HERE'S A LITTLE argument on behalf of the starless Nuggets: It's a mid-March game against the Bulls in Chicago, 16.9 seconds left in overtime, and the Nuggets are desperately trying to extend an 11-game winning streak. Denver trails 118-116 but has the ball, and coach George Karl is drawing up a play in the huddle during a timeout. On the opposing bench, Tom Thibodeau, the NBA's top defensive mind, is considering how to stop him.
The Bulls defense under Thibodeau is predicated on overloading the strong side and sealing off the paint, and with no reason to draw up a specialty defense to stop any one player on Denver, Chicago comes out in its base system. After the inbounds, Andre Miller -- Denver's backup point guard, who has 12 assists on the night -- rounds a pick and drives the right side of the lane. The Bulls sag toward him. Or, that is to say, they sag as much as they can. On the left block, Bulls forward Luol Deng must stick to Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, who has already scored 35. Outside the arc, two Bulls shadow Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari and guard Ty Lawson, both 16-plus-ppg scorers with ICBM range. But collapsing defenses are like your favorite T-shirt: Eventually holes will form. And as Bulls center Joakim Noah slides to double Miller, he's forced to abandon forward Andre Iguodala on the right wing. That's 2012 All-Star Andre Iguodala.
Miller, trapped, kicks out to Iguodala. Iggy drills a three. And the Nuggets' streak goes to 12.
Here's another argument: Two weeks later, on April 4, when Gallinari's season is cut short by a blown ACL, the number crunchers behind Basketball Prospectus will fire up their projection system to see how the team will be affected by the loss, simulating an entire season without Gallo, arguably the team's top player. The result: Denver's win total will be downgraded from 56.6 wins all the way to ... 56.4.
Argument 3: Since Feb. 23, the Nuggets are 19-2 (all stats through April 9). They are 29-6 since Jan. 20, and they've outscored their opponents by 8.1 ppg, good for third best in the league.
Argument 4: The typical NBA champion wins 83 percent of its home games. Denver this season: 92.1 percent.
Argument 5: The Nuggets are 9-5 against the Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies and Clippers -- the same Western Conference powers that critics contend Denver cannot beat.
So why, then, does the conventional wisdom insist that the Nuggets -- or any team like them -- can never win it all?
THOU SHALT not win an NBA title without a superstar. It's a belief so old it feels eternal, as if it were the last of James Naismith's founding rules of basketball. (Just below 13. The side making the most goals ... shall be declared the winner.)
It has been said so often, one might think it no longer needs saying. But apparently it does. In February Sam Smith, the longtime Chicago Tribune writer and author of The Jordan Rules, declared that to win an NBA title, "you need stars and more stars." On NBA.com the same month, writer Jeff Caplan argued that in the playoffs, "a team has got to have a go-to guy who can create his own shot ... when crunch time demands an isolation takeover."
Even Andre Miller got into the act last year, saying, "I still think you need a star to win in this league." When asked whether his team -- designed specifically to be the exception to that so-called rule -- could, in fact, be the exception to that rule, he said: "We won't be the exception. I'd like to say that, but once you get to the playoffs, it's a totally different story. I don't know when the last team that didn't have the stars won the championship."
One can hardly blame Miller, or anyone else, for holding to the notion. Each of the past 22 NBA title winners had at least one player in the top 5 percent in Wins Above Replacement Player. Eight of the past 33 title teams, including LeBron James' Heat last season, were led by the league leader in WARP. (The highest WARP on the Nuggets? Kenneth Faried, 39th in the NBA.) But if the NBA's history has proved anything, it's that patterns are meant to be broken.
Consider that through the first four decades of the NBA, it was considered impossible to win a title without a Hall of Fame center like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton, Moses Malone or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The past two decades? NBA titles have been won with Bill Laimbeer, Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley and Kendrick Perkins in the middle. Heck, the Heat didn't even use a center for much of their title run last season.
It was also once universally agreed that an NBA champion couldn't be built around a scoring champ. And for good reason: In a span of 40 seasons, 1950-51 to 1989-90, it happened only once (1970-71), when Lew Alcindor led the Bucks. Then from 1990-91 through 1997-98, Michael Jordan did it six times; and in 1999-2000, Shaquille O'Neal did it with the Lakers.
