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League of Superstars

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It's a statement made by many NBA fans and heard often on this blog:  "You can't win in the NBA without superstars."  The follow-up statement is often attached: "I'm only going to be happy/excited about my team if they have a chance to win."  For many 76ers fans, several woeful statements then follow logically: (1) the 76ers don't currently have any superstars; (2) it is unlikely they will ever attract a superstar through free agency or trade; (3) the only reasonable course of action is to be a terrible team year after year and hope to land that superstar through the lottery.  This line of reasoning is even more depressing with the realization that your team can win the lottery and still not land a superstar, as many are starting to fear with the Sixers and Evan Turner in 2010.  But is the whole mindset of "superstar or bust" a reasonable one?  Because there's a thorny problem to think about:  while having a superstar is a necessary condition for winning in the NBA ("a team can't win unless it has a superstar") it is not a sufficient condition ("If a team has a superstar, it will win").  Details after the jump. 
To examine the correlation of "winning" with "superstars" in the NBA, we need to have definitions of "winning" and "superstars."  For the purpose of this analysis, let's define winning as "getting to the conference finals."  I've seen several people on this blog use that as their threshold for being truly excited about the Sixers.  Here are the conference finalists in the last ten years:
 
  • 2009-10: Lakers-Suns-Celtics-Magic
  • 2008-09: Lakers-Nuggets-Magic-Cavs
  • 2007-08: Lakers-Spurs-Celtics-Pistons
  • 2006-07: Spurs-Jazz-Cavs-Pistons
  • 2005-06: Mavs-Suns-Heat-Pistons
  • 2004-05: Spurs-Suns-Pistons-Heat
  • 2003-04: Lakers-Wolves-Pistons-Pacers
  • 2002-03: Spurs-Mavs-Nets-Pistons
  • 2001-02: Lakers-Kings-Nets-Celtics
  • 2000-01: Lakers-Spurs-76ers-Bucks
The definition of superstar is a little trickier.  One way to define it is "someone who is likely to make the Hall of Fame."  Toward that end, basketball-reference.com conveniently computes a "Hall of Fame Probability" (HoFP).  The author's model was not parametric ("this is the way the model should be, let's see how it fits the data") but rather non-parametric ("let's create the best model to fit the data").  Details are here, but the author came up with six significant variables relevant to current players: (1) height [a negative predictor], (2) PPG, (3) RPG, (4) assists per game, (5) All-Star selections, (6) NBA Championships won.  If a player's HoFP is 0.5 or higher, the model predicts he gets in the HOF.  The author notes that the model is 82% accurate for predicting players in the HOF and 99% accurate for predicting players not in the HOF.  For current players, I'll use a higher threshold of 70% and also add one more player to the list, Steve Nash, because no past MVP-winner eligible for the HOF has NOT made the HOF (not really sure why MVP awards didn't make it into HoFP).  So here is the list of active "superstars" (those likely to make the HOF) and the number of Rings [R] they have won, number of NBA Finals [NF] they have reached, and number of Conference Finals [CF] they have reached.

  1. Shaquille O'Neal: 4 R, 6 NF, 9 CF
  2. Kobe Bryant: 5 R, 7 NF, 8 CF
  3. Tim Duncan: 4 R, 4 NF, 6 CF
  4. Allen Iverson: 1 NF, 1 CF
  5. Kevin Garnett: 1 R, 2 NF, 3 CF
  6. LeBron James: 1 NF, 2 CF
  7. Dwyane Wade: 1 R, 1 NF, 2 CF
  8. Paul Pierce: 1 R, 2 NF, 3 CF
  9. Dirk Nowitzki: 1 NF, 2 CF
  10. Jason Kidd: 2 NF, 2 CF
  11. Ray Allen: 1 R, 2 NF, 3 CF
  12. Vince Carter: none
  13. Tracy McGrady: none
  14. Steve Nash: 4 CF
To this list, one could certainly add anyone who has made 1st or 2nd All-NBA teams in the past three years, though some of the names might be starting to stretch the definition of "superstar":
  • Kevin Durant: none
  • Dwight Howard: 1 NF, 2 CF
  • Carmelo Anthony: 1 CF
  • Amare Stoudemire: 3 CF
  • Deron Williams: 1 CF
  • Yao Ming: none
  • Chris Paul: none
  • Brandon Roy: none
So we have a list of 40 conference finalists and 22 "superstars" over the past decade.  Out of the 40 teams, 32 had at least one superstar  Out of the 8 that didn't, 6 were some version of the Pistons, an unusual team with several not-quite-HOF players: Billups (#23 on the current HoFP list), Hamilton (#30), Rasheed (#34).   The other two were the 03-04 Pacers, another balanced team led by Jermaine O'Neal (#33) and Ron Artest, and the 01-02 Kings, who were led by probable HOFer (according to HoFP) Chris Webber, who has retired and didn't make the current superstar list.  So the necessary part of the superstar-winning correlation ("teams can't win unless they have a superstar") is fairly well established.  But now let's look at the sufficient part more closely.  Here are some observations about the superstar list:

