"Not everything that can be counted counts: and not everything that counts can be counted."
A recent discussion here on the Bright Side led to a challenge - my assertion that the point guard and center position are the most important in seeking the elusive title was called into question. It took an embarrassing amount of time before I could find the article that I based that statement on, but in the process of looking for it, I ran into a plethora of information and opinions that I'd like to explore, and hopefully, discuss. My posts generally get a lot of recs, but a pitifully paltry number of comments. Maybe you can change that.
The question is: "What is the best way to go about winning a championship in today's NBA?
I based my bold assertion on an article written by Neil Payne, posted on basketball-reference.com on May 13, 2010, and titled :
In this article, Payne uses data based on 'win shares', as well as Hollinger's 'Game Score' metric to analyze the success of teams based on what position that team's best player filled. The validity of these measuring sticks is the subject of much discussion already, but they are attempts to quantify more indicators of productivity than the standard 'points/assists/rebounds' metric that has been traditionally used. Of course, any true Suns fan know that some things are unquantifiable, that there are intangibles that go beyond numbers, and that they count in the final result. And, as with any numerical analysis, there are countless anecdotal examples that can be used to contradict the numbers. On any given day, it might be a challenge to find 50% of our contributors to agree that it is a good day. In a phrase that was, at the least, popularized by Mark Twain, there are "There are three kinds of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics." Since they are the basis of the article I quoted, we will start with a discussion of the third kind of lie, statistics.
What matters in winning the NBA championship? Talent? Luck? A dominant big man? A great coach? Money? The fans? Home court advantage? The referees? A top 5 player (or 2, or 3)? Statistics? The answer is: All of the above, and more. To my knowledge, there is no statistic that encompasses all of the above, but we can throw a few of them at the wall, and see what sticks.
Payne studies the NBA from 1952-2009. He qualifies this criteria by stating:
"the game has not stayed static over the past 57 years -- rules have changed, styles of play have come into and out of vogue, the playoffs have become longer and more drawn out, etc."
He then breaks down the data again, using the seasons from 1984-2009 to get a more cogent picture of today's game.
It may be more accurate and applicable, but the truth of the matter is, that when looking at the last 25 years, the NBA has been dominated by dynasties. When a team gets really good, it tends to stay that way for several years - for instance, Jordan's Bulls, the Magic/Shaq/Kobe Lakers, the Robinson/Duncan Spurs, Hakeem's Rockets - a three year run can dominate the statistics when your sample size is 28 years. So you might be able to say that a shooting guard is the most important position, and you might be totally correct - if that SG is named Kobe or Michael.
The lines are further blurred by positional definitions. What was Magic Johnson? Either the best point guard ever, or simply one of the best players ever. After all, he played every position in one playoff game, played Center in another playoff win, and could defend just about anyone. But even he couldn't win a championship alone, and had one of the best (and most highly paid) supporting casts ever. Was Dennis Rodman a big man? Sir Charles? Is Scottie Pippen really one of the 50 greatest players of all time? Can Kobe win without a Pau Gasol? Can he win without Derek Fisher? What position does Lebron really play?
I don't have the answers to all those questions. In fact, since it is impossible to prove a negative, these points will be argued and re-argued until the end of times. So let's get started!
I won't reprint all the data in Payne's article - you should click on the link and study it on your own. I am going to break down the championships year by year from 1984 on, and see where things fall. We'll return to Payne later.
The first of the Boston/Lakers classics, featuring Larry Bird, a 6'9" 220 lb. shooting forward, vs. Magic Johnson, a 6'8" 215 lb. point guard. See what I mean?
Bird was flanked by Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, Cedric Maxwell, and Danny Ainge, while Magic was accompanied by Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, James Worthy, Jamal Wilkes, Byron Scott, and Michael Cooper. The Celtics won in 7 games, so for our first example, a SF is obviously the most important position, right?
The Celts were ranked 6th offensively, and 3rd defensively.
