Over the past months, I’ve written many a piece about the NBA playoffs and how to build a championship team. As a result of this, a curious thing has occurred. In my mind, an equation formed of what it takes to win a championship in the NBA and this equation permeated my work. The existence of this optimal formula for success became clear in my mind as I was responding to a comment on Kobe Bryant. To me, Kobe is a star (>.200 WP48) and not a superstar (.300 WP48) and that means he is a complementary player. My brain was clear that you’re not winning a title with just a star; you either need two stars or a superstar to have a shot at the title and you need to display a certain level of competence in the regular season (as measured in actual wins). Now while this all sounds well and good, I decided that rather than just going with my gut on this I was going to try to prove and codify it. So here is the Championship Equation.
Basics (skip if familiar)
This article uses Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] to evaluate player’s performance.* This measure uses three key components to evaluate a player:
- The player’s per minute box score statistics
- The player’s team’s per minute box score statistics
- The average performance at the player’s position (PG, SG, SF, PF or C)
A full explanation can be found here. To give a general scale, an average player has a WP48 score of 0.100. The very best players in the league usually have a WP48 over 0.300. To put this in perspective; an average player who plays a full season at 40 minutes a game would generate around 6.83 wins for their team. In contrast, a player posting a 0.300 WP48 would generate about 20.5 wins at 40 minutes a game over an 82 game season.
The Championship Sample
For this exercise were going to focus on every championship team from 1980 on (78 & 79 are strange years in terms of data) and we will look at the following for each championship team:
- Wins in the regular season
- Qty of Players in the Playoff Top 6 in Minutes who were Stars (.200-.300 Wp48) in the Previous Regular Season, that Regular Season and the Playoffs
- Qty of Players in the Playoff Top 6 in Minutes who were Superstars (>.300 Wp48) in the Previous Regular Season, that Regular Season and the Playoffs
- Star Points (1 for a Star, 2 for a Superstar)
If we get that all together what do we see?
The championship equation is clear and consistent:
- Win 52 or more games (Houston is an aberration that can be explained in one word: Hakeem)
- Have two star points (either >2 Stars, > Star + Superstar or > 2 Superstars)
And if you don’t meet the criteria, you will not be winning the title. What’s interesting about this is that if we use the data from the previous regular season the pattern holds. So if we combine our Win projections (here) and a list of stars and superstars last year we should be able to separate the contenders from the pretenders very quickly.
Stars and Superstars in 2010
Compiling the List of stars and superstars in 2010 is a simple process. We find every player who played more than 400 minutes last year (sorry Yao) and posted a WP48 of greater than .200. There were 40 players who met that criteria in 2010. 10 were superstar (and worth 2 star points) and 30 were stars (and worth one star point).
It’s an interesting list and I realize that there are some surprising names on it. Four in particular (Oden, Biedrins) because of injuries and somewhat unheralded young players Batum and Brockman jump out but keep in mind that the stats have no bias. This list does point out the obvious flaw in any Carmelo Anthony (a .100 WP48 player) trade rumor that involves any player on this list (say Kirilenko or Noah). Now let’s use the data to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
The Contenders in 2011
If we look at every team’s current roster and tally their projected wins and the number of star points we can divide the league into those teams that have a shot at the title and those who don’t. For this version , I will remind you that I’m using the Build 0.1 projections and not the updated final projection (see the Bulls example).
Eight teams currently meet the criteria established by the championship equation: The Heat, Blazers, Lakers, Magic, Spurs, Mavs, Celts, Bulls. The Nuggets, Thunder and Suns don’t currently have the stars on their rosters (although a Melo trade could change this for Denver, Josh Childress is a strange case). The Thunder look to be a year away as they will most probably meet all the criteria in 2011. Atlanta, Golden State, the Jazz, Bobcats and Bucks have the stars but not the wins. I will of course update this before the season starts and as the season goes along but for now, adjust your preconceived notions (and your bets ) accordingly.