That’s What Chi Said: Winning an NBA Title Without a Superstar

ConleyPhoto by: Eric Gay-Pool/Getty

The NBA is a superstar’s league. One superstar is nice, but two superstars are needed to win an NBA title. Entering the 2-month highly televised drama that is the NBA Playoffs, many fans/experts/wanna-be experts elected to cast the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers as the “we don’t need a superstar to win an NBA title” leading contenders. The Nuggets high-octane offense was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the Indiana Pacers are now tasked with dealing with the Juggernaut that is the Miami Heat (Good luck). Looking back at the history of the NBA, the last “we don’t need a superstar to win an NBA title” team that actually won an NBA title was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons (before that you have to go back to the 1977-78 Seattle Sonics who were led by Hall-of-Famer Dennis Johnson, a 2nd round draft pick in 1976 who was inserted into the starting lineup that season by Lenny Wilkens).  The Pacers certainly do make a valid case for being a title contender, but the Memphis Grizzlies are built a lot more like those Detroit Pistons that upset the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2004 NBA title.

Commitment to Defense

It should come as no surprise that defense is the foundation for a superstar-devoid team looking to win an NBA title. The Detroit Pistons were the 2nd best defense in the NBA during the 03-04 season, and the Memphis Grizzlies are the 2nd best defense this season (the number 1 ranked defense in both seasons also advanced to the Conference championships). Both teams had a Defensive Player of the Year patrolling the paint at the center position in Ben Wallace for the Pistons and Marc Gasol for the Grizzlies. Ironically enough, the 03-04 season was the only season over a five-year stretch that Ben Wallace did not win DPOY despite having the best defensive rating of his career (87). (The 77-78 Seattle Sonics ranked 3rd in defense).

Momentum Momentum Momentum

The 03-04 Pistons and this season’s Memphis Grizzlies both finished the regular season playing their best basketball. The Pistons went 9-3 over their final 12 games after acquiring Rasheed Wallace during the trade-deadline. The Memphis Grizzlies traded their leading scorer Rudy Gay during the trade-deadline, changed their offensive identity, and finished the regular season by going 9-3.

Clean the Glass

The Memphis Grizzlies rank as the 2nd best rebounding team with a rebound rate of 52.2%. The 03-04 Detroit Pistons ranked as the 5th best rebounding team that season with a rebound rate of 51.3% (the 77-78 Seattle Sonics ranked 4th in rebounding).

Balanced Offenses

The 03-04 Pistons were led offensively by their guards, Chauncy Billups and Richard Hamilton, while the Memphis Grizzlies are led offensively by their big boys in the post, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Both teams understood their offensive identity, but still had the balance to generate points other ways. Rasheed Wallace was the wrinkle that the Detroit Pistons needed to stretch the floor from the power-forward position and as an offensive threat in the post, and Mike Conley has earned the title as the most underrated offensive point guard in the NBA.


How do you measure intangibles? I wish I knew, but I do know that the 03-04 Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies had similar team identities. Yes, to state the obvious, the 03-04 Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies both had Tayshaun Prince, but Tayshaun Prince is a glue guy whose impact on a team is often not captured in the box score.  Both teams also played with a chip on their shoulders. The 03-04 Detroit Pistons had Rasheed Wallace (the NBA’s bad boy who was traded from Portland because of his on and off court issues), Ben Wallace (a player originally drafted to be a shooting guard. That sentence alone makes no sense looking back at Wallace’s career as an elite defensive center) and Chauncy Billups (Billups played on 4 different teams during his first 5 years in the NBA before signing with Detroit). The Memphis Grizzlies have Zach Randolph (a player labeled as a stat-sheet stuffer on bad teams who had off-court issues), Marc Gasol (the “other Gasol” for most of his career), and Tony Allen (Tony Allen came out the womb with a chip on his shoulder).

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The road to an NBA title is not easy. The Memphis Grizzlies have a long ways to go before they can call themselves the 03-04 Detroit Pistons of modern day, but they have the makeup to merit being in the conversation as the next “we don’t need a superstar to win an NBA title” team that does the improbable.


*All stats are courtesy of

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