It’s no secret that superstars matter in the NBA. If your team has a superstar-caliber player, odds are they have a much better shot at winning a title than a team that doesn’t. However, as the league’s SuperTeam era continues into this season and has a new member in the LA Lakers, now with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, I felt it was time to take a look at just how important having one of these guys is.
Firstly, I figured it was important to define what a superstar is – not an easy task. In the end I decided on the woman test. If your girlfriend/wife/mother who doesn’t follow the NBA knows who these guys are, then they’re superstars. Based on my highly scientific method, I will argue that in today’s NBA there are just six players who fit that category – LeBron, Kobe, Dwight Howard, Wade, Durant and Derrick Rose. But since this is arbitrary as hell I’ll throw in Chris Paul as well on the second part of the definition of an NBA superstar – if this guy is on your team, you’re in the playoffs. Forget about what kind of talent he has around him or any other factor. His presence alone is worth 45+ wins and a playoff spot. (I know Kobe at this stage of his career is dubious in this regard – but since he scores so highly on the other test I’d argue he still fits the tag).
So we have seven of these guys spread over five teams. LeBron/Wade’s Heat and Kobe/D12’s Lakers are everyone’s favourite title pick, with Durant (and his borderline superstar sidekick Russell Westbrook)’s OKC Thunder another legit contender. Chris Paul’s Clippers are a legitimate dark horse if he fires enough, Blake Griffin can take the next step and Vinny Del Negro is a bit less of a liability than last year. And the Bulls would also be in the conversation were it not for Rose’s injury.
SO we know having superstars matters. But just how much? What happens when equally loaded teams play each other? Here’s my theory: having a superstar-caliber player doesn’t matter as much as having the best player on the floor in the series. Let’s return to the 2011 playoffs. As much as we wanted to call that a Heat choke job at the time – in hindsight the Mavs won because Dirk Nowitzki found another level that entire playoff series, a level that LeBron and Wade, for all their efforts, couldn’t match at the time.
This past year it was LeBron who found that new level. It started in the Indiana series when the Pacers went up 2-1 and had a Game 4 in Indiana – suddenly everyone was seriously considering the possibility the Pacers may make the Eastern Conference Finals over Miami. Of course, LeBron turned up and hammered Indiana’s hopes into the ground over the next three games. Then came the 45-15-5 game in Boston which was just amazing. I watched that entire game and I will be telling my children about it, just like my dad tells me about seeing Jordan’s 63 point game against the Celtics and realizing that this guy was going to be something amazing. We already knew LeBron was great, but that was the game we finally realized just how amazing he was going to be now that he’d found that extra gear when it mattered. What he did there…I saw that game and I knew that the Heat would win the Finals. For his entire career we’d been begging, taunting him to find that extra gear – well now he had and everyone better get out of the way. I don’t think people realize just how much the Thunder were outclassed in the Finals either. Sure they played hard, but there was never really a moment where you could feel the Thunder had a chance. Miami ran the show from start to finish and preyed on the young OKC team.
But I’m rambling. The point is, more than a mere name, what you need on your team come the playoffs is for your best player to be the best on the court no matter who you’re up against.
This is where I see a potential pitfall for the Lakers. In terms of pure court performance, Dwight Howard is their only superstar. However, everyone knows Kobe does not simply give up his crown of Lakerland. Shaq couldn’t handle it, leading to his departure and eventually (years later) the trade for the low-key star Pau Gasol. When Andrew Bynum got petulant this past season, they made him the centerpiece of the Dwight trade. Kobe still surely views himself as The Man on the Lakers which he isn’t anymore – Dwight is. Of course, there are issues when Dwight Howard is your best player. Firstly, you can’t rely on Dwight in crunch time because of his FT issues – but Kobe/Nash/Gasol can cover for him there. More worryingly, I question Howard’s mental makeup. Let’s be honest here – while we all agree he’s capable of leading a team to a title, he’s made the Finals once in his career and has a first round loss to the Joe Johnson Hawks on his resume. We all know by now that Howard isn’t the mentally toughest guy out there. One really wonders if he has the capacity to knuckle down and be the best player on a championship team for an entire Finals series. I don’t wanna be wrong on this one – I still hate the Lakers and hate them even more with that whiny little brat on their squad.
Last year I would have said the Heat had this issue, but at this point they’ve had a couple years together and everything’s shaken down nicely for them. LeBron is the Man, Wade the No.2 guy and Bosh the wild card. For all the stuff hacks like myself stirred up by claiming Wade wouldn’t handle being No.2 to LeBron – I think he gets it now. Remember Dwyane Wade is on the wrong side of 30 and plays so recklessly he’s always a chance to get banged up and he surely knows this. Not having to carry the load every night isn’t the worst situation in the world for him. It’s for this reason that I still have the Heat over the Lakers even though LA probably has more from a pure talent standpoint.
There’s a difference between guys in the superstar class and guys in the star class. You know who I mean by the latter – the Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, 2011 Dirk Nowitzki (I’m not sure he’s still there) category to name a few examples. Those guys are capable of stepping up to this level as we saw from Dirk. However, for them to do so is an achievement beyond where they’re at as players right now – it’s a level that we don’t even know for sure they possess. That’s why, as good as the Celtics and Nets are, they aren’t real contenders in the East.
Anyone who’s seen Moneyball knows the lesson from that movie can also be applied to basketball – you can win a lot of regular season games through smarts and gimmicks, but the playoffs ultimately almost always come down to mano a mano. (In fact, I have a piece on this coming up). This season, only five teams can go into any such matchup and believe that they have a guy who can win against anyone, but only one knows that they can.
It’s NBA time, friends. May the best man win.