The Boston Celtics have had another successful offseason, luring all-star Gordon Hayward to Boston. General manager Danny Ainge has methodically constructed a roster primed to compete now and in the future. He is also flush with assets, including youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder’s cap-friendly contract and a plethora of draft picks, which can be used to acquire additional talent.
Hayward joins Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas to give the Celtics a formidable trio. As Ainge continues to search for top talent, two lingering questions hang over the team: Do the Celtics need a superstar to win a championship? And, if so, do they currently have one on their roster?
The first question hinges on the meaning of the word “superstar,” a vague term used loosely by sports fans and journalists that has been co-opted by sneaker companies and other commercial brands. In a general sense, a superstar is a player who can dominate a game and carries his team on a regular basis. A more precise definition is tougher to nail down.
Some people believe that the term superstar should be reserved for athletes who are capable of being the best player on a championship team. Of course, that is a circular argument for our purposes. It also excludes legendary competitors such as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
We could use the Hall of Fame as a means for distinguishing superstars, though it would be difficult to predict which current players will be enshrined in Springfield. That approach also would not account for players who performed at a Hall of Fame level the season their team won the championship, but fell short of the Hall. Then there are Hall of Famers like Robert Parrish and Joe Dumars who were great players on championship teams, but were not dominant.
Should we confine use of the word superstar to the top five or 10 players in the game? And, if so, how should those rankings be determined? The best means of assessment may be to look at Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) or All-NBA First Teams.
Since the NBA implemented a salary cap prior to the 1984-85 season, only seven teams have won a championship without a player making the All-NBA First Team: the Detroit Pistons in 1989, 1990 and 2004, the 1995 Houston Rockets, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2017 Golden State Warriors.
Hakeem Olajuwon (All-NBA Third Team) won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year while leading the Rockets to the championship the year before the 1995 championship. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki (All-NBA Second Team) also had an MVP to his credit and had been named to the All-NBA First Team in four previous seasons. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry of the Warriors have three MVPs between them. It is hard to argue that Hakeem, Dirk Curry or Durant were not superstars.
The 2014 Spurs were in a transition period between the end of one of dominant career, Tim Duncan’s, and the rise of another superstar, Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker was named to All-NBA second team, and he and Duncan tied for 12th in the MVP voting. Not exactly superstar numbers.
Now let’s examine PER as a measuring stick for superstardom. Over the past 50 years, only nine championship teams failed to have a player rank in the top ten in PER: the 1968, 1969 and 1974 Boston Celtics, 1978 Washington Bullets, 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, the 1989, 1990 and 2004 Pistons and the 2014 Spurs (via basketball-reference.com).
The 1968 and 1969 Celtics were anchored by the great Bill Russell. The 1974 team had John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. The 1978 Wizards boasted an overpowering front line of 12-time All-Star Elvin Hayes and 1969 MVP Wes Unseld, and the Pistons of ’89 and ’90 were led by Isiah Thomas, a 12-time All-Star.
That leaves just the 1978-79 Sonics, and once again, the 2003-04 Pistons and 2014 Spurs. Based on multiple indicators, it is fair to say that all three teams lacked a superstar.
Dennis Johnson, a defensive standout who won two more rings with the Celtics, is the lone Hall of Famer from that Seattle team. Gus Williams and Jack Sikma had great careers with the Sonics and other franchises, but were never among the elite players in the game.
Four of the Pistons starters, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton made multiple All-Star appearances. Billups, considered by many the team’s best player, is a borderline Hall of Famer. Neither he nor Dennis Johnson dominated.
Duncan and Manu Ginobili were past their prime by 2014. Parker was a great player, but hardly a transcendent star. Leonard would go on to be named Defensive Player of the Year, MVP finalist and All-NBA First Team, but despite being winning Finals MVP, he was not yet a superstar in 2014.
So while it is possible for the Celtics to win a championship without a superstar, it is highly unlikely that they will do so.
Hayward and Horford are very good, well-rounded players, but they are not elite talents. Tatum and Brown could blossom into superstars, though statistically speaking, that is unlikely. That leaves Thomas, who performed like a superstar this season. The point guard averaged 28.9 points per game, including 9.8 points per fourth quarter. He put constant pressure on defenses with a league-high 12.7 drives per game and 8.5 free throws per contest. IT finished seventh in PER (26.5) and fifth in the MVP voting, while being named to All-NBA Second Team.
From an objective standpoint, that is superstar production. However, Thomas needs to prove that he can do it for more than one season, particularly as the Celtics add more talent around him and the ball is in his hands less frequently. That may be difficult for a player who does not provide much value on defense or the boards.
The case against Thomas being a superstar comes on the defensive end of the court, where he appears lost at times in pick-and-roll situations. His diminutive stature (5’9) is also a liability. The Washington Wizards abused him in the post during their second-round playoff matchup with the Celtics. IT’s lack of height could also become a problem offensively against longer teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden Warriors, who will trap him in hopes of forcing turnovers.
Ainge is going to keep dealing, but superstars are hard to come by. There do not appear to be any on the market right now. The Celtics must hope that Thomas can be the superstar they need, and if Ainge is able to swing a deal for another, two is better than one.