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NBA

Giannis and Jokic: The Return of the Single Superstar-led team

(Photo: Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports)

Just last month, my staff and I co-authored an article detailing the secret to a Superteam .

“Superteam” is the buzzword of the NBA and for good reason: the last time a team won a title without multiple stars was the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard had not broken out as a star yet and while Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were still highly effective, they were all past their primes.

Before that, the last team to win a title with one star or less was the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, Jason Kidd is a hall of famer and was a star for much of his career, but by this point of his career, was reduced to being a role player. That means that 6 of the last 7 consecutive NBA champions could be considered a form of “Superteam”.

It’s therefore no surprise that teams have all been trying to copy the blueprint of the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have been hell-bent on hoarding young talent however possible, with the end goal of either internally developing multiple superstars, or shipping it off for established superstars. Meanwhile, teams like the Houston Rockets have demonstrated their willingness to shed salary at almost any cost, in order to pair that elusive third superstar with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Yet, as the calendar flips over to 2019, something strange has happened.

As of the time this screenshot was taken (12:30PM GMT+11 on Jan 10, 2019), the teams with the top 4 records in the NBA all have one thing in common. No more than one superstar, surrounded by a supporting cast of above average players. Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors, Giannis Antetokoumpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Nikola Jokic of the Denver are bonafide superstars. Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers is in the tier below. Yet, with the possible exception of Kyle Lowry from Toronto, it’s entirely possible that the names mentioned above will be the only all star representatives from the current top 4 teams in the NBA.

Is there something to the old-school model of building a team around a franchise guy? The answer to that, in my opinion is yes – but with an asterisks. That asterisks being, that this model is not conducive to success without the right coach and the right system. Just ask Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, who despite having some very good complimentary players surrounding their megastar (Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle) are languishing at 19-22 at the time of writing.

I’ve already gone into detail about the Toronto Raptors here , and I don’t really consider Oladipo a superstar, so I’d like to take more of a deep dive into the reasons behind the success of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets.

THE GREEK FREAK

The Bucks have been an offensive juggernaut all year, leading the league in points scored (117ppg) as well as points scored in the half court (0.99 points per possession). They also happen to have the highest net-rating of any team in the NBA, with a points differential of +9.6.

It doesn’t hurt that they have arguably the world’s best player in Giannis Antetokoumpo, with the Greek Freak averaging a staggering 26.6 points per game on 58% from the field to go with 12.6 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. That is the type of all around production that can almost single-handedly carry a team. Yet, what makes this Bucks team legitimately dangerous is that Giannis doesn’t have to do it all on his own. Despite not having a superstar sidekick, the remaining 4 members of the starting lineup all average between 12.4-17.7 points per game, meaning that this is a well balanced offensive unit.

The Bucks are second in made threes this year behind the Houston Rockets and second in true shooting % behind Golden State. This remarkable efficiency coupled with willing ball movement (5th in assists as a team) means that the Bucks clearly have built a system around Giannis that works scarily well.

JOKIC AKA THE JOKER AKA THE TRUMP CARD

Meanwhile in Denver, they’ve managed the top record in the West thus far, in spite of key players such as Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap missing large chunks of the season. It helps a lot that they have a player like Nikola Jokic, the centre is probably the most gifted passing seven footer in NBA history and is currently 7th in the entire league in that stat. His averages of 19.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, 7.5 assists per game and 1.5 steals per game on over 50% shooting from the field are key contributors to the team’s sustained success. Plus, no other team in the NBA runs their offensive sets through their centre, meaning that from a defensive side of things, it can be incredibly difficult to scheme against.

What makes Denver such a good team this year, in my opinion, is their incredible depth. Not many teams could thrive in the absence of 3 starters for extended periods of time: even the mighty Golden State Warriors looked like a mess without Draymond Green and Steph Curry. Yet, the Denver Nuggets are loaded with talented young players, who while aren’t really superstars, are above average contributors on both ends of the floor. Jamal Murray may not be a star yet, but he probably will be one day, and is a valuable secondary scoring option to Jokic. Meanwhile, guys like Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee have all played valuable minutes at different points this season. You could make the argument that the Nuggets are one of the few teams in the NBA that legitimately run 10 or 11 deep, with 11 guys receiving more than 19 minutes of court time per game.

We saw in the most recent playoffs that the two best teams (Golden State Rockets and Houston Rockets) often ran with a 7 man rotation, opting to give their key contributors heavy minutes in lieu of giving all their regular rotation players some burn. That strategy may work for the most top heavy teams, but for teams such as the Nuggets who don’t have a guy like Klay Thompson or Clint Capela as their third best player, using their depth to keep their best players fresh might actually provide to be a competitive advantage.

Last year’s Nuggets were an elite offensive unit, yet they barely missed the playoffs, mostly due to their poor defensive. This season however, they’ve given up the 4th least points per game in the NBA, and it’s hard not to attribute at least some of that improvement to fresh legs.

The million dollar question is, will the success of these “single-superstar” teams carry into the playoffs? Only time will tell. Maybe this approach isn’t sustainable in big games, after all we’ve seen elite regular season teams like last year’s Toronto Raptors or the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks get crushed when it comes to the big games. One thing is certain though. If these teams continue to have success, the NBA will notice, and maybe the current obsession with “Superteam’s” will finally start to fade a little.