The Superstar Theory: Revisited and Supercharged, Part 3

Sun, 08/03/2008 - 2:11pm

Part III The Superstar Thesis Going Forward

In part I we established an objective list of the 80 best NBA players since 1956. In part II we established that these players, especially the 21 gold medal superstars at the very top, were the best players on every single NBA championship team since 1956-57, and on all but three of the 52 runner-ups. Such a pattern does not exist in baseball or football.

So what does this mean, for NBA fans and GMs?

For starters, it means that only a very small number of current players still in or near their prime are on this list, and therefore their teams are the only ones that will be legitimate contenders going forward. These players include:


LeBron James
Gold Medal:
Tim Duncan
Shaquille O’Neal
Kobe Bryant
LeBron James
Kevin Garnett
Silver Medal:
Steve Nash
Dirk Nowitzki
Tracy McGrady
Jason Kidd
Dwyane Wade
Chris Paul
Allen Iverson
Bronze Medal:
Amare Stoudemire
Gilbert Arenas
Dwight Howard
Jermaine O’Neal
Chauncey Billups

Note that seven of the eight NBA semi-finalists in 2008 were led by players on the above list; the one exception, Utah, was led by Deron Williams who almost certainly will be on this list in a year or two.

Note also that the six players in bold are the only ones who will be under 30 next year, so a definite changing of the guard is taking place. By 2011 or 2012 most of the other 10, except perhaps Bryant, will be past their prime or out of the league.

But is there any reliable way we can get a sense of how far the six under-30 active players on this list already may rise, and who might be joining them on the list in coming years?

In fact, there is a remarkably accurate tool to do just that. It is to look at whether a player makes first-team all-NBA by the time he is 25. Forty-seven players since 1956 have made first-team all-NBA by the age of 25, and fully 44 of them are on this list of the 80 greatest players.

(The three players who went all-NBA first team by 25 who do not make the best 80 NBA players list are Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe and Latrell Sprewell.)

Not only that, the higher one goes up the superstar list, the more likely the player is to have made first-team all-NBA at a very early age. All of the gold medal superstars made first-team all-NBA by 25, and one-half of the silver medal superstars, though some of them struggled to make first-team all-NBA in their late 20s.


Consider the following:

Age when first make all-NBA? (I use player’s age on January 1 of a season as his age for that season.)

Age first time on First team All-NBA 21-23 24-25 26-28 29+ never
Gold medal superstar: 15 6# 0 0 0
Silver medal superstar: 8+ 6 5 5 4*
Bronze medal superstar: 6@ 6 6 4 9

(age on Jan. 1 of season in question)

#These deadbeats are either big men like Russell and Shaq who have to queue up for the one first-team all-NBA center slot or guys like Robinson and Baylor who enter the league at 24.

+I use first team all-ABA for Erving

*Dwyane Wade is still active and may make first-team all-NBA. Dave Cowens won the MVP at 24, but made second-team all-NBA.

@I use first-team all-ABA for Haywood and McGinnis

In short, if a player goes first-team all-NBA by 25, he is an almost certain superstar. And he has to go first-team all NBA by 25 to be a gold medal superstar. The earlier a player makes all-NBA first-team the more likely he is to shoot up to gold medal status. It does not take a long time to see who dominant players are.

Even if a player is not first-team all-NBA by 25, all is not lost. Since 1956 another 47 players made second or third team all-NBA by the age 25, and from this group comes 15 players on this list. Hence there is a vastly higher likelihood of becoming a superstar if one is first-team all-NBA by 25, but there is still nearly a 33 percent chance of making the top 80 list if a player makes second or third team by 25. But, to repeat, such a player has no chance of being a gold medal superstar.

Current NBA players who are 25 or under and who have already made second or third all-NBA teams are Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Chris Bosh. We can probably add Yao Ming to the group, because although he is 27, he is a big, not to mention he has made four all-NBA teams already.

