Where Do Teams Get Their Stars?

For those that didn’t check out his piece a year ago, James Brocato from Shut Up and Jam tackled this topic about a year ago. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and why I’m revisiting the topic.

It’s really as easy as this.

You need a superstar to compete. Of the many arguments stat heads and conventional fans get in to, this one everyone agrees on. Here’s some basic stats:

  • Since 1978* every championship team, with the exception of the 1979 Seattle Supersonics was lead by a player in the top 10 as measured by Wins Produced for the season.
  • Since 1978* every team to make the finals, with the exceptions of the 1979 Seattle Supersonics and the 1999 New York Knicks, was lead by a player in the top 15 as measured by Wins Produced for the season.

A question is, what type of players become great? I broke it down into the following categories for what type of player they were last season:

  • Rookies (this season)
  • Below Average Players (WP48 < 0.100)
  • Average Players ( 0.150 > WP48 >= 0.100)
  • Good Players (0.200 > WP48 >= 0.150)
  • Great Players (WP48 >= 0.200)

Let’s see how that shakes out:

Category Top 20 Players based on Previous Season
Rookies 25
Below Average Players 31
Average Players 62
Good Players 147
Great Players 415

Of the 680 players we have the previous season’s data for, we can see a very odd curve. The odds that a great player will be a rookie or have had a below average season the season before? Terrible! In fact, the same is true with average players. If a player will help your team contend, the best bet is for them to already have been a good or great player!

This post isn’t that optimistic for teams without great players. The basic rule for success in the NBA is to get a superstar and use them to be great for multiple years. And the data supports this.

As a last note, many people will discuss strategies for getting great players. The simple truth is that the problem is not about getting star players, it’s about scarcity. A team tanking, clearing cap space, or making bold claims will not create more stars. There will always be a limited amount. LeBron James can only play for one team. The salary cap rules make most of them look the same. Unfortunately a lot of success in the NBA will have luck built in (Will your draft pick pan out? Will a team trade you a star? Will your market be appealing to a star?) That’s why my basic advice to any team is not overpay for players, to try and wins games and take advantage should the opportunity arises. However, I suspect that advice will not always be followed.


*1978 is the first year we use as it is the first year the modern boxscore was used in the NBA and this is needed to calculate Wins Produced.

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