The Superstar Theory: Revisited and Supercharged, Part 2

Sun, 07/27/2008 - 1:50pm

By Robert W. McChesney
July 27, 2008

(Three-part series, part 2)

Part II: Who are the Best Players on Championship and Contending Teams?

In Part I of this series I established a list of the 80 best players in the NBA since 1956. This was done based upon regular season performances. Now we want to make a list of the very best players on the 52 NBA champions since 1956. To fill out the analysis and to see what patterns emerge we will also determine the very best player on the team that lost in the finals and the two teams that lost in the conference finals every year. (In other words, the best players on each of the NBA’s “final four” teams every season.)

Finally, we will also determine the 2nd best player on the championship team every year to see what patterns emerge. So altogether, I am making five selections for every season since 1956-57, or 210 in all.

I used the MVP vote standings, rather than my own opinion, to pick a winner in every case where possible. In 190 of the 210 cases it was a no-brainer without even relying upon the MVP data. There was one truly difficult decision: who was the best player on the 1990 Pistons? Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars? In every respect they were almost identical. After consulting a few Pistons aficionados, I went with Isiah, but it was basically a coin toss. Otherwise, in the cases where the decision was close, the choice was always between two players on this list or between two players not on the list, so it has almost no statistical effect on the analysis that will follow.

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
2008 Garnett Pierce Bryant Billups & Duncan
2007 Duncan Ginobili James Billups & Boozer
2006 Wade S. O’Neal Nowitzki Billups & Nash
2005 Duncan Parker B. Wallace S. O’Neal & Nash
2004 B. Wallace Billups S. O’Neal J. O’Neal & Garnett
2003 Duncan Robinson Kidd B. Wallace & Nowitzki
2002 S. O’Neal Bryant Kidd Pierce & Webber
2001 S. O’Neal Bryant Iverson R. Allen & Duncan
2000 S. O’Neal Bryant Rose Houston & R. Wallace
1999 Duncan Robinson Ewing R. Miller & R. Wallace
1998 Jordan Pippen K. Malone R. Miller & S. O’Neal
1997 Jordan Pippen K. Malone T. Hardaway & Olajuwon
1996 Jordan Pippen Payton S. O’Neal & K. Malone
1995 Olajuwon Drexler S. O’Neal R. Miller & Robinson
1994 Olajuwon O. Thorpe Ewing R. Miller & K. Malone
1993 Jordan Pippen Barkley Ewing & Kemp
1992 Jordan Pippen Drexler Price & K. Malone
1991 Jordan Pippen Magic Dumars & Drexler
1990 Thomas Dumars Drexler Jordan & Chambers
1989 Thomas Dumars Magic Jordan & K. Johnson
1988 Magic Scott Thomas Bird & Aguirre
1987 Magic Abdul-Jabbar Bird Thomas & D. Ellis
1986 Bird McHale Olajuwon Moncrief & Magic
1985 Magic Abdul-Jabbar Bird M. Malone & English
1984 Bird Parish Magic Moncrief & W. Davis
1983 M. Malone Erving Magic Moncrief & Gervin
1982 Magic Abdul-Jabbar Erving Bird & Gervin
1981 Bird Parish M. Malone Erving & Birdsong
1980 Abdul-Jabbar Magic Erving Bird & G. Williams
1979 D. Johnson G. Williams Hayes Gervin & Westphal
1978 Hayes Dandridge G. Williams Erving & Thompson
1977 Walton M. Lucas Erving M. Malone & Abdul-Jabbar
1976 Cowens Havlicek Westphal Chones & Barry
1975 Barry Wilkes Hayes Cowens & Van Lier
1974 Cowens Havlicek Abdul-Jabbar Frazier & B. Love
1973 Frazier DeBusschere West Cowens & Barry
1972 West Chamberlain Frazier Havlicek & Abdul-Jabbar
1971 Abdul-Jabbar Robertson Monroe Reed & West
1970 Reed Frazier West Abdul-Jabbar & Hudson
1969 Russell Havlicek Baylor Reed & Beatty
1968 Russell Havlicek Baylor Chamberlain & Thurmond
1967 Chamberlain Greer Barry Russell & Bridges
1966 Russell S. Jones West Chamberlain & Beatty
1965 Russell S. Jones West Greer & Bellamy
1964 Russell S. Jones Chamberlain Robertson & Pettit
1963 Russell Cousy Baylor Robertson & Pettit
1962 Russell Cousy West Chamberlain & B. Howell
1961 Russell Heinsohn Pettit Schayes & Baylor
1960 Russell Cousy Pettit Chamberlain & Baylor
1959 Russell Cousy Baylor Schayes & Pettit
1958 Pettit Hagan Russell Arizin & Yardley
1957 Cousy Russell Pettit Schayes & Lovellette