So, in addition to the current gold and silver superstars who will be winding down in two years – Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, Nowitzki, Nash, Iverson and McGrady --that gives us a working list for emerging NBA superstars circa 2010-2018 of:

Gold: LeBron James
Gold/Silver: Chris Paul
Gold/Silver: Amare Stoudemire
Gold/Silver: Dwight Howard
Gold/Silver: Dwyane Wade
Possible Gold/Silver/Bronze: Deron Williams
Possible Silver/Bronze: Yao Ming
Possible Bronze: Gilbert Arenas
Possible Bronze: Carmelo Anthony
Possible Bronze: Chris Bosh

The first seven names is where the championship teams will come from, and from the two or three players we might add to the top of this list over the next few years. The other 20-25 teams in the league will just be going through the motions for all intents and purposes.

Let’s dwell on this point for a second. Consider the Atlanta Hawks, a team full of wonderfully talented players like Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith and Al Horford. In any other team sport, such a core of gifted young talent would suggest a possible title down the road. Get some seasoning, throw in a few veteran role players, and contend! In the NBA the Hawks have almost no prayer, unless one or two of the four emerges as a silver or gold medal superstar. It is already too late for Joe Johnson, so it comes down to the other three. The chances are slim, not because Horford and Josh Smith in particular are not good, but because the bar is so high. If Horford is simply an all-star, not a superstar, simply Elton Brand and not Kevin Garnett, the Hawks cannot win a title with this core. If Josh Smith is Alex English or James Worthy, and not Julius Erving or Elgin Baylor, the same is true. This logic applies to every other talented young team in the league.

I almost have to cry for a dear friend of mine who is a fanatic Knicks fan. He keeps thinking of ways to get this veteran or that veteran to join the Knicks so they can contend. But none of his schemes get the Knicks a gold or silver medal superstar in his prime or before his prime, so they are all going to fail.

The moral of the story could not be clearer: Smart GMs, and smart fans, have to always be thinking about how their team can get a hold of a gold medal superstar, or, if it is the best you can do, a couple of silver medal superstars. It is the single most important issue before an NBA GM. Once you have your superstar(s), then your job is to surround him with the pieces to win a title, but that is a day at the beach compared to trying to get a gold or silver medal superstar in the first place.

As a GM, that was always the genius of Red Auerbach. He brilliantly planned far ahead to have his team stocked with gold and silver medal superstars. From landing Russell to stealing Havlicek to drafting Cowens and then Bird, Red was playing the proverbial chess to everyone else’s checkers. His capstone deal was the trade of Gerald Henderson for the draft pick that became Len Bias. Unbelievable genius by Red; incredible tragedy for the Celtics and the NBA.

Jerry West showed similar genius as he built the Lakers around brilliant maneuvers for Magic and Shaq and Kobe.

What Red and West knew, before other GMs caught on, is that aside from being lucky it takes patience and planning to get in position to grab a superstar talent.

That is why Danny Ainge may be their heir: he started in 2003 with a woeful hand – little talent, no cap room, and no high lottery picks -- and managed through shrewd drafting and player development to parlay that into a gold medal superstar, Kevin Garnett, and still have enough resources left to have a high-quality supporting cast.

And it is why Joe Dumars, generally regarded as one of the truly outstanding GMs in the game today, will probably not fare well in the history books. Dumars, it is true, has proven to be a superb drafter and has built magnificent ensemble teams. But in 2003 he had the second pick in the draft and he passed on an opportunity to draft a genuine superstar in Dwyane Wade, or potential superstar in Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. Had Dumars picked Wade, the Pistons may have been fitting rings for their thumbs by 2012. He will probably never get a chance like that again. You simply cannot blow those opportunities when they come along.

But the real measure for ultimate greatness for any NBA GM is to do what only Red and West have done: build two or three distinct championship teams around different superstars. That was the test Jerry Krause flunked after Jordan left. It is the test before R.C. Buford and Danny Ainge today. If either of them builds a post-Duncan or post-Garnett champion, they will rightfully join Red and West on the NBA’s GM Mount Rushmore.

Today in the NBA there are three routes to getting a superstar: the draft, trades, and free agency.

The draft is the obvious route to get a superstar, because once you get one you never let him go.

When one looks at the draft, it does not take a genius to see that a team has to have a very high draft pick to get a superstar player, especially a gold medal superstar. So let’s see at what point in the draft the superstars were taken. (Note that due to the ABA and the old territorial draft, six players are not included, so the relevant pool is 74 players.)

