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Shaun Powell

The lack of a true superstar in Denver means a tough road ahead for George Karl's bunch.
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In the end, winning in NBA still a star-driven business

Posted Mar 2 2011 10:35AM

In a trendy era where teams are trying to stockpile as many stars as the salary cap allows, George Karl seeks an answer to his simple question.

"The formula is you've got to have three great players," he said. "Why? Why are we hung up on this? I don't think it's sensible to try and win like everyone else is trying to win."

He was just getting warmed up.

"Why can't you win with 10 really good players? Maybe not the top 5 at their positions, but what about every guy at their position (in the starting lineup) in the top 15 or 20? And they play hard and as a team? And then you add one of the best benches in the game? Why can't that win a championship?"

Well, if you lost your superstar, as Karl and the Nuggets just did, and left with no choice but to compete without one, then you could understand Karl's thinking -- or pleading. It's a challenge for any team and coach to claim a championship with a bunch of pretty good-but-not-great players. The reality, whether anyone likes it or not, is superstars win championships, and this isn't anything new, despite the so-called "latest" craze.

The Celtics won in the 1960s with Bill Russell, the Lakers in the '70s with Wilt and West, the Celtics in the '80s with that devastating front line and the Bulls in the '90s with Jordan and Pippen and later Rodman. The one exception in previous decades was the Knicks' teams under Red Holzman, although many would probably classify Walt Frazier, named one of the top 50 players of the decade, as a superstar.

Very good players rarely take big shots in clutch moments, much less make them. Superstars do.

Very good players don't force the other coach to draw up specific gameplans just for them; superstars do.

Superstars have earned that tag because they're dangerous, they're composed in pressure situations and historically, they win championships. That's why they're in demand, and the more you have, the better your chances are in June. It's really that simple.

But Karl does make a point. Why don't we occasionally see teams like the 2004 Pistons, and even the 1989-90 Pistons, who won with defense, rebounding and balanced scoring? You could argue Isiah Thomas was still a superstar, even at that stage in his career. Although on any given night, you couldn't tell Isiah from Joe Dumars, who was no superstar -- but a very good player.

The romantic idea of a team of role players bonding together and scoring a big upset in June is quite far-fetched here on the highest level of the game, where a great player makes all the difference, unlike college or high school, where teams can get away without one.

If that were possible on the NBA level, then the Hawks would stand a chance. The gap between their best player (Joe Johnson) and fourth-best (Jamal Crawford) isn't massive, and they just added Kirk Hinrich to plug a weakness at point guard. Yet, they're still staring at the steep task of lasting longer than the Celtics, Heat, Magic or Bulls, teams with at least one player considered among the top two or three at his position.

Do the Spurs qualify? That depends. They lack a superstar only by definition. Tim Duncan, who's at or near career-lows in the important categories, is like Isiah in the early '90s: A player, once the very best at his position, in decline but still very good. Same for Tony Parker, while Manu Ginobili, never considered the best guard in the game, is having a terrific season nonetheless. Add Richard Jefferson, George Hill and DeJuan Blair to the mix and the Spurs can match their top six players with anyone. They're about as close to the champion Pistons as it gets.

"In basketball," said Karl, "you can win playing zone, you can win playing slow-down ball, you can win playing fast and you can win with the 3-ball. You can win 25 different ways. But there's only one way to win a championship in the NBA, with stars. And that's what I don't understand."

He may not understand, but he must get used to it. LeBron James caught plenty of flak (undeserved, in my opinion) from other great players for taking less money and going to Miami to join Dwyane Wade. But if Magic Johnson didn't have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or James Worthy or Michael Cooper, and spent 7 years carrying the Lakers on his back, and had the chance to hook up with better players elsewhere, would he do it? In all likelihood, given his desire to win, yes.

The same coaches and players who cringe at the notion of great players joining forces with other stars would be thrilled if great players joined their team. Let's not forget -- everyone wanted LeBron last summer. Even the Cavaliers.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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