So what of the "rule" that starless teams must always fall short in the playoffs?
Don't ask Karl if that rule can be defied -- or do, if you're eager to see a tightly wound man turn purple. In early March, a few wins into what would ultimately become a 15-game winning streak, Karl said: "Most of the people are going to say you can't win without a star. I'm tired of it. I'm fed up with it. I've been angry about it. It's a team game. I know Miami won the championship and had a superstar, but they were the best basketball team. Our job is to try to become the best basketball team. I honestly think it can be done. I think it's silly to not even have one person stand up and say it could be done."
Two weeks later, after his team's victory against the Bulls, Karl was asked about it again. "Yes," he said. "Definitively yes. I'm tired of the damn question. It's about making basketball plays. It's not about a guy making shots. It's about stops, possessions and efficiency. I think versatility is better than one guy."
Karl, of course, isn't the only coach who thinks, or hopes, that is true. The Grizzlies, Pacers and Warriors -- even the Derrick Rose-less Bulls -- are also built like a commune of sorts. But the Nuggets might be the team most perfectly constructed to shatter the starless ceiling.
By popular belief -- and by the numbers (see chart on page 22) -- the last NBA champ without a star was the 1989-90 Pistons. And if there was a method to Detroit's madness, it was the ability to take other teams out of their game. Not only did the Pistons' clutch-and-grab defense optimize the NBA rules at the time, it came with an upside: The fewer the points, the less the game was about what you wanted to do (score) and more about what they wanted to do (elbow you in the face).
Likewise, the form of the Nuggets' roster perfectly mirrors its function. Every part of the team is designed to transform its supposed shortcoming -- that lack of a superstar -- into an asset. Consider: In a pick-and-roll league based on penetration, nothing succeeds like fresh legs and depth. And the Nuggets turn that depth into pace. "Almost every game we play is about how much pace we can put into it," Karl says. "We play better in flow, we play better fast." The Nuggets' relentless D, with fresh-legged defenders cheating passing lanes, has yielded it the league's second-most steals per game. And that leads to transition baskets ... and bolsters the league's second-highest pace ... and, when coupled with Denver's thin air, sucks the life out of teams not acclimated to it. There's a reason the Nuggets' home record is 35-3. Playing the team in Denver is like running a relay race on Mount Fuji, only the other guys have twice as many runners.
If the Nuggets beat your stars, they'll do it as a team. Which raises one final argument: In a league of increasingly prohibitive luxury taxes, the Nuggets might represent the NBA's most sustainable economic model: broad talent, spread wide, compensated equally. In other words, should Denver defy expectations by winning the NBA title without a superstar, it might be less the breaking of a rule than the glimpsing of a future.
Great article. I personally don't think anyone will beat the Heat. Can you imagine trying to beat them AND the refs in a game 7 at Miami!?
It would certainly be sweet to get that chance though. If we can get to OKC in the WCF no doubt we can give them a series. Would be tough to win a game 7 there also but we've shown we can play with them.
If you just look at numbers and take away the Denver Nuggets association. It's guaranteed that a lot more folks would consider us as legit contenders. Only because we're the Denver Nuggets and only because we don't have that "superstar."
I think we can.. Even with out Gallo I think our team can reach the finals because we can match up with just about anybody. We played the Heat twice this season and both were very close games. I believe in this team to do something special..
Ha, Dre's comment kind of threw me off: "I still think you need a star to win in this league." When asked whether his team -- designed specifically to be the exception to that so-called rule -- could, in fact, be the exception to that rule, he said: "We won't be the exception. I'd like to say that, but once you get to the playoffs, it's a totally different story. I don't know when the last team that didn't have the stars won the championship."
Loved this part though: "Here's another argument: Two weeks later, on April 4, when Gallinari's season is cut short by a blown ACL, the number crunchers behind Basketball Prospectus will fire up their projection system to see how the team will be affected by the loss, simulating an entire season without Gallo, arguably the team's top player. The result: Denver's win total will be downgraded from 56.6 wins all the way to ... 56.4."