Now that we have determined who the best players have been on the NBA’s “final four” teams for the past 52 years we get to the fun part: seeing how many of these players rank on the super-elite list of superstars complied in part one. I hope you are sitting down.

Gold Medal Superstars

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
1. Michael Jordan 6 2
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2 3 1 3
3. Tim Duncan 4 2
4. Bill Russell 10 1 1 1
5. Larry Bird 3 2 3
6. Wilt Chamberlain 1 1 1 4
7. Shaquille O’Neal 3 1 2 3
7. Jerry West 1 4 1
7. Bob Cousy 1 4
7. Bob Pettit 1 3 3
11. Magic Johnson 4 1 4 1
12. Kobe Bryant 3 1
13. Elgin Baylor 5 2
13. Karl Malone 2 3
15. Oscar Robertson 1 2
15. David Robinson 2 1
17. Hakeem Olajuwon 2 1 1
18. LeBron James 1
19. Kevin Garnett 1 1

Qualify But Below Seven Season Minimum:

20. Bill Walton 1
21. Dolph Schayes 3

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
Gold Medal
Superstar totals
40 17 28 36
Total Seasons 52 52 52 104

Silver Medal Superstars

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
22. Julius Erving 1 3 2
23. Dirk Nowitzki 1 1
24. Steve Nash 2
25. George Gervin 2
26. Moses Malone 1 1 2
27. Charles Barkley 1
28. John Havlicek 4 1
29. Willis Reed 1 2
30. Tracy McGrady
31. Jason Kidd 2
32. Walt Frazier 1 1 1 1
33. Nate Archibald
34. Rick Barry 1 1 2
34. Gary Payton 1
34. Patrick Ewing 2 1
37. Scottie Pippen 6
38. Allen Iverson 1
39. Chris Paul
40. John Stockton
40. Dave Cowens 2 2
42. Bob McAdoo
42. Ben Wallace 1   1 1
44. Dwyane Wade 1

Qualify But Below Seven Season Minimum:

45. Sidney Moncrief 3
46. Bill Sharman
47. David Thompson 1
48. Paul Westphal 1 1
49. Gus Johnson

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
Silver Medal
Superstar totals
8 12 16 24
Total Seasons 52 52 52 104

Bronze Medal Superstars

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
50. Alonzo Mourning
51. Grant Hill
52. Elvin Hayes 1 2
52. Amare Stoudemire
52. Billy Cunningham
55. Spencer Haywood
56. Dominique Wilkins
57. Kevin Johnson 1
58. Isiah Thomas 2 1 1
59. Pete Maravich
59. Dwight Howard
61. Dave Bing
62. Chris Webber
62. Jerry Lucas

Dennis Rodman

65. Anfernee Hardaway
65. Clyde Drexler 1 2 1
67. Bernard King
67. Tim Hardaway 1

Jermaine O’Neal

70. Nate Thurmond 1
71. Dennis Johnson 1
72. Marques Johnson
73. Sam Jones 3
73. Tommy Heinsohn 1
73. Gilbert Arenas
76. Kevin McHale 1
76. Chauncey Billups   1 3

Qualify But Below Seven Season Minimum:

78. Mark Price 1
79. George McGinnis
80. Cliff Hagan 1

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
Bronze Medal
Superstar totals
4 8 5 10
Total Seasons 52 52 52 104

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
Superstar totals
52 37 49 70
Total Seasons 52 52 52 104

Best Player
2nd Best
Runner Up
ECF & WCF best
All Other NBA
Players Including
150 Multiple
Season All-Stars
0 15 3 34
Total Seasons 52 52 52 104

Ponder this above chart for a few moments. The implications are so striking, they approach being self-evident.

