“It is a merciless system weighted toward the superstar,” concludes an article from RealGM analyzing what it takes to contend for an NBA title. Put less delicately, there are only about a dozen players in the NBA that even matter. A team without at least one of the best dozen players — even if that team has several All-Stars and a really good supporting cast (e.g., the Warriors, Nuggets, and Grizzlies) — has virtually zero chance of competing for an NBA title, let alone winning it. This is called the “Superstar Theory,” and its basic point is that the best players are ridiculously valuable and all the rest are merely large bodies occupying space.
Endogeneity aside, there is some compelling evidence to support the theory. In the article referenced above, the author made a list of the 117 all-time greatest NBA players based on MVP votes and All-NBA votes and several other criteria, and then counted how often teams in the Finals or conference finals had one of these 117 players. Here I’m handpicking results:
Every single NBA champion has been led by one of the 117 superstars on this list, and so has all but one of the losers in the NBA Finals. (The exception? The 2000 Pacers.) 107 of the 116 Finals teams had at least a qualifying silver medal superstar, i.e., basically an all-time top 60 player. Even eighty percent of the 116 teams that lost in the conference finals were led by one of the 117 superstars.
If the Superstar Theory is true (and it appears to be), then there are only four to six current teams with realistic title hopes. That’s because, according to the author’s criteria, there are only 13 and a half active superstars in their prime (shown below; bold indicates under age 35; please note: I say 13.5 superstars rather than 14.5 because I refuse to count Amar’e).
Platinum Medal: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan
Gold Medal: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki
Silver Medal: Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, Blake Griffin
Bronze Medal: Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce, Paul George
Honorable Mention: James Harden (3.8 points, barely missing bronze status; seems likely by 2014 unless injured)
These superstars are spread across 9 teams, with 4 of those teams having more than one superstar, with one of those teams being the Houston Rockets. So unless you have doubts as to the bona-fide-ness of Harden’s superstardom or the herniation of Dwight’s discs, then the Rockets can safely be declared contenders. But they have formidable competition in the Thunder, Clippers, and LeBrons (and maybe also the Spurs and Bulls). So the next logical question is how long their championship window might last.
Barring catastrophic injuries or other McGrady/Yao-like events, I estimate that Howard and Harden should be “superstar” enough for the Rockets to be within title-sniffing distance for at least 5 years and maybe as many as 9. That’s based on the rate that the average Hall-of-Famer ages:
Applying those age curves to Howard and Harden yields these projections:
And then lining up those age projections with the corresponding year yields this:
So if Harden and Howard age at a normal rate and continue producing at the supra-hall-of-fame level they have been, then the Rockets could be contenders through the end of the decade. But even though the window appears large-ish, Harden and Howard will likely never have a better chance than the one they have over the next couple of years. Their peak is, or should be, right now.
It’s probably a good time to remind you that it’s very hard to predict the future and that these simple projections could be way off. For example, while my estimates assume that both players’ performance will decline at a normal rate, many people expect Dwight’s performance to decline faster than average due to his reliance on his athleticism (and his reliance on back surgeries) and Harden’s performance to decline slower than average due to what-he-must-be-tired-of-hearing-called his “craftiness.” I have reasons to believe that both assumptions are mostly wrong, but even if the Rockets get a Laker-quality, rapidly-declining version of Dwight, I’d estimate that the Rockets should still be good enough for several years of title sniffing.
The critical question, I think, is not one of aging but rather one of competition. I’m confident that the Rockets can be top tier through the end of the decade, but I’m not confident that they can win four out of seven playoff games against the Thunder, Clippers, or LeBrons. At present, all of those teams appear to have more starmuscle than the Rockets, and, except for Miami, that starmuscle doesn’t appear to be significantly weakening anytime in the next few years. But that’s a topic to be continued in next Wednesday’s post.