Superstars in the NBA playoffs, and the heightening of income inequality

Perhaps you have noticed that the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in four games straight.  A month or two ago, it was not entirely obvious that the Pelicans would make the playoffs at all.  And all 22 ESPN analysts picked the Pelicans to lose the series.

The simplest theory about the Pelicans performance is that they have two superstars, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.  But while Portland was thought of as the superior team, they don’t have any player with the power and dynamism of Anthony Davis, whom I and many others consider to be a transcendent superstar.

One possible theory is this: an NBA series today is very well scouted and analyzed, and the players watch lots of tape.  Adjustments are made each game or even each quarter, based on a quantitative analysis of what is working and what is not.  This neutralizes many of the strategies of the lesser players, and furthermore having a good bench is worth less when it is easier to concentrate more of the minutes in the very best players.  It is not however possible to neutralize the impact of a transcendental superstar, even with lots of advance planning.  Those truly top players can improvise around any defenses thrown at them, or on the defensive end they can rapidly adjust to counter a new offensive attack.

Furthermore, in the playoffs effort is more or less equalized, as suddenly everyone is trying, even the bench players on the road.  That too raises the relative return to top talent.

In the playoffs, it is thus plausible that the quality and value of the transcendent superstars goes up.

As more and more of contemporary business becomes regularized and measured and motivated and based on well-ordered cooperating teams, might the same be true for the transcendent superstars of that world as well?  In essence, we’re always in the business “playoffs” these days, at least in Manhattan and Silicon Valley, and their transcendent superstars also become the difference-makers.

I do not seek to argue that is the main cause behind rising income inequaliity, but might it be one factor?

Of course my dream series for the finals is New Orleans vs. Philadelphia (Ben Simmons, Joel “built for…playoff basketball” Embiid.  That is hardly the most likely outcome, but it is now looking a lot more possible than one might have thought.  Philly, by the way, is the “all time hottest team entering the NBA playoffs,” at least by one measure.


A not unreasonable way to explain why NBA champions always have at least one superstar on them (the only exception I believe 2004 Pistons). They simply matter more than any other sport, for the simple reason that one man is 20% of your team. Qualitative difference from any other sport.

msgkings is correct, but I would add the 2014 Spurs as an exception.

I know one was older and one was young, but I would say old Tim Duncan + young Kawhi Leonard = at least 1 superstar...

Tony Parker was still a very-very good player in 2014, every bit as solid on advanced measures as let's say peak Paul George. Plus Manu was still a stud pumping out .176 ws/48 minutes which is better than Kobe Bryant in '09-'10 the year he won his 5th championship.

Both Tony Parker and Manu were if not as great as they were at their peaks were still incredible players. That Spurs team had 3 or 4 future hall of famers 2 ever so slightly past their primes, one well past his prime (Duncan) but still very good in limited minutes, and Kawhi who was already ascending into his stardom as a top 5-6 player in the NBA (when healthy).

Those two teams in the 2014 finals were two of the all-time great teams with a potentially combined 8 hall of fame players.

Not only is one man 20%, the better players also take a disproportionate share of shots, unlike say baseball with the fixed batting order.

Right, it's been a truism forever that superstars matter more in the playoffs: rotations shorten (meaning, the bench players see fewer minutes and the starters play more minutes and the superstars even more minutes).

The 2004 Pistons team is indeed one of the rare exceptions (though Rasheed Wallace was and still is under-rated, and it was around that time that we realized that Chauncey Billups was a very good player especially in the playoffs, somewhat similar to how Sam Cassell stepped up in the playoffs -- and Jrue Holiday may be showing himself to be in this same mold).

In addition to the 2004 Pistons, the 1979 SuperSonics need to be mentioned. Lots of good players, no dominant superstars. Until a few years ago, they were the only NBA champion that had no future Hall of Famers on their roster (Dennis Johnson's election spoiled that, although frankly I think he only got in because of his Celtic connection; if he'd played his entire career with the Sonics or Suns he would've been the same excellent player but I doubt he would've been elected to the Hall of Fame).

But even if we call DJ a bona fide superstar (and though he did win Finals MVP in 1979) that team was not dominated by DJ. He arguably wasn't even their most important player -- the NBA was and to some extent still is a big man's league and I would say that Sikma was more crucial to the Sonics' success.