For starters: every single NBA champion has been led by a player on this list. So if your team does not have as its best player one of these guys, or someone likely to get on the list, your chances are virtually nil.

And that barely begins to capture what a gated community NBA championships live in. The closer to the top of the list, the more likely a player is to being the best player on a championship team. The closer to the bottom of this list of superstars, the more likely the player is on the outside looking in. And if a team does not have a player is his prime from this list, or soon to be on this list, they are battling the odds even to make the conference finals, let alone even dream about a title.

On 40 of these 52 teams, the best player was one of the 21 gold medal superstars, the elite of the elite of the elite. In basketball, more than any other team sport, getting a player for the ages is essential for championships. Mere all-stars, even several of them, ain’t gonna get the job done. And 8 of the 11 champions that did not have a gold medal superstar leading it, had at least two players from this list on the team, in their primes, at least one of whom was silver-medal. (The exceptions? Rick Barry’s 75 Warriors, Elvin Hayes’s 78 Bullets, and Dennis Johnson’s 79 Sonics. These champions defeated teams in the finals that were similarly under armed; these were “down” years for the league. The late 70s was almost like a Bermuda Triangle for the NBA. Accordingly these are regarded as among the weaker champions in NBA history.)

It gets worse, or better, depending if your team has one of these guys. It is not just about winning titles; it is about getting within sniffing distance of winning titles. All but three of the losers in the NBA finals since 1956-57 have been led by one of these 80 superstars. (The exceptions? The 2000 Pacers, the 1978 Sonics and the 1971 Bullets.) So dig this: only 3 of the 104 teams that have played in the NBA finals were not led by a player on this list. Teams led by bronze medal superstars account for only 9 of these 104 teams, so even having one of them is hardly a winning ticket

And over one-half of these runner-up teams in the NBA over the past 52 years have been led by gold medal superstars. That means 21 players have led 68 of the 104 teams that have played in the NBA finals since 1956-57. Considering how short Bill Walton’s effective career was, that really means 20 guys.

To put it in even more stark terms: the 28 finalist losers that were led by gold medal superstars lost to champions led by gold medal superstars 22 times. As a general rule, gold trumps silver and silver trumps bronze and nobody else is even allowed to play.

Run this exercise for every NFL champion and World Series for the past 52 years. I suspect you’d have a much longer list of “best players,” and that some, perhaps many, of the championship teams’ “best players” would not rank among the 20 best players in their sport over the past half-century.

And that’s not all: Two-thirds of the 104 teams that lost in the conference finals over the past 52 years – the NBA’s “final four” so to speak – were led by players from this list. And 1/3 of these final four losers were led by gold-medal superstars.

Now there are two important qualifications to make to this analysis: First, just throwing a gold medal superstar out on the floor is not enough to make a team a contender. It is just a necessary starting point. Championship teams still need a strong supporting cast, usually with one or two more players from the superstar list.

That is why most championship teams have at least two players from this list on their roster. (The dynasty Celtics of the 60s had as many as five in a single season, topped off by Bill Russell. No wonder they could vanquish a Lakers team with gold medal superstars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. If Bill Russell had never been born, those Laker teams probably would have won five or six titles in the 60s.) In fact, the second best player on 36 of the 52 championship teams is from this list.

This point deserves some elaboration. Since 1956 there have been 68 NBA teams that have had at least two gold or silver medal superstars in their primes together. (By “in their primes” I mean the gold medal superstar was top ten MVP or first or second team all-NBA that season. A silver medal player needs to rank in the top 15 MVP voting of any of the first three all-NBA teams to qualify for a prime-time season.) These 68 teams have produced 28 NBA championships, 11 additional trips to the finals, and another 13 teams that made it to the conference finals.

