Is There Such Thing As Having Too Much Talent On An NBA Roster?

Radio host and ESPN Page 2  contributor Bomani Jones posed an interesting question (via twitter) the morning of Game 6 of the Boston/Cleveland series. He wrote “Forgive me if this is hyperbolic, but can you name a game in the last 20 yrs more compelling than tonight’s Cavs-Celts?”

I wrote him back with two suggestions–Game 7 between the Lakers and Blazers in 2000 and Game 7 between the Lakers and Kings in 2002.

For starters, there’s nothing like a Game 7. It’s the closest thing that the NBA, MLB, and NHL will ever get to a Super Bowl. It would be hard to call a Game 6 the most compelling game of the last 20 years if the next game in the series would instantly trump it if the team down 3-2 managed to tie the series.

The Game 7 between the Lakers and Blazers is mostly remembered as the game in which the Lakers stormed back from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to defeat the Blazers on their way to the first of three consecutive championships.

In hindsight it’s remembered as the game that sealed the fate of both teams for the next few years. Had the Blazers won the game they probably would have beaten the Indiana Pacers—just as the Lakers did. It’s just as plausible that they could have won the next two titles as well.

I started thinking about that 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers team and about just how amazing their roster was. You could make the case that they had two of the best five starting lineups in the league.

Take a look at their roster:

Point Guards

Damon Stoudamire

Greg Anthony

Gary Grant

Shooting Guards

Bonzi Wells

Steve Smith

Small Forwards

Scottie Pippen

Detlef Schrempf

Stacey Augmon

Power Forwards

Rasheed Wallace

Brian Grant

Antonio Harvey

Centers

Arvydas Sabonis

Jermaine O’Neal

Joe Kleine

It’s amazing that they didn’t win a championship with that roster.

Only so much blame can be levied on head coach Mike Dunleavy. A head coach with a degree in chemistry has a far greater chance at success with such a talented roster than one with a degree in communications or organizational leadership.

It’s an arduous task for any head coach to placate that many great players—especially ones with egos the size of Scottie Pippen’s or Rasheed Wallace’s.

If you look at the teams that have had the most talented rosters since the beginning of the century there’s a recurring theme of underachievement. The 2001-02 Dallas Mavericks were extremely talented and they lost in the second round of playoffs to the Sacramento Kings in five games.

That team had Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, Juwan Howard, Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson, Eduardo Najera, and Tim Hardaway.

The 2003-04 Mavericks had Nash, Nowitzki, and Finley as well but they added Antawn Jamison, Antoine Walker, Josh Howard, and Marquis Daniels to their core. The result that year was the same as the previous season. A five-game loss to those same Sacramento Kings—this time in the opening round of the playoffs.

The 2005-06 Mavericks made it to the NBA Finals with Nowitzki, Howard, and a new supporting cast of Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop, and Adrian Griffin.

There’s no doubt that the 2005-06 team was the least talented of those three Mavericks rosters.

At least on paper.

But that team came within a quarter of taking a commanding 3-0 series lead on the eventual champion Miami Heat.

The two most talented rosters in the league on paper this year were those of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. After losing to the Magic in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals the Cavs decided they needed to retool. So out went Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, Joe Smith, Wally Sczcerbiak, and Lorenzen Wright and in came Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Antawn Jamison, and Leon Powe.

The Magic made it to the Finals before losing in five games and even they decided to shake things up. Out went Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Tony Battie, and Rafer Alston and in came Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, and Jason Williams.

Both teams improved upon their roster from the season before. Flash forward to today and one team has already been eliminated from this year’s playoffs and the other team has already lost home-court advantage in their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Boston Celtics.

Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown may have lost the series the minute he decided to have Shaq guard Kevin Garnett in Game 6 instead of going with Anderson Varejao or J.J. Hickson—two centers not nearly as decorated as O’Neal but better suited for the match-up.

Did Brown have a choice? Does a coach without a championship have the clout to bench O’Neal even if the team would be better served with him coming off the bench?

We can only imagine the consequences had Brown decided to bench the ultra-sensitive O’Neal. Would O’Neal have had the ability to keep his mouth shut and not become a distraction or was Brown merely more worried about the potential blow-up than he was with winning games?

The teams that won championships during the 1990s and 2000s seem to be the ones with the shorter rotations and fewer big egos to massage.

If I asked 20 Cavs fans to list the six most critical players in their quest to win a championship in order of importance I’d probably get 20 different responses. There’s no doubt that LeBron James would be at the top of all 20 lists but I might get five different responses as to who was the second-most important.

If I asked that same question of 20 Lakers fans I’m pretty sure that every list would start with Kobe first and Pau second. The rest of the lists might have different orders but at least 19 of the 20 lists would have the same four players on the remainder of their lists: Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest.

The same can be said about the Boston Celtics. There might be four different players listed as the most important but the top six on almost every list would be Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Rasheed Wallace. Maybe one or two lists out of the 20 might have Tony Allen instead of Wallace or Perkins because of how well he has played in these playoffs so far. But before the playoffs started there’s no question that those original six would be on every list.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been plenty of talented rosters that won championships before 1990.

The Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, and Pistons teams of the 1980s were all talented. The 1985 Lakers had Bob McAdoo coming off the bench. McAdoo is 51st on the all-time list of scorers in the NBA’s history.

The 1986 Boston Celtics had Bill Walton coming off the bench—the top player selected in the 1974 NBA Draft.

The 1987 and 1988 Lakers had four players who were selected first overall in their respective drafts—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Mychal Thompson.

So while it isn’t unprecedented for the team with the most talented roster to win a championship the league has changed a lot since the 80s and 90s. Player salaries have established a team’s pecking order instead of what might make the most basketball sense.

Could a future Hall of Fame center like Shaq, making $20 million this season, have been able to accept backing-up Hickson–who is making less than $1.5 million this season, even if it made the most basketball sense?

Probably not.

He might say all of the right things in public but let’s not forgot that on separate occasions during the Cavs playoff run Shaq left the locker room without speaking to the media.

Mike Brown didn’t have the credentials or the clout to start Varejao or Hickson over Shaq and that decision will may end up costing him his job.

While the Magic’s series with the Celtics is far from over you could ask Magic fans who the six most important players are and you’d probably get 15 different answers. There’s no doubt that Dwight Howard is the Magic’s most valuable player. But the rest of any list containing the six most important players on the Magic might have a different player listed second on at least half the lists.

I’m not a Magic fan but my list of their top six players would be Howard, Jameer Nelson, Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mikael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat. Other lists might have Barnes or J.J. Redick on the list instead of either Lewis, Pietrus or Gortat.

So while the summer of 2010 is shaping up to perhaps be the most exciting off-season in the history of professional sports it’s important to realize that the team with the deepest roster isn’t necessarily the one you want. Championships aren’t won on paper. While depth is important it isn’t nearly as important as chemistry.

Recent history has shown that quality is far superior to quantity.

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