“It’s a star-driven league.”
That’s an NBA truism you’ll hear frequently across the whole spectrum of basketball familiarity, from the experts to those who only watch occasionally. That axiom is at the root of a whole host of other ideas. You’ll always hear commentators say that a team’s best player should take the last shot. If playoff predictions are being made, you’ll hear “the team with the best player wins the series.” In the offseason, we talk about teams acquiring superstar talent by any means necessary. If other players are noted, it’s usually about creating dynamic duos, or Big 3s.
The economist’s term for this is that basketball is a “strong-link” sport. Success is determined in basketball by having a Michael Jordan, or a LeBron James, and then putting him in a position to succeed. And this is undeniably true: Jordan had six rings, James’ eight straight NBA Finals, etc.
On the other hand, football might be a weak-link sport, where success is determined by not having weak links for the opposition to attack. It’s nice to have a great running back in football, but he can’t succeed without five adequate linemen. If 10 defenders do their job, but Cornerback Chris doesn’t defend a receiver well, it’s going to be a touchdown.
Here’s the thing, though: if you look at what’s actually happening in the NBA, having a weak link out on the court is becoming more and more problematic.
On offense, the weak-link player becomes an easy player to ignore. If a player can’t shoot or score effectively, a defender can help off with impunity, making it difficult for the star to succeed. Look at last year’s Jazz/Rockets series for perhaps the most obvious example: the Rockets could send two or even three defenders at Donovan Mitchell from those guarding Ricky Rubio or Jae Crowder.
Under old illegal defense rules, this was much more difficult to do. Players were prohibited from playing zone defense, or anything like it. You could double-team someone, but only once they had the ball; essentially, this gave every star freedom to isolate one-on-one for at least a dribble or two until that second defender arrived. This rule was eliminated in 2001, but as seasons have passed, coaches have gotten increasingly creative about how to help. Despite that, many commentators still cling to the old notions of the effectiveness of isolation basketball, especially late in games.
On defense, the weak-link player becomes a constant target. You used to be able to hide a poor defender on a poor offensive player, but now, teams will actively hunt out bad defenders. The process for doing so is simple: have his man come and set a screen, and attack. If there’s no switch, the defense is compromised. If there is, the bad defender turns from bread to toast.
The consequences of this are everywhere, and last year’s Finals are one example. Yes, the Raptors had Kawhi Leonard, who had one of the great individual playoffs of all time. That was obviously critical. But the Warriors also went down because they had to play scrubs like Alfonzo McKinnie — recently waived — and Quinn Cook — recently signed by the Lakers. Meanwhile, Toronto had a terrific supporting cast. The team regarded as having the most talent ever assembled actually had exactly five great players, and when one, then two of them went down, the Warriors’ light ran out.
Before that, we had four straight Warriors vs. Cavs series. The Warriors won three of them against The King, and best player in the NBA, LeBron. In those series, the Warriors stayed healthy, had good depth, and the most complete lineups of five players: first the “Death Lineup”, then the “Hamptons Five.” When the Cavs won their only title, James was stellar, and the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes was the worst performer on either team.
I’m not saying that superstars don’t matter, of course they do. But if teams don’t surround them with four good players, that team won’t have the highest level of success.
That’s especially relevant for what’s happening this year in Los Angeles. Media attention is all on the two Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and Clippers, after both had very successful offseasons. Staples Center apparently credentialed over 400 press personnel for the season-opening game between the clubs, a gargantuan number. And you understand why: the Lakers have James and Anthony Davis, who legitimately might be two of the top five players in the NBA. The Clippers have Leonard and Paul George — though George didn’t play in the opener.
The Clippers still wiped the floor with the Lakers, though. The former is a very deep team: last year, they had two of the league’s three finalists in the Sixth Man of the Year category, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. This year, they’ve added solid role players like JaMychal Green and Mo Harkless. Meanwhile, the Lakers gave 27 minutes to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 24 minutes to a potentially washed up Avery Bradley, and 17 minutes to the aforementioned Cook. The difference couldn’t have been more stark.
Role depth won’t be easy for the Lakers to acquire, either. They can’t trade a pick until 2026, and they don’t have tantalizing young talent that they could trade for a wily veteran. Even if they traded away Kyle Kuzma for help, they could only accept a small salary in return; it’s hard to find a match.
If the Lakers prove unsuccessful in adding depth, well, they’ll waste yet another year of LeBron’s career. Even with perhaps the strongest link in basketball history, the weak links throughout the Lakers’ lineup will bring them down.