Winning without a superstar isn't easy in NBA

September 17, 2012

As the collaborative adventures of NBA stars continue, we're left to ponder the future impact of these alliances.

Well, we know what they mean for the teams involved. Big stars are regarded as such (usually) because they provide dynamic, effective productivity for their employers. This translates into victories and the opportunity to win championships.

What we're conspiring to determine is just how hopeless is it for those with more, well, pedestrian talent to compete for a crown. And let's face it: The championship is our instrument of success-defining choice.

Oh, it doesn't always work out for the big-star congregations, but a huge majority of O'Brien Trophy huggers were blessed to have multiple superstars in uniform. OK, so the definition of superstar is fairly subjective, but a lengthy rewind of title teams demonstrates what other franchises are up against.

Since the dismissal of the canvas sneaker (and way before then), the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics and 2004 Detroit Pistons stand alone as NBA championship teams lacking what many sharpies consider at least one game-strangling superstar.

But even that's a matter of some debate. Those Sonics were led by a young and frisky Dennis Johnson, whose passing was followed by a posthumous entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame. DJ certainly was outstanding, and anyone believing Johnson's legacy was created entirely by his days in Boston didn't see him play in Seattle. And the '04 Pistons rolled out Chauncey Billups, the Wallace boys and Rip Hamilton -- not exactly Springfield's finest, but far from a slouch among 'em.

As for the other title teams on the post-canvas-sneaker list, please take a moment to review the superstar names.

Now that you're back, let's take a look at what the do-without teams might be up against.

For starters, let's begin here in Phoenix, where 38-year-old (and Springfield bound) Steve Nash has departed for a monster rally in L.A. Rather than embrace a complete overhaul, the Suns added enough talent in July to take another big swing at a late playoff spot.

So, instead of accepting a year or two of lose-to-win damnation, the Suns have chosen to compete -- and embrace another mediocre spot in the NBA Draft.

"It's pretty easy to sit here and criticize them for not being terrible for the sake of getting a really high draft pick," a general manager employed by another NBA team said of the Suns. "But it's tricky to tell your fan base you're just giving up for a year or two and then hoping someone like Anthony Davis will come along.

"Well, Anthony Davis doesn't just come along that often. As of now, the potential of the 2013 (draft) class doesn't excite anyone at the top, anyway. I'm not saying what the Suns are doing is what I would do ... but I understand the process."

Although some disgruntled Suns fans point to the potential rise of the Cavaliers in Cleveland, the nature of LeBron James' departure left them little choice but to be rotten. If Kyrie Irving (the spoils of their immediate and drastic losing) continues his current path, the Cavs may be in the playoff hunt a lot more quickly than expected.

Another example of breaking really bad to become good has been witnessed in Charlotte, where Michael Jordan and the Bobcats unloaded a great deal of contractual flotsam. They wound up with the worst record in league history, but the ping-pong derby failed to deliver the aforementioned Davis.

Not to worry. Although the Bobcats have a couple of nice prospects, they should continue losing with enough gusto to land another high pick in the recently referenced weak '13 draft.

Beyond the question of losing for draft power versus remaining viable enough to compete for a playoff spot (and not score big in the draft) we have the Denver Nuggets.

Even though perceived superstar Carmelo Anthony was unable to lead the Nuggets to glory, his departure was judged as a doomsday event. Well, that was before the flock of solid-but-unspectacular former New York Knicks made Denver really nasty to deal with ... in the regular season.

With coach George Karl preaching the value of teamwork, depth and defense, the Nuggets continue barging head-first into the NBA wars.

"What else is he supposed to say or do?" an assistant coach who works the X's and O's for an Eastern Conference team said of Karl. "As coaches, we have no control, really, over who we have in uniform. So we take what we have and try to figure out the best way to compete.

"If you don't have the luxury of the quote-unquote superstars, you sell the idea of ball and player movement and us against the world. You have to get a complete buy-in from everyone involved ... players, coaches, support staff ... even the fans."

It can work at a championship level every 20 to 25 years or so. And teams that offer evidence of camaraderie may benefit by at least seeming like a desired destination for any quote-unquote superstar in the market for a new employer.

"It seems pretty simple," the coach said. "If you have a couple of superstars, you build around them. If not, you emphasize effort, team defense and devise ways to get the best shots for guys with the best opportunity to knock 'em down at that particular time.

"The problem comes when you have a player or players who are paid superstar money without superstar game."

Examples of this abound. With a team sensing a player may have the potential for greatness, big loot is lobbed in that direction before the portfolio warrants the expenditure.

But when a young star emerges and is signed to a long-term deal, the landscape is shaken.

"Even with the marquee players, coaches look for ways to promote the team concept," the coach said. "There has to be a buy-in with how you go about reaching your potential, no matter how talented the players are. Even in Miami, they have to be on the same page.

"But when you have those players who can get buckets when the other team knows exactly what's coming and it doesn't matter ... well, it makes the coaches seem a lot more brilliant."