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Blueprint for an NBA Championship Team

by Dennis Gallagher

The launch of the recent 82games.com Research Program has brought us a flurry of very interesting ideas for NBA analytical articles, many of which we hope will eventually find their way to publication on the site.

I often hear that an NBA team needs two “superstar” players to compete for a title. Yet every year general managers pair so-called superstars only to fall short of playoff success. Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis are the latest superstar pairing, and another year of doom and gloom has already been predicted for the Knicks. What separates superstars like Marbury and Francis from the true “championship superstars” who can lead a team to an NBA title?

In Harbingers of Fate, 82games.com explored whether a team with a player who won an individual award or statistical crown was likely to win an NBA championship in the same season. But by the time individual awards such as the league’s Most Valuable Player are announced, the season is over, playoff rosters are set and the trading deadline has long passed. Not until the off-season do teams have the opportunity to retain, trade for or sign via free agency these players in the hopes of making a championship run.

Can individual player awards and statistical achievements in one season foretell team success in subsequent seasons? To answer this question, I reviewed the rosters of the 49 championship teams from the 1956-57 Celtics through the 2004-05 Spurs and noted the presence post-season award winners and individual statistical leaders from prior years. The result is a blueprint for an NBA championship team and a list of the true championship superstars who can take a team to an NBA title.


92% of NBA Champions had a recent All-NBA 1st Team Selection

Of the past 49 NBA Champions, 45 had a player named All-NBA 1st team during the 4 years preceding the championship season. In other words, an NBA championship roster should include a Top 5 caliber player operating at the top of his game.

Only 4 NBA champions failed to have a player named All-NBA 1st team during the 4 years preceding the championship season. Two of these teams, the 1976-77 Portland Trailblazer and the 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics had players—Bill Walton and Dennis Johnson, respectively—who were named All-NBA 1st Team in subsequent seasons. The other two teams, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and 1969-70 New York Knicks, had Top 10 caliber players who were named All-NBA 2nd Team the prior season.

The MVP is usually awarded to a player named to the All NBA 1st Team, and provides an advantage over other All NBA selections. Over 65% of all NBA Champions had a player named the league’s MVP in one of the four seasons prior to winning the NBA title (over 75% if you look beyond four years).

81% of NBA Champions had a recent All-Defensive 1st Team Selection

Does defense win NBA championships? All-Defensive teams were first named following the 1969-70 season. Since that time, 29 of 36 NBA champions had at least one player named All-Defensive 1st Team during the 4 seasons prior to the championship season. When All-Defensive 2nd Team selections are considered, the percentage jumps to 89% of NBA champions.

Even the 7 teams without an All-Defensive honoree had All-Defensive caliber players on the roster. Players on five of these championship teams were named All-Defensive 1st Team in a subsequent season, and the other two championship teams, the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors and the 1980-81 Boston Celtics, included at least two players who were named All-Defensive 2nd Team in a subsequent season.

The defensive player of the year (DPOY) award is usually given to an All-Defensive 1st Team selection. Since the DPOY award was created, 12 of the 22 NBA Champions had a previous DPOY winner on the roster.

92% of NBA Champions had a Player Ranked in the Top 8 in Efficiency the Preceding Season

Which statistical leaders are important to a championship team? I found correlations between championship teams and the prior season’s top 10 scorers and top 10 rebounders. Leaders in assists, blocked shots and steals were less relevant to championship success the following season.

The statistical leaders who appeared most on championship rosters were leaders in the NBA’s efficiency statistic. Recently adopted as an official statistic by the NBA, efficiency is a measure of a player’s overall effectiveness. According to efficiency statistics published by www.basketballreference.com, of the past 49 NBA Champions, 45 had a player who finished in the Top 8 in efficiency the preceding season.


STEP 1: Acquire a Championship Superstar
Approach #1: Acquire a Top 5 caliber player
Only two NBA Champions failed to include a player named to the All-NBA first team during their careers. These players are easy to identify as all but 4 NBA championship teams included players named All-NBA 1st Team in the prior four seasons.

Approach #2: If you fail to acquire a Top 5 caliber player, then you need a Top 5 caliber defender.
Only two NBA Champions failed to include a player named to the All-Defensive first team during their careers, and each of these teams included Top 5 Players.