Where players were drafted overall:


4-5 6-13 14-30 31-60 not drafted
Gold Medal: 11 5 2 3 0 0 0
Silver Medal: 3 4 7 6 4 0 1*
Bronze Medal: 4 11 1 5 7 0 0

*Ben Wallace

So what does this mean? More than one-half of the gold medal superstars were drafted number 1 overall, as were nearly ¼ of all superstars. Some fifty percent of superstars were top three picks. If the chances of getting a superstar are slim in the top three of the draft, and they are, they virtually do not exist as one goes deeper into the first round.

This is no surprise: the greater the player, the earlier in his career his greatness becomes obvious, even to the untrained eye.

This is why the draft lottery exists. If the worst team got the highest pick, or even had a coin toss to get either the first or second pick in the draft as once was the case, it would be extremely rational for teams to tank their season once they determined they could not contend for the title. Especially if a no-brainer gold medal superstar was going to be in the upcoming draft. The fact is, that even with the weighted lottery, it still is quasi-rational, especially in years like 2003 or 1984 when the draft is crawling with superstar talent. But, that being said, the lottery has reduced the odds dramatically. My beloved Boston Celtics have tasted this bitter fruit twice, in 1997 and 2007. It truly is like playing the lottery. And as the saying goes, lotteries are a tax on people with bad math skills.

One course smart GMs have used to address the low likelihood of winning the lottery, and the pain of tanking a season and losing the lottery, is to make trades to get future no. 1 picks from desperate teams that probably are going to suck down the road. The NBA has been and is littered with teams willing to trade the future for a slightly more mediocre present. This was how the Lakers got the picks that became Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Every NBA team used to have Cleveland’s Ted Stepien on speed dial and all the owners would race at the league meetings to be the first to get Stepien alone in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Finally the NBA put in the Stepien rule preventing teams from trading future no. 1 picks in consecutive years. Today even dumb teams are wary about trading future no. 1 picks because it could blow up in their faces, so they put restrictions, like lottery-protection, on them. But eventually those restrictions are lifted. For example, right now Utah is holding on to the Knicks unprotected 2010 no. 1 pick and probably no one was cheering harder for Isiah Thomas to keep the coaching job for another two years than Utah’s management.

With the emergence of high school players entering the draft, it became a bit easier to get a potential superstar outside of the top three picks, like a Kobe Bryant or an Amare Stoudemire. Likewise drafting very young international players, like Dirk Nowitzki, offers a way to latch on to a stud further down the first round. But these were and are always super-high risk picks. For every Nowitzki or Bryant, there are ten or twenty bow wows that blow up in your face like a trick cigar. Then fans and owners get angry for taking a chance on a Skita or a Bender when legitimate players are still on the board. Moreover, the option has been lessened with the rule requiring players to do a year in college and for international payers to be at least 19 years old. There are fewer surprises, or at least the surprises are smaller, in both directions. That makes it harder to use the draft unless a team is picking first overall and/or it is a year with superstar talent.

As a rule, only four or maybe five gold medal superstars enter the league every decade, as well as five or six silver medal superstars. So there are drafts, many of them, with no superstars in them at all. Kenyon Martin, anyone? How about Andrea Bargnani? Or Kwame Brown?

Bottom line: Tanking makes sense in certain years and certain situations. But the lottery makes it an implausible course on an annual basis. (Plus the GM that does it annually will get fired, unless he works for the Clippers.) Smart GMs try to get future no. 1 picks from other teams that are unprotected many years down the road. As General Patton said to the allied troops on the verge of D-Day: the point is not to die for your country, it is to get the enemy to die for his. That way your own team does not need to stink in order to have a shot at a top pick in the future. This has gotten a lot harder to do, though it is not impossible.

As for trades, this is a very difficult proposition. No rational team with a gold medal superstar in his prime will ever trade him unless forced to do so by the superstar. There is simply no price on earth that is acceptable compensation, unless it is another gold medal superstar. (The exception is a gold medal superstar near the end of the road on a team that is going nowhere. Then a trade to clear cap space, and accrue no. 1 picks and young talent makes sense. See Garnett, Kevin. But for a team to be in that position is likely a sign of incompetent management. See McHale, Kevin.)

