Is Brandon Roy Good Enough To Be The Best Player On A Title Team?
I’m finally getting around to answering a question that should influence every move the Blazers make in the coming years: Is Brandon Roy good enough to be the best player on a championship team? Will he ever be good enough?
Let’s start with this: Brandon Roy is a great basketball player. He has done everything the Blazers could possibly ask, he’s a team player, he has been the face of the franchise’s revival. I’m guessing that by the time he’s finished, he will be regarded as the greatest player in Trail Blazer history. With Roy as its best player, Portland can be a solid playoff team for many years. But there’s a big difference between that and being a championship contender.
NBA championships in recent years — with one glaring exception — have been the domain of the game’s elite players. Yes, it takes an entire team to win a title, but the dominant player at a given time wins the championship more often than not. You haven’t seen Chris Bosh or Gilbert Arenas winning titles. You haven’t seen Vince Carter or Elton Brand or Yao Ming winning titles. They all have been second-team all-NBA selections in recent years, as Roy was last year. So the first question: Is Roy one of those elite players?
To start with, we’ll