The NBA has always been a superstar-driven league where championship teams are generally led by one or two of the league’s 10 best players.
Championship dynasties – teams that have won at least three titles with the same primary leaders – are remembered for their one-name superstars.
Those dynasties include George Mikan’s Lakers, Bill Russell’s Celtics, the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers, the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics, the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls, the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers and Tim Duncan’s Spurs.
The 2014-15 Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks are an unusual championship contender; four of their players made the All-Star team (Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague) but none of their players are superstars. No Hawk would rightfully be considered to rank among the NBA’s top 10 players.
Horford is a three-time All-Star but only once in his eight-season career has he been listed among the league’s best 15 players – All-NBA Third Team selection in 2010-11. First-time All-Star Korver is a 12-year journeyman who has played for four different teams and he has never averaged more than 14.4 points per game (PPG) in a full season.
Millsap had seven solid seasons with the Utah Jazz before averaging a career-high 17.9 PPG in 2013-14, his first year with the Hawks. His numbers have dipped slightly this season but team success brings individual recognition and the coaches honored Millsap with his second consecutive All-Star selection. First-time All-Star Teague is a six-year veteran in his fourth year as a starter. He may now be blossoming into one of the league’s top point guards but prior to this season he likely would not have been on anyone’s top 10 list at his position.
The Hawks are successful because their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. The Hawks rank sixth in scoring (103.4 PPG), fourth in points allowed (96.8 PPG), fourth in field goal percentage (.471) and fourth in defensive field goal percentage (.434). The Hawks are tied for second in three-pointers made and first in three-point field goal percentage.
Can a well-balanced team with no superstars win an NBA championship? Two NBA championship teams defy the superstar-driven model. The 1979 Seattle SuperSonics featured All-Star center Jack Sikma, All-Star guard Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams, a future All-NBA guard who led Seattle with 19.2 PPG in the regular season and 26.7 PPG in the playoffs.
No SuperSonic made the All-NBA Team in 1979, though Sikma finished a distant seventh in the MVP balloting after receiving a handful of votes. Johnson won the 1979 NBA Finals MVP and developed into an All-NBA guard; he was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame after winning two more championships, though he was the fourth option on the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics title teams in 1984 and 1986.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons only had one All-Star (Ben Wallace), though two years later that same nucleus sent four players to the All-Star Game (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace). Ben Wallace made the 2004 All-NBA Second Team and he finished seventh in MVP voting, 154 points behind sixth place finisher Shaquille O’Neal. Wallace won the Defensive Player of the Year award four out of five years in the 2000s, but 2004 was the one year during that span when he did not receive that honour. Chauncey Billups earned the 2004 NBA Finals MVP despite not making the All-Star team that season.
The Hawks’ biggest weakness, literally, is size. Their front court is skilful but small and the team ranks 25th in rebounding, with their opponents out-rebounding them by nearly three per game. Big teams like Chicago or Cleveland could give Atlanta trouble in the playoffs, when the game slows down and each possession is more critical because there are fewer possessions per game.
A team driven by a superstar or superstars will probably eliminate the Hawks in the 2015 playoffs. But if the Hawks maintain their high level of offensive and defensive efficiency while continuing to mask their weakness on the boards perhaps they will join the very small list of teams that won an NBA championship despite not featuring at least one of the league’s 10 best players.