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December 9, 2011
Star Power
Championship-Caliber Talent

by Neil Paine

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It is often said that the NBA is a league controlled by a small number of elite superstars, without one of whom a team cannot possibly expect to win a championship. But is this actually true? Can we truly rule out a third of the league (or more) on Opening Night because they lack a star perceived to be capable of carrying them to the crown?

One way to examine this question is to look at how each champion's best player was regarded before the playoffs. Borrowing a methodology from Basketball-Reference's Justin Kubatko, a consensus ranking of NBA players can be attained by looking at a weighted average of their MVP award shares over the previous four seasons. Here, for instance, were the NBA's 10 best players in 2010-11 according to the weighted MVP voting approach:

Rk   Player             Tm   MVPSh
----------------------------------
 1   LeBron James      MIA   0.695
 2   Kobe Bryant       LAL   0.491
 3   Derrick Rose      CHI   0.391
 4   Dwight Howard     ORL   0.388
 5   Kevin Durant      OKC   0.211
 6   Dwyane Wade       MIA   0.149
 7   Chris Paul        NOH   0.103
 8   Kevin Garnett     BOS   0.053
 9   Dirk Nowitzki     DAL   0.052
10   Carmelo Anthony   NYK   0.016

Using that technique, here are the consensus best players on each title-winning team since 1959 (the first year the MVP-share process is possible):

Year   Champion       Best Player           Rk   Top Player            Finish
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2011   Dallas         Dirk Nowitzki          9   LeBron James          L-Finals
2010   L.A. Lakers    Kobe Bryant            2   LeBron James          L-CSF
2009   L.A. Lakers    Kobe Bryant            1   Kobe Bryant           W-Finals
2008   Boston         Kevin Garnett          6   Kobe Bryant           L-Finals
2007   San Antonio    Tim Duncan             5   Steve Nash            L-CSF
2006   Miami          Shaquille O'Neal       3   Steve Nash            L-CF
2005   San Antonio    Tim Duncan             1   Tim Duncan            W-Finals
2004   Detroit        Ben Wallace           11   Tim Duncan            L-CSF
2003   San Antonio    Tim Duncan             1   Tim Duncan            W-Finals
2002   L.A. Lakers    Shaquille O'Neal       2   Tim Duncan            L-CSF
2001   L.A. Lakers    Shaquille O'Neal       1   Shaquille O'Neal      W-Finals
2000   L.A. Lakers    Shaquille O'Neal       2   Karl Malone           L-CSF

Year   Champion       Best Player           Rk   Top Player            Finish
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999   San Antonio    Tim Duncan             3   Karl Malone           L-CSF
1998   Chicago        Michael Jordan         1   Michael Jordan        W-Finals
1997   Chicago        Michael Jordan         1   Michael Jordan        W-Finals
1996   Chicago        Michael Jordan         2   David Robinson        L-CSF
1995   Houston        Hakeem Olajuwon        2   David Robinson        L-CF
1994   Houston        Hakeem Olajuwon        1   Hakeem Olajuwon       W-Finals
1993   Chicago        Michael Jordan         1   Michael Jordan        W-Finals
1992   Chicago        Michael Jordan         1   Michael Jordan        W-Finals
1991   Chicago        Michael Jordan         1   Michael Jordan        W-Finals
1990   Detroit        Isiah Thomas          17   Magic Johnson         L-CSF

Year   Champion       Best Player           Rk   Top Player            Finish
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1989   Detroit        Isiah Thomas          15   Magic Johnson         L-Finals
1988   L.A. Lakers    Magic Johnson          2   Larry Bird            L-CF
1987   L.A. Lakers    Magic Johnson          2   Larry Bird            L-Finals
1986   Boston         Larry Bird             1   Larry Bird            W-Finals
1985   L.A. Lakers    Magic Johnson          3   Larry Bird            L-Finals
1984   Boston         Larry Bird             1   Larry Bird            W-Finals
1983   Philadelphia   Moses Malone           1   Moses Malone          W-Finals
1982   L.A. Lakers    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar    4   Larry Bird            L-CF
1981   Boston         Larry Bird             3   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CQF
1980   L.A. Lakers    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar    1   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   W-Finals

Year   Champion       Best Player           Rk   Top Player            Finish
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1979   Seattle        Jack Sikma            16   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CSF
1978   Washington     Elvin Hayes            8   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CQF
1977   Portland       Bill Walton            7   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CF
1976   Boston         Dave Cowens            3   Bob McAdoo            L-CSF
1975   Golden State   Rick Barry             6   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   No Playoffs
1974   Boston         Dave Cowens            3   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-Finals
1973   New York       Willis Reed            6   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CSF
1972   L.A. Lakers    Jerry West             2   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   L-CF
1971   Milwaukee      Kareem Abdul-Jabbar    1   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   W-Finals
1970   New York       Willis Reed            1   Willis Reed           W-Finals

Year   Champion       Best Player           Rk   Top Player            Finish
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1969   Boston         Bill Russell           4   Wilt Chamberlain      L-Finals
1968   Boston         Bill Russell           3   Wilt Chamberlain      L-DF
1967   Philadelphia   Wilt Chamberlain       1   Wilt Chamberlain      W-Finals
1966   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1965   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1964   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1963   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1962   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1961   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1960   Boston         Bill Russell           1   Bill Russell          W-Finals
1959   Boston         Bill Russell           2   Bob Pettit            L-DF

Since 1959, the average NBA champion's best player was ranked #3.3 in the league according to the consensus rankings. Here are some title frequencies for players of each ranking:

Best     Titles   Freq
----------------------
No. 1      24    45.3%
Top 2      33    62.3%
Top 3      40    75.5%
Top 4      42    79.2%
Top 5      43    81.1%
Top 6      46    86.8%
Top 7      47    88.7%
Top 8      48    90.6%
Top 9      49    92.5%
Top 10     49    92.5%
Top 15     51    96.2%
Top 17     53   100.0%

Taken in composite, the data appears to support the aforementioned theory that teams must have one of those elite superstars to win a title. More than three quarters of all championships in that timespan were won by teams with at least a top-3 talent as their best player, more than 80 percent went to teams led by a top-5 star, and more than 90 percent of champions were headlined by a top-8 player.

This is not to say that there aren't aberrations, exceptions that prove the rule. For instance, we view Isiah Thomas as an all-time great player now (while I disagree, many fans & experts would even go so far as to rank him ahead of John Stockton in the PG pantheon), but at the time of Detroit's two championships he was not regarded as an elite player, ranking 15th and 17th in weighted MVP voting in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Likewise, another Piston, Ben Wallace, ranked outside the NBA's consensus top 10 players when he led Detroit to the title in 2004, and Jack Sikma placed 16th during Seattle's 1979 championship season. Even a year ago, Dirk Nowitzki finished just ninth in weighted voting, with the common pre-playoff perception being that Dallas was incapable of winning it all with him as their best player.

For the most part, though, the conventional wisdom about requiring an elite star is right on the money. And based on last year's weighted MVP voting results, this means there's better than a 92% chance the title goes through Miami, the Lakers, Chicago, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Boston, Dallas, New York and/or wherever Chris Paul ends up. It's always possible for an outsider to crash this party, but if history is any guide, only the teams fueled by premium star power have a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.

Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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