Stars Make a Splash, but Continuity Is King in the NBA

Stars Make a Splash, but Continuity Is King in the NBA

Jared Dudley spent most of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 title-winning season on the bench. But the then-14-year veteran had little doubt that he played an integral role for the bubble champions. “Behind every president, behind every top lawyer, they have a secretary they can’t live with—they have a manager who organizes the schedule,” said Dudley in an interview two years ago.

“That’s what I provide for this team,” said Dudley, who played for seven different teams before retiring and becoming an assistant coach with the Mavericks. “I’m in the middle of everything we do.”

In addition to having the talents of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, LA built special chemistry during that championship season, proving the importance of locker room generals like Dudley who made sure the Lakers spent quality time together away from the basketball court, be it at the movies or over dinner, getting comfortable in each other’s company to foster accountability.

Behind-the-scenes leaders are often underappreciated because their work doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. Chemistry cannot be quantified, at least not in the sense of gauging the quality of relationships between players. However, there’s a way to measure a certain component of the chemistry-developing process: roster continuity. Basketball-Reference keeps track of the oft-overlooked indicator, calculated as the percentage of a team’s total regular-season minutes clocked by players from last year’s roster.

Upon a closer look, the numbers point to a correlation between roster continuity and competitiveness—food for thought for title-aspiring teams. Contenders are constantly looking for opportunities to pry NBA stars away from their opponents, like the Kevin Durant sweepstakes in Brooklyn. But what if a championship favorite needs a roster evolution rather than a revolution—and a deal for a top-tier player such as Durant overcorrects its weaknesses, doing more harm than good?

Since 2000, only one NBA team has claimed the Larry O’Brien trophy with newly-acquired players taking up more than 50 percent of the total rotation minutes in the regular season—the Dwyane Wade–led Miami Heat in 2006. Just three others have made the NBA Finals.

But the 2005-06 Heat seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Miami had an extraordinary offseason leading up to that year’s title—from Shaquille O’Neal taking a pay cut on a new five-year deal to pulling off the biggest trade in NBA history, which featured five teams and 13 players. In that deal, the Heat swapped the 33-year-old Eddie Jones among others for two younger starters in James Posey and Jason Williams, as well as an X factor and former All-Star Antoine Walker. The impressive haul gave the Heat such an enticing roster that team president Pat Riley moved down from the front office to coach just 21 games into the season, starting his second coaching stint with the team.

The stars aligned for the Heat to go on the franchise’s first-ever championship run and immortalize the 15 Strong group in NBA annals. But outside of Miami’s triumph, history shows that stability is a title favorite’s best friend. In 15 of the 23 seasons played since the turn of the century, both Finals teams have boasted a roster continuity percentage of at least 60. As many as three in five champions reached the 70 percent threshold—which the reigning champion Golden State Warriors missed by just 2 percentage points last season.

But that’s an injury-induced anomaly rather than a sign of volatility creeping into the operations of a franchise that’s been the epitome of permanence in the Splash Brothers era. During Golden State’s run of five consecutive Finals appearances between 2015 and 2019, returning Warriors players spent 80 percent of the time on the court in all but one season—2016-17, the year of Kevin Durant’s arrival that inevitably required a roster reshuffle. Roster continuity is a shared trait among some of the greatest teams in NBA history. Michael Jordan’s double three-peat teams with the Bulls, Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers, and the late Bill Russell’s Celtics each dipped below the 70 percent line only ounce during their run of dominance.

The Lakers’ nightmare 2021-22 season serves as the latest example of the importance of roster cohesion when building a title contender. Neither Dudley nor anyone else besides Davis, James, and Talen Horton-Tucker survived the offseason purge that preceded Russell Westbrook’s arrival. In the aftermath of the roster overhaul, new players ended up filling 75 percent of the Lakers’ total minutes on the court. Combined with injuries, the lack of chemistry ultimately proved to be a hurdle LA couldn’t overcome, particularly when contrasted with the dominance of two well-oiled machines in Golden State and Phoenix. “Both teams pretty much brought back the same exact teams,” James said in December. “So when it comes to camaraderie and chemistry, they have that.”

The Lakers are stuck with a similar conundrum yet again this summer: Should they Trade Westbrook and move on from their previous ill-fated decision altogether or give the so-called Big 3 experiment one more chance in hopes that the familiarity between their core players, in addition to a clean bill of health, will be enough to bounce back from their 2021-22 fiasco. Higher up the Western Conference hierarchy, the Suns appeared to have picked stability over the enticing prospects of greener pastures with Durant, matching Deandre Ayton’s contract offer in restricted free agency and closing the door on a sign-and-trade for the immediate future.

now eyes are on the Celtics—will they resist the same temptation of leveling up with a trade or stick with their young nucleus and their developmental path?

Even if the Suns had traded for KD, they would have retained enough players this summer to prevent their continuity percentage from falling too low and reaching levels that proved problematic for teams in the past. Boston has already made a few personnel changes this year, acquiring Derrick White in a midseason deal before trading for Malcolm Brogdon this summer and signing Danilo Gallinari in free agency. If the incoming players take up the vacated regular-season minutes by exiting players (around 5,000 of the total of 19,905 minutes clocked in by all Celtics combined last season), Boston is still looking at its roster continuity percentage to hold around the mid-70s next season.

In order to bring KD to Boston, The Athletic‘s Shams Charania reports the Celtics might have to ship out rising star Jaylen Brown and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart in addition to other players—as the Nets intend on taking “every last asset” from Durant’s potential suitor. Doing so would effectively gut the nucleus of a team that just fell two games short of the franchise’s first championship in 14 years and has made four conference finals appearances in the past six seasons. While the Celtics would get a generational player, albeit an aging one, in return, they could land below the 50 percent roster continuity mark in 2022-23 following a Durant trade, which is a historically precarious place to be.

On one hand, Ime Udoka and Brad Stevens can rewind the tape, look at Riley in Miami assigning more than half of the rotation minutes to newcomers, and hope the KD-led Celtics would follow suit with a title. It’s Kevin freaking During, after all. On the other, Udoka and Stevens might realize that what the Heat did to give themselves a shot at the championship was trading an aging star for a couple of starters in their prime to surround an already well-acquainted All-Star duo with even more weapons —and that the KD trade would do the exact opposite to Boston.

Continuity might not guarantee success. But it matters. Plays will slow down and smooth out when run by a group of players familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses—even more so if they’ve spent some quality time together that has further united them in pursuit of the same goal. (Ideally under the supervision of an experienced secretary, er, veteran who can take care of locker room chemistry.)

In an environment as competitive as the NBA, the pursuit of perfection never stops, distorting the value of what teams already have. But history shows that sometimes, “perfect” truly is the enemy of the good.

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