The 2014 Spurs are a pretty good candidate too, but they had at least three future Hall of Famers on their roster (Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili -- and potentially Kawhi Leonard too). Granted they were aged in 2014 so they were no longer the dominant superstars they had been before. Still I'd list the 2004 Pistons and 1979 Sonics as the ultimate in non-superstar oriented teams, with the 2014 Spurs as honorable mentions.

The fact that Larry Brown coached that 2004 Pistons team to a title with no superstars, got Allen Iverson and a bunch of stiffs to the Finals, won an NCAA championship, and won wherever he coached in a long career with many teams is my reason for placing him as best basketball (not just NBA) coach ever.

Huh. Red Auerbach. John Wooden.

Huh. Red Auerbach. John Wooden.

How was Red's college coaching career? How was Wooden's NBA career?

Brown is one of the all-time greats clearly and we could add another accomplishment to the list: he got the Clippers into the playoffs two years in a row. For youngsters who only know about the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul era that may sound like no big deal, but for literally decades the Clippers were the perennial doormat of the league thanks to Donald Sterling. That Brown was able to get that sad sack of a franchise into the playoffs not just once (Bill Fitch managed to do it too) but twice is astonishing, miraculous.

But best coach ever? Perhaps best in the same sense that Wilt Chamberlain was the best player ever. In terms of combining skills and athleticism, no one has matched Wilt. And in terms of being able to get any random assemblage of players to play like a team, and quickly, Brown may be unmatched.

But if I was starting a franchise and wanted to win the most championships, I'd pick Bill Russell or Kareem over Wilt. Wilt was restless and too much concerned about personal records (not so much the scoring records, but the records such as never fouling out, or winning the assist championship just to show people that he was a passer and not just a scorer). Similarly Brown just could not sit still. So he'd be a great coach to hire for a couple of seasons to increase the win total, but not a guy you can build your franchise around.

Brown is unquestionably one of the all-time best and a deserved Hall of Fame coach. He's the best coach under certain definitions of "best" but not all. There's no way e.g. that he would've hung around with the Celtics to win 9 championships the way that Auerbach did (plus the additional championships after Auerbach moved from the bench to the front office).

All great points, I tend to agree with all of them. But as you touch on, sports arguments about the 'best' are impossible to objectively win or lose. They are subjective, and that's what makes them fun.

Was Jordan the best player ever, or LeBron, or Wilt, or Russell? Was Brown the best coach, or was it Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach or John Wooden? Would the current Warriors beat the 1992 Bulls? The 2001 Lakers?

No way to be sure of any of it, so the fun is in the argument.

Jrue Holiday has exactly one All-Star selection to his 2013. No reasonable basketball argument posits Holiday is a superstar. Even his injured teammate, Boogie Cousins, who is also not a superstar, has a better claim to that status than Jrue.

Yeah that stood out, dude is not a superstar, not even close. He is playing great in the playoffs but it's only been one series against a listless team that plays no defense. Let's see what he looks like vs the Warriors.

Speaking in economic jargon, Portland does not have diversified portfolio (best two players are guards) so it can't exploit clear Pelicans flaws at forward positions. Add that they have a great defensive guard to minimize outcome of Portland star. It was quite a perfect match for Pelicans to use their almost single asset: a superstar. They've had luck, and it's our fault not to have it intuited.

Thompson and Durant will exploit brutally these flaws at forward next round. But, being the Warriors, it will be ignored. But it shouldn't be long term. Second round is the best outcome Davis can get in a club with such flawed foundations.

That's what I think too. Portland depends too much on Damian Lillard who is a great player but need more help.

In no universe is Jrue Holliday a "superstar." He's an excellent guard, but there are at least 20-30 players in the league more valuable to their team.

while no one would use that label for Jrue, his +/- differential is in the 96th percentile when excluding garbage time. granted, he doesn't get a lot of minutes without Anthony Davis on the floor, but in tandem the two are among the most effective players in the league.

The explanation does not hold up in soccer in the playoffs of the European Champions League. Inferior teams were the teams with less stars. They beated their opponents by playing high-variance (risky) tactics.

