Paying An NBA Player Like A Superstar Doesn’t Make Him A Superstar

Getty Image

Superstars matter more in the NBA. Not just because the league does a better job marketing its players than any of the other major leagues, or because Twitter seems to have been made specifically for a player like Joel Embiid.

No, superstars matter more in the NBA. They matter so much, writers like Bill Simmons have found it necessary to delineate between superstars and super-duper-stars. But more than that, it informs everything teams do in terms of roster construction. The perpetual search for the great star who can bring a team a shot at the title.

If you don’t have one of the 10 best guys in the league, winning a title just isn’t on the table.

And that’s not just some apocryphal NBA truism that the Warriors have made irrelevant just like so much common basketball wisdom Golden State has rendered irrelevant. In the last 10 years, the title team has had a player in the top-10 in win shares and PER in nine out of 10 seasons, with the 2013 San Antonio Spurs the outlier.

Malcolm Gladwell could write an entire follow-up work on all the ways the Spurs are outliers. If you have the greatest modern coach ever, three Hall of Famers including the best power forward ever and an ascending superstar, you too can win the title without one of the 10 best players in the league.

So far, I haven’t said anything you didn’t already know, or at least think you knew intuitively. This happens to be a case where the data backs up what we already commonly believed. But here’s where we have to take it a step further: paying players like superstars (or super-duper-stars) when they aren’t can be just as crippling, if not more, than missing on lottery picks or trading for injury-prone assets.

The NBA created a system with max players that inexorably alters the market for players. It underpays the guys at the very top and raises the earning ceiling for players a tier or two below.