Jun 24

NBA Champions Super Study: Why Teams Need Multiple “Standout” Players, Part 2

Editor’s Note: Over the next week, TABMathletics author Adam Dobrowolski will look at the makings of NBA champions. This includes explaining the theory of why teams need multiple “standout” players, as well as explaining the theory why those “standout” players need to have enough experience in that role to effectively compete for a championship. Furthermore, he will show each champion from three respective eras (early BAA and NBA days, the ABA v. NBA days, the post-merger days) to illustrate how most teams follow this theory. With this study, we can see each years which teams “fit” the billing of a normal NBA champion.

NBA Finals

Last week, we saw the crowning of a new NBA champion. The San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship in a 16-year span. Despite their credentials as a potential “dynasty” in the NBA, the Spurs won this championship in unprecedented fashion. As discussed here at TABMathletics, the 2013-14 Spurs became the first team in the NBA history to win a championship despite not having a single player average at least 0.1 Win Shares per team game. So what exactly does that mean? It means that no player on that team put up enough gross statistical production to account for the team’s win at a “standout” level.

However, as we explained some last week and some yesterday, some added context allows us to see that the Spurs about as deep with “standout” players as any modern NBA champion. Five different players (with qualifying minutes) totaled at least 0.16 Win Shares per 48 Minutes, which tied an NBA record among championship teams. The 2013-14 Spurs tied that record with the two winning teams in NBA history. That’s why we considered the 2013-14 Spurs to be the deepest champion in league history.

While we’ll say that much, we must also ask: Were all those players championship ready? At first glance, it would seem like not all “standout” players are indeed playing at a championship caliber. That’s why somebody like Blake Griffin can tally at least 8.2 Win Shares each of the last four years, but not lead his team to even the conference finals, despite playing with the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul. Conventional wisdom says that Griffin is “too young” to lead the team to victory, and we agree with that sentiment.

Furthermore, we must monitor team context when it comes Win Shares. As we mentioned in last week’s Spurs post, a team’s record will carry a significant impact on a player’s Win Shares. After all, teams need wins to share for players to get Win Shares. A player can reach 8.2 Win Shares by accounting for roughly 20 percent of statistical production for a 41-win team. Another player can reach the same total by accounting for 10 percent of statistical production for an 82-win team. Choose what side you will, but those two players are not alike. Perhaps a role player occasionally reaches the threshold for “standout” play. Perhaps a very good team record pushes multiple fringe “standout” players past that threshold. We need to account for those factors.

Hypothesis: Age and previous experience as a “standout” player will impact the championship viability of players who produce “standout” statistics. Now we must determine what age and how many years of experience make such an impact.

Just look at Blake Griffin. He was drafted first overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, but missed his rookie year due to a knee injury. He would follow up the four season with 9.8 Win Shares, 9.2 Win Shares (in a 66-game lockout-shortened season), 10.6 Win Shares and 12.2 Win Shares. Griffin didn’t make the playoffs in the 2010-11 season, as the team had no other player producing “standout” numbers. However, the Clippers traded for Chris Paul in the offseason. Paul has more or less confirmed himself as one of the two greatest pure “ball distributing” point guards (next to John Stockton). Still, the Clippers own a mere 2-3 series record in the three following seasons.

Griffin just turned 25 in March, and he’s actually a few months younger than this author. We think that has a lot to do with the Clippers struggling to take the next step. Why is that neither Michael Jordan or LeBron James could win an NBA championship before their 27th birthdays? Perhaps it has to do with mental maturity. Young players can physically dominate, but basketball at a team level is very complex to master. It takes a much longer to master the team game than the individual game.

How about this note: Kawhi Leonard (22) for the 2013-14 Spurs became the first player since Dwyane Wade (24) for the 2005-06 Heat to lead a championship team in Win Shares and be younger than 27 years old. For this study, we will consider 27 years of age (as a February 1 of that NBA year) to be a cutoff for “standout” players being “championship ready.” When we get to the year-by-year championship analysis, we will note which standout players are younger than 27 years old.

This one might be a bit more complex to explain. Basically, though, we’re trying to find players who might be the equivalent of a “system” guy in the NFL. We are trying to find guys more likely to have surpassed the Win Shares threshold by playing for a good team than elevating his individual quality of play. No offense to players like Toni Kukoc or Steve Kerr, but those putting up “standout” numbers with the Jordan-led Bulls had more to do with His Airness than him elevating their play to another level.

We also must consider the inexperience of those level during the first few years of being “standout” players. We’d argue that a similar dynamic is occurring with that of a young player. Older players are likely to transition quicker into being a “standout” player of championship caliber. That doesn’t mean they won’t need some time to adjust. For this study, we will consider four years of “standout” play to be a cutoff for “standout” players being “championship ready.” When we get to the year-by-year championship analysis, we will note which standout players are in their first, second or years of “standout” play.

For this section, we look at one exception that will include a “standout” player without “standout” statistics. We will also look at two exceptions that will allow us to ignore the aforementioned mitigating context.

Elder statesmen: There are some all-time great players who can still affect a championship team without putting up standout numbers. We don’t need to look any further than the last two years. Last year, the Miami Heat won the NBA Finals in large due to the series-saving three-pointer by Ray Allen. We’re not going to say that play alone caused the Heat to win. Instead, we’ll focus on Allen’s experience. Entering the 2012-13, Allen (age 37 by February 1) had nine seasons of “standout” play. This year, Tim Duncan (age 37 as of February 1) failed only surpassed the threshold in Win Shares per 48 Minutes, but we clearly saw him return to an elite level of play once the postseason hit. These “elder statesmen” who the type who don’t need statistical efficiency to be able to significantly help the team to win.

Elite-level “standout” play: If we were to go back to Blake Griffin discussion for a second, we should note that have been young guys who led their teams to championships. However, those guys generally speaking need to be truly elite players. Although LeBron didn’t win the league championship, he reached the 2007 NBA Finals by more or less carrying the Cavaliers. He had 13.7 Win Shares that season. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade totaled 14.4 Win Shares during his young championship season. This “elite” players surpassed the threshold by significant amounts, so their play overcomes the mitigating circumstances. LeBron didn’t win the 2007 Finals because that Spurs team was much deeper and better, while the Cavs didn’t have another true “standout” player. We must consider that as well.

Previous championships: This part should be quite simple to understand. If a young “standout” player already won a championship, then he’s proven that he’s “championship ready.” We need no more explanation.

There are four factors of context to consider from this part of the study. Once we put this context into what we learned in Part 1, we can look at each champion from three respective eras of NBA history to see what “normal” championship teams look like. To recap, what we learned in this section, we have to adjust our list of “standout” players with the following contextual factors:

  1. “Standout” players must be at least 27 years old (as of February 1 of that NBA year) to be “championship ready.”
  2. “Standout” players must have at least four years of “standout” experience to be “championship ready.”
  3. Elder statesmen don’t need “standout” statistics to be “standout” players.
  4. Elite-level “standout” players who younger than 27 or have limited “standout” experience are still “championship ready.”
  5. Under-27 players with previous NBA championship experience have already proven to be “championship ready.”

Tomorrow, when we begin looking at the year-by-year champions, we will provide definite criteria for what defines “elder statesmen” and “elite-level standout players.” We will then put Part 1 and Part 2 to show what “normal” champions look like.

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