In other words, if you get two players who are at least silver medal quality each in their prime on the same team, you have a 75 percent chance of making it to the conference finals, and a 40 percent chance of winning an NBA title. And this probably understates the dominance of those teams with two top-50 players in their primes. Nine of the 11 teams that lost in the finals, lost to similarly blessed teams that also had two players who were either silver or gold medal superstars. And if the woeful Stockton-Malone Utah teams are removed from the list – they played 13 qualifying seasons together and won no titles – the percentages skyrocket. Then over half of the 55 teams that had at least two silver or gold medal superstars on them in their primes won NBA titles.

Think Miami is praying Beasley becomes a superstar to team with Dwyane Wade? If he does, and Wade is healthy, history suggests they are off to the races.

Second, there have been three NBA championship teams since 1956-57 that broke the mold of being driven by a powerful gold or silver medal superstar. I call these ensemble teams and they are the teams where there was not a huge difference between the best player and the third or fourth or maybe even the fifth best player on the team. These teams – the afore-mentioned 79 Sonics, 89 and 90 Pistons, and 04 Pistons – were solid teams led by bronze (or in the case of the 04 Pistons, silver) medal superstars. At their best, the Pistons teams, these were very good teams, and deserving champions. Most fans are hoping and praying that their team can emulate these great ensemble teams because it is far easier to collect a bunch of all-stars than it is to have a couple of superstars. But these ensemble champions are exceptions to the rule, and all but the 79 Sonics had at least two bronze medal superstars on them.

Most of the great ensemble teams in NBA history – the late 60s Atlanta Hawks, the early-mid 70s Chicago Bulls, the 80s Milwaukee Bucks, the 90s Indiana Pacers, the 00s Sacramento Kings, are stalwarts in the regular season, packed with all-stars, often winning 50 plus games, even 60, but invariably flounder when the Hall of Famers take over in May and June. They are fool’s gold if the goal is to win a championship.

If I can generalize it would be this: everything else being close to equal, teams generally go as far as their superstar is great. So it was in the 90s when Michael Jordan took his two-year leave, it was Hakeem Olajuwon, not Patrick Ewing, who won two titles. Aside from the center position, the Knicks were arguably superior to the Rockets. But Olajuwon is a gold medal superstar and Ewing is a silver medal superstar. One wins titles and the other gets to the finals.

And when there are veteran teams of multiple superstars led by gold medal superstars in their prime, it makes for basketball heaven in the playoffs. That is why the 80s are remembered as a Golden Age, as are the 60s battles between the Celtics and the Lakers.

In the final part of this three-part series I am going to assess the implications of this research are for NBA fans and GMs. In my view they are dramatic.

The Superstar Theory: Revisited and Supercharged, Part 1

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Joined: 07/29/2008
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quick question

I was following along with your statistics and then thought hey what are the odds that a team wouldn't have a superstar any way. You've got 80 players on your list probably each played around an average of 8-10 years(most players who are superstars don't wash out early). Let's go modest say 80 players, 8 years each, that's 640 player years. You figure you did this analysis dating back 50 years. I ran the math and I got around .42 of these players per team in the NBA(and that was made using 30 teams). Now the players don't distribute themselves equally but odds are there's going to be at least 3-4 teams made up of gold/silver class players and those are going to be the best teams in the league.

As far as I can tell you've got a circular argument. The reason players are considered gold class is that they make there teams better. Better teams win more often. Therefore good players make better teams win.

What I would like to see is something that statistically shows that a team that performs well relatively to other teams that lacks superstars does worse than a team that has superstars. I think you could at least make this argument relative to play-off vs. regular season performance.

I'm just not convinced that if say 30% of the teams in the league at anytime have great players and those are the teams that make the play-offs that you've proven anything by showing that superstars are part of championship teams.

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Joined: 07/12/2008
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I will wait until the final

I will wait until the final part is posted before I address these issues. At this point I will only say that there is obviously an unavoidable circular nature to an argument that the best players play on the best teams. I try to limit the circular nature by selecting the best players for the regular rseason, and each of the criteria I use are determined before the playoffs. Voters are no doubt influenced by how teams do, but they cannot know the outcome of the playoffs before they vote. Moreover the votes are every year for players that year; voters are not making career achievement votes.