The Lakers were ranked 5th offensively, and 9th defensively.
Fun fact (not) Lakers beat the Suns 4-2 in the WCF.
Turnabout being fair play, Lakers take down Boston 4-2. Largely the same teams (but interestingly, Boston added Rick Carlisle, and Lakers added Mitch Kupchak). PG-1 vs. SF -1.
Lakers were ranked 1st offensively, and 7th defensively.
Celtics were ranked 2nd offensively, and 5th defensively.
Not so fun fact - Lakers beat Phoenix 3-0 in the first round.
The usual suspects on the Celtics take down the Houston Rockets, 4-2. The Rockets were made up of Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Samson, (the original Twin Towers), John Lucas, Lewis Lloyd, and Rodney McCray.
Celtics were ranked 3rd offensively, and 1st defensively.
Houston was ranked 5th offensively, and 14th defensively.
At least the Lakers didn't beat the Suns.
Back to Lakers/Celtics, with the Lakers taking it 4-2. Again, pretty much the same cast, although the Lakers had added A. C. Green, and the Celtics added Bill Walton.
Lakers were ranked 1st offensively, 7th defensively.
Boston was ranked 3rd offensivly, and 9th defensively.
Lakers were ranked 2nd offensively and 9th defensively.
Detroit was ranked 6th offensively and 2nd defensively.
Detroit gets revenge by sweeping the Lakers. Kareem is 41 years old, down to under 22 min, 10 points, and 5 boards a game.
Detroit is ranked 7th offensvely and 3rd defensively.
Lakers are ranked 1st offensively and 7th defensively.
Another WCF loss for the Suns, 4-0 to - who else- the Lakers. Thank you, Detroit.
The Pistons beat the Trail Blazers 4-1. Detroit has added James Edwards, and Rodman is starting about half the games by then. Portland has Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth, and Buck Williams.
Detroit is ranked 11th offensively and 2nd defensively.
Portland is ranked 9th offensively and 4th defensively.
Fun facts: Detroit beat Jordan's Bulls in their first ECF appearance, and Portland beat - wait for it - the Suns in the WCF. The Suns did beat the Lakers in the semis.
Lakers, meet Michael Jordan. Bulls take it 4-1 behind Jordan, our own beloved Bill Cartwright, Pippen, Horace Grant, and John Paxson. Vlade Divac has replaced Kareem.
Bulls are ranked 1st offensively, 7th defensively.
Lakers are 5th, both offensively and defensively.
Suns lost to the Stockton/Malone Jazz in the first round, 3-1.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-1
Bulls over Portland, 4-2. Bulls have added BJ Armstrong, Portland now has Danny Ainge.
Bulls are ranked 1st O, 4th D. Portland, 7th ), 3rd D.
Portland beat the Suns in the Semis, but the Suns did take out the Spurs in the first round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-2
You know this story. Bulls 4-2 over the (sob) Suns, featuring Sir Charles, Tom Chambers, Thunder Dan, Kevin Johnson, Cedric Ceballos, Richard Dumas, Oliver Miller, Mark West - even Kurt Rambis. Hearts are still broken.
Bulls 2nd O, 7th D.
Suns 1st O, 9th D.
FUN fact - we beat the Spurs, Lakers, and Seattle to get to the finals.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-3
Jordan is trying to hit curveballs. So it's the Rockets over the Knicks, 4-3. The Rockets are sporting Hakeem, Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, and Vernon Maxwell, with Sam Cassell and Mario Elie backing up. The Knicks feature Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Greg Anthony, Anthony Mason, and Derek Harper.
Houston is 15th O, 2nd D.
Knicks are 16th O, 1st D. Ugly, ugly basketball.
Rockets beat the Suns in the 2nd round. These facts really aren't fun.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-3 C-1
Rockets over the Magic, 4-0. Rockets have added 32 year old Clyde Drexler, and Orlando has 2nd year Shaq, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Anfernee Hardaway, and Donald Royal.
Houston is 7th O, 12th D.
