No superstar required?

The Atlanta Hawks played seven games in nine days to open the season. Dick Bavetta’s hips are slowly turning to powder. League-wide shooting percentages scuttle along the floor of respectability. All this because owners wanted a system that evened out spending and would better distribute superstar talent.

But Denver thrives in a Melo-less ego vacuum and the egalitarian 76ers have stormed to the best record of the NBA. That old, vague religion of the necessity of superstars is under pressure.

Having an elite player may be necessary to win a title. But to win? Well, there are a few special teams proving that tough team basketball can more than keep the lights on while a franchise waits for a luminary talent. They are proving that not only individual brilliance, but team play, can be the organizing principle of a successful franchise.

Neither the Nuggets nor 76ers will win a championship this year, and they’ll be in good company with plenty of teams that do have superstars, like Orlando and Los Angeles. But how far can the Nuggets and 76ers, and for that matter the Pacers, can stretch their seasons isn’t the question. What’s more interesting is determining whether what is happening in these nationally-neglected markets is sustainable and replicable.

The Nuggets, Sixers and Pacers are three teams that are young, rely on an even mix of drafted and acquired talent (only Evan Turner is a recent high lottery pick), and play with toughness, energy, and intelligence.

These qualities show up primarily on the defensive end, where each team is in the top 7 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. A strong defensive philosophy is simply the surest and fastest way for a team to become good. Great defense requires certain (relatively abundant) physical tools, but more important is discipline, a commitment to following agreed-upon rules that allow each player to trust his teammates and be trusted alike. You absolutely do not need to be a superstar, a distinction reserved exclusively for those with scoring chops, to play killer defense. It’s the surest way out of the mid-lottery slums and into upper-middle class hooping.

This is why David Thorpe, in almost every public appearance, reiterates that “the NBA is a coaches’ league.” A coach who can inspire such discipline and consistency of effort, a tough task when dealing with players who make far more money and whose contracts are all but guaranteed, a coach who can do what Doug Collins and his staff have done in Philadelphia, is every bit as rare as a superstar player.

Of course defense isn’t everything. To go beyond respectable, you have to score. The Milwuakee Bucks have been excellent on defense under Scott Skiles, but have been too inept offensively too profit much from the all the stops. Ever since Andrew Bogut’s injury, they have not been able to generate consistent offense, they just don’t have the players who can make shots.

Here is where the Nuggets and Sixers distinguish themselves. They have an unusual collection of very good players who are just not quite good enough to merit a massive contract, but are talented offensive players nonetheless. Nene and Andre Iguodala are awesome players, but they’re also the exact kind of players that many discourage teams from building around. Yet they seem to sense their limitations and play within them, and that allows them to benefit their teammates to their fullest abilities.

More broadly, those same principles of trust and execution that serve these teams so well on defense also come to bear on offense. The Nuggets and Sixers share the ball beautifully and aggressively. Good offensive players make positive plays without seeking to individually tilt the game like a Dwyane Wade or Dirk Nowitzki can.

Along with a lackluster defensive effort, that’s a real problem for many bad teams– players who aren’t superstars stop the ball, take bad shots and break off sets, further discouraging teammates from running team offense with any purpose. The Kings and Wizards are two relatively young, certainly athletic teams that are two of the very worst squads in the NBA. They also have the two worst ratios between made field goals and assists. That wouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched their purposeless offenses flail about while half-decent players jack up isolation attempts.

We talk a lot about what teams are following the Thunder model for building a contender. Maybe it’s time to consider a new model of franchise building that doesn’t involve spirited tanking.

That sort of evaluation will have to wait until the end of the season, when we can determine whether the hot starts of these two teams owes to their fantastic play or a uniquely compressed season that lends itself to their greatest strengths: continuity, young legs, and depth.

Fans will always yearn for a superstar to rally around and deify. But just as alluring is a team that plays hard and plays together every night. In the unofficial Aesthetic Appeal Power Rankings, the Nuggets and 76ers are right near the top, despite lacking a media-hyped hub of attention.

That’s because just as exciting as rallying around a player is rallying around a philosophy. Yes, Nowitzki was brilliant, but the spirit of the Mavericks, their unselfishness, precision was what made them so fun to watch. Ditto the Heat. Explosive plays put butts in seats, but this team inspired because of their defensive tenacity and cohesiveness.

There’s a mistaken assumption that if team X can just add a superstar it can automatically contend for a title. Denver and Philly have already found an identity in their defense and unselfishness. I’m doubt that, like the mid 2000’s Detroit Pistons, such a philosophy paired with a collection of great but not elite players can take either team to the top. But that doesn’t really matter, they are giving us plenty to appreciate by reminding us that how you play is just as important as who is playing.

Thanks to Ian Levy for his help on this post.

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