  • Kobe Bryant has had the luxury of playing with Shaquille O'Neal (#1 on the list) or Pau Gasol (#19) for most of his career.  In the three years he didn't play with either, he's never won a playoff series.
  • Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen combined for 3 CFs (1 each) until they started playing together
  • Dwyane Wade has won one playoff series (and lost 3) without Shaq on his team
  • As is well-known, Vince Carter has never reached the conference finals.  He's a near lock to make the HOF, though (no eligible player with a higher career PPG has failed to make the HOF), and in his prime few would have argued he wasn't a superstar.
  • As is well-known, Tracy McGrady has never won a playoff series (the Rockets won a series when he was injured).  He's also a near lock to make the HOF.  Did you know that only one seasonal scoring champion eligible for the HOF has not made it in?  (Bernard King, who many would argue deserves to be in)
  • Carmelo Anthony has now been in the league 7 years and has two playoff series wins (with Billups on his team) and six first-round playoff losses.
  • Shaq has reached 9 CFs with 3 teams, impressive no doubt.  But he's always had at least a "star" sidekick (Penny who was 1st-team All-NBA in 94-95 and 95-96, Kobe in his prime, Wade entering his prime) except in 97-98, before Kobe's prime.
  • Tim Duncan has had an impeccable career, but he has always had at least a "star" sidekick (David Robinson early on, Parker/Ginobili later). 
  • Looking over the entire superstar list, you could argue that only a few times has a superstar made the NBA Finals without at least a star sidekick: Dwight Howard in 08-09, LeBron in 06-07, Nowitzki in 05-06, Kidd in 01-02 and 02-03, and Iverson in 00-01.  All of those players  lost in the Finals.
So where does this leave 76ers fans?  Let's go back to the original sequence of woe and modify it slightly: (1) you can't win in the NBA without a superstar, (2) most of the time, you can't win in the NBA without a superstar and a star sidekick, (3) the 76ers don't have any superstars on their roster and will not be attracting one via trade or free agency anytime soon, (4) one could argue the 76ers don't even have any stars on their roster either [Iguodala comes closest but is not a top-15 player even to his strongest supporters].  Logically, this leaves only a few options to Sixer fans:

  1. Stop following the NBA
  2. Pick a new NBA team to root for
  3. Root for the Sixers to be terrible year after year in the hope they eventually land a superstar through the lottery
  4. Adjust the minimum threshold for happiness
  5. Consign yourself to perpetual depression
I've seen some people espouse Option #3, but it's really no different from Option #5.  Not only is there no guarantee of winning the lottery in a terrible year (see: Nets or Wolves this year) but there's no guarantee if you win the lottery that the player you pick will be a superstar (we hope this is not the case with Turner).  But added to that, as I think I have shown, even if you win the lottery and obtain a superstar, it's still no guarantee of even a Conference Finals berth.  So what's left?  I've argued before for Option #4.  I have no problem with following a team that has the capability of reaching the second round of the playoffs.  If the Sixers do that in 2010-11, it means they've played pretty good ball to do so.  Now, we could argue about whether the Dalembert trade makes them more or less likely to reach that level, but my point is really a different one:  if the Sixers show promise this year, play good ball, make the playoffs, and win a series, that's an accomplishment worthy of satisfaction in today's NBA.  I realize a lot of you will disagree, so I'd be interested to hear your own strategies: what's your approach to following the Sixers so that you're not perpetually depressed?  Or are you resigned to being perpetually depressed when thinking about the Sixers?

 

by Statman on Jul 20 2010
Tags: Basketball | Offseason | Sixers | Statman | Superstars |