Orlando is 1st O, 13th D.
Houston beat the Suns again in the 2nd round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-3 C-2
Guess what. Jordan can't hit a curve ball. But he can BALL! Jordan, Kerr, Rodman, Pippen, Ron Harper, and Tony Kukoc, with Luc Longley and Bill Wennington manning the middle beat Seattle, featuring Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, with Nate McMillan, Eric Snow, and Ervin Johnson, 4-2.
Bulls were ranked 1st O, 1st D.
Seattle was 8th O, 2nd D.
Spurs took out the Suns in the 1st round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-4 C-2
Bulls over the Jazz 4-2. Bulls were good, and had Robert Parrish to boot. Jazz were manned by Stockton and Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russel, and Greg Ostertag.
Bulls were 1st O, 4th D.
Jazz were 2nd O, 9th D.
Seattle over Suns 3-2 in the 1st round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-5 C-2
Two-peat of the Threepeat.
Bulls over Jazz 4-2.
Bulls 9th O, 3rd D.
Jazz 1st O, 17th D.
Spurs beat the Suns 3-1 in the 1st round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-2
1999 Strike shortened season
Spurs over Knicks 4-1. 22 yo Duncan towers with 33 yo David Robinson, backed by Kerr, Sean Elliot, Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, Knicks with Ewing, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, 24 yo Marcus Camby, 26 yo Kurt Thomas, and Charlie Ward.
Spurs 11th O, 1st D.
Knicks 26th O (of 29), 4th D.
Blazers over Suns 3-0 in 1st round.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-3
Lakers over Pacers 4-2. Shaq, 3rd year Kobe, 3rd year Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Ron Harper, A. C. Green, and Brian Shaw matched against Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Rick Smits, Austin Croshere, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Travis Best, Sam Perkins, Al Harrington, Chris Mullin, Derrick McKey, and Johnathan Bender.
Lakers 5th O, 1st D.
Pacers 1st O, 13th D.
Suns beat the Spurs 3-1, but lost to the Lakers 4-1.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-4
Lakers over 76ers, 4-1
Lakers 5th O, 1st D.
Philly13th O, 5th D.
Suns beat the Spurs 3-1, but lost to the Lakers 4-1. Yes, I cut and pasted that from the previous year. Not fun.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-5
Lakers 2nd O, 7th D.
Nets 17th O, 1st D.
Lakers 2nd O, 7th D
Suns miss the playoffs, draft Amar'e.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-6
Spurs over Nets 4-2. Familiar roster - Duncan, Parker, Ginobli, Bowen, Kerr, Stephen Jackson, and David Robinson agains the Nets, who added Mutombo.
Spurs 7th O, 3rd D.
Nets 18th O, 1st D.
Spurs took out the Suns in the 1st round 4-2, and the Lakers in the 2nd, Mavs in WCF.
Our first PF sighting - although Duncan is listed as a F-C.
PG-5, SF-2, SG-6 C-6 PF-1
Pistons over Lakers 4-1. Lakers had added Malone, Gary Payton, and Luke Walton, and wre starting Devean George. Pistons were made up of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Mehmet Okur, Darko Milicic, and Elden Campbell.
Detroit 18th O, 2nd D.
Lakers 6th O, 8th D.
No playoffs for Suns. 29-53, drafted and traded Luol Deng.
PG-6, SF-2, SG-6 C-6 PF-1
SA 8th O 1st D
Detroit 17th O 3rd D.
PG-6, SF-2, SG-6 C-6 PF-2
Heat over Mavs 4-2.
Wow. Two great teams, pretty much in their prime.
Miami 7th O 9th D
Dallas 1st O 11th D
PG-6, SF-2, SG-6 C-7 PF-2
Ah, the Suns that year. Nash, Marion, Diaw, Kurt Thomas, LB, Bell, Pat Burke, Tim Thomas, Eddie House and James Jones. SSOL, baby. Smallball. Great comeback series to win 4-3 against the Lakers (cough*clothesline*cough). Great 4-3 win against a tough Clippers team. Then a heartbreaking 4-2 loss to a great team after a Bell injury. Overachieving bunch, huh?