We're talking about real sports here.

Soccer is, at most, two matches, not a best-of-seven. Additionally, variance plays a higher role in an individual soccer match than in a basketball game. So, while tactics matter, there isn't the iteration of adjustments and counter-adjustments that make this analysis applicable.

My conclusions hold up with the expected goals and expected assist statistics which are calculated on every possession.

The Warriors don't have any particular player that is going to match up well against Anthony Davis either. KD and Javale McGee are way too slight, and ZaZa is a stiff, but I fully expect the Warriors to dust their asses in about 5 games.

Portland's back court just went cold on them with about two weeks left in the season. Some of their dead weight bench players really showed too, Meyers Leonard, my god.

Don't forget Draymond. He has the right mix of lateral quickness, core strength and IQ.

I would say Andre Iguodola will do a fairly good job of limiting Davis.

Oh no no, Davis has 6 inches, 40 pounds, and -9 years on Igoudala. I expect it will be McGee with Draymond sneaking over to double. I expect Davis to put up big numbers but hopefully it won't be enough.

'In the playoffs, it is thus plausible that the quality and value of the transcendent superstars goes up.'

Some people, such as a former NBA referee, would argue that it is the referees that ensure that the value of a transcendent superstar remains transcendent - 'A defensive specialist throughout his career, Bell had a reputation for being a "star stopper." His defensive skills were so razor sharp that he could shut down a superstar, or at least make him work for his points. Kobe Bryant was often frustrated by Bell's tenacity on defense. Let's face it, no one completely shuts down a player of Kobe's caliber, but Bell could frustrate Kobe, take him out of his game, and interrupt his rhythm.

You would think that the NBA would love a guy who plays such great defense. Think again! Star stoppers hurt the promotion of marquee players. Fans don't pay high prices to see players like Raja Bell — they pay to see superstars like Kobe Bryant score 40 points. Basketball purists like to see good defense, but the NBA wants the big names to score big points.

If a player of Kobe's stature collides with the likes of Raja Bell, the call will almost always go for Kobe and against Bell.'

This post seems to have a conclusion in mind and then reasons backward to make the facts fit.

First, as several have noted already, Holiday is nowhere close to a superstar. This year, he ranked 64th in PER. To designate Holiday as such cuts against TC's point about Davis, who truly IS a superstar and, yes, is worth much more than he makes. Bringing Holiday in muddles the argument.

Second, I would claim that in the last 15 playoffs (2003-2017), the superstar argument lacks explanatory power. The argument about bench strength equalizing is clearly misbegotten. LeBron is 3-5 in NBA Finals (and left Cleveland in 2010 after three years of not making the Finals in 2008-2010) because he almost always ran into a team with depth and the ability to limit his teammates. The losses to Orlando in 2009 and an aging Boston in 2010, betting match up with an argument about "team" and "fit" and "minimizing weaknesses" than any having to do with a transcendent player leading the way.

I'm sure Manu Ginobili can be dismissed as an exception, but the Spurs ability to have a player come off the bench for most of his career surely has something to do with their sustained success, including the years when Tim Duncan had ceased to be a "transcendent superstar."

And then there's the OKC Thunder. Had two superstars even after trading ascending superstar Harden in 2012. Yet to return to finals. Currently trailing the super-star-less Jazz.

>This post seems to have a conclusion in mind and then reasons backward to make the facts fit.

If you ever find an MR post that does NOT fit this mold, note the date and time, and let everyone know.

Nothing more pathetic than a daily poster who shows up just to rip the blog. No one is forcing you to read it.

I think there's a core of truth here. Basketball is just too fine-grained -"reality has a surprising amount of detail" - for anything this general to be blanket true. If the playoffs are about matchups and adjustments, an unanswered superstar is a very common way that battle is won.

(fwiw, I don't think Westbrook is a superstar - there are maybe 25 players I'd rather have in a playoff series.)

Reigning MVP, only player in history to average a triple double 2 seasons in a row, if Westbrook isn't a superstar the word has no meaning.

Now, you are correct his game is problematic for winning in the playoffs, but that's a specific thing about that particular superstar.

Regular season superstar? Vs. playoffs superstar?

