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The Superstar Theory, Part Two: What Every NBA GM Needs To Know (Section A)

In Part One of this series, I provided detailed evidence for the Superstar Theory. (You should look at Part One—which has sections A, B and C—before your read what follows; it will not make much sense otherwise.) This is the idea that the key to winning or even contending for an NBA championship is dependent upon having a bona fide superstar, someone who would rank among the top 35 players in league history. Then it is imperative to have at least one, and maybe two, other superstar players, guys who would rank in the top 100 players in league history.

The evidence is clear: teams that fit this profile win almost all of the NBA titles and are the teams that seriously contend for all NBA titles. Everyone else is spinning their wheels and hoping their fans don’t notice that they are a hepped-up version of the Washington Generals. NBA team marketing departments aside from a few places like Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles certainly do not want this truth to get around. But basketball lovers revel in this truth because in few team sports can individual athletic genius be put on such magnificent display, yet require a commitment to team success to be realized.

Let me repeat from the earlier piece that merely having a superstar or two does not guarantee a title or even contention; it is simply the ante for admission. A team still needs role players, good coaching, experience, etc. The Superstar Theory does not explain who will win every title before the season or before the playoffs; it simply explains who is in legitimate contention, and provides guidance to teams that would like to become legitimate contenders.

For NBA GMs and serious fans—if not the marketing departments—the truth about how NBA championships are won cannot be glossed over. That is why I have done this research and written this piece. Let’s start by looking at the current NBA superstars are who are in their prime, and who looks most likely to join them. Then we can see where the championships will come from for the visible future, or until another generation of superstars enters the league.

After getting the lay of the land, I will assess how NBA GMs have acquired superstars traditionally and what their options are today, under the current collective bargaining agreement. I conclude with a few brief comments of how a fan night evaluate an NBA GM’s performance…if the goal is to have a team that actually contends for and possibly wins an NBA championship.

Who are the current NBA superstars?

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) 

The superstars who will be under 35 in the 2013-14 season are listed in bold. I have bold-faced and italicized the superstars who are under 25, as they may still be in the process of rising up the charts. Superstars generally reach their level fairly early in their careers, by their mid-to-late 20s. Each of the seven superstars (including James Harden) who are under 25 could shoot higher on the list if they remain healthy. How far up the list these seven guys climb in the next few years will go a long way toward determining how successful their teams will be. The others are probably slotted where they will remain.

This is a pretty small group of players, especially in the platinum and gold medal levels where most championships can be found. Even tossing in the silver medal level, this only leaves only a handful of NBA teams with a shot at the title, and only four that have at least a gold or platinum medal leader.

Nor are all superstars in their prime. Tim Duncan’s exceptional year in 2012-13 was an anomaly; most players on this list who are 35 or older are past their prime, even well past their prime, and only a few of them will even have qualifying seasons in 2013-14. Some are approaching the “victory lap” stage of their careers.

So the first question is this: Are there young players in the NBA right now who will join this list and rise rapidly to the top? If there are then there may be more competition on the horizon for championships than this list suggests.

For the sake of this discussion, the bronze medal superstars are less important. They almost never lead teams to championships; they are tremendous players—routinely make the All-Star Game and most will go to the Hall of Fame, they are among the best 100 players in NBA history—and often necessary sidekicks on contenders and champions. But even having two bronze medal superstars on your team is insufficient to win an NBA title, the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics notwithstanding. What we want to determine here is whether there are young players on the horizon who can go silver or, especially, gold or platinum.

Fortunately, there is a remarkably accurate way to know if any current young players in the NBA not on this list are likely to make it: seeing their age the first time they make first-team All-NBA. What is striking, as the chart below demonstrates, is the players who become platinum, gold and silver superstars tend to make first-team All-NBA teams very early in their careers. They almost always make second or third team NBA right way. (I use the player’s age at the beginning of a season, November 1.)

