As I write this, the three undefeated teams in the NBA are the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors. Lebron James and the Cavaliers are 1-2, the Thunder are 1-4, and the Pacers are 1-3. We’re barely a week into the season, but so far little has gone as expected. Somehow, the anticipated powers have struggled while the written-off Miami Heat are once again atop the East (albeit tied). It is much too early to make any sort of prediction, but I do believe that the early season results are indicative of a slowly emerging basketball law: You don’t need superstars. You need a solid ensemble with great passing that creates open shots.
The Spurs topped the Heat in the 2014 Finals for a reason. Forced shots, even from a superstar, rarely go in. If a few guys try to win games on their own, they will fail. The exalted scoring title is irrelevant. The two most important stat categories are assists and field-goal percentage, which are directly related. Great passing leads to open shots. And with open shots, the points will come. During the 2014 Finals, the Spurs’ team field-goal percentage was .528, compared with the Heat’s .472. This should be no surprise, as the Spurs out-passed the Heat, 25.4 assists per game to 15.2. No Spur came close to Lebron’s 28.2 points per game, but it didn’t matter. The NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, did not lead the team in scoring. He did, however, finish first among starters with a .612 field-goal percentage. Teamwork and efficiency will always trump individual majesty.
That is not to say that the “superstar” will go extinct. A superstar can be extremely effective if and only if they are fully integrated into a great passing lineup. Let’s take a look back to the 2013 Finals between the same teams. This time, it was the 2013 Champion Heat team that ended up on top in both assists and field-goal percentage (21.1 to 18.4 and .459 to .451.).
Now we’ll go another year back to the 2012 Finals when two of the biggest names in basketball, Lebron James and Kevin Durant, butted heads over a five-game series. While Kevin Durant was the highest-scoring player on the floor (and Russell Westbrook the third-highest), the Heat were the better passing team. The Heat’s average of 18.0 assists per game led to .464 shooting, while the Thunder’s 15.8 assists produced a .455 shooting percentage. Durant and Westbrook are extremely talented, but not talented enough to defeat a more adept passing team.
The fact of the matter is that no team is going to win a championship when they are constantly chucking up last-second threes with a hand in their face, no matter who’s doing the chucking. Assists lead to easy shots, easy shots lead to points, points lead to wins. No one can do it all on their own.
The beginning of this season has been no exception. Oklahoma City is 21st in the league in assists per game, Indiana is 23rd, and Cleveland is 25th. Meanwhile, a Lebron-less Miami is tied for sixth in the league, sitting pretty on top of the Southeast Division after wins against solid Washington and Toronto squads. In terms of field-goal percentage, OKC is 16th, Indiana is 22nd, and Cleveland is second to last at 29th, just barely in front of Denver. Miami is seventh.
OKC, Indiana, and Cleveland are entirely dependent on a select few. Without Durant and Westbrook, OKC is completely lost. Without Paul George and Lance Stephenson, Indiana is a run-of-the-mill team at best. When Lebron has a bad day, the Cavs don’t win. Star players foster vulnerability. The only way to ward off this vulnerability is with passing and teamwork, which have not been priorities for these three teams. Miami is coping well with the loss of Lebron, not by replacing him with another star, but by adapting the way they play the game. Any team that shares the ball and creates opportunities will be able to contend with the biggest names in the game.
Star players that take twenty shots a game are not helping their team. They create a predictable, top-heavy offense and opposing defenses will take advantage. Off-days for individual players become synonymous with losses for their teams. Even superstars are human, and team strategy needs to take this into account. While Kobe continues to chuck up as many shots as it takes to get his 25 points (so far this season it has been an average of over 24 shots a game), teams like the Warriors, Wizards, and Clippers will pass their way to high playoff seeds. The teams that best endure the wear and tear of an 82-game season do so through solid teamwork and minimizing dependencies on individuals. I know I said it is too early for predictions, but allow me just one. We will not see the Cavs, Thunder, or Pacers emerge from the first round of the playoffs. In my eyes, 2015 will be the year of Washington, Golden State, and Los Angeles, and I’m not talking about Kobe’s Lakers.
Photo: USA Today Sports