Can you win a title without a star? This is a topic that oddly both conventional wisdom and the statheads actually seem to agree on. The NBA is a star driven league, despite what some say. And for the timeframe that we have data for (1978 onwards, thanks Lee Meade!) we’ve seen the following:
No team since the 1978-1979 Seattle Supersonics has won a title without a top 10 player in Wins Produced.
No teams other than the 1998-1999 New York Knicks and 1978-1979 Seattle Supersonics have made the Finals without a top 15 player in Wins Produced
However, when I hear this argument come up, one team is cited over and over again: The 2004 Detroit Pistons. Apparently, where other teams had stars, the Pistons had team work. However, this claim is without doubt one of the most foolish I hear.
The Pistons had a star, they had center Ben Wallace. Let’s give a little background.
Ben Wallace went undrafted in the 1996 draft. The fact is that his college career may have merited him a look. As a senior at Virginia Union University, he lead his team to a Division II Final Four. His per-game stats were pretty impressive: 12.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. Admittedly his free throw shooting was terrible and his shooting efficiency was middling at 50% However, Ben Wallace had an Estimated WP48 of 0.239 with his stats. A winning team, winning stats? Of course, his age, size and lack of scoring prowess hurt him. Regardless, Ben Wallace being an impressive center in the NBA was not a shock given his college numbers.
Underused in Washington/Orlando
In Washington Ben Wallace played pretty much no minutes in his first season. He managed to hit 17 minutes a game his second season and 27 minutes a game his third season. Then he was traded with a gamut of other players for a 30 year old Isaac Austin. On Orlando he played 24.2 minutes a game. This was until he was traded as part of a sign and trade for Grant Hill. And we’ll see in a second how both Washington and Orlando royally screwed this up.
Here’s a fun little chart. Let’s examine Ben Wallace’s WP48 rank in the NBA by season(minimum of 400 minutes to qualify) Side by side I’ve put his Wins rank in the NBA. Let’s examine how Ben Wallace looked from the start of his career to the end of his tenure in Detroit. Numbers from the NBA Geek
First, we can see in Ben Wallace’s first season with any minutes (1998) he was in fact 6th in the league in per-minute production. Of course, with such limited minutes, he was 69th in wins. With decent minutes in Washington and Orlando (1999, 2000) he stayed top 6 in production, while climbing into top 10 territory for wins. Finally in 2001 he came to Detroit and got starters minutes. His numbers from 2001-2004 are staggering. He was the top player in WP48 and Wins in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, when his team finally won the title, he was second only to Kevin Garnett!
Not a Surprise? Not a Star??
Alright, so let’s examine the situation. In 2004 Ben Wallace had been the Wins Produced MVP in back to back seasons. He lost his crown to Garnett but was still second in the league. Let’s also look at conventional wisdom. Ben Wallace made the All-Star game in 2003 and 2004. He was a two time Defensive Player of the Year winner. And guess what the Pistons were really good at? The answer is defense for those that missed the rhetorical nature of my question. How can anyone claim that Ben Wallace wasn’t the star of the Pistons? How can anyone that pulls out the mantra “Defense Wins Championships” say that with a straight face? And I argue how Ben Wallace was a star mattered a lot too.
The Right Stats
There’s one other key aspect of Ben Wallace’s stardom. If we examine what Ben Wallace truly excelled at, it came down to:
Personal Fouls (70%)
Steals ( 68%)
I’ve listed the year to to year consistency for each stat as found in Stumbling on Wins. Recapping Stumbling on Wins: The most consistent stats in basketball are blocks, assists and rebounds. Ben Wallace was remarkable at two out of three of these. Tack in that he was also amazing at steals, while not fouling and you have a defensive powerhouse!
Ben Wallace was an absolutely dominant player in the 2000s. He did this by excelling at the most consistent boxscore statistics. And while he did this he racked up awards and All-Star berths. Every time I hear someone say the “starless 2004 Pistons” I’m baffled by the amount of evidence they’ve ignored. The story of the “starless 2004 Pistons” winning through team work is a myth on so many levels.
The truth is the Pistons had a star in Wallace for years. They were a very good team in 2003 thanks to the addition of Chauncey Billups and lost in the Conference Finals. In 2004 a returning Wallace and Billups coupled with a maturing Tayshaun Prince — he used to be good once! — pushed them over the edge. In 2005 they returned to the finals and lost in 7 games. The Pistons were a very good team, lead by a very good star. To say otherwise is to ignore all of the facts. And sadly, the farther in the past the Pistons good years go, the more frequent I hear it told that way.