When the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title, they were hailed as the first superstar-less champions since the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics. It was a decent attempt honor the Pistons, an ode to their teamwork and balance.
But now that we’re on the verge of the most-balance NBA champion of all time, there’s hardly a peep.
Yes, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs have no superstars. (I’d argue the 2004 Pistons had one.) San Antonio has overcome its lack of elite singular production through depth and Gregg Popovich’s masterful coaching. The Spurs’ ball movement and spacing are second to none, and their defense is among the NBA’s most-versatile. On both sides of the ball, their success is a tribute to their balance.
San Antonio being only team in NBA history without a player who averaged 30 minutes per game was a telling stat entering the playoffs. Now that the Spurs, up 3-1 on the Miami Heat entering Game 5 of the NBA Finals tonight, are on the verge of an NBA title, their place in history due their balance deserves closer inspection.
Most NBA champions – by nearly a 3-to-1 margin – have an All-NBA first teamer. The Spurs did not, though Tony Parker made the All-NBA second team.
Parker is the closest player the Spurs have to a superstar.
Tim Duncan, with his continued late-career brilliance, has solidified his place as the best power forward of all-time. But he’s no longer one of the NBA’s top players based on current ability. He didn’t even make the All-Star game this year, and he’s missed all the All-NBA teams three of the last four years, including this one.
Manu Ginobili had the lowest peak level of the famed trio, and that occurred years ago. Like Duncan, he’s still a very valuable piece. But superstar, even by the most liberal of definitions? No way.
Kawhi Leonard could get there some day – again by the term’s widest scope – and his recent scoring binge suggests he’s closer than most think. But he’s not there yet. Though he led San Antonio in win shares, his total (7.7) would be the lowest to ever lead an NBA champion – and that includes lockout-shortened seasons and other years with few than 82 games, when there were fewer wins to divvy up.
No, the only contender is Parker, who, in addition to representing the Spurs on the All-NBA teams, was their only All-Star this season. But that’s just the bare minimum. Every NBA champion in a season with an All-Star Game had a player in it.
To better judge balance, I created a stat called Balance Rating.
Balance Rating is the standard deviation of the win shares of the top 10 players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top nine players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top eight players… all the way to top two. As opposed to just using standard deviation, this method emphasizes the place of teams’ top players.
The LOWER the Balance Rating, the more balanced a team is.
Here are the Balance Ratings for every NBA champion plus the 2014 Spurs:
The Bad Boys deserve more credit for their teamwork. Between their 1989 and 1990 championships, the Pistons had only one All-NBA team player – Joe Dumars, who made the 1990 third team. That means the 1989 Pistons were the only champion since the NBA added an all-league third team with no All-NBA players. (The 1978 Washington Bullets and 1979 Sonics did it, but there were just two All-NBA teams then.)
By the time he won those titles, Isiah Thomas had suppressed some of his individual skills to empower his teammates. That made the Pistons better, even if he was not quite as efficient in the regular season.
But Thomas elevated his game in the playoffs, which differentiates those Pistons from these Spurs.
The Spurs are who they are. They share the ball, defend on a string and take turns doing it. Stylistically and strategically, this is the same team that finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record. San Antonio no longer turns to Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to carry the team in pressure situations as the Pistons did with Thomas. The Spurs just keep playing their beautiful balanced game and watch where it takes them.
If it wins the championship, San Antonio will not be remember as a superstar-less champion, because Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were so excellent in their primes. Those peak years, which have already come and gone, would get conflated with this title.
But, in 2014, the Spurs are a team without a superstar.
They should get credit for it.