How Not to Build a 60-win NBA Team

A maxim in NBA team-building holds that you can’t win an NBA championship without a superstar, and it’s certainly true that every title team since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird featured at least one Hall of Fame player and usually at least two solid Hall of Famers and a third guy who if he wasn’t a Hall of Famer had a fine argument.

There are exceptions—Stephen Curry might end up the only Hall of Famer off the 2015 Warriors depending on what Hall voters think of the career of Andre Iguodala. It’s hard to see Kyrie Irving actually ending up in the Hall when his entire legacy is eclipsed by LeBron James. And the second-best player on the 1994 and ’95 Rockets, Kenny Smith, isn’t in the Hall of Fame either.

But for the most part, you need stars to win titles.

Then again, we have advanced stats now, and the advanced stats pretty clearly state that, for example, a team full of guys with .150 Win Shares per 48 minutes should win 75 percent of their games (the formula for an individual player is (WS/48)*410=predicted wins if everyone on his team had his same output.)

Your “60-Win Team”

There are eight guys who played in the NBA in 2018-19 who played at least 1,640 minutes (82 times 20) and posted between .145 and .155 WS/48.

They are, in descending order of VORP, Blake Griffin, Ben Simmons, Willie Cauley-Stein, Paul Millsap, Darren Collison, Serge Ibaka, Monte Morris, and D.J. Augustin.

Widening our search base to guys between .135 and .165 (10 percent either side of .150), we see added to the party (again, descending order of VORP) Steven Adams, Brook Lopez, Kyle Lowry, Myles Turner, Mason Plumlee, John Collins, Enes Kanter, and Taj Gibson.

You’ll notice most of these guys are big men; the stat tends to reward guys who shoot the ball accurately, score a decent number of points, and grab rebounds, so of course centers and power forwards will be over-represented.

But so far, if we’re keeping this broadly in line with an NBA lineup even if we have to play with positions a little, we have a backcourt of Ben Simmons at the point and Morris as an undersized shooting guard with a big-man lineup of Griffin and Lopez as hybrid wing-shooting bigs and Adams as the traditional center to hoover up offensive rebounds.

Clearly, this is madness. You are not winning 60 games with that as your starting lineup no matter who—from those plus eight of the other 12 guys on the list—you run out there no matter how deep you are.

Conversely, let’s try this at different price points, so to speak.

Act Like A Superstar

A team full of guys with at least .200 WS/48 should go 82-0, so who are the top 12 guys in the league in WS/48 and what would they look like as a team?

Bumping the minutes minimum up to 2,000:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, James Harden, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

And if you want to drop the minutes requirement, Irving and Towns’ .197 was matched by, oddly enough, Domantas Sabonis.

OK, I’ll totally believe that lineup could go, well, maybe not 82-0 (any team can have an off night), but certainly at least the 74-8 they’d need to break the record of the 2016 Warriors.

So that’s a data point in favor of the star argument. A team of nothing but .197+ WS/48 superstars would without question be the prohibitive favorite to win the title. A team of nothing but guys 10 percent either side of .150 WS/48-wise wouldn’t be anywhere near good enough to win 60 games.

In Mediocrity We Trust

Let’s try one more data set here, and then we’ll try and address the core point of how do you win 60 games without an All-Star in the lineup.

Here are 19 guys with WS/48 10 percent either side of the Mendoza line, the .100 required to go 41-41. Ready? As always, descending order of VORP and again, minimum 2000 minutes this time:

Luka Doncic, D’Angelo Russell, Jrue Holiday, Patrick Beverley, Draymond Green, Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Aaron Gordon, Donovan Mitchell, Josh Richardson, Jae Crowder, Jamal Murray, Reggie Jackson, Terrance Ross, Tomas Satoransky, Jayson Tatum, Klay Thompson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris.

Cue my Keanu Reeves reaction. Whoa.

A team of those guys might just beat the team of .150 WS/48 guys! And they’re supposed to be merely “league average.”

So what’s the lesson here?

Well, of course guys who get 2,000 minutes (starter or very active sixth man on a team that had a key injury in its starting lineup) are going to be naturally better than guys who don’t.

But the guys who are “just average” on this list all seem to cluster around guys who are key components of teams that had a big star doing most of the glory work (and soaking up most of the win shares as a result), making All-Star teams, and getting MVP votes.

Which ties into another important NBA lesson everyone forgets: There is only one ball. You want one guy who is definitively better than the other nine players on the floor to have it, and ideally he is on your team and not the other team.

There’s a reason Milwaukee is “Giannis and a bunch of shooters.” There’s a reason Golden State’s ball-movement offense still ended up with Curry, Durant, and Thompson having way higher usage rates than the other big-minutes guys on that team.

And that sticks us back at that headline at the top of this piece.

When Everyone is Average, Nobody is Special

What we’ve just hit upon (if inadvertently) here is, fundamentally, statistical proof that the NBA is a star-driven league!

You don’t put .150 WS/48 talent together on one squad and expect it to magically coalesce into something greater than what the average player of that talent level does when he doesn’t have to be the best player on the team. You’re left with a team that will always be outclassed by one guy whose contribution over the value of your guys on average is greater than any advantage you gain by being in aggregate better than most of the rest of the guys on the opposing team.

Basketball simply doesn’t work that way.

You need a star, surrounded by capable players who know their roles and execute them well, ideally with at least one star-caliber sidekick so the defense doesn’t just lock down one guy knowing everyone else isn’t good enough to beat them (see what Toronto did to Giannis in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.)

Which sounds like a statement of the obvious. But now the conventional wisdom has math to prove it.

Maybe that’s depressing if you’re a fan of a team in a market that can’t attract marquee free agents…but it is cold-blooded NBA reality.