Do you need a ‘closer’ to win an NBA title?
An interesting question was posed to Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James at Wednesday’s shootaround — do you need one main guy to win a championship?
Close games are a staple of the playoffs with an average of 32 percent of games decided by six points or less in the past decade.
The Cavs certainly have one, none other than the four-time NBA MVP himself. But uncertainty remains whether the Atlanta Hawks do – or whether it’s a necessity?
James’ answer was clear, as he cited a past example along with his view of the ingredients to success.
So those 2004 Pistons did beat a Lakers team full of future Hall of Famers but they did so thanks to stifling defense. They didn’t need oodles of offense when they were holding Los Angeles under 90 points in all four of their wins. The Lakers only passed the 90-point threshold in that series once, in a 99-91 overtime victory.
While Shaq and Kobe were Shaq and Kobe, combining for 246 of the Lakers’ 409 points, Gary Payton and Karl Malone played more like veterans on their last legs than the dangerous threats of the ’90s.
In five games, Malone averaged 5 points and 7.3 rebounds in four games, while Payton contributed just 4.2 points and 4.4 assists per game in the full five-game duration of the series.
Detroit, on the other hand, had five guys averaging 10 or more points per game, including both Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton with over 20 a game.
Los Angeles had their "Big Two" of Kobe and Shaq but Detroit was matching that not only with Billups and Hamilton, but their three other starters each firing on all cylinders.
Was that an anomaly when it comes to a lack of future Hall of Famers winning it all?
When you look at the next ten champions it does appear that way: ’05 Spurs (Tim Duncan), ’06 Heat (Dwyane Wade), ’07 Spurs (Duncan), ’08 Celtics (Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Kevin Garnett), ’09 and ’10 Lakers (Kobe), ’11 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki), ’12 and ’13 Heat (LeBron, Wade), ’14 Spurs (Duncan).
Those make you think a couple things: the NBA of the last decade is essentially a mini cycle of competing ruling families who swap title-winning forays and maybe some don’t give the two stars of that ’04 Pistons team enough respect.
Neither Hamilton nor Billups were All-Stars that season, but those playoffs served to help raise awareness to the skills of both the 25-year-old Hamilton and 27-year-old Billups.
Hamilton went on to earn three All-Star berths, while Billups, the ’04 Finals MVP, was an All-Star five times and a member of three All-NBA teams.
Not Hall-of-Famers but also no slouches for a three-to-five-year period.
Now, let’s relate this back to Cavs-Hawks (and bigger picture to the Western Conference matchup of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets).
The Cavs, Warriors and Rockets all have a "guy" (LeBron, Stephen Curry, James Harden). It’s far too soon to tell if the latter two are future Hall of Famers yet but they did finish 1-2 in this year’s MVP voting, so they’re pre-eminent pieces in today’s game (and putting on quite the show in the Western Conference finals).
You then move to the Hawks, who don’t have that one superstar but do have four All-Stars and an emerging player in (the now banged up) DeMarre Carroll.
Is that enough though?
Right now, the Hawks are shooting 43.4 percent and allowing opponents to hit 42.6 percent of theirs. The ’04 Pistons shot 41.2 percent and held opponents to 39.2 percent.
That Detroit team averaged 87.1 points per game and kept their opponent to 80.7. So far this postseason, Atlanta scores 99 on average, while allowing 92.3 per game. The 2014-15 Cavs are averaging 99.4 and allowing 92.3.
This series could be that even despite a Game 1 that proved otherwise throughout most of its course. Injuries to Carroll and Cavs star Kyrie Irving only further muddy the waters for each side.
Against Washington, the Hawks won one game and lost another on a buzzer-beater.
If you have a coach good enough to draw up a clever play design at the end of game, you don’t necessarily need a Hall of Famer to execute.
Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau did it getting the ball to E’Twaun Moore for a game-winner during the regular season.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer proved he’s capable as well in a beautifully designed call to Al Horford in a win over Washington last season.
However, in a series between the Cavs and Hawks that bears out very evenly statistically, having that one guy who’s tied with Michael Jordan for true postseason buzzer-beating, game-winners can’t be a disadvantage.