Championship teams are built around stars. That little news flash is written in some form or another so often that we take the concept for granted. For good reason: History has shown that teams almost never win it all without stars. Even seeming exceptions to the rule hardly qualify, such as last year's Spurs. The fact that Gregg Popovich consciously suppressed the playing time of his top players during the regular season didn't fool anyone, because for years we've seen Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cement their eventual Hall of Fame statuses.
So even for the Spurs, building a title team starts with stars. But the project doesn't end there, as it didn't for the Spurs. Every great team needs effective role players, and really good ones who fit your team's system aren't that easy to find. Glue guys, as they are often called, are so valuable because they can have significant impact on games without requiring the ball in their hands. The best of these types tend to have at least one standout skill, such as pinpoint passing, on-ball defense, offensive rebounding or shooting off the catch. Usually that ability fills in the skill gaps left by the collective talents of the team's star foundation.
This is all basic basketball team-building stuff. Yet we still fixate on the elite players when a team such as this year's star-laden Cleveland Cavaliers fall short of expectations. It's important to remember that the Cavs' topsy-turvy start is far from disastrous. After all, let's not forget that the 18 games Cleveland has won matches their total pre-New Year's wins for the past three years combined. However, when LeBron James and Kevin Love joined up with Kyrie Irving over the summer, expectations went through the roof, and so far they haven't been met.
Cleveland's big three may not yet be functioning at optimal capacity, but each of the three stars rate among the league's top 35 players by WARP, with James leading the way at No. 7. However, after that trio, only Tristan Thompson has an RPM better than the league average of zero. The Cavs' role players have either been hampered by injuries (Matthew Dellavedova and Mike Miller early, and now Anderson Varejao) or ineffectiveness. That has made Dave Blatt that much more reliant on a star core that is still getting used to each other.
At the other end of the spectrum is Cleveland's Tuesday opponent, the Atlanta Hawks. The starless Hawks are nipping at the heels of the East-leading Toronto Raptors and own the third-best margin of victory in the circuit. Paul Millsap tops the Atlanta WARP leaderboard, ranking 16th. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Al Horford also rank in or near the top 50, and DeMarre Carroll is in the top 100. While the Atlanta offense is more egalitarian than most, the attack is still centered round the starting trio of Teague, Horford and Millsap. However, in Korver and Carroll the Hawks have two of the most effective glue players in the league. The lack of an elite star may limit Atlanta's real-world title odds, but their roster of elite role players is at least putting the Hawks in position to make a run.
Glue players have always been essential to high-level NBA success. In fact, the past 20 NBA champions have featured at least one rotation player with a usage rate under 17 percent who ranked in the league's top quarter in terms of WARP. Half of those championship teams have had more than one such player. Of the past 34 champions, 31 have had at least one top glue player. That being the case, if you consider that the production of star players is almost a given, then to spot the real title contenders you look at how a team's key role players are performing. Teams may not be able to win at the highest level without stars, but stars can't win without the glue guys, either.
With that in mind, let's put together a list of the top performing role players across the league so far this season, which can be found in the in accompanying chart. The criteria:
1. Have played at least 15 minutes per game
2. Own a usage rate under 18 percent, to denote a low volume of touches
3. Have a positive RPM, to measure impact
4. Own a winning percentage better than league average, which measures production