Second, the argument is far more sweeping than merely that the best players play on the best teams. The argument is that to be an effective contender, a team generally needs one or two players who rank in the top 50 in NBA history since 1956. In fact over 3/4 of the past 52 champions has a player leading the team from the top 20 NBA players of the past 52 years. The evidence, in my view, is stunning, even overwhelming. This goes far beyond the banal notion that the best teams have the best players.

I address the implications in part 3. I will right now only make one point:

Except for teams that have superstars already, almost every NBA team is trying to emulate the 2004 Pistons and develop an "ensemble" team of all-stars but no top 50 superstar to win a title. I think my piece shows that that approach -- which works well in baseball and football -- is a super long shot in the NBA. All fans and GMs striving for an ensemble contender are looking at far longer odds than anyone would have imagined. If a team does not have a player on this list or likely to be on this list very soon, they simply will not win an NBA title. Unless they get a gold medal superstar, they better get two or three players from this list to win a title. It is worth noting that the 04 Pistons had a silver medal and bronze medal superstar in Ben wallace and Chauncey Billups. So for an "ensemble" team they still had a superstar presence that few teams can equal.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's resume this conversation when the final part is posted. 

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Joined: 07/24/2008
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". It is worth noting that

". It is worth noting that the 04 Pistons had a silver medal and bronze medal superstar in Ben wallace and Chauncey Billups. So for an "ensemble" team they still had a superstar presence that few teams can equal. "

Once again this is circular. I will wait your third part to make more comments, but I think these pistons shows that with your system some player can be rated silver/bronze medal without being great players. Ben Wallace is (was) a very good defensive player, but obviously he is not one of the greatest ever. The individual awards he received are the result of the team play, not the result of its talent.

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Joined: 07/12/2008
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Either I do not understand

Either I do not understand your point, or I have not made my point clear enough for you and possibly others to understand. I agree there is an element of circularity that is unavoidable, but I have minimized it as much as possible. And even then the degree of linkage between all-time-greats and winning NBA titles is vastly greater than the relationship in any other team sport. Circularity cannot explain it, especially since the points are all strictly based on regular season performance.

If MVP and all-NBA votes were done after the playoffs, rather than after the regular season, for example, Paul Pierce would likely have done much better. Then it would be a more circular argument because the player doing well on the championship team would be considered a better player than he would have been considered strictly on regular season performance. And maybe Paul Pierce will get a few more votes in 2009 based on how the Celtics did in 2008. But that is a lot less direct effect than having the votes be after the playoffs rather than before the playoffs, as they are actually done.

Ben Wallace was selected NBA defensive player of the year 4 times in 5 seasons. There is no evidence that that was a "team" vote and Wallace just happened to be the  lucky beneficiary of voters' largesse. He won that award each time because he was in their view the best defensive player in the league.

Your opinion or my opinion is not germaine to the point of my three part series, but I watched a lot of hoops during those years and I thought the selection of Wallace was legitimate. He was a defensive terror. It is true that the voters may all be collectively deluded and that they are penalizing even better defensive players than Ben Wallace because those players were on lousier teams. That is something I cannot control for and it is highly speculative. All I know is that the award is based on the opinions of dozens of reporters who watch thousands of games between them each season and speak at length with players, coaches and scouts, and the voting is done immediately after the season, before the playoffs. It is the best we have to work with for now, certainly a far sight better then your opinion or my opinion.

Because I elected to include defensive honors in my revised system, a handful of players like Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Dennis Rodman, John Havlicek, Nate Thurmond and Ben Wallace saw their positions improve appreciably. After much input from people (including NBA people) I elected to add the defensive criteria to my system,although it is weighted far less than MVP or all-NBA votings. I had no idea which players would benefit at the time, and I applied the same standard to every player in the league.

I had no idea that the stalwart defensive players had a high likelihood of playing on championship teams or serious contenders, although it is obvious they do.

It is not circular that the players seen as dominant defenders tended to play on very good teams. What that relationship shows is the importance of defense. It also suggests we may need to hold a player like Ben Wallace in higher regard than we would if we relied on traditional categopiries that emphasize offensive accomplishments.