Spurs over Cavs 4-2.
Spurs 5th O 2nd D
Cavs 18th O 4th D
PG-6, SF-2, SG-6 C-7 PF-3
Suns : Amar'e is back. Suspensions. Not fun in any way facts. Spurs take us 4-2, and Robert Horry burns a long career, and changes the meaning of a cool nickname, "Big Shot Bob" forever. Hip check my dyin' ass.
Celtics over Lakers 4-2
Boston - Big three - Garnett, Pierce, Allen. Big Baby. Perkins. Rondo. House. Tony Allen. Posey. Cassell.
Lakers - Kobe, Pau, Odom, Fisher, Farmar, Radmanovic, Vujacic, Ariza, Kwame Brown, Turiaf. No Bynum.
Celtics - 10th O, 1st D
Lakers - 3rd O, 5th D
PG-6, SF-2, SG-6 C-7 PF-4
Suns - Shaq. Spurs 4-2. Marcus Banks. Crap.
Lakers over Magic, 4-0
Same old Lakers.
Lakers - 3rd O, 6th D
Magic - 11th O, 1st D
PG-6, SF-2, SG-7 C-7 PF-4
Suns - Porter. Shaq. Detached Retina. F*********************ck!!!!
I assume you know this story, intrepid fans. Let's just leave it at -
PG-6, SF-2, SG-8 C-7 PF-4
We don't need to say anything else.
So that's a brief (not really) revisitation of the last 26 years. Damn! All that work, and it looks like...SG wins. But wait - first of all, it's not really SG's - it's Jordan (6) and Kobe (2) - remember, this is when they were the best player on the team - not true when Shaq was in LA. And these guys are freaks. Centers are distributed a little bit better, but still, it's Hakeem 2, David Robinson 1, Shaq 4. SF is all Bird, and PG is Magic 3, Isiah Thomas 2, and Billups 1. And in the PF category, it's Duncan 3, Garnett 1.
Jordan SG 6
Shaq C 4
Magic PG 3
Bird SF 2
Hakeem C 2
Isiah PG 2
Kobe SG 2
Billups PG 1
Robinson C 1
Garnett PF 1
Eight players account for 24 of the last 27 teams best players. So it looks like the best way to build a champ is to get Michael Jordan, right? Can he hit a curve ball yet?
Our little look here accounts for the champs, but we didn't look at the other teams. We really didn't look at the supporting cast, either. But from this standpoint, it sure looks like having a top 5 player is a good formula for winning a championship, doesn't it?
What about the supporting cast? Jordan didn't win anything without Pippen, and Scottie is generally considered to be in the top 50 all-time. Kobe has never won a title without Fisher and a premier big man - Magic needed Kareem, Bird needed McHale and Parrish, Robinson needed Duncan, and Duncan needed Parker and Ginobli - and of course, Robert Horry has more rings than anybody. So which is the peanut butter and which is the jelly? And what about the bread? (I mean money).
1984 is significant as a starting point for this excercise, because that was the year the salary cap was instituted. It even has a clause called the "Bird Rule" which allows teams to exceed the cap to re-sign their own free agents. We know that in 2010, Buss outspent every other team by about $14 million, not including Phil Jackson's $20 million salary, and he won it all. Is that fair? How does salary impact championships over the same period?
|NBA Season||NBA Salary Cap|
So, in 1985, the salary cap was $3.6 million. The Lakers won - but I can't find their salary. So, let's start with 1985-86, when the Celtics won. The cap was $4.233 million - here are the individual salaries:
$6.5595 million dollars - almost 35% over the cap. I guess they liked the Bird rule. What about the competition, the Rockets? $4.259 million - right at the cap. Money wins.
