The Lonestar Problem: The Need for Multiple Offensive Stars

In Thinking Basketball, I discuss a bias called “The Lonestar Illusion,” when stars receive extra credit because they have no other notable teammates. This often occurs when a high-scorer is surrounded by defensively inclined teammates, whose value is lost in the traditional box score. But what happens when teams really only have one good offensive player?

Think of the legendary clubs of the last few decades: Jordan and Pippen. Shaq and Kobe. Curry, Durant and Thompson. It’s rare for these juggernauts to leave the offensive heavy lifting to only one player. But how rare? Are there any elite teams with only one? What happens when teams have two or three good offensive players?

To answer these questions, we first have to define “good” offensive players, which can be tricky over a large data set. For simplicity, I’ve chosen an Offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) of at least 2.0, or roughly a top-40 offensive player in a given season (players must also qualify for the MPG leaderboard). For this question, it passes the smell test well because it allows passers/creators to have their due, takes into account team context and doesn’t overly credit inefficient scorers.

Using that definition, we can look at the makeup of good teams based on how many offensive stars they have. (The “3-star” offenses in this post have “at least” three players with an OBPM of 2.0.) Here’s what the pie charts — pie charts! — look like:

So single-star offenses account for about as many 4 and 6-SRS teams as three-star offenses. But, when we reach 8-SRS teams (63-win pace) — where the odds of winning a championship start to rapidly increase — single-star offenses are rare. About one in ten of these teams will only have one “good” offensive player.

It might seem like lone star offenses are decent, but their prevalence obfuscates how truly problematic they are. 42 percent of teams from 1999-2017 were single-star offenses, while just ten percent had at least three “good” offensive players.  If we view the distributions based on number of stars, the shortcomings of single-star teams come into focus:

Yes, about two thirds of three-star offenses posted SRS’s of four or better (53-win pace). But only twelve percent of single-star offenses reached that mark.

This is a lone star problem.

Only one team in the last 19 seasons has crossed the 8-SRS barrier with a single “good” offensive player, the 2016 Spurs. (They had two “good” rotational players eliminated due to the minutes restriction.) So while a team with at least two good offensive weapons was about twice as likely to post a 4-SRS when compared to the single-star units, they were five times more likely to eclipse the 8-SRS mark.

Having at least three good offense guys is even more multiplicative: Such teams were five times more likely to hit the 4 or 6-SRS mark, and twenty two times more likely to reach an SRS of 8. Three-star teams averaged 5.8 playoffs wins, whereas one-star teams averaged only 2.8.

While it’s plainly obvious that it’s better to have more good offensive weapons, what’s surprising is how disadvantageous having only one good offensive piece is. It’s quite difficult to build a contender with only one offensive star, and near impossible to construct an elite team that way.