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Alex Speier

Can the Celtics win without a bona fide star?

In the NBA, the name on the back of the jersey is as important as the one on the front when it comes to winning championships.AP

When he discusses the construction of championship-caliber rosters, Celtics president Danny Ainge often sounds like a theologian. The obsessive focus of his interest? Transcendence.

The NBA is a star-driven league like none other. In a sport that features five players on the court, one luminary can take control of the game. It’s why, in contrast to the other major sports, dynasties and repeat championships have become the norm rather than the aberration, why the league’s last 35 years can be defined in about seven words that can be reeled off without a pause for air: Magic Bird Jordan Duncan Shaq Kobe LeBron.

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That septet accounts for 27 of the last 35 titles, explaining the immense stature they’re afforded and the evocative language invoked by the Celtics’ president of basketball operations when discussing such talents.

“The best teams have the best players. It’s not too complicated,” Ainge said on WEEI on Tuesday. “I think 33 of the last 35 champions have had an elite player, one of the top five players or top 10 players in the league on their team. That’s the way the NBA is. You need transcendent players.”

NBA history backs the claim. Teams that win titles usually feature a player who would be characterized as at least a top-10 player in the league, and often feature multiple players who belong in that sort of elite air.

Of the 16 titles this century, 15 were won by teams that had a player who ranked in the league’s top 10 in Win Shares (a number calculated by Basketball-Reference.com to define a player’s overall impact in all facets of the game on his team’s win total). In most instances, the championship team’s leader in Win Shares came as little surprise – whether Steph Curry for last year’s Warriors or LeBron James for the Heat’s back-to-back titles or Shaquille O’Neal during the Lakers’ three-peat.

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In other cases, the team’s Win Shares leader was less intuitive – as when Pau Gasol posted higher marks than Kobe Bryant when the Lakers won in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Regardless of the identity of the player, however, nearly every championship team had one or more players who ranked in the top 10 in Win Shares – including the 2003-04 Pistons, a team sometimes cited as a starless success story but that had one of the NBA’s top performers at the time in Chauncey Billups.

The only team that hoisted the O’Brien Trophy that didn’t have a player in the top 10 in Win Shares during the regular season was the 2013-14 Spurs. That team of past-their-starry-peak veterans limited the regular season minutes logged by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, resulting in somewhat modest individual numbers. That Spurs team was led by Kawhi Leonard’s 7.7 Win Shares – a mark that was good for 34th in the NBA, one spot ahead of Isaiah Thomas, then with the Kings.

Of course, Leonard’s Win Shares total was limited by his playing time. He appeared in just 66 games and averaged 29 minutes a night. When on the court, however, he performed at a level that nearly qualified him for the “transcendent” status that Ainge references, as he was worth .193 Win Shares per 48 minutes, the 11th best mark in the NBA that year.

The Celtics, of course, don’t have anyone who can be projected to perform at the level of a top 10-ish player, at least barring a breakthrough. Ainge has made no secret of his desire to acquire such a player, but recognizes that the supply/demand dynamic is one that guarantees scarcity.

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“There’s only maybe 10 of them or 12 of them in an entire league of 30 teams,” Ainge said. “You can’t sit around and wait for them. There’s not one in every draft.”

Had the Celtics been able to convince Kevin Love to join them last offseason rather than re-signing with the Cavaliers, they’d have secured a player who has ranked in the NBA’s top 10 in both Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes three times in the last five years, including a 2013-14 campaign in which his 14.3 Win Shares ranked third in the league.

But when Love did re-up in Cleveland, Ainge was left to build his roster in a different fashion. In the forlorn absence of Love, the hallmark of this year’s Celtics team thus became depth rather than top-end talent.

Last year’s Celtics were led in Win Shares by Tyler Zeller, who had 6.5 (50th in the NBA) with .179 Win Shares per 48 minutes (17th); Isaiah Thomas had 6.1 Win Shares (57th) and .169 Win Shares per 48 minutes (21st) between the Kings and Celtics.

David Lee, who averaged 7.7 Win Shares over the eight years from 2006-07 through 2013-14, saw that mark drop to 3.2 last year while his playing time plummeted (49 games, 18 minutes a night), though his Win Shares per 48 minutes mark of .168 was in line with those of Zeller and Thomas.

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Still, Lee is the only player on this year’s Celtics roster who has ever cracked double-digits in Win Shares, something that he did for the first and only time in his career in 2009-10 (10.3 Win Shares).

Barring a breakout performance by someone like Thomas, the Celtics’ ambitions for the coming year are capped in many respects by the absence of a singular game-changer, given that the 2013-14 Spurs are the only team this century to win a title without benefit of a player who recorded 11.0 or more Win Shares.

Ainge has positionedthe Celtics to spend liberally next offseason and stockpiled draft picks as tradable assets. But until the Celtics actually secure a transcendent player, Ainge and others around the organization may spend plenty of time discussing the lessons of the Spurs of two years ago, contemplating the one outlier that defied the NBA’s typically direct relationship between star power and title hopes.

Leading the way to a title
Since the 1999-2000 season, every NBA champion but one featured a player ranked in the top 10 in Win Shares.
Champion Top Win Shares NBA rank Top WS/48 min. Rank
2014-15 Warriors 15.7 (Curry) 3 .288 (Curry) 1
2013-14 Spurs 7.7 (Kawhi Leonard) 33 .193 (Leonard) 11
2012-13 Heat 19.3 (James) 1 .322 (James) 1
2011-12 Heat 14.5 (James) 1 .298 (James) 1
2010-11 Mavericks 11.1 (Nowitzki) 10 .218 (Chandler) 5
2009-10 Lakers 11.0 (Gasol) 7 .220 (Gasol) 5
2008-09 Lakers 14.0 (Gasol) 4 .223 (Gasol) 5
2007-08 Celtics 12.9 (Garnett) 8 .265 (Garnett) 2
2006-07 Spurs 13.0 (Duncan) 3 .246 (Ginobili) 2
2005-06 Heat 14.4 (Wade) 8 .239 (Wade) 4
2004-05 Spurs 11.2 (Duncan) 10 .245 (Duncan) 3
2003-04 Pistons 11.3 (Billups) 8 .198 (Billups) 9
2002-03 Spurs 16.5 (Duncan) 1 .248 (Duncan) 4
2001-02 Lakers 13.2 (O'Neal) 4 .262 (O'Neal) 1
2000-01 Lakers 14.9 (O'Neal) 1 .245 (O'Neal) 2
1999-2000 Lakers 18.6 (O'Neal) 1 .283 (O'Neal) 1
SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com

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