The two teams that had been rampaging through the NBA couldn't be more different. The Miami Heat, threatening the record for consecutive wins, are built around three stars. The team's supporting cast has been improved a great deal since 2010, but compared to most good NBA teams, it's still lacking. The success of the team depends almost wholly on how well LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play. Luckily, all three are excellent players; LeBron is clearly the best in the world.
The Denver Nuggets, who until Monday's loss to the Hornets had won 15 straight games, are the exact opposite. There's not one 2013 All-Star on the squad, and only Andre Iguodala has earned that honor in the past. No one from this team is likely to make the All-NBA team, which recognizes the top 15 players in the league. We don't have anyone likely to earn postseason award consideration, either, though Iguodala could land on an All-Defense team. (The front office is a different story: Masai Ujiri should battle Daryl Morey for Executive of the Year votes.) George Karl could also receive a look in the Coach of the Year contest, though Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich, Frank Vogel and Bernie Bickerstaff are in the mix.
What you need to win at the level the Heat and Nuggets have won at is resilience. Players just aren't going to be totally consistent every night. Energy, injuries, match-ups, unavoidable randomness: it all plays a role in determining the final numbers for any player and team. If you flip a coin 100 times, you expect 50 heads and 50 tails. If you break those 100 flips into 10-flip games, you wouldn't in the least be surprised to have a few 7-3s, 6-4s, even an 8-2 result. The same applies to, say, shooters. A 45 percent shooter isn't going to shoot 45 percent every night, even excepting injuries and tough match-ups. Some nights he'll shoot 30 percent. Some nights he'll shoot 70. It happens.
For the Heat, the team needs at least one of its stars to have a good night against most teams. Against better teams, it needs even more. Luckily, LeBron at his worst is still better than most. (In 70 games, LeBron has six in which his GameScore was below 15, which is NBA average. None of those were below 11.) Having a great player who is nearly always good and frequently great is a helluva form of resilience. So long as LeBron and Wade play the way that they have since February, the Heat will be in position to win. That reliable production -- which has of course been efficient, unlike the sort of production you get from a Monta Ellis or Kobe Bryant -- is a cushion against spectacular performance by opponents and a launching pad toward victory. Having LeBron right now is almost like a 400-meter head start in a 1-mile race.
The Nuggets are so very different. Their resilience isn't in one reliable producer. The Heat are using a weighted coin to get more heads than tails. The Nuggets are just flipping a ton of coins every night. Karl's rotation goes 9-10 deep, and every last one of the players is good. In many cases, really quite good. Few teams boast two point guards as proficient as Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, two big men as athletic as Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, two wing defenders as defensively stout as Iguodala and Corey Brewer and two perimeter shooters as sharp as Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. The rotation is solid enough that Karl can basically not use Timofey Mozgov (a perfect usable big man) and bring in Anthony Randolph only for crunch-time defensive possessions. Second-year wing Jordan Hamilton has shown an ability to step in and produce when needed. In other words, while Karl uses 9-10 per game, he actually has 11-12 players who can come in and play at league average level or better.
The excellent Rob Mahoney at SI.com's Point Forward talked about the Nuggets' lack of a superstar on Monday. He made the excellent point that the superstar player is a cost-effective, resource-efficient way to providing a number of important things. That fits snugly into the resilience theory, and harkens back to the day when Bethlehem Shoals and I wrote about team Z-graphs.
The idea was to show where teams lacked an attribute. The star-laden Heat lacked little but deep shooting, a problem since overcome by the acquisitions of Shane Battier and Ray Allen, not to mention LeBron's improved shot. A team Z-graph featuring pretty much any Nuggets line-up would show a whole lot of blue, too. Having one player utterly dominant in one area (setting up shots for teammates, for example) is good. Having two players above average in that area is just as good. The star's worst nights might still give the team a chance. The above average player's worst night could be balanced by an average or better night from his No. 2, except in cases where both play poorly. (That leads to games like Denver's Monday loss.)
Resilience can be found in building around a superstar, or it can be found in building a starless but really solid rotation and having a coach who knows how to use it.
Given that there are a limited number of stars in the NBA and how hard it is to get one you didn't draft, the Nuggets' model should be one that other teams consider stealing. We'll see how it holds up in the postseason. Frankly, despite myriad accolades for Tim Duncan and Tony Parker (including MVP votes), it's not all that dissimilar from what San Antonio has done -- there's not a weak link in the Spurs' rotation. And frankly, the Spurs have been disappointing in recent postseasons, though injuries have played big roles.
We may get to see Denver and San Antonio pair off in the second round, which would be a nice view into the style of team-building at its best.