These days, only superteams need apply as NBA championship contenders. But what defines a superteam?
Last year, Tom Haberstroh categorized superteams as having at least two established current stars as measured by All-NBA and All-Star nods. Here, I expand that definition to also include on-court impact, particularly real plus-minus (RPM) — a stat that adjusts for teammate and opponent quality.
Here’s our scoring system:
Five points: First-team All-NBA or a top-5 finish in RPM
Three points: Second-team All-NBA or a top-10 finish in RPM
One point: Third-team All-NBA, All-Star selection or a top-15 finish in RPM
Note: Points only count for players age 35 or younger over the past three seasons, so the Los Angeles Lakers get 15 points for LeBron James (three consecutive All-NBA first-team nods) but zero for Rajon Rondo (last made an All-Star team in 2013, neutral or negative RPM in each of the last three seasons)
The delineation in levels of stars is important, because generally championship-level teams are led by superstars near the peaks of their powers more-so than regular or upcoming stars. In our scoring system, MVP-caliber players can be worth more than multiple players that “merely” make an All-Star team. On the other hand, teams with multiple regular stars and/or developing superstars could be just a bit of player development or a player acquisition away from becoming contenders themselves.
This analysis seeks to identify the teams that are already on top of the mountain, as well as those most likely to join them in the near future.
Tier 1: The true superteams
Teams with multiple superstars … and then some.
Golden State Warriors | 44 superpoints
The Warriors just have an embarrassment of riches, led by Curry with a perfect score of 15 and surrounded with a whopping four other stars who all scored at least three superpoints. They were already a dynasty with three titles in four years, then they added yet another superstar in Cousins this offseason. While Cousins is recovering from an Achilles injury and is likely to play a smaller role for Golden State upon his return, he joins another former All-Star in 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala — an important piece, even though he doesn’t log any points here — as a player overqualified for his role.
Houston Rockets | 28 superpoints
The Rockets are led by two true superstars in Harden (the reigning MVP) and CP3, who has finished top-5 in RPM in each of the last three years. They just added former All-Star Anthony as a free agent, though his actual on-court impact and whether he will start or slot in as the sixth man is still up in the air. The Rockets also feature young center Clint Capela, who has a solid chance to become an All-Star in the near future and keep Houston in this tier as Paul ages.
Tier 2: Superstar duos or star trios
Teams with a proven, outstanding duo or three players with star status.
Toronto Raptors | 19 superpoints
The Raptors project as one of the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference based on the strength of two consistent superstars in Leonard and Lowry. Leonard was both first-team All-NBA and top-5 in RPM in each of his last two healthy seasons in San Antonio. If he’s fully recovered and motivated, he’ll be an MVP candidate in his first year in Toronto. Lowry has often been overshadowed in accolades by former teammate DeMar DeRozan, but the PG is the one who has dominated the impact stats for the Raptors with three straight top-10 finishes in RPM.
Denver Nuggets | 16 superpoints
This one is likely a surprise since the three players lack major accolades, but Jokic and Millsap each routinely finish very well in the impact stats. Jokic is rounding into one of the best centers in the league, and when healthy Millsap plays at a star level. Thomas, like Anthony, made this list for contributions that he made for a different team in a larger role, but if healthy he gives Denver an explosive sixth man option. The Nuggets also feature a very talented young perimeter trio (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton) with the potential for more star leaps soon.
Oklahoma City Thunder | 15 superpoints
Much like the Raptors, the Thunder’s hopes center on two consistent stars in Westbrook and the newly re-signed George. They lost Anthony this offseason, but this could be addition by subtraction as it allows Westbrook and George to dominate the touches with the rest of the team filling in as solid role players.
San Antonio Spurs | 9 superpoints
DeRozan and Aldridge each earned All-NBA second-team nods last season, but RPM suggests that their estranged teammates Leonard and Lowry were actually the highest impact players in their previous situations. On the bright side, the Spurs are led by one of the greatest coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich, and thus still have the ability to make noise this season built around this star duo.