Platinum Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
1. Michael Jordan 23 21 1
2. Bill Russell 24 23 2
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 23 22 1
4. Larry Bird 22 22 1
5. LeBron James 20 19 2
6. Magic Johnson 23 22 3
6. Bob Pettit 21 21 1
8. David Robinson 25 24 1
9. Kobe Bryant 23 22 3
9. Tim Duncan 21 21 1
11. Jerry West 23 23 2
12. Wilt Chamberlain 23 23 1
13. Bob Cousy 23 23 2
13a. Bill Walton 24 23 3

Gold Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
14. Karl Malone 25 24 3
15. Kevin Durant 21 21 3
16. Elgin Baylor 24 24 1
17. Oscar Robertson 21 21 1
18. Shaquille O’Neal 25 21 2
19. Dwight Howard 21 20 3
20. Hakeem Olajuwon 23 22 2
21. Julius Erving (ABA) 22 21 1
22. Chris Paul 22 22 3
23. Bill Sharman* 28 26 3
24. Kevin Garnett 23 22 4
25. Moses Malone 23 23 2
26. Dolph Schayes* 23 21 1
27. George Gervin(ABA) 25 22 2
28. Dirk Nowitzki 26 22 3
29. John Havlicek 30 23 2
29. Charles Barkley 24 22 2
31. Walt Frazier 24 24 3
31a. Sidney Moncrief 25 24 3
31b. Maurice Stokes * 22 1

*Career-ending injury after third season

Silver Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
32. John Stockton 31 25 4
33. Gary Payton 27 25 4
34. Dwyane Wade  26 22 2
35. Tracy McGrady 22 21 4
36. Steve Nash 30 27 6
36. Patrick Ewing  27 25 3
38. Scottie Pippen 28 26 5
39. Rick Barry 21 21 1
40. Paul Arizin  23 23 2
40. Derrick Rose 22 22 3
42. Jason Kidd 25 25 4
43. Nate Archibald 24 23 2
44. Dave Cowens * 24 3
45. Bob McAdoo  23 22 2
46. Elvin Hayes 29 27 5
47. Grant Hill 24 23 2
48. Allen Iverson 25 24 4
49. Isiah Thomas 22 21 2
50. Ben Wallace NA 27 6
51. Alonzo Mourning 28 28 7
52. Sam Jones NA 31 8
53. Dominique Wilkins 25 25 4
54. Dennis Rodman NA 31 6
55. Spencer Haywood 22 22 2
56. Amar'e Stoudemire 23 21 3
57. Billy Cunningham 25 25 4
58. Blake Griffin NA 22 2
58a. Willis Reed 27 24 3
58b. George Yardley 29 28 4
58c. David Thompson 22 21 (ABA) 1
58d. Gus Johnson NA 25 2
58e. Neil Johnston 23 23 2
58f. Paul Westphal 25 25 5
58g. Mark Price 28 24 3

* Cowens won the league MVP at age 24. He never made first-team All-NBA thanks to Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. 

Take a close look at the ages of these players when they make All-NBA and first-team All-NBA. Platinum medal superstars all make all-NBA within a year or two of entering the league and all make all-NBA first team before 25, and usually long before that. In the case of everyone on that list, people knew very early in their careers that these were players who were going to be dominant. Late bloomers need not apply.

The same pattern hold true for gold medal superstars. The only exceptions to the first-team by age-25 rule are Bill Sharman, who did not play a full season until he was 25 and John Havlicek who almost immediately earned second team all-NBA honors for the dynasty Celtics but did not make first-team all-NBA until he turned 30. (Then he made it several years in a row.)

There is a little bit of slippage with silver medal superstars—just over one-half made first-team All-NBA by 25—but not that much. Here the laggards tend to be the great defensive players like Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Alonzo Mourning and Gus Johnson. But the all-Defensive team was created for exactly this type of player. The first three won eight Defensive Player of the Year awards between them, and Gus Johnson might have finished second to Bill Russell a few times had the award existed when he played.

The evidence does not merely suggest that making first-team All-NBA early in one’s career is necessary to attain platinum-gold-silver medal status. The evidence leads to an even stronger conclusion: if a player makes first-team all-NBA before their 26th birthday they will almost certainly become a superstar of the platinum-gold-silver variety. You know early in a player’s career if you have the real deal.

Since 1955, 52 players have made first-team All-NBA by the season in which they began at age 25. Fully 50 of those 52 players, 96 percent if you are scoring at home, went on be superstars. This includes all 14 platinum medal superstars; 16 of the 20 gold medal superstars and 15 silver medal superstars. Only five of the 49 bronze medal superstars distinguished themselves with first-team all-NBA honors by age 25. So this is a measure of who will rise to the top of the superstar list, not just who makes it.