Because Ben Wallace's career has fallen a notch or two or three since 2006 and because the Pistons have continued to play well, it is easy to think that maybe Wallace wasn't that good from 2000-2006. The strength of my system is that it does not allow for that sort of retroactive revisionism. It is based on votes at the time. And the votes at the time make it clear Ben Wallace was a game-changing plasyer who centered the defense on a superb defensive team that went to the ECF or NBA finals every year.

I would also add that the Pistons possibly continued to be a very good team after Wallace left to some extent because Chauncey Billups has taken his game up a notch or two since 2004.

But the overall point I made holds: the Pistons were really an ensemble team. Neither Wallace or Billups was as good a player as the best player on at least 46 or 47 or 48 of the other 51 NBA champions since 1956. And if your opinion of Ben Wallace holds, then maybe every single other NBA champion since 1956 had a better player than either Wallace or Billups.

And that was the point of my series, and the unmistakable conclusion to be drawn from the evidence: trying to emulate the Pistons is fool's gold. A team thinking it can leapfrog over the teams armed with Bryant, Garnett, James, Paul, D. Williams, Howard and the other top 80 players by throwing together a bunch of quality non-superstar veterans, even all-stars, is simply deluding itself. There is no evidence to suggest that it is a viable route to contention or a championship.

In baseball or football, a team like the Atlanta Hawks or Philadephia 76ers with some exciting young playersand quality veterans might just need seasoning and a couple of veteran role players and a little luck to win a title. In the NBA, the verdict is already in: no matter what they do they will never will a title until they get a best player who is a lot better than their current best player. Maybe Josh Smith or Andre Iguodala will so emerge, but as my discussion in part 3 will demonstrate, don't bet on it.

Part 3 will be up on Monday and I look forward to resuming this conversation then.

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Joined: 07/30/2008
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Quick question (mistake)


you missed the fact that there are 5 players per team over 50 years (x 30 teams)

This moves the top player percent from 640/1500=0.4266 to 640/7500=0.08533. That backs up the authors numbers much better. Although it is still a bit higher than you would guess.

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Joined: 07/24/2008
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Thanks for the answer.

Thanks for the answer. Actually our opinion are quiet close.
I share your opinion on Big Ben impact on defense in his pistons year.
I just think he is not the type of player you would chose as a cornerstone to build a team.
Without the correct pieces arround him, Ben Wallace is almost useless. IMO a true superstar will lead you to the playoffs regardless of the teammates he has (well, maybe not last season in the West).

I completely agree on your theory about superstars (in recents year Duncan, Shaq, MJ proved it correct). I just see the Pistons as an anomaly (the exception to the rule), an NBA champion without superstar.

The problem I see, is that at a given time, there are not many superstar available. In the last ten years, any team would have wish they have Shaq or Duncan... they were not available so other teams had to try something else (i.e. build an ensemble team as the Pistons did). The problem for the NBA is that the safe way to build a team is to tank until you can pick a Superstar. It is a mistake to fight for the playoffs if you don't already have your superstars. This is sad for the game.

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Joined: 08/03/2008
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i believe you're wrong about

i believe you're wrong about this, winnig chapionships is the only difference between an all-star and a superstar. the way o make a championship contender is not to have the best player or one of the best players in the league, but to reunite 3 or 4 stars and a bunch of good role players. A player reach a superstar level when his team reach the top level, so these are not necessarily the best players, but the ones who win the most. if you check most who made the all nba first team are the players
So pla whose had the best season.
so players don't make teams great, teams make players better

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Joined: 08/04/2008
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I think there needs to be clarity.

Mr. McChesney did say championship teams need multiple good players. What you missed, though, is that at least one of them must be a transcendent talent that is heads and shoulders above everyone else. Gilbert Arenas and Chris Bosh may be stars, but they aren't the types of superstars that could win championships. When you compare their talent ceilings to the likes of Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan, that's what determines who goes deeper into playoffs.

By the way, I have to give props for making an efficient system to objectively gauge the greatest players, especially when using criteria as imprecise as what you use.

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