Six times gold medal superstars have been traded in their primes, and in all six cases the gold medal superstars led their new teams to a title. Conversely, the team trading the gold medal superstar never won a title as a result of the trade.

So trades for superstars, especially gold or silver medal superstars, are difficult to use, except in unusual circumstances. There is, for example, no sane reason a healthy LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, or Dwyane Wade would ever be traded by their present team unless the player effectively forced a deal, or if the trade was for one of these other four players. So if you don’t have one of these guys, your chances of landing one of them in a trade is almost non-existent.

That leaves free agency.

With the salary cap and the “Larry Bird” rule, it was almost impossible for a superstar to switch teams due to free agency. Most teams were over the cap and could not compete, those that could compete tended to be on lousy teams, and the team holding the superstar could exceed any outside offer. The rare time this did occur, Shaq to the Lakers in 1996, it was because Shaq wanted to be in LA so badly, he was willing to accept the salary the Lakers were in a position to offer. Jerry West did everything in his power over two years to get under the cap far enough to make a competitive offer. Bravo, Jerry West.

This is unusual, and had a lot to do with Shaq liking LA. But aside from Shaq, free agency was not a viable way for a team to grab a superstar.

That is no longer as true, due to an unintended consequence of an important change in the 1999 collective bargaining agreement. When the NBA instituted its “maximum” salary, it meant that a team with sufficient capspace could offer a superstar nearly the same salary as the team holding the superstar’s “Bird” rights. So when a Kobe Bryant was an unrestricted free agent a few years ago, the Clippers and Suns could offer pretty much the same deal as the Lakers. And when Dwyane Wade and LeBron James can opt out of their contracts in 2010, any team sufficiently under the cap will be in a position to recruit them, knowing they can hold their own on the salary front.

Some cities and franchises will always have more pull than others if salary is off the table, and each superstar may have his own tastes for where to live and play. But right now a team that is superstar-less should be thinking long and hard about how to get under the cap by 2010 or 2011. Donnie Walsh claims the Knicks will do this, and he had better resist the temptation to add salary over the next two years. Unless the Knicks get a superstar in the 2008 or 2009 draft – highly unlikely -- their only hope to contend for a long time rides on being able to get enough capspace to attract a superstar free agent to the Apple.

One other advantage to clearing capspace: it makes it far easier to do “sign-and-trades” for restricted as well as unrestricted free agents.

Bottom line: a GM is either actively planning and working to somehow get in position to corral a gold or silver medal superstar, or that GM is only treading water until he and his team drown. Danny Ainge understood that and the C’s can now hoist flag number 17 into the rafters. Does your GM get it?

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What about Greg Oden and Kevin Durant? Oden's tough to judge since he hasn't played one minute in the NBA yet. Durant was rookie of the year at age 19.

I think my team's (the Grizzlies) front office gets it. Trading Pau Gasol was sort of dumb because of what the Grizzlies got back, but it was a good move in the sense that it signified that the Grizzlies recognize that Gasol is not a player that you can build a championship team around. Bad luck in the lottery two years in a row kept the Grizzlies from getting Oden or Durant, or Beasley/Rose, but trading Love for Mayo was smart because I think Mayo has a better chance of turning into a superstar than Love.

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Great Article Series

The Superstar Theory was something I always had in the back of my mind while analyzing the NBA, but have never seen it put into a theory and supported by analtyical and cogent evidence. Wow this clearly speaks for itself. But, however two points I would l like to make with regard to how this affects current/future GMs. When you penciled in about the Gold/Silver Superstars to look at, you also made the point that championship teams (Gold/Silver players) also have at least another all star on the team with them. Another thing when your drafting and have a player, wont it take a while for you to know if that person is a legit superstar instead of just a great player? Which brings me to the point, some teams (most teams) overvalue their players to such a degree that they feel that they have a superstar but in reality, they do not. I see a lot of teams in the NBA currently building their rosters around the superstar theory without the superstar (IMO Nuggets, Raptors, and about 10 other teams).

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Kudos to the Superstar Theory

I want to be sure I understand what you are saying by asking a few questions. If you wish, yes / no answers will suffice.

