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May 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and forward Blake Griffin (32) during game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Warriors 126-121 to win the series 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Does A Team Need Two "Elite" Players To Win A Title?

Our editor sent out an email last week to the staff writers, trying to drum up discussion. The topic was “Where will the Warriors finish in the standings next season?”.

The general consensus from the group was that while the Warriors had improved their roster (and to a degree, the coaching staff), they still didn’t have enough to topple the top three teams in the West, namely the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

So, what sets those three teams apart from the rest of the chasing pack? Why does it seem as though there is a competitive gulf between that group and the rest, especially in the uber-competitive Western Conference?

My answer: The number of “Elite Players” on the roster.

Defining what makes an “Elite Player” is can be tricky. Everyone has their own opinion, and while advanced metrics have come a long way, we are still very far from developing a statistic that can accurately measure and compare the successes and abilities of competing players.

So, for the purposes of this exercise, I have defined an “Elite Player” as a player who can single-handedly carry a generic non-playoff team into the playoffs, while having relative success in the first round of the playoffs. (Though I’m sure this definition will be up for debate.)

Here’s a table of the past 10 champions in the NBA and who I think their “Elite Players” were.

Year Champion Elite Players
2014 San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard
2013 Miami Heat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
2012 Miami Heat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade,Chris Bosh
2011 Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki *
2010 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
2009 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
2008 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen
2007 San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili
2006 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade *
2005 San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili

There are two outliers in the group. The 2006 Miami Heat featured a shooting guard named Dwyane Wade that posted up incredible numbers of 28.4 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs. You could consider Shaquille O’Neal as an elite player,  but by then he was already 35 and in the twilight of his career (he only played 59 regular season games that season, but played every playoff game). The Heat, while lacking in top level talent, had an extremely deep roster.  Hence, the nickname “15 Strong”.

The other outlier was the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. They only had Dirk Nowitzki as their elite player, but the team was extremely well-coached and had a very deep bench. You could also contend that the series was lost due to the inexperience of the Miami Big Three, as we had never seen a team collapse under such pressure in the Finals before that.

As you can see, the previous champions all either had at least two elite players, or a combination of really good coaching and deep benches.

Due to the low number of players on the court, a player with a much higher talent level can exert a bigger area of influence over the outcome of the game. This is unique from other team sports like soccer and the gridiron, where a player’s influence over the game is more limited due to the sheer number of players on the field.

In basketball, defenses focus on the biggest threat in the game (best player) and try to negate his influence on the court.

However, if you have another elite player, the defenses are forced to choose whose influence to limit and the other elite player is free to wreak havoc. This also trickles down to the role players, who will have less attention on them, making the game a whole lot easier for them.

That said, it is possible to win without elite players. While the league is enamoured with creating superteams, the San Antonio Spurs prove every year that it is possible to find success in the league without tanking or breaking the bank in free agency. The Spurs have proved that a formula of smart coaching, a reliable and consistent front office, and a 15-deep roster can contend with even the most talented of teams.

Super-teams are not a foolproof plan for success either (Lakers and Knicks come to mind). Adding talent to a roster is a moot point when the personalities on the team don’t gel. Furthermore, having a top heavy team that has no talent on the bench can also lead to failure (last season’s Miami Heat had this issue, as they struggled to find productivity from the bench).

So, where do the Warriors stand in all of this?

I believe the Warriors only have one elite player currently – Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson and (to a lesser extent) Harrison Barnes have the potential to become elite. Thompson will need to improve his ball handling and playmaking, while Barnes will need to show that there is more to him than his athleticism.

The Warriors can still win a title, but much like the 2006 Miami Heat and 2011 Dallas Mavericks, they will have to rely on savvy coaching and career seasons from the players to do so.

To recap, having two elite level players should theoretically ease a team’s championship aspirations. However, they are not the be all end all, as smart coaching and a deep roster can replace the need for elite level players.


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