Approach #3: Clear salary cap space for next year.
No NBA team has won a championship without a Top 5 player or Top 5 defender.

STEP 2: Add a championship sidekick (or two)
Every NBA championship roster included a Top 10 caliber player or Top 10 defender as a sidekick. Most championship sidekicks can be identified by looking at players named All-NBA 1st or 2nd Team or All-Defensive 1st or 2nd Team in one of the prior 4 seasons. All told, 86% of all championship rosters included at least one sidekick with a previous All-NBA or All-Defensive selection, and over half of the championship rosters (57%) included 2 or more sidekicks with a previous All-NBA or All-Defensive selection.

STEP 3: Make sure one of your players (superstar or sidekick) can defend
No team has won an NBA title without a Top 10 caliber defender.


Every NBA champion has had at least one player named 1st or 2nd Team All-NBA or 1st Team All-Defensive in one of the preceding four seasons, and/or a player who finished in the Top 8 in “efficiency” the prior season. The 23 current players that meet this championship criteria are listed in the tables below. The 11 Top Tier Players give a team the best chance to win an NBA title. The 12 Second Tier Players give a Team and outside chance of winning an NBA title.

11 Top Tier Players
PLAYER MVP All NBA 1st Top 8 Eff. DPOY All-Def 1st
Ron Artest       X X
Kobe Bryant   X     X
Tim Duncan X X X   X
Kevin Garnett X X X   X
Allen Iverson   X X    
Jason Kidd   X     X
Tracy McGrady   X      
Steve Nash X X      
Dirk Nowitzki   X X    
Shaquille O’Neal   X X    
Ben Wallace       X X

12 Second Tier Players
PLAYER All NBA 2nd Top 8 Eff. All-Def 1st
Ray Allen X    
Bruce Bowen     X
Sam Cassell X    
Larry Hughes     X
Lebron James X X  
Shawn Marion   X  
Jermaine O’Neal X    
Gary Payton X    
Peja Stojakovic X    
Amare Stoudemire X X  
Dwayne Wade X    
Chris Webber X    

In addition, 89% of NBA champions had a sidekick who was an All-NBA or All-Defensive selection
in one of the prior 4 seasons. The following table lists the remaining sidekicks:

7 Sidekicks
PLAYER All Def 2nd
Chauncey Billups X
Marcus Camby X
Andrei Kirilenko X
Dikembe Mutombo X
Tayshaun Prince X
Theo Ratliff X
Cliff Robinson X

Of the players who didn’t make these lists, the two players most likely to join the Top Tier after the 2005-06 season are Elton Brand and Paul Pierce. Brand is currently 2nd in the league in efficiency and will likely earn his first All-NBA selection. Paul Pierce has been named All-NBA 3rd Team, is currently 9th in Efficiency, and is having his best season. The Second Tier players may soon include Chris Bosh (10th in efficiency), Yao Ming (12th in Efficiency and All-NBA 3rd team selection) and Gilbert Arenas (3rd Team All-NBA last year).


Half of the current NBA teams have a championship superstar player who can carry them to a title. The remaining 15 teams are facing seemingly insurmountable odds, as no NBA team has won a title without a championship superstar player. Don’t hold your breath for the backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis to bring a title back to New York as neither of these players made the cut. Other players missing the cut include Paul Pierce, Kenyon Martin, Pau Gasol, Mike Bibby and Carmelo Anthony. Among the current playoff contenders, the pretenders include: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggetts and the Washington Wizards.

One star player, however, is seldom enough to win an NBA title. Teams with only one championship superstar player have an outside chance (14%) of winning an NBA title. The 7 teams that won an NBA title with only one previously recognized star player are listed below. Each of these teams had young players who achieved superstar status in a subsequent season, and all but one (1993-94 Houston Rockets) had two future defensive stars on the roster.