1) Based on the criteria of this theory, would you say that Boston, San Antonio, Phoenix (assuming Amare Stoudemire is the Gold Superstar I think he became), and the Lakers are the front-runners for the 2008-2009 NBA championship (teams with Gold Superstars and established 2nd and 3rd high-caliber options)?

2) Does Deron Williams making All-NBA First Team within the next two seasons (at 2010, he'll be 25) determine whether the Utah Jazz are potential contenders or this generation's ensemble team that would fall to eventual championship teams?

3) Do teams with multiple 2nd-tier stars (Dallas and Houston, for example) have any hope of a title run?

4) Did the Washington Wizards trap themselves into mediocrity with the re-signings of Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison?

5) Theoretically following what the blueprint of the New Jersey Nets is as of now, can a team develop championship supporting players (with at least the 2nd option a star), sign a Gold Superstar via free agency (think 2010), and become instant contenders?

6) Will Brett Favre stay with the Green Bay Packers for the 2008-2009 NFL season?

Hehe...please disregard the last question.

By the way, I respect your thoughts on Joe Dumars not being an elite General Manager that creates a true championship team. Ever since he drafted Darko Milicic, I had that thought that Dumars isn't in the same level as Red Auerbach and Jerry West. Thanks for confirming that thought.

This hypothesis into who WILL win the championships is very interesting. I look forward to seeing how it holds up in the coming years.

I must say you created something fantastic here. To turn something subjective as to who are the best players into a scoring system like this is brilliant. Well done!

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Upcomming tallent

Your picks as of now are REALLY great. It makes sense and also points a disturbing finger at what I consider a great game. I can only hope that my Blazers can buck this trend and become the champions they should be, sans a ridiculous high talent.

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The Blazers

I'm pretty sure if the Blazers win a championship with their current line up, which features a #1 pick (Oden) and a #2 pick (Aldridge) and a player whose play last season could suggest at least a few MVP votes (Roy), wouldn't be bucking the trend at all. In fact, this series of articles makes me damn happy to be a Blazers fan.

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Flawed logic

I think this 3-part concept article you've written is slightly flawed, because the rankings are based on NBA media awards (All-NBA 1st team, 2nd team, MVP, finals mvp, etc), which don't necessarily identify who the best players are, but are merely awards from the perception of the NBA media individuals. (Who aren't necessarily right or wrong, but they aren't exactly experts)

Besides, It's the most productive players who play on the most winning teams that are given the advantage in receiving awards, rather than the awards being given out based on individual contribution. So, of course the stars of winning teams are going to rank highly in this.

For example, look at Billups, Pierce, Ben Wallace, Dirk, Iverson, etc. They all got their points when their teams won, but essentially they've been the same player through their prime (underline essentially). It's just that they get more recognition from the media (via awards) because their team was more successful. Think about it, would Ben Wallace would be awarded the same big points if he was the same player but playing with a bad supporting cast on a losing team? I can say definitely not.

This article suggests that the player(s) makes the team successful, but is basing the evidence on awards generally given to the best players on the most successful teams, as an individual achievement. So it's kind of just underlining the obvious.

It's kind of a case of 'the chicken or the egg' here...

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Genius or Connection?

I think the writer is attaching the word genius to Danny Ainge a little too loosely. He fails to point out the ties between Kevin McHale(Ex-Celtic, Ex teammate & friend of Ainge) and Danny Ainge(Ex-Celtic, ex-teammate & friend of McHale) being a key factor in Kevin Garnett being sent from Minnesota to Boston. I'm sure every team in the NBA had a high interest in obtaining the services of Kevin Garnett, including LA & Philly, but there is no way, in you know what, Kevin McHale(Ex-Celtic, ex-teammate & friend of Danny Ainge) was going to send Garnett to either one of those teams and assist them in getting stronger to become better than his ex-team(Celtics). It was clear to the NBA, after the 2006-2007 season, that it was time for Kevin Garnett to move on from the Timberwolves. It was a obvious move for McHale to send Garnett to help out his old franchise and his old buddy & ex-Celtic teammate Danny Ainge. It don't take a genius to figure that out.... On second thought, maybe it does, since no one has pointed this out up until now.

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