HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Can a team built around an All-Star, maybe two, but lacking a legit superstar — i.e. the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies — really win it all?
Memphis general manger Chris Wallace certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that it’s impossible, but the other day as he was ticking off the names of superstar players that have led just nine franchises to championships over the last 33 seasons — since 1980 when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the equation — it became obvious how long the odds are. Teams with a superstar — and more than one all the better — have dominated the league.
“If you look at the NBA, winning championships is more predicated on franchises being able to acquire players that are the greatest that have ever played,” Wallace said. “Go back to when Bird and Magic entered the league. You had the Sixers with Dr. J, Julius Erving, the Pistons with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Then you had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe [Bryant] and [Shaquille O’Neal] and the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Heat had Dwyane Wade and Shaq, and now Wade and [LeBron James].
“The only team that didn’t really have a superstar was the Pistons.”
The 2004 Pistons beat an unraveling Lakers squad, the last that paired Bryant with O’Neal. Detroit had Tayshaun Prince, who Memphis acquired in late January when it traded highly paid forward and leading scorer Rudy Gay. The former Grizzly was moved in a books-balancing deal that moved Memphis well under the luxury tax this season and better positioned it to stay there next season and beyond, especially critical for small-market franchises unwilling, or unable, to incur the stiffer luxury tax of the new collective bargaining agreement. Gay is due $37.2 million over the next two seasons.
Three of the final four teams playing in the conference finals have payrolls below the $70.3 million luxury tax line and, in fact, are out of the top 11 of league payrolls. That should excite organizations and their fans. Smart drafting, player development and shrewd free-agent signings can lead to sustainable success, and perhaps even the emergence of a homegrown superstar (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Indiana’s Paul George and Golden State’s Stephen Curry are three on that track).
Obviously, Miami has the highest payroll of the four teams still playing. At No. 4 in the league with a payroll of $83.4 million (before luxury tax penalties) with James, Wade and Chris Bosh earning a combined $52.3 million this season. Miami’s pre-tax payroll is between roughly $14 million and $20 million more than San Antonio ($69.6 million), Indiana ($66.8 million) and Memphis ($63.2 million).
The question under the new CBA — with incrementally increasing tax penalties kicking in next season and the severe repeater tax looming — is if big-market owners (such as in Los Angeles and Miami) are willing to shell out tens of millions of dollars in additional luxury tax to support superstar-laden rosters season after season? Or, will well-balanced rosters spread through the league as a more prudent way to build a contender and stay out of the luxury tax?
A contender, maybe. But a champion? That’s to be seen. For now, superstar power remains the most sought-after currency.
The Clippers traded for Chris Paul. The Lakers traded for Dwight Howard. The Houston Rockets benefited once Oklahoma City reached its financial threshold with James Harden. Rockets GM Daryl Morey, maneuvering to acquire superstar power for a couple years, would love to follow up the trade for Harden by signing Howard to a max deal. Dallas hopes to nab Howard or Paul on max deals to pair with Dirk Nowitzki, whose 2011 Mavs became the ninth title team in the last three-plus decades.
And, of course, had Derrick Rose played this season, the Bulls might be playing Miami right now. And the superstar-lacking Grizzlies might be fishing had Westbrook still been riding shotgun alongside Kevin Durant.