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
|1979||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||LA Lakers||5.0||80||3157||0.348||22.9|
|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||Kermit Washington||San Diego Clippers||4.0||82||2764||0.223||12.8|
|1979||Otis Birdsong||Kansas City||2.0||82||2839||0.205||12.1|
|1979||Robert Parish||Golden State||5.0||76||2411||0.223||11.2|
|1979||John Lucas||Golden State||1.0||82||3095||0.173||11.1|
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
|2011||Chris Paul||New Orleans||1.0||80||2865||0.358||21.4|
|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||Kris Humphries||New Jersey||4.0||74||2061||0.344||14.8|
|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||Kevin Durant||Oklahoma City||4.3||78||3038||0.216||13.7|
|2011||Russell Westbrook||Oklahoma City||1.0||82||2847||0.201||11.9|
|2011||Tim Duncan||San Antonio||5.0||76||2156||0.260||11.7|
|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||Deron Williams||New Jersey-Utah||1.0||65||2465||0.213||11.0|
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.