What is a “superstar”?

Posted: 05/29/2013 by levcohen in Basketball

Players are mainly considered superstars in basketball, so this post will be limited to basketball.
And the term gets thrown around very loosely. Here is the definition of a superstar, from Merriam-Webster:
A star (as in sports or the movies) who is considered extremely talented, has great public appeal, and can usually command a high salary

Now, we can interpret this a lot of different ways. Let’s look at the upcoming free agent class. There are multiple players who I, and most other people, consider extremely talented, with great public appeal. It remains to be seen if they can command a high salary, but I would bet on yes. These players are:
Brandon Jennings
J.R. Smith
Nate Robinson (that public appeal and high salary will likely come from his playoff play, which is too small of a sample size)
Monta Ellis
Andre Iguodala
Paul Pierce
Josh Smith
Paul Millsap
Dwight Howard
Andrew Bynum
Al Jefferson

There are some more guys who I can mention (Manu Ginobili, Nikola Pekovic, etc.), but let’s keep it to these 11 guys. Now, the point is that, while these guys fit under the dictionary definition, a lot of them aren’t what we would consider superstars. Because if we did, I could make a case for scores of players, and that doesn’t give the name “superstar” justice. Which of these guys are actually superstars? Well, we can eliminate Jennings, Smith, Robinson, Ellis, and Bynum right off the bat. Why? Let’s go through the list.
Jennings’ case can be put to rest easily. His stats are good, but he is a headcase, and the Bucks would prefer to re-sign Ellis over Jennings. That’s reason enough, because to me, a superstar at least needs to be valued highly by his own team.

Smith has already been traded twice. He was traded before ever playing a game with the Bulls. More importantly, he is inconsistent. That was proven in the playoffs. That leads to another superstar requirement. Consistency. Plus, his defense is atrocious.
Here is what John Hollinger said about his defense: “Defensively, Smith is awful. Synergy rated him as the worst player in the league in 2010-11; in 2011-12, he merely rated as the worst on his team. With his talent, he should be much better than this. The Knicks gave up more points with him on the court, just like all his teams have, and as usual his gambles were a big reason: Smith was third among shooting guards in steals per minute, but at the expense of ranking seventh in foul rate and likely first in 5-on-4s created by missed gambles.”

Robinson’s case is very bad. He has been traded four times, waived once, and should not be considered a building block, which is yet another superstar quality. The only reason I put him on this list is because people are bound to talk about him as a superstar after the playoff run he had.

Ellis was traded in the heart of his prime for an injury prone center. It took him 18 shots per game to score 19 points. Another superstar quality- superstars have to be at least somewhat efficient, although I’ll allow a gray area there. Ellis’s PER this year was 16.30. The average is 15. He doesn’t make an effort on defense. He takes bad shots. Those aren’t superstar qualities. P.S. He shot less than 29% from three, the lowest in the NBA. That is all.

Bynum had a zero PER last year. He didn’t play a single minute. He didn’t fix a franchise, something a superstar should be able to do, he ruined one. He’s more like the anti superstar. You can say that it’s not his fault that he got hurt, but he was able to go bowling and dancing with torn ACL’s. Grrrrr. And yes, I’m a mad Sixers fan. Sue me.

Iguodala could have been considered before last season, but his stats decreased again, as did his PER, to a barely above average number of 15.27 (he had been 17+ since 2006). He scored just 13 points per game last year. His free throw % sunk to 57.4%. The next worst shooting guard, Tony Allen, shot 72% from the free throw line. Iguodala was 45th of 47th among SG’s in terms of three point percentage, despite being in the top half of attempts per game. Ouch.

After last year, I would have said Josh Smith is a superstar. Now, I have to say that he is slightly below. His stats are good. Although his PER fell more than three points, it’s still at a respectable 17.82. He shot 52% from the line last year. The next worst among power forwards was Tristan Thompson at 61%. He was second worst of 121 TOTAL QUALIFIERS. He finished 129th of 134 qualifiers in three point percentage. Add that to his attitude problems, and he isn’t a superstar, although he is still a great player and probably a “star.”

For those keeping count, that leaves four left among this list: Jefferson, Howard, Millsap, and Pierce. But we are not done.

Paul Millsap is a great player. An underrated star. But let me ask you a question. Can you build around him? Well, he is an undersized power forward who doesn’t have the quickness to play small forward. He averages 15 points per game and while he hustles like almost nobody else, there is little room for improvement. So no, one cannot realistically build around him. And yes, it’s partly that it’s much easier to build around a point guard or center than it is an undersized power forward.

Al Jefferson barely even qualifies for Merriam-Webster’s definition of a superstar because he doesn’t really get much public recognition. But I’m going to call him a superstar. He is 21st in the NBA in PER (over 20). He is top 15 in estimated wins added. He averages 18 and 9 while making 50% of field goals and 77% of free throws. You know how many players went 18 and 9 with 50% and 77% (17.8, 9, 49.4 and 77, if we are being technical)? Two. David Lee and Al Jefferson. Brook Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge barely missed. Jefferson is also a true center. His team hasn’t won much (yet) but I can’t pin that on him.

