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Can The Denver Nuggets Win The 2013 NBA Championship?

Adam Levin |
March 15, 2013 | 10:30 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Ty Lawson leads the Nuggets with averages of 17.0 points and 7.1 assists. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Ty Lawson leads the Nuggets with averages of 17.0 points and 7.1 assists. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
We have all heard it: "The NBA is a stars’ league." It has become conventional wisdom that stars are necessary to win a championship. The Heat are solidifying this idea, as they continue to breeze through the league with a team built around star players.

Flying under the radar during the current Miami Heat streak are the Denver Nuggets, whose 10-game win steak has them 23 games over .500 and within 5 games of the first-place Spurs. Denver is having success in a very unconventional way, doing so without a true "star" on the roster. The question then arises: can Denver win a championship with Ty Lawson as its best player?

History may shed some light: The common example of a team winning a title without a star player is Detroit in 2004 when the Pistons won with Chauncey Billups as their best player. So clearly teamwork without a true star player can be a championship-winning formula. But just how rare is it for a championship team to lack a true star player? Let's see if we can start to answer that question using numbers.

One statistic that is used to measure overall player performance is PER. The stat junkies will know this, but for those of you who have lives, PER was created by John Hollinger and takes into account fancy things like True Shooting Percentage and Usage Rate. Unfortunately, there is only PER data for the last 10 seasons. That being said, this is what we'll use to begin our analysis.

I have created a simple stat that quantifies the star-power of a team by assigning point values for players who rank highly amongst the top PER players in the league each year. The point values go as follows:

Ranking in League Star Points
1-5 5
6-15 3
16-40 1

This is undoubtedly a rudimentary statistic and leaves a lot of possibility for misrepresentation of a team’s star power, but it will allow us to get some idea of how often teams win without star players, so that we can determine if the Nuggets have a chance. The "Star Score" of a team is the sum of all the Star Points that the players of the team accumulate. For example, this season the Nuggets only have one player in the top 40 in PER (JaVale McGee at #21) so their Star Score is 1. Here are the Star Scores of the last 10 championship teams:

Year Champion #oP1-5 PER #oP 6-15 PER #oP 16-40 PER Star Score
2012 MIA 2 0 0 10
2011 DAL 0 1 0 3
2010 LAL 0 2 1 7
2009 LAL 0 2 1 7
2008 BOS 1 0 2 7
2007 SAS 1 1 1 9
2006 MIA 1 1 1 9
2005 SAS 1 0 1 6
2004 DET 0 0 0 0
2003 SAS 1 0 0 5

From this, we can conclude that it is indeed very rare for a team to win without a star, as Detroit seems to be the only team in the last 10 years to accomplish the feat. The teams with the next lowest Star Score are the '11 Mavs and the '03 Spurs, and certainly Dirk and Duncan are considered stars. However, 10 seasons is not a big enough sample size to say anything definitively so I performed the same study using Points Per Game instead of PER, because the PPG data was readily available. Defining stars as leaders in scoring is not as good as using PER, but it will do for a rough picture. This time, I went back 25 years:

Year Champion #oP 1-5 PPG #oP 5-15 PPG #oP 16-40 PPG Star Score
2012 MIA 1 1 1 9
2011 DAL 0 1 0 3
2010 LAL 1 0 1 6
2009 LAL 1 0 1 6
2008 BOS 0 0 1 1
2007 SAS 0 0 2 2
2006 MIA 1 0 1 6
2005 SAS 0 0 1 1
2004 DET 0 0 1 1
2003 SAS 0 1 0 3
2002 LAL 1 1 0 8
2001 LAL 2 0 0 10
2000 LAL 1 0 2 7
1999 SAS 0 1 0 3
1998 CHI 1 0 1 6
1997 CHI 1 0 1 6
1996 CHI 1 0 1 6
1995 HOU 1 0 0 5
1994 HOU 1 0 0 5
1993 CHI 1 0 1 6
1992 CHI 1 1 0 8
1991 CHI 1 0 0 5
1990 DET 0 0 1 1
1989 DET 0 0 1 1

This reveals a more favorable picture for the Nuggets. The '13 Nuggets have a Star Score of 1 (Ty Lawson is ranked 32nd in the league in terms of PPG) and so do 5 Championship teams - '08 Celtics, '05 Spurs, '04 Pistons, and '89 and '90 Pistons. Let's take a closer look at those teams and determine whether they in fact did lack stars. The Celtics in '08 did it with a total team effort but certainly got most of their production from Garnett, Pierce and Allen (and to a lesser extent, an up-and-coming Rondo). The Spurs in '05 did it with just one top-40 scorer (Duncan at No. 25) but certainly had a big three with Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker. The '04 Pistons is the classic example, as they certainly did it with a balanced attack with five players averaging double-digits during their playoff run. The '89 and '90 Pistons are also good examples of balanced attacks - the best players on the team were Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, but they were not standout stars of the league at the time. The '90 Pistons had six players average double-figures in the playoffs and seven average over nine points per game! The '89 Pistons had a similar balanced attack. One thing that both of these teams had going for them was superb coaching from Hall-of-Famer Chuck Daly. This, to me, makes a lot of sense because when you don't have star players, your team dynamic has to be very strong to have success.

So, what can we conclude? I would say, it is hard to say anything for sure, but it looks like it can be done. The '04, '90 and '89 Pistons are all comparable teams in terms of star power to the '13 Nuggets. They'll need strong coaching (we'll see if George Karl's "no plays" offense can hold up in the playoffs) and immaculate teamwork, but I think with a few breaks they have a chance to win it all.

Reach Staff Writer Adam Levin here.


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Daniel (not verified) on March 24, 2013 2:13 PM

Good article, I think it's definitely possible. Would be a nice counterweight to the superteams trend miami and LA have going on.....

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