Who were the two exceptions? Earl Monroe and Latrell Sprewell. Monroe had an odd career; he made first-team All-NBA in his second season but never made any all-NBA team again. Sprewell had the exact same record with regard to All-NBA teams. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The two current 25-and-under players have already made first-team All-NBA—Durant and Rose—are shooting up the superstars list. Three more on the list—Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love—have made second or third team All-NBA but as yet have not made first-team All-NBA. It is not unthinkable, especially for Griffin. Two young players, Paul George and James Harden, who are at the end of the list, made third team All-NBA in 2013. I like them both and it is possible they make first-team All-NBA in the next two years before they turn 26. If they do, they will almost certainly become silver medal superstars, with an outside chance at gold. That would bode well for Houston and Indiana.

But George and Harden may also stagnate, even Love, Westbrook and Griffin for that matter. By that I do not mean they will get bounced out of the NBA and end up playing in the Philippines B-League; rather I mean they will have very good solid careers, likely All-Stars, but they will not be the type of player who leads teams to championships. The difference between platinum-gold-silver superstars and bronze superstars, and between bronze superstars and everyone below them including routine all-stars, is like night and day. On paper, the Al Horfords and LaMarcus Aldridges of the world may not seem that far from the Duncans and the Howards, but in the real world they are living in different universes.

That is why making first-team all-NBA is so crucial. Just making a second or third All-NBA team by the season of one’s 25th year does not indicate a future on the superstar list. Since 1955-56 fully 64 players under the age of 26 made second or third All-NBA teams but did not make first-team All-NBA teams. (Some would do so after they were 25.) Of these 64 wunderkinds, only 28 ended up on the superstar list, and 16 of those 28 ended up in the bronze medal “baba louie” category. So less than one in five of the players who made second or third team all-NBA (but not first team) before 26 went on to be platinum-gold-silver superstars.

The seven under-25s on the superstar list are likely the only current NBA players who will make the list and stay there. The best bets from remaining NBA players are Andrew Bynum—if his knee has a magical recovery—and the first overall picks in two recent drafts, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. They both have a lot of talent. If they are superstars, we will likely know by the spring of 2014. Stephen Curry looked like one of the best 15 players in the NBA at times during the playoffs, but he’s older than Durant without an All-Star Game appearance. Larry Sanders is another dark horse, simply because he has Defensive Player of the Year type talent, and that tends to win a lot of games. Those guys tend to be late bloomers who have very long productive careers once they get into gear. Andre Drummond has ridiculous talent as well. But the odds are they will all go the route of the vast majority of talented high picks: nice careers, maybe All-Stars, but no way a superstar. John Wall, anyone? Andre Iguodala? Joakim Noah? Zach Randolph? David Lee? Rudy Gay? Chris Bosh? Pau Gasol?

One other possibility: Deron Williams, who was rising on the list a few years back before his career got derailed with injuries. If healthy and on top of his game, Williams could force his way back into bronze medal status despite being 29.

The odds are that aside for the youngsters already on the list, the next generation of platinum, gold and even silver medal superstars is not yet in the NBA. Reports suggest some may be in the 2014 draft.

That means the relevant teams we are looking at for contenders in 2013-14 are:

1. Miami, with James and Wade

2. Oklahoma City, with Durant and Westbrook

3. Los Angeles Clippers, with Paul and Griffin

4. Houston, with Howard and Harden

5. San Antonio, with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili

The next tier includes:

6. Chicago, with Rose

7. New York, with Anthony and Stoudemire

8. Brooklyn, with Garnett and Pierce (and Deron Williams)

9. Indiana, with George

10. Los Angeles Lakers, with Bryant and Nash

By the Superstar Theory, nobody else has a prayer.

I should add that I don’t think the second tier teams really have much of a chance, but I am open to Rose and George elevating their games in a dazzling manner. I think New York and Brooklyn are all too old and not talented enough to get through Miami and whoever conquers the west. If Deron Williams returns to superstar form, their chances improve. I’m also pessimistic about San Antonio, but I would not bet against them. The Lakers are included out of respect for Kobe Bryant, and for no other reason.

CLICK HERE to read Section B: What The Superstar Theory Means For NBA GMs

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