Goofy distinction perhaps, and yet ... it captures something true about a lot of very very talented players in the part of the world (North America) that has a post-season pursuit of a Cup rather than a concurrent-with-the-season Cup competition. Namely that the post season is a different creature.

Maybe Westbrook is a superstar because missed shots are not adequately weighted by fans and analysts.

In defense of the original post, the thesis was not "a team MUST have a superstar to win the title," but it was "In the playoffs, it is thus plausible that the quality and value of the transcendent superstars goes up."

I think the data on Lebron in the playoffs is also data that could be cherry-picked in various ways, because simply stating that he is 3-5 in the Finals does not give context to the data. He lost 3 of the Finals precisely because he ran up against other superstar players. Please recall that Dirk Nowitzki is an all time great player who played out of his mind (dare I say at Jordan-esque levels??) in the 2011 Finals. Also, in the 2015 Finals and 2017 Finals, Lebron lost to Golden State teams that had MORE superstars active than his Cavs (2015: because of Kyrie injury, Lebron single-handed against Curry, Klay and Draymond; 2017: Lebron and Kyrie v. Steph, Durant, Draymond, Klay). Even if you quibble on the definition of "superstar" and include Kevin Love and players equivalent to Love, the Cavs twice lost to teams with more "star power."

I do not intend this as a Lebron apology, but I do think a lot of the data cuts both ways, and I still believe from watching games and looking the qualitative data available that the superstar thesis has a great deal of explanatory value.

Pelicans? There's a basketball team named that? Man I have not followed the NBA in decades.

The only Pelican I know is the chess opening: B33: Sicilian, Pelikan (Lasker/Sveshnikov) variation 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 , which is more commonly called the Sveshnikov after the Russian master.

That's funny. This team used to be called the Sveshnikovs, up until I believe 2009.

Now that's a quality post, well played.

Or maybe there is more variance in the level of one player vs. 8 players and if that one star is hot, the team is hot. So in the playoffs the teams with the hot star usually win.

An even less noisy analysis should be possible in tennis and golf, where individual player performance controls results. I haven’t run the numbers, but I expect a handful of top players dominate the results, and the resulting income (including endorsements).

A very clever post, even if I am not sure I buy it. Anyway:

Warriors matchup with Pelicans better than any other team.

Draymond Green is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for a reason. Andre Iguodala is a former first team all NBA defender with a 6'11 wingspan. Oh and KD is about the same height and wingspan as Davis and probably quicker. Javale McGee can match Davis on height and length (if not skill or discipline) and Zaza will get a couple of minutes to brutalize Davis. Portland's problem was as much about depth and ability to switch as the lack of one guy to stick Davis; Warriors will not have the same issue. Davis will still get his, but it will much be much much harder.

Portland thrives on a pick and roll game; Warriors run a motion offense. What separates Steph Curry from every other elite guard is that he is incredibly dangerous off the ball: always moving and chasing defenders through endless screens. Rondo and Holiday are good on-ball and pick-and-roll defenders but Warriors motion offense is a different thing.

Tyler has gone from saying Steph changed the way we think about basketball in 2016 to underrating him. What's the dollar value on being a superstar that other superstars enjoy playing with? Not to mention 26-5-6 on 49.5-42-92 shooting and top 5 finishes in PER and RPM.

All good points, but Curry is likely to miss the first 2 games of this series.

It is my understanding that pay is also highly unequal in the NBA and other pro leagues, and much more unequal than in the past. What is interesting about this is that all such leagues are 100% unionized. So much for unions being a force against inequality.

Not sure if serious, or just partisan trolling...

You are extremely misinformed. Pay in the NBA is extremely equalized to the point that NBA superstars are extremely underpaid compared to their value to a team, primarily due to a salary rules that limit *individual player salaries*.

It's great for non-superstar NBA players, great for fans that want teams with multiple superstars, and terrible for overall league parity.

I believe the relative decrease in the value of a bench of players against the starting lineup also supports Tyler's thesis about superstars in the playoffs. When players are getting more rest between games (no back to backs, etc.) and starters are being held in reserve less for fear of later injuries, the comparative advantage of a team that leans on a superstar becomes greater due to the increased minutes played by superstars in the playoffs.

