The Superstar Theory is not the Nostradamus Theory; it does not predict who exactly will win championships. It only explains, with considerable precision, what teams will be in legitimate contention. The games still have to be played.
The Superstar Theory does not provide an algorithm for a GM to plug in and create a contender. The important work of a GM—player evaluation first and foremost—remains. Drafting well, assessing talent, this still remains the core of a GM’s job. Understanding how to put the pieces together, too. The Superstar Theory is no substitute for smart GM work.
What the Superstar Theory does do is provide a shorthand mechanism to understand what it takes to win NBA titles. It is radical, in the Greek sense of the word, because it gets to the root of the problem. It identifies the single most important factor for team success in NBA history. By doing so it blows to smithereens the conventional notion that teams win titles like they do in other team sports by collecting a few all-stars, getting experience, having a good coach, getting a good night’s sleep before the big game, and slowly improving over time.
The conventional model explains, at best, one or two NBA championships in the past 58 seasons. The Superstar Theory explains all the rest, if not all of them. And nothing in recent experience suggests that is going to change.
By looking at the current winners, we can see how successful GMs strategically acquired superstars.
Pat Riley and Miami obviously did it right. They worked the cap to have room for three max-contract players in 2010. It took vision to do that. If the Heat lose LeBron in 2014 or 2015, it will not be saddled with a number of long-term $20 million deals with hacks. It will also have nearly a full complement of No. 1 picks. Sure it helps to be in Miami, but that is playing the hand you are dealt about as well as it can be done.
Oklahoma City has been doing everything right since 2007, when it began clearing away contracts, acquiring future No. 1 picks, and demonstrating the necessary patience. It had high lottery picks for three consecutive years and had the good fortune to have them in bountiful drafts at the top. Hence: Durant, Westbrook and Harden. By the Superstar Theory, the trade of Harden was something Sam Presti should have avoided at all costs. The team is still a serious contender for the next decade, but the inclusion of Harden made them a potential dynasty.
To be fair, Oklahoma City was pushed by the new luxury tax considerations to unload Harden, and they did get back what they thought would be a high lottery pick in return. The thinking was that they could get another superstar on a much more palatable rookie-scale salary. But the pick fell to 12th overall and the class was disappointing.
The Lakers, even after West’s departure, have been steadfast in their pursuit of superstars. From the kyboshed 2011 Chris Paul deal to the 2012 swap for Dwight Howard, the Lakers seem to understand that a roster full of Al Jeffersons and Rudy Gays as your top bananas won’t get it done. The Lakers take a lot of crap for letting Howard escape, but they will have massive salary cap available next offseason. If they are willing to be patient and possibly stink for a year or two, they have the assets to get another superstar or two in the coming years. The late-Kobe and post-Kobe years could be bright. It helps a lot to be in Los Angeles. It is even finally helping the Clippers.
I have admired Daryl Morey from his days at the Celtics. It was obvious from day one he understood the central importance of getting superstars to becoming a contender. What he did to put himself in position to trade for James Harden and then sign Dwight Howard was simply a virtuoso performance. The dude is a maestro.
Speaking of the Celtics, Ainge has always been a strong proponent of the Superstar Theory. He spent four years massaging the beaten-down talentless Celtics roster he inherited that was filled with overpaid hacks—aside from Pierce—and getting it in position so he had the assets to acquire Garnett in 2007. He faces a similar challenge today, and his job is made more difficult by several painful long-term contracts he inked with mediocrities in 2012 to squeeze another year or two of contention out of the KG-Pierce Celtics. But he is with the rebuild program now and the eyes of the league will be on him.
I will do a report on the Celtics' rebuild in October. One point is instantly obvious by the Superstar Theory: the Celtics’ rebuild comes down to one thing: they need to have Rajon Rondo continue to improve, but he has to become the second best player on the team, with blue sky between him and the new No. 1 guy. That would mean the Celtics had acquired a top-rank superstar and they would then be back in business. Otherwise, the Celtics can be good, but hanging another banner in the rafters won’t happen.
