The NBA Superstar Debate
It is not uncommon to hear criticisms about the NBA centered on the inability to win without a “superstar.” In the city of Denver, where your friendly neighborhood analyst happens to reside, most of the last year has been spent trying to devise a way to win without one.
Naturally, supporters of the Nuggets are more apt to construct scenarios by which such a model would be successful, while critics, or folks just generally cynical about the NBA, are prone to dismiss it as a virtual impossibility.
Truth is, it’s hard to have a real debate on the topic because no one can agree on what the term superstar means. Said differently, there is no unified and operationalized definition of a superstar. Therefore, there is no way to definitively identify one.
Is Blake Griffin a superstar because he dunks the ball exceptionally well, is featured on SportsCenter on basically a nightly basis during the season and does amusing car commercials?
Is Carmelo Anthony a superstar because he can score the basketball with such ease and has become a brand name?
The term superstar has been co-opted by the shoe cartels and other folks with products to sell. As such, the term isn’t always based on ability or production, but rather, public perception and persona.
How about a player like Rajon Rondo? In terms of production, toughness and impact on the game, he has all the trappings of a superstar. However, because he lacks that camera friendly smile and personable demeanor, he is all too often left out of such discussions.
I can already visualize some of you moving down to the comments section of the article to reprimand me for having the gall to insinuate that Griffin and Anthony are not superstars, or conversely, to chide me for calling Rondo one.
But therein lies the point. Without an operationalized definition of a superstar, such debates are nothing more than circular acts of tomfoolery (albeit sometimes fun ones).
As such, a reframe of the debate is necessary. Instead of debating about whether or not a player is a superstar, can we agree that talent is the most common and important element in what we are discussing?
No matter how you want to deconstruct it, talent wins. And, talent wins not just in the NBA but also in life. Yes, some other factors are necessary such as work ethic, motivation and perseverance to name just a few, but these are all subsidiary to talent.
While having great talent does not guarantee you a championship, lack of great talent absolutely excludes you from contention. Moreover, give me a team that has made it to the Conference Finals in recent memory that lacked great top-end talent?
People will often point to the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons as an example of a team that won a championship without a superstar. It is analogous to when football fans point to Trent Dilfer and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as an example of a game-manager winning a Super Bowl. This line of reasoning relies on the fallacy of making the exception the rule.
A bit further deconstruction of the aforementioned Pistons squad reveals that while they may not have had a “superstar” based on the popular definition of the word, they certainly had some of the most talented players in particularly important aspects of the game.
Chauncey Billups has a history of creating and making big shots late in games. This is an ingredient that every championship team in modern NBA history has possessed.
While many people remember Ben Wallace as a great shotblocker, and he was, having averaged three blocks per game the year the Pistons won it all, he was also a very good on the ball low-post defender who won the NBA’s Defensive Player of The Year award four times.
Rasheed Wallace had one of the most unique skill-sets in NBA history with his combination of ball skills, outside shooting ability, defensive capability and clutch prowess.
And, let us not forget the tremendous ability of Richard Hamilton to catch-and-shoot coming off of screens (one of the best in league history at this in his prime) along with the versatile skill set of a young Tayshaun Prince.
So while the Pistons may not have had one true superstar in the popular sense of the term, they had all of the major skills combined necessary to win a title. Not to mention the fact that head coach Larry Brown was able to get this group to play some of the best team defense in the modern era.
All that said, there’s a reason this Pistons team did not win multiple titles. Organizations like the Lakers and the Spurs over the course of the last decade, both of which have won multiple titles, share one element in common: upper-echelon talent on the top-end of the roster rivaled by few others in the league. When you have that, it makes up for so many other deficiencies.
Look at last season’s iteration of the Miami HEAT, for example. Its offense was painful to watch at times all the way through the Finals. It was disjointed, especially in the halfcourt, yet it prevailed as a result of having superior offensive talent. To Erik Spoelstra’s credit, he got this group to play very good defense too (which is a minor miracle given all of the egos to manage in that collective).
Devise all the fancy formulas and crunch all the numbers you want, but the reason Miami won is simple: LeBron James is a better all-around basketball player than anybody else in the world, Dwyane Wade is a great offensive player and the other players on the HEAT’s roster played the roles they were signed to play.
As painful as it might have been for many fans to stomach, the HEAT won last season because they were just more talented than everyone else. The HEAT and Lakers are most observers’ favorites going into the 2012-13 season for the same reason.
Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was on the radio show I co-host last week and I told him that my heart is with him in his quest to win a title without a “superstar,” but my head says otherwise. History tells me that a team like the Nuggets winning a championship is highly unlikely given that Denver does not have the same level of talent as the Lakers, HEAT, Thunder and potentially a couple of other teams.
The attraction to sports for many of us is the potential that the underdog might win. That’s why so many of us sports junkies enjoy movies like Rocky. However, let us not forget that Rocky lost to the heavily favored Apollo Creed in the first movie and only won in the second movie due to Creed’s arrogant insistence on knocking Rocky out as opposed to winning on points as he did in the first fight.
As a basketball purist, I hope Karl is right and teams like the Nuggets can win a championship with “teamness,” as he calls it, triumphing over individual talent. However, the much more reliable road to a title is to have one of the most talented five or ten players in the league on your team. I don’t care if these players are arrogant or humble, choose to be in commercials or stay out of the public eye, smile pretty for the camera or scowl. Give me talent first and foremost in a business that proclaims to be all about wining.
In other words, I don’t care if they are “superstars” or not. My primary concern is whether or not they have elite level talent.
Talent is what wins big. Just because you, me or anyone else may not like it doesn’t make it any less true.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.