How To Make an NBA Championship

Who has a realistic chance of winning it all?

There are hundreds of articles out there predicting who will win the NBA title this year, and whether or not to take the Miami Heat or the field. I thought it would be interesting to break down the numbers of past champions to see exactly what it takes to win a championship, and which teams are progressing towards that so far this year. As you will see, there is a very specific formula, and we can use this to track all year long to see which teams are working in the right direction.

The following table breaks down every season since the new millenium, who won the championship, and who their best player was by nERD and Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

NBA SeasonNBA ChampionHighest Rated Player on ChampPlayer's Season nERDPlayer's Season PER
'99-'00Los Angeles LakersShaquille O'Neal23.230.6
'00-'01Los Angeles LakersShaquille O'Neal15.930.2
'01-'02Los Angeles LakersShaquille O'Neal16.529.7
'02-'03San Antonio SpursTim Duncan18.726.9
'03-'04Detroit PistonsChauncey Billups10.718.6
'04-'05San Antonio SpursTim Duncan13.827.1
'05-'06Miami HeatDwyane Wade16.027.6
'06-'07San Antonio SpursTim Duncan15.026.2
'07-'08Boston CelticsKevin Garnett17.425.4
'08-'09Los Angeles LakersPau Gasol16.722.3
'09-'10Los Angeles LakersPau Gasol12.022.9
'10-'11Dallas MavericksDirk Nowitzki13.223.5
'11-'12Miami HeatLeBron James23.730.8
'12-'13Miami HeatLeBron James27.331.6

As you can see, if we eliminate the odd year of 2003-2004 in which the Pistons shocked the world to upset the Lakers to win the title, there is a definitive floor. All champions in this time frame have had their best player post at least a nERD of 12.0 and a PER of 22.0. Thus, this can be our guide in which we judge players shooting to win the title.

How did teams stack up last year?

This next table breaks down each NBA team and how their best player fared last season. We can use this table to see how close teams are to reaching the threshold needed to win a championship. A player in all CAPS is one who hit the qualifying mark of a nERD > 12 or a PER > 22.

Note: I set a minimum minute level of 1,500 on the season so it wouldn't skew PER results. Also, I moved the "highest-rated player" to their new team. For example, Al Jefferson would be in the Bobcats data instead of the Jazz.

TeamHighest nERD PlayerHighest PER Player
Atlanta HawksAl Horford (6.3)Al Horford (19.8)
Boston CelticsJeff Green (0.3)Rajon Rondo (18.1)
Brooklyn NetsDeron Williams (9.5)BROOK LOPEZ (24.8)
Charlotte BobcatsAl Jefferson (4.9)Kemba Walker (18.8)
Chicago BullsJimmy Butler (6.2)Joakim Noah (18.1)
Cleveland CavaliersKyrie Irving (1.1)Kyrie Irving (21.5)
Dallas MavericksVince Carter (3.6)Dirk Nowitzki (19.8)
Denver NuggetsKenneth Faried (7.1)Kenneth Faried (18.5)
Detroit PistonsGreg Monroe (0.0)Greg Monroe (19.5)
Golden State WarriorsStephen Curry (9.9)Stephen Curry (21.3)
Houston RocketsJAMES HARDEN (13.2)JAMES HARDEN (23.0)
Indiana PacersGeorge Hill (9.5)David West (20.1)
Los Angeles ClippersCHRIS PAUL (17.2)CHRIS PAUL (26.4)
Los Angeles LakersKobe Bryant (4.9)KOBE BRYANT (23.1)
Memphis GrizzliesMarc Gasol (11.8)Marc Gasol (19.5)
Miami HeatLEBRON JAMES (27.3)LEBRON JAMES (31.6)
Milwaukee BucksErsan Ilyasova (5.4)Larry Sanders (18.7)
Minnesota TimberwolvesNikola Pekovic (5.5)Nikola Pekovic (20.2)
New Orleans PelicansAnthony Davis (4.8)Anthony Davis (21.8)
New York KnicksTyson Chandler (9.7)CARMELO ANTHONY (24.8)
Oklahoma City ThunderKEVIN DURANT (26.4)KEVIN DURANT (28.3)
Orlando MagicNikola Vucevic (0.5)Nikola Vucevic (17.8)
Philadelphia 76ersThaddeus Young (4.0)Thaddeus Young (18.2)
Phoenix SunsGoran Dragic (0.6)Eric Bledsoe (17.6)
Portland Trail BlazersLaMarcus Aldridge (2.6)LaMarcus Aldridge (20.4)
Sacramento KingsIsaiah Thomas (1.2)DeMarcus Cousins (20.2)
San Antonio SpursTony Parker (9.1)TIM DUNCAN (24.4)
Toronto RaptorsAmir Johnson (5.3)Kyle Lowry (17.5)
Utah JazzGordon Hayward (2.4)Derrick Favors (17.5)
Washington WizardsMartell Webster (4.4)John Wall (20.9)

We see that perhaps most teams aren’t as close as they might think. It's incredibly hard to win a NBA championship—we see from the table above that we’ve only had six unique championship organizations in the past 14 years. Last year, only four players hit our mark by themselves: LeBron, Durant, CP3, and Harden. To put it simply, NBA titles are won by superstars, not super teams. This is why the entire world went crazy over getting LeBron a couple years ago, and why a team would put up with the craziness of Dwight Howard.

There are only two types of teams in the NBA: teams that have a superstar and teams that are looking for a superstar.

Recent championship caliber seasons

What about some of our injured stars from last year? Well, here are the players in the last three seasons that have had "championship caliber seasons":

1. LeBron James - 2011, 2012, 2013
2. Kevin Durant - 2011, 2012, 2013
3. Chris Paul - 2011, 2012, 2013
4. Kevin Love - 2011, 2012
5. Derrick Rose - 2011
6. Dirk Nowitzki - 2011
7. Dwight Howard - 2011
8. Dwyane Wade - 2011
9. Pau Gasol - 2011
10. James Harden - 2013

Only 10 players over the last three years! And two of them were on the same team!

2013-2014 NBA Championship Watch

Finally, we get to this season. I'll update this throughout the course of the year, and together we can keep track of which players are aligning their team to win a title.

Kevin LoveMinnesota Timberwolves25.029.2
Paul GeorgeIndiana Pacers24.225.9
Anthony DavisNew Orleans Pelicans20.829.5
Kevin MartinMinnesota Timberwolves19.923.2
Kevin DurantOklahoma City Thunder18.528.9
Chris PaulLA Clippers18.328.5
Markieff MorrisPhoenix Suns16.627.4
Carlos BoozerChicago Bulls14.624.6
Eric BledsoePhoenix Suns14.225.5
LeBron JamesMiami Heat12.526.3
Paul MillsapAtlanta Hawks12.425.3

It's crazy to see two Suns players in our debut championship watch. I have no allegiance to Phoenix, but I hope that 'Kieff and Bledsoe can surprise everyone and stay on this list for a long time this season.