There’s been a lot of talk the past few seasons about “buying” a championship versus earning one. The so called super team era, highlighted by the assembling of the Miami Heat trio, and most recently by the Brooklyn Net’s recent roster moves which show no regard for the notion of thrifty spending. From a fan and marketing perspective, it’s a feel good story when you build talent, to see young prospects become superstars. It’s also quite the opposite when a team acquires talent in their prime – one of the many reasons Lebron James became public enemy number 1 when he bolted Cleveland for Miami. But before we throw our judgemental eyes and raise our pitch forks at this current era of the NBA, lets first ask ourselves, is this cynical point of view warranted, and is Miami really the one to blame?
We begin with the fall of the Super Hero…
Another way to look at the rise of the super team is the fall of the super hero. In past generations, every championship calibre team had one super hero that carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. Sure they had sidekicks, but never were they paired with their equals. In recent history however, this notion of a one man show has steadily been replaced by the idea of a super team. Miami seems to have done it first, and several other teams are currently in the process of assembling such a team, but did this really all begin with Miami?
To identify if Miami really was the beginning of this trend, I decided to look at the payroll of each championship team, and calculate the percent of the payroll that belonged to the most important player on the team (taken as the player who won the finals MVP award). Important players are always going to make their max contracts and dollar figures, but identifying what percent of the payroll they command will show us how much extra help they needed to win a championship. Surprisingly, this trend of less emphasis on one player did not begin with Miami but has been a continuous trend since the days of Michael Jordan.
I would note that in 1998 and 2005, the players that won the Finals MVP (Tim Duncan and Dwayne Wade) were still on their rookie contracts (which usually have a maximum limit around 4 million). But even without those 2 points, it’s clear that there has been a steady trend towards having your main player command less of your team’s payroll, meaning more of the budget is being spent on supplementary players of higher value. So while Miami has taken the spotlight for the rise of the super team, this trend by no means began with them. With each year, the focus on one single player has steadily diminished. We’ve gone from superheroes to dynamic duos to 3 headed monsters.
Another view on the dependence of a team’s main player could be seen in the amount of minutes they play per game. To compare any other game statistics would be a bit convoluted because each player has a different style of play and brings different aspects to the table. But looking at how much time they spend on the floor is a clear indication of their importance to their team. Every game takes 48 minutes (unless it goes into overtime), so the graph below shows how many minutes each main player of a championship team spends on the court. For the most part, there numbers have been consistent, but there has been a slight decline in the minutes per game (both during the season and playoffs) since Michael Jordan. Interestingly, the last 2 years (both won by Miami with Lebron James winning Finals MVP) have shown a resurgence for minutes played during the playoffs, showing that the dependence on a team’s main player is once again growing, especially when it counts, in the playoffs.
Championship teams have added more and more talent around their superstar to the point that we’ve reached a tipping point of pairing superstars with equals and not sidekicks. So perhaps the assembling of a super team is simply the next evolutionary step in this long running trend. But while Miami has been under heat (no pun intended) for breaching the tipping point, they’ve in fact begun to re-establish the emphasis on one key player during the playoffs. A sort of super hero amongst super heroes…
For part 2 of NBA Payrolls, click here