Boston Celtics | 5 superpoints
Horford, Irving and Hayward each measure as a fringe star in this system. However, the Celtics are the other favorites to come out of the East because they also feature a plethora of young talent — led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — with imminent star upside. Irving and Hayward’s injuries played a factor in their point totals as well. Plus, head coach Brad Stevens has shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters.
Washington Wizards | 5 superpoints
Wall has been an All-Star in each of the last three seasons, while Beal made his All Star debut last season. Porter doesn’t have the same accolades but finished 13th in RPM last season on the strength of quality perimeter defense and improved court spacing with a developing 3-point shot. Newly signed Dwight Howard is a former superstar, and he joins this crew as a long-shot impact player fresh off his best season in years.
Tier 3: On the rise
Teams with young talent, multiple stars and a clear path to reaching the next tier.
Philadelphia 76ers | 6 superpoints
Embiid was named second-team All-NBA after finishing 11th in RPM last season, and he’s clearly on the rise as long as he can remain healthy. Covington is not often considered a star player, but he has two top-25 finishes in RPM over the last two seasons, including eighth last season, which highlights his excellent defense. Ben Simmons is a superstar in training, finishing 35th in RPM as a rookie and likely to earn superpoints of his own this season. Markelle Fultz, the top pick in the 2017 draft, looks healthy again and will try to provide a fourth star presence on this rising team.
Minnesota Timberwolves | 9 superpoints
Butler is peaking, with the fourth-best RPM score in the league last season after finishing seventh the season before. Towns finished 16th in RPM last year, and both Towns and Butler were named All-NBA third team. If Towns continues to develop into a true superstar, the Timberwolves have nice upside … as long as the rumored internal strife doesn’t sink the ship.
Tier 4: Near misses
The teams with star power that fall just short of being super, at least for now.
Los Angeles Lakers | 15 superpoints
The Lakers only have one established star, but James by himself has more superpoints than all but five NBA teams. He also joins a Lakers team that is chock full of young players with star potential, including No. 2 overall picks Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball and All-Rookie first team selection Kyle Kuzma. It will be very surprising if the Lakers don’t have at least one more player with superpoints by this time next season, either through internal development or a big acquisition.
New Orleans Pelicans | 10 superpoints
Davis has been named All-NBA first team in each of the last two seasons and is a legitimate MVP candidate. Jrue Holiday is a former All-Star who finished 22nd in RPM last season and trended up at the end of the year with excellent postseason play, so he might have more superpoints to contribute soon. Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton still have some star upside themselves, but they are expected to fill in around and support Davis and Holiday.
Portland Trail Blazers | 8 superpoints
Lillard was named All-NBA first team for the first time last season, after earning a second team nod during the 2015-16 season. He just led the Blazers to the No. 3 seed in the West with the help of 2015-16 Most Improved Player CJ McCollum, who should earn his first superpoints any day now after averaging 21.7 PPG during the last three regular seasons and 23.9 PPG during the last two playoffs. Young center Jusuf Nurkic has also steadily improved, and his No. 61 finish in RPM last season suggests that he could be on the path towards his own superpoints.
Milwaukee Bucks | 6 superpoints
Antetokounmpo is arguably the most talented young player in the NBA and another legitimate MVP candidate. Khris Middleton has provided star level impact when healthy (20th in RPM in 2015-16), with Eric Bledsoe a notch below that (41st in RPM in 2017-18). With Jabari Parker gone and Brook Lopez now around to provide increased spacing, each of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Bledsoe may be able to add more superpoints this season.
Utah Jazz | 3 superpoints
Gobert is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best centers in the NBA. Each of Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder and Ricky Rubio have utilized their strong role play to measure out with top-25 on-court impacts in one of the last three seasons, according to RPM. And then there’s Donovan Mitchell, the most likely Jazz player to develop into a second star next to Gobert and make an All-Star game in the near future.