If employing All-Stars wins championships, how do you explain the Cincinnati Royals?

I read an interesting article on SI.com a week ago that suggested that employing first team All-NBA players on your team correlates with winning NBA titles.

That makes intuitive sense, but whenever someone suggests to me that a correlation between two facts conclusively shows that Fact A caused Fact B, my skepticometer goes wild.  I need more than that. As Professor Berri always points out, correlation does not amount to causation. It might suggest causation, but one must always be careful not to leap to that conclusion.

The classic way to test what I call a “Naked Correlation-Causation” argument is to look for examples where the purported cause is present, but the effect does not follow. If you find them, the causation crumbles.  

The superstar championship theory is vulnerable to the counterexample found in the NBA of the 1960s. For most of the 1960s, the NBA featured five elite players. Whether by Marginal Win Score or post-season All-NBA teams, five players emerge head and shoulders above the rest: Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain of the Phil/SF Warriors-Phil Sixers-LA Lakers, Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers, Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals, and Jerry Lucas of the Cincinnati Royals.

Thusly, the Royals, for the greater part of the decade, employed 40% of the NBA’s elite players. Yet the Royals never won an NBA championship in the 1960s. In fact, they never even advanced to a single NBA Finals. 

Instead, the Boston Celtics, with their lone elite player — Bill Russell — won all but one of the decade’s championships.  And, as I have argued elsewhere, Russell was not a “classic” elite player. He was a possession creator and defender, not a scorer.

And it wasn’t like the 60s Celtics were loaded with hidden talent. Besides Russell, the Celtics had the Jones boys, KC and Sam, who were clearly above average players, but they didn’t have any real “Hidden Pippens”. Meaning they didn’t have any unrecognized superstars. The Celtics roster generally featured Russell, the Jones boys, an improving John Havlicek, and then a bunch of “guys”, and a couple of shitty 3rd stringers. Yet with these rosters the Celtics won championship after championship.

How do you explain this? I would contend the Celtics won their championships through scoring defense and possession creation. Look at 1960-61. The Boston Celtics were the most successful regular season team that season, and they won the post season championship. Why is that noteworthy? Because the Celtics were the worst offensive team in the Association, measured by FG% and FTA measurements.  They were rock bottom. They couldn’t throw it in the ocean — yet they dominated the Association and won its championship.

How did they do it? By posting the lowest opponent point average in the NBA and by leading the Association in rebounds. They made it hard for the opposition to score, and they gave themselves many more chances to score. Simple and effective.

The Celtics used this “dirty” formula throughout the 1960s. And they won championship after championship.

Meanwhile, the Royals were the Bizzaro Celtics. Everything the Celtics were good at, the Royals were bad at. Everything the Celtics were bad at, the Royals were good at. The Royals consistently led the NBA in all of the statistics the casual fan considers essential to victory: FG%, assists, free throws — the glory stats.  Yet they never got near a championship because they didn’t defend at all and as a team they could not rebound.

That’s why, to me, having superstars is nice, but the essential ingredients for an NBA championship are scoring defense and rebounding. The Celtics show that, and if you look at the history of playoff statistics, and compare them to the history of regular season statistics, there is one significant difference: Effective Scoring (Pts – FGAs – FTAs) plummets.  Teams average, roughly 6.0 points above scoring attempts in the regular season, and only about 2.5 points above scoring attempts in the playoffs. This suggests that successful teams need to contest shots more aggressively in the playoffs. If you don’t, as the Lakers found out… buh-bye 

That’s why, if you gave me a choice between a “Showtime” offensive team like the Cincinnati Royals or a Blue Collar defensive team like the 60s Celtics, I’d bet on the latter. And had I done that in the 1960s, I would have won a lot of money.

But I could be wrong.

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3 Responses to “If employing All-Stars wins championships, how do you explain the Cincinnati Royals?”

  1. Jerbil Says:

    So the problem with this season’s Bucks was lack of rebounding, not shooting percentage?

  2. Jerbil Says:

    Also there’s another form of possession creation: steals. -How does that figure in now and half a century ago?

  3. jbrett Says:

    A team with those two got trounced on the boards? Wow. There’s a front office that could not draft–Oscar and Jerry were both territorial choices, which means the Royals never guessed right, or evaluated well, or even got lucky.

    Do we also comclude that these two couldn’t play defense, or do we call it a team problem? Interested in your take on the subject.

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