The conventional wisdom in the NBA in 2019 is that you need to assemble a Big Three of superstars who then tear up the rest of the league and through top-heavy domination plow through the playoffs and win the title.
The modern version of this started in Boston in 2008, traced a path through LeBron James and the Miami Heat between 2010 and 2014, and reached an apex with the Golden State Warriors, who have become such a destination for stars that they go six deep with talent that is now or at one point has been All-Star caliber. Their sixth man, Andre Iguodala, has a Finals MVP trophy to his name, and DeMarcus Cousins took the midlevel exception and has come on big-time to give the Warriors the true center they’ve never truly had when they had guys like Festus Ezeli and Zaza Pachulia playing that role.
But what if you’re not the kind of destination like South Beach or the Bay Area that can attract top basketball talent in free agency?
Enter the Indiana Pacers, who even without Victor Oladipo has shown out as a team that makes up for lack of top-three talent by being miles better when the starters sit.
Let’s face it—when Kyle O’Quinn is your tenth-best player, you’ve got a team you can battle with for the full 48 minutes.
The Pacers enter Tuesday at 41-23, third in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the entire league.
But they are far from the only team that uses depth and a team full of above average to very good players to make up for a lack of great ones. The playoffs will be peppered with such squads.
Like the Clippers, who stand seventh in the West and just blasted LeBron James and the crosstown rival Lakers in a head-to-head matchup.
Who needs LeBron when you’ve got a slew of talented players like Landry Shamet, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams? If you can hold the lead or extend it with the bench guys in, the other team’s stars can’t beat you unless they play 48 minutes.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the best team in the entire league playing a variation on this style of roster-building, where they have one true superstar—Giannis Antetokounmpo—and a bunch of role players that combine to be a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, guys like Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon providing a support role.
The Boston Celtics have been in freefall with two highly-paid superstars healthy, while last year, they made the conference finals and came a LeBron away from playing for the title in June despite having both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving injured; if anything, they actually played better without their stars not only during last year’s stretch run but especially when compared against the underachievement and chemistry problems the Celtics have suffered this year.
The seed of a movement is here, not just for smaller teams to be competitive and make the playoffs, but for those same teams to make serious runs for championships against all but the once-in-a-lifetime monster squads (let’s face it, whatever voodoo Steve Kerr is doing to keep the Warriors from eating each other ought to put him in the Hall of Fame as a coach.)
Give a team one truly great superstar, then find as many guys as you can who are above average to very good. You don’t necessarily need a big three. You just need shooters, defenders, and one freak of nature.
Considering how good the Pacers were when Victor Oladipo was fully healthy, the movement Kevin Pritchard and Nate McMillan trailblazed with their roster building and coaching, the Celtics demonstrated in the 2018 playoffs, and the Bucks have refined all the way to the best overall record in the league might just be the Next Big Thing.