I would, however, like to point out that Portland did have a superstar player in Damien Lillard, but Lillard sputtered against the Pelicans. Maybe Tyler doesn't consider Lillard a superstar and was throwing some very subtle shade on Dame...

Trust the process (TM)

>Adjustments are made each game or even each quarter, based on a
>quantitative analysis of what is working and what is not. This
>neutralizes many of the strategies of the lesser players...

I agree stars matter in the NBA, but this mechanism is doesn't sound plausible. It's much harder to make adjustments when all five players are treats than when you are trying to stop one or two players.

> might the same be true for the transcendent superstars of
>that world as well?

Sports are inherently different e.g., you can only put 5 players on the court at any time. Modern pro sports differ even more; there is no private sector analogue to the team and player salary caps.

Damian Lillard of the Blazers is likely to be on the All-NBA First Team this year. Second Team at worst. He and teammate CJ McCollum going into the series were much, much more highly regarded than one-time 2013 All-Star Holiday so you citing Holiday's superstardom as reason for the Pels' winning doesn't make sense. That and Lillard's complete containment from the very start of the series invalidates your superstars-cannot-be-contained, role-players-diminish-over-time theory as applied here. See also the ongoing Thunder-Jazz series, which has seen the reigning MVP effectively neutralized by a team led offensively by a rookie guard (and not even the best rookie guard in the playoffs).

Nowhere in your post do you mention that while the Blazers were the third seed and the Pels the sixth, they finished the regular season just one game apart. Hardly an upset. True the Pels lost Cousins, but they performed even better without him to close the season.

The idea that superstars matter more in the playoffs is well-known so I don't know why you're presenting it as your own idea. Paul George coined his own nickname for the phenomenon last week: "Playoff P."

"Furthermore, in the playoffs effort is more or less equalized, as suddenly everyone is trying, even the bench players on the road. That too raises the relative return to top talent."

But earlier you refer to the top players playing 44+ minutes in the playoffs, giving relatively well-rested role players an effort advantage.

Cool that you're interested in the NBA, but I have to say you are beyond your depth talking about it.

Reading a Tim Donaghy book now on the NBA. Even if 90% of what he says is false, and I don't think it is, it exposes that watching the NBA is little different than watching pro wrestling in the WWE. Enjoy your playoffs, NBA fans.

Jrue Holiday is nowhere near a superstar.

Matthew above finally makes the key point - it was a 49-win +2.6 pd team against a 48-win +1.3 team! Furthermore although both teams played better as the season went along, New Orleans also became a different team with Cousins subtracted and Mirotic added, which means that their overall regular-season record may be somewhat misleading.

Tyler brings up the "all 22 ESPN analysts" thing as though it's relevant to expectations about the series - it's not. (It's relevant to whether or not you should put any weight on ESPN predictions, of course). Tyler should have gone back and looked at some Vegas odds, if he wanted to see how unexpected the result was.

My lazy impression was that Portland was somewhat blind-sided by the ability of the New Orleans guards to shut down Lillard and McCollum.

And remember, Terry Stotts learned how to coach at the elbow of the NBA's all-time master of the ugly & disgraceful playoff exit, George Karl.

New Orleans did look pretty good against Portland, but to the extent that they really are just a 48-win +1.3 pd team, the idea that they really have a chance of getting to the NBA finals seems very far-fetched. I think for this to happen it would have to mean (1) no [healthy] Curry in round 2; (2) maybe a second or even a third significant GS injury; (3) Houston just not being anywhere near as good as the regular season record would indicate; and (4) New Orleans really being "for real," like really being now the equivalent of something more like a typical 58-win team. I guess if all four of those happen or are true....

And of course a team that really does have (at least arguably) have two superstarts is now down 3-1 to a team with no superstars.

An analog to this NBA effect would be the importance of dominant starting pitchers during the baseball playoffs -- even though they can start just three games at most out of seven.

Hockey -- the best playoff -- requires your stars to be stars but there always seems to be a blue-collar player who suddenly has the magic wand on offense or defense. The Penguins are particularly star-topheavy but would not be hoisting all these cups without the timely heroics of Max Talbot, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino etc.

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