Cohen: The Winning Formula

By Josh Cohen
December 6, 2011

ORLANDO -- It’s imperative for every NBA franchise to stare into a mirror and make pragmatic and appropriate evaluations and goals before each season.

Each team should have distinctive aspirations. On one hand, some, if they are providential to be in such a position, can aim to be champions. Others, on the other hand, must focus on rebuilding and gradual progression.

Every NBA franchise cycles between prosperity, mediocrity and the cellar. For the fortunate franchises, the longevity of prosperity far exceeds the length of the other substandard cataloging. For others, however, the durability of being ordinary or something even less desirable lasts longer. It’s just the fact of the business.

History shows there is a very simple formula to NBA prominence. To be championship caliber, you almost always need a top eight player in his prime on your team.

While it’s in some ways subjective to affix and accurately rank the top eight each year, the consensus amongst spectators is generally precise.

Here is a dose of evidence. The table below lists every NBA champion since 1980 and registers the players that indisputably deserved to be ranked in the top eight in the league the year they won the title (in most cases, the players were among the top five in the NBA that season).

1980 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1981 Boston Celtics Larry Bird
1982 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1983 Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone and Julius Erving
1984 Boston Celtics Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
1985 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1986 Boston Celtics Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
1987 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson
1988 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson
1989 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas
1990 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas
1991 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1992 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1993 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1994 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon
1995 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (maybe Clyde Drexler)
1996 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1997 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1998 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1999 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan and David Robinson
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2001 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2002 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2003 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2004 Detroit Pistons None
2005 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2006 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade (maybe Shaquille O'Neal)
2007 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2008 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett
2009 L.A. Lakers Kobe Bryant
2010 L.A. Lakers Kobe Bryant
2011 Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki

The only counterargument lies with the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who thrived off balance and reliability. Though, some may quarrel that Chauncey Billups, who earned Finals MVP honors that year, deserved consideration to be ranked in the top eight of the league that season.

Naturally, it does take a little more than just possessing one top eight talent at his peak to be in championship conversations. It’s often contingent on a dependable supporting cast, especially an assemblage that eats, drinks and sleeps defense.

But the underlining point is: If you need a top eight player to win the title, it’s generally impractical for at least 22 teams to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy each year.

As a result, what does it take for a team to develop into a championship contender and how do they adjoin a top eight player to their roster?

There are three categories to consider:


During times when a franchise is in the cellar, it’s essential to utilize the NBA Draft judiciously and vigilantly. Some organizations have shown to be masterminds when scouting collegiate talent.

The Orlando Magic, for instance, arguably made the most brilliant front office assessment of the century when they opted for Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor with the first pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. Howard, of course, is now undoubtedly a top eight (top five to be more precise) player in the league. The Magic, in effect, have been perennial championship contenders.

The L.A. Lakers, similarly, completed perhaps the most unbalanced trade in NBA history in 1996 when they acquired the draft rights of Kobe Bryant (the 13th pick by the Hornets) in exchange for Vlade Divac. They also chose Andrew Bynum in 2005 with the 10th overall pick with players such as Raymond Felton, Martell Webster, Charlie Villanueva, Channing Frye and Ike Diogu all taken ahead of him.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons, on the other hand, are probably regretting two recent draft decisions they each made.

First off, in 2003 with players such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade available, the Pistons selected Darko Milicic with the second overall pick. While the Pistons were a championship-caliber team at the time (Detroit had acquired Memphis’ lottery pick that year from a prior trade agreement) they perhaps would still be a championship-level team if they went in a different direction.

The Blazers, meanwhile, seemed to have made the appropriate decision when they chose Greg Oden over Kevin Durant with the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Injuries, unfortunately, have denied Oden from progressing. The Oklahoma City Thunder, however, landed the gem of the draft when Durant essentially inadvertently fell into their lap.

The importance of the NBA Draft each year is why the draft lottery is so extraordinarily influential.


The summer of 2010 is the epiphany of why having sufficient salary cap space every few years is essential to incessantly form superior teams.

As a result of some brilliant decisions by Pat Riley, the Heat managed to free up a ton of cap space leading into the star-studded free agent class of 2010. They ultimately were able to unite Dwyane Wade with LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Having cap space, however, doesn’t guarantee ultimate success. The years a team has cap space and the decisions they make when they have the permissible money to spend are key factors.

The Pistons, for example, gambled with two available free agents when they had a plethora of cap space in 2009. They opted for Ben Gordon, who they signed for five years, $55 million, and Villanueva for five years and $35 million. Detroit, in effect, is now over the salary cap and still not a playoff team.

Much depends on which free agents are available the year a franchise is well under the cap. In 2007, for example, when the Magic had excess allowable money to spend, the only top-tier free agents available were Rashard Lewis, who they offered a max deal to in a sign-and-trade with Seattle, Vince Carter and Gerald Wallace.

Imagine, moreover, if the 2010 free agents including James, Wade, Bosh, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire were the available free agents in 2007 when the Magic were well under the cap. That would have been interesting to say the least.


It’s what I call the “Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol” supposition.

It often takes a combination of two pieces to acquire a superstar in his prime: A young, budding talent who has the potential to evolve into a perennial All-Star and a large, attractive expiring contract.

The Celtics managed to swing a deal with the Timberwolves in 2007 for KG because they had the necessary pieces. They had Al Jefferson, a special talent in the embryonic stage of his development, and the expensive but expiring contract (worth about $12 million) of Theo Ratliff to offer Minnesota to assure the dollars matched under the trade guidelines.

The Lakers, similarly, found a way to finalize a trade with the Grizzlies for Gasol because they had Pau’s brother, Marc, who obviously has transformed into a solid big man, and the expiring contract of Kwame Brown.

This is generally the formula for acquiring a marquee player in his prime.

It happened last season with Deron Williams when Utah acquired Derrick Favors, a highly touted rookie out of Georgia Tech, and Devin Harris from New Jersey for the two-time NBA All-Star.

While it’s certainly not easy to create a championship-caliber team, it can be done consistently if the pieces are in place.

Which category do you think is most important when building a championship-level team?
Which category do you think is most important when building a championship-level team?
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