Star Power: Must Have One To Win It All?

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.


  1. WINTRELL says:

    Why is it people keep saying the Grizzlies wound not be in the playoffs had Westbrook played, when in face the grizzlies beat them at least twice during the regular seasons s lost once with the help of the officials!

  2. joja says:

    Isn’t your whole culture and system based on “superstars”?

    The above-humans just sell best…

  3. SPURS-TACULAR says:

    Where is KOBE?

    Where is Derrick Rose?

    Chris Paul?

    Blake Griffin?

    Stephen Curry?

    Carmelo Anthony?


    No, you don’t need a SuperStar Player to win a champiionship.
    Just a group of guys who are committed, focused, hardworking and coachable !!!

  4. Shiraz says:

    I meant 2005-2006

  5. Shiraz says:

    D Wade is a superStar for carrying Miami to 2005 with literally no All Star backing him up but himself….

  6. George says:

    It’s a chicken and egg argument. Do true champions win championships? Or does winning championships define who the true champions are? Looking back, one could say those teams won because of their players. But we wouldn’t remember their names had they never won.

  7. Jake Nelson says:

    Lol the NBA still trying to convince fans parity exists in the league? Its nothing more than a statistical anomoly that 3 of the 4 aren’t large market teams with big stars when nearly every finals and cf in the past few years have been the opposite. The only fair thing to say in this case is “it’s possible”… that’s it. But if you don’t think the big city teams who scoop in big name fa’s every year with players willing to take paycuts to play for them in some cases, still dont have a huge advantage over the rest of the league then you’re being dishonest.

  8. blaz says:

    Tim Duncan is not a typical NBA Sueprstar producing high numbers, being on the spot all the time. It is enough to watch first 2013 West final game. He was mostly used by coach Popovich on defence and rebounding. And mentioning Parker and Ginobili in one same paragraph with Jordan, Magic, Bird is a HUGE misunderstanding. Actually, this year of best four teams, there is only Miami, that has real on-the-court superstars LBJ and DWade.
    On the other hand, only thrree teams won Champs with leading NBA scorer (Bulls made it six times, as Jordan was leading every year they won, but besides only Abdul Jabbar and Shaq won Champs as leading scorer in NBA).

  9. Yue says:

    sounds to me like the ref power

  10. Andrew says:

    Marc Gasol is one of the five best players in the NBA.

    • brdavision says:

      ummmm andrew what kool-aid have you been drinking? Marc Gasol is a “good” player, as a matter of fact I will go as far as to say that he is a good defensive player. His offense leaves much to the imagination. He is most definitely NOT one of the best five players in the NBA. He is not even the best player in the series against the Spurs right now, nor is he the best player on his team. He’s not even the best Gasol in the NBA…..

      Did you even think about what you said?

  11. Ray says:

    Yes the Pistons were the greatest team WITHOUT a superstar. The way they played wasn’t pretty but was effective. Someone said that they were the WORST offensive NBA Champions of all time. lol I forgot who said that though. Pistons fan here too and looking forward to the Pistons coming back to the Playoffs soon. 🙂

  12. Nelly says:

    I agree with the above comment from sports fan. The is a very unique distinction between All- Star and Superstar, somewhat of an X – factor. Lebron James, Durant, Duncan, Kobe, Wade and Carmelo are superstars. Unfortunately, for Carmelo and Durant, they have never won a championship but they have shown Superstar criteria. A championship cannot be won just by having a Superstar on a team, you must know how to use that Superstar if you’re a coach. Kobe is a superstar and has All- Stars on his team and flunked in the 1st RD.

    • Harry says:

      Camelo Anthony is a superstar? Are u tryin to be funny? He only scores lots of points cos he hogs the ball, takes lots of shots. He got no defense. Please…

  13. J says:

    you dont need one but it helps… alot

  14. Game Time says:

    I don’t see how people overlook Ben Wallace as a star during the time the Pistons won. He had been a All-Star center the previous year. Add it wasn’t like they didn’t have star players. They just weren’t being recognized as stars at the time. Billups and Hamilton both became 3x Allstars. I don’t think Detroit is an exception to the fact that you need All-Star type players to win, because in the end they technically had 3, plus Prince, and Wallace (who was actually an All-Star as well 2x before 2004, and 2x after).

    • sports fan says:

      Jeff Caplan wrote that the Pistons didn’t have a “superstar” & not “all-star”. All of the Pistons that you mentioned actually were recognized as all-stars during that time but not as superstars since they weren’t. That’s what made the ’04 Pistons the exception. There’s a big difference between a superstar & an all-star. He makes a distinction in the very first line of the article – Paul George & Z-Bo are all-stars but not superstars like LeBron & Duncan.

      • NBAfan1989 says:

        Yeah his right, he’s talking about a superstar on a team and a high paid player which is distinguish as a high caliber player, if he receives big numbers on a payroll. For the piston team, give the credit to their coach Larry Brown, who i think the best coach ever to win a championship without a superstar on a team. I salute coach Larry Brown !

      • Arjay45 says:

        No way Paul George is not a superstar. Underrated, yes. Just an “All-Star”, NO!

      • It will be great if the Pacers will be champions and granger comes back next year

      • mee(a)t says:

        what makes a player an all-star then?

      • Game Time says:

        Maybe I should clarify. I think the title of superstar means nothing in terms of a players basketball skills. Rather it’s a title given to guys who draw more attention than most. Does it make then the best in the league? No. That being said the Pistons had TWO players I would consider superstars in their own right. Wallace (defensively) and Billups (offensively). So that is why I don’t think they are exempt.

        Didn’t realize people would need me to spell that out even more for them like a child.

    • Kalbo!! says:

      What an idiot..

      • Game Time says:

        I was thinking the same of you. I hate people who have to go with the flock. Sorry that I don’t acknowledge the term “superstar”. When it comes to winning there are all-star players and role players. A superstar is basically a term used more to judge popularity amongst players. Melo, Rose are both “superstars” and couldn’t even get out the east with teams that are vastly better then the 2004 Pistons. Why? Because people hype them up as being “superstars” when all they are just all-stars like everyone else. Good teams, with the right ALL-STARS & coaching win championships. It has nothing to do with superstar players.