"One Star Player" Championship Teams

Year Team Star Player Future Stars
1974-75 Golden State Rick Barry Jamaal Wilkes, Phil Smith
1976-77 Portland Bill Walton Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins
1978-79 Seattle Paul Silas Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma
1988-89 Detroit Isaiah Thomas Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman
1990-91 Chicago Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant
1993-94 Houston Hakeem Olajuwon Sam Cassell
2003-04 Detroit Ben Wallace Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince

Currently there are 6 teams with only one star player. Two other teams, the Houston Rockets (McGrady & Mutombo) and New Jersey Nets (Kidd & Cliff Robinson) have aging sidekicks, and will also be considered in this category. These long-shots to win the NBA title are listed in the following table, along with potential future stars on their rosters. To maintain a level of objectivity, the future stars were identified as players receiving votes last season for the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and players currently in the Top 25 in efficiency.

Current "One Star" Teams

Team Star Players Potential Future Stars
Dallas Dirk Nowitzki Josh Howard
Houston Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo Yao Ming
Minnesota Kevin Garnett Trenton Hassell
New Jersey Jason Kidd, Cliff Robinson Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson
LA Lakers Kobe Bryant  
LA Clippers Sam Cassell Elton Brand, Corey Maggette
Sacramento Ron Artest Mike Bibby, Brad Miller
Seattle Ray Allen Rashard Lewis, Earl Watson

The 7 NBA teams who best resemble championship rosters of the past are discussed in further detail below.

7. Indiana Pacers: Jermaine O’Neal & Peja Stojakovic have each been named All-NBA 2nd Team one time. With the departure of Ron Artest, the Pacers lack a top tier superstar and a top defender. Potential future stars include Jeff Foster and Anthony Johnson who both received votes last season for the All-Defensive teams, but neither is looking like a Top 10 caliber defender.

6. Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson is a former MVP and was named All-NBA 1st Team last year. In addition, in the past four years Allen Iverson and Chris Webber were each named All-NBA 2nd Team two times. The 76ers come up short on defense where only 19% of prior NBA champions have won without a previous All-Defensive selection. Allen Iverson and potential future star Andre Iguodala both received All-Defensive votes last year.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Lebron James was one of the league leaders in efficiency last season and was named All-NBA second team. His running mates include Larry Hughes, an All-Defensive 1st team selection last year and Eric Snow an All-Defensive 2nd team selection three years ago. Zydrunas Ilgauskas received votes last year for the All-NBA teams. The Cavaliers lack a player named All-NBA 1st Team—only 8% of NBA champions have won without an All-NBA 1st Team player on the roster—but it appear only a matter of time for Lebron James.

4. Detroit Pistons: In the past four years, Ben Wallace is a three-time DPOY, two-time All-NBA 2nd team selection and 4 time All-Defensive 1st team selection. Chauncy Billups and Tayshaun Prince have also been named 2nd Team All-Defensive. Like the Cavaliers, the Pistons lack an All-NBA 1st team selection. The other starters include Richard Hamilton who received All-NBA votes last year and Rasheed Wallace, who received All-Defensive votes last year.

3. Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire give the Suns 3 star players. Nash has an MVP and an All-NBA 1st team selection. Stoudemire has an All-NBA second team selection and, along with Marion, was one of the league’s leaders last season in efficiency. The Suns come up short on defense where only 19% of prior NBA champions have won without an All-Defensive selection. Marion, Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas all received votes last season for the All-Defensive teams, with Marion appearing most likely to step it up and gain future All-Defensive honors.

2. Miami Heat: Shaquille O’Neal, Dwayne Wade, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning give the Heat 4 star players. In the past four years, Shaq is a 4 time All-NBA 1st team selection, and has been named to the All-Defensive 2nd team. Gary Payton and Dwayne Wade each have an All-NBA 2nd team selection. Payton also was named All-Defensive 1st team and Wade a one time All-Defensive 2nd team. The Heat’s weakness is age. Shaq is a former MVP and Payton and Mourning have each won the DPOY award, though none within the past four years. Further, neither Payton nor Mourning has received any post-season recognition in the past 3 years.

1. San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen provide a championship core that no other team can match. In the past four years Duncan is a two-time MVP, 4 time All-NBA 1st team, 3 time All-Defensive 1st team and has been named All-Defensive 2nd Team one time. Bowen has been named two times each to the All-Defensive 1st and 2nd teams. Potential future stars include Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker who each received All-NBA and All-Defensive votes last season.

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