I had a tough time deciding on Paul Pierce, but I’ve decided to give him the green light. He is still a superstar. At this point next year, he will likely have fallen out of the rankings. He has won in the past, is a building block, is valued highly by the team (they might trade him, but only if they need to rebuild and he gives them the go-ahead), is efficient, actually tries on defense (and is good at it), and still puts up numbers: 19/6/5. His PER and wins added are good, and that’s enough for me to relent on this one.

Before last season, Dwight Howard was one of the five best players in the NBA. Plus, he is a center. He coasted last season, and still put up monster numbers. And now he is clearly on the decline. You might expect me to name a million reasons that he isn’t a superstar, in which case what I’m going to say will surprise you: Dwight Howard is still a superstar. I’m willing to give him a partial free pass on this season, and even if I didn’t, he’d still be a superstar. People forget that he had back surgery in the offseason. He wasn’t even supposed to be playing early in the year. Pre-all star break he averaged 16 and 12. Post-all star break he averaged 18 and 14. He wasn’t full strength until March. In March, he averaged 18 and 15. In April, he averaged 21 and 11. He is a cornerstone both offensively and defensively. That’s enough. Plus, he’s a nice guy. LA, stop complaining.

I chose 11 upcoming free agents that totally fit the criteria that the dictionary gave us. At most, three of them are superstars. That tells you a lot. But how about in the NBA? How many superstars are there?

First, the criteria, most of which was written about above.

  • First and foremost, for a player to be a superstar he has to be a building block. In the Al Jefferson mold, not in the Paul Millsap mold.
  • He has to be efficient, or at least somewhat efficient (a guard that shoots 40% is not acceptable)
  • He has to be consistent. Very few off nights.
  • His team has to value him fairly highly
  • He has to be extremely talented
  • He has to put up good stats
  • He has to have relatively few injury concerns (I’ll allow Curry)
  • Playing passable defense is a must if your name isn’t Kobe or Harden
  • A top 50 PER is not a must, but it is a near must.

Now, most superstar conversations are centered around this question: “Is he a winner?” I’m not a big fan of that, because to me, there is just two much gray area involved in winning. For example, Tony Parker is in a much better situation than Chris Paul. Therefore, he has won more championships than Chris Paul. Does that make him a better player? I will consent to this. If a cornerstone player who has a good team built around him continuously flops in big moments, he cannot be a superstar. Luckily, no current player fits that mold.

One more thing: I won’t include guys who didn’t play for the majority of this season. Sorry, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo.
Who are the true superstars? First, the no-brainers:
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Tim Duncan, and, after his playoff performance, Stephen Curry.
Add in the guys I already put in: Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce.
That’s fourteen players. I think there should be between 15 and 20 superstars. Here are some other names that come to mind:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, David Lee, John Wall, Deron Williams, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol, Paul George, Greg Monroe, Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka.

I’m probably missing someone obvious, but if not, I’d say that between three and at most six can be considered superstars. I’m eliminating Paul George. I don’t fall into the playoff trance as easily as some. George finished 87th in the NBA in PER. I’m eliminating Cousins. He isn’t held in high regard by his own team. I’m eliminating Irving. While he is a top 10 player in this league, the injury concerns are mounting. I’m eliminating Lee. His offensive numbers are great, but he doesn’t play good defense. Goodbye Brook Lopez. You are a good offensive player but you need to rebound better. Ibaka, Bosh, and Monroe are not true building blocks. That leaves these guys: Marc Gasol, Dirk, Deron Williams, John Wall, Kevin Garnett, LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s six, but I want to knock off one or two more of these guys. First, I asked myself: How would I rank these guys in terms of how easy they are to build around? This is what I came up with:
1. Marc Gasol
2. Deron Williams
3. LaMarcus Aldridge
4. Dirk
5. John Wall
6. Garnett

This is nitpicking, but Dirk, Wall, and Garnett all missed between fourteen and thirty-three games this season. That is enough to eliminate all three. Here is the resume of the three remaining choices:

Marc Gasol: Defensive player of the year. 17th in estimated wins added. Top 35 in PER, a stat that sometimes underrates defense. Best passing big in the NBA. 85% free throw shooter. Easy to build around (see: Grizzlies, Western Conference Finals with Gasol and a bunch of people everybody doubted.)

Deron Williams: Top 25 in PER. Top 15 in EWA. Leader of a playoff team. Averaged 19 points, eight assists. (21/8.5 in playoffs). Solid 44% shooter. 38% from three, 86% free throw.

LaMarcus Aldridge: I can safely say he is the most underrated superstar in the NBA. Averaged 21 and nine, and 81% from the free throw line. Ninth in the NBA in minutes per game. Five of the players ahead of him are on this list. Oh, and he would be the only power forward on this list.

And now we have our list of superstars. By my count, there are 17 legitimate guys who fit all of the criteria I listed above. By position:
Point Guard:
Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry

Shooting Guard:
Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, James Harden

Small forward:
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce

Power forward:
LaMarcus Aldridge (yes, that’s it).

Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan

And that’s your list.

By the way, I do think there is a big difference between a star and a superstar (see: Josh Smith, Paul Millsap). We have already gone over the criteria for a superstar. A star doesn’t need to be a franchise cornerstone. It can just be someone who piles up big numbers. Like a Brandon Jennings or a David West.

  1. philabundant says:

    I think you can do a similar analysis for other sports, although it may not be quite as easy. Baseball might be the next challenge to tackle.

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