There's no salary listed for the next year (Celtics vs. Lakers) but it's a safe bet that they were both well over the cap. In 1988, the Lakers beat the Pistons - the Lakers salary was:
$9.107 million. What about Detroit?
Just over $5.9 million against a cap of $6.164 million, and they took the Lakers to 7 games. But money won again.
In 1988-89, Detroit turned it around on the Lakers
The poor Lakers were forced to go with only 11 players, with a total salary of $10.694 million vs. Detroit's $7.53 mil, against a cap of $7.232 million. This time, the lesser paid team won.
No data for the next year - Pistons vs. Blazers.
$12.12 million, against a cap of roughly $9.8 million. Kareem is gone, so some of the 'Bird rule' players are working their way out of the system, and there's a bit more parity.
What about 1992-93, bulls vs. Suns?
$14.28 million, against a cap of $14 million. So we was outspent, and we wuz robbed.
The Bulls, of course, dominated the 90's. Since data is incomplete, I'll just cherry-pick a few years.
1998 - the last year of the Jordan Bulls dynasty.
$28.5 million, against a cap of $28.9 million. Of course, Jordan making 33 million skews things a bit - I'm not even sure that's right. But the year before, BB-reference lists him at $31 mil or so, so in the absence of other data, I'll have to accept it.
1999-2000 Shaq's Lakers
$54.95 against a cap of $34 million. Both teams overspent the cap by almost 40%.
Money talks. So the conclusion we can draw from that is, SPEND MORE MONEY!!! And get Jordan. But wait....
Here's Payne's take on the same period. RS stands for regular season - PO is playoffs. WS is win share, and GmSc is Hollinger's game score metric. You can look up haw these are calculated in the link I provided at the beginning of the article.
What's really happening is that Hollinger is finding that the best player may not really be the best player - at least according to his metric. So he's obviously giving some weight to the supporting cast here. Using this metric, the best players on most championship teams since 1984, regardless of the star, is the SG. You can account for this by maybe saying that on Shaq's Lakers, Kobe really was the best player, or maybe Ginobli had more to do with winning and losing than Duncan did. I don't know how he figured that, because I don't have his raw data.
Just for grins, here's another article that maintains that the SF position is most important.
If you use the data from 1952, big men are much more important. Of course, that encompasses Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone, Willis Reed, Bill Walton, and more of Kareem's career. But in the modern era, not so much. When dominant big men do come along, they have an impact - but they are more rare. When you have 6'8" PG's, and 6'11" 3 point shooters, the lines become blurred and indistinct. Sir Charles has been listed as anywhere from 6'4" to 6'8" - does it really matter? He played big. Yao Ming and Dwight Howard have yet to win a championship. But Steve Nash hasn't, either.
I began writing this article to support my statement - from this article- that PG and center are the two most important positions in winning a championship. After taking this entertaining stroll through the dusty archives, and reading Payne's article more closely, I think I was wrong. In fact, all the charts and data notwithstanding, it seems to be spending more money is the best way to build a champion. Of course, the more money you spend, the better players you get, and the better supporting cast you get - and the more championships you get. A lot of what I've written here may be comparing apples to bulldozers - I don't know.
I'd like to see the same kind of study done whose only metric is luck. You've heard the saying "It's better to be lucky than good", right? How much of Artest's putback was luck, and how much was talent, and how much was just hustle? That depends on your perspective. If you're a Suns fan, it was luck. If you're (gag) a Lakers fan, it was talent, and hustle, and the Suns sucking. All true. But until luck can be quantified, and the basketball gods consulted, we will never have a truly clear answer to the question of how to build a champion. The Suns have been good, but they certainly haven't been lucky. The good news is, we have a great PG (and his backup). We have a great SG in JRich. We have a promising, if unpolished big man in Lopez, and a unique and improving backup in Frye. We have great role players, great chemistry, a great coach (another area that needs study), and an owner who has proven that he's willing to go into the luxury tax if he thinks it's worth it. So Dear Mr. Sarver - go buy us some luck. And Michael Jordan in his prime, please.