011 Manu Ginobili San Antonio 2.6 80 2426 0.225 11.4
2011 Ray Allen Boston 2.0 80 2890 0.185 11.1
2011 Deron Williams New Jersey-Utah 1.0 65 2465 0.213 11.0
2011 Josh Smith Atlanta 4.0 77 2645 0.196 10.8
2011 Andre Miller Portland 1.0 81 2650 0.190 10.5
2011 Dirk Nowitzki Dallas 4.0 73 2504 0.195 10.2
2011 Marcus Camby Portland 5.0 59 1540 0.310 9.9
2011 Nene Hilario Denver 5.0 75 2291 0.200 9.5
2011 Chris Bosh Miami 4.1 77 2795 0.163 9.5

Here is how the our 2011 superteams stacked up

  • Atlanta had 44 wins with the 16th and 29th best players
  • Boston had 56 wins with the 9th, 14th, 18th and 27th best players
  • Dallas had 57 wins with the 17th,25th and 31st best players
  • The Los Angeles Lakers had 57 wins with the 7th, 13th and 24th best players
  • Miami had 58 wins with the 3rd, 5th and 33rd best players
  • Oklahoma had 55 wins with the 15th and 21st best players
  • Portland had 48 wins with the 30th and 32nd best players (and later the 20th best)
  • San Antonio had 61 wins with the 23rd and 26th best players

Let’s run down some key differences between 1979 and 2011 and see why Sikma and Williams were able to accomplish what LeBron and Wade could not.

Rare Teams have gotten Rarer

In 2011 eight teams were lucky enough to get more than one top player. In 1979 the same was true. A major difference though was the total number of teams in the league. In 1979 there were only 22 teams. Since then eight extra teams have joined the league. If the ratio of superteams had stayed consistent we’d expect at least two or three more teams with multiple star players. This hasn’t been the case so the advantage of top teams has increased, which is very clear when comparing  records from the two eras.

The Top Players have gotten Better

In comparing the top players only Larry Kenon at 9th best in 1979 beats his contempary counterpart of Kevin Garnett in terms of Wins Produced (by a very thin margin at that!). In 2011 the top 28 players produced 42 more wins than the top 28 players in 1979. While this isn’t a huge margin (it’s roughly 1.5 win a player) it does mean a star player is even more valuable today than they were 30 years ago.

Super Teams have gotten even more Super

Not only are super teams rarer today and consist of better players, they have more good players on them. In 1979 only the Phoenix Suns had more than two top players. In 2011 Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Portland all had three or more top players. In 1979 having two star players could put you in the top echelon. These days it makes you a playoff team but by no means guarantees title hope.

The Playoffs have gotten Harder

The playoffs used to let the top seeds have a bye in the first round. This meant that a team like Seattle didn’t have to worry about potentially getting upset in the first round by a lower seed. Since then the rules have changed. Any team can beat any other team on a given night and the playoffs are short enough to let upsets happen. By increasing the length of the playoffs for top seeds tbe NBA has lowered the odds of top teams always winning. Of course, this is not enough to overcome the fact that top teams have gotten much better.

Bringing it all together

So why were two good players able to team up and win it all when some of the all time greats (Wade and LeBron, Stockton and Malone, Drexler and Porter) have failed to do so? The answer is that they had perfect timing. They were in the league when the requirement to be a top team was much lower and the competitive advantage of a top team wasn’t as high. Additionally the playoffs were easier if you were a top team. Putting this all together let team work prevail! Of course as I’ve chronicled, this is not  the way things are any more. And that’s why modern superteams can still fail and why teamwork is no longer enough to win it all.

-Dre

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