It is hard to know whether Clippers’ management should be applauded, or whether they deserve the Jed Clampett-Paul Allen-Ringo Starr “right place at the right time” award. After what seems like decades of high lottery picks, it was just a matter of time before they hit on one in Blake Griffin. And it is unclear how much the trade for Chris Paul was due to strategy and skill or if he was basically was handed to them as he wanted to be in Los Angeles.
Then there are the Spurs, who are both extremely good and extremely lucky. Drafting superstars like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the bowels of the first and second round was unrivalled in modern NBA history. But so was having the good fortune to win the draft lottery in two of only six seasons in NBA history—1987 and 1997—when platinum media players were taken first overall. Getting a David Robinson and a Tim Duncan makes the job of being GM a cakewalk.
As for teams at the bottom, the Cavaliers have made all the right moves since LeBron left. They have lots of young talent, lots of cap space, and lots of No. 1 picks. If the 2013 draft had had a superstar at the top, the situation would be even better. The Bynum contract allows the Cavs to drop him in July 2014 if it looks like they need the cap space to sign a superstar, namely that guy from Akron. If the Cavs can’t get LeBron back, they can keep Bynum for another year.
I like the approach Philadelphia and Phoenix are taking. Clear away cap space, collect No. 1 picks, and take a couple years of high draft picks. You were going nowhere in a hurry before. Dallas seems pointing in that direction too, without the transparent tank job. Utah is definitely taking a patient approach, keeping the guys with a future, acquiring No. 1 picks and letting everyone over 27 walk. They all need to maintain their patience, and it gets hard to do that.
By the Superstar Theory, some teams’ approaches leave me bewildered.
As I mention above, I understand why the Nets took the risk they did in dealing for Garnett and Pierce. After picking up Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, this was a veteran team firmly entrenched on the 50-32 treadmill otherwise, so it really had nothing to lose.
I am less impressed with Knicks’ management, and I do not say this with the benefit of hindsight. It has been apparent since at least 2011, if not 2010. Granted the injuries to Stoudemire have been damaging, but his injury history was well-known before he signed with New York in 2010. As it is, the Knicks have committed a fortune to a roster that does not have the superstar firepower to thump the Heat or beat one of the Western Conference teams. The Knicks appear to fit the profile of all those teams that finish, at best, as losers in the conference finals: their superstar, in this case Carmelo Anthony, is simply not good enough to be the best player on a championship team. (If Amar’e were healthy and in his prime, that might be another matter, but that discussion is moot.)
Moreover, they let David Lee walk, and then traded a ton of first round picks and young players to acquire Carmelo in 2011, when he would have been sitting there a few months later once the lockout was ended as an unrestricted free agent. They come across as desperate and impatient, which is too bad considering they sacrificed a good two or three years to clear cap space for the 2010 free agent class. It is hard to see how this team gets back on track in the visible future. The Knicks put all the money on the wrong numbers, and now—to mix gambling metaphors—they enter every season hoping to draw to an inside straight. They have a shot, but it is a very long shot.
But after a decade of mediocrity or worse before 2010, a 54-28 regular season record and the second round of the playoffs was a step forward.
Detroit seems to be banking on Andre Drummond becoming an All-NBA stud. If he does, the Josh Smith signing and the Brandon Jennings trade may be smart complementary moves. If Drummond doesn’t pan out, and his .371 free throw percentage is frightening, Detroit stays on the treadmill for the rest of the decade. It would be the classic case of NBA fool’s gold: sign a lot of goods guys, even All-Stars, to long-term deals, but never have the superstar at the top to make the difference in May or June.
You get the idea. Some teams seem to be spending money, but I don’t see true title contention on the horizon. Milwaukee, Atlanta, Minnesota, Golden State and Denver come to mind. What is the end game there?
In fact, that is the question the Superstar Theory begs of every team that in not a contender when they make a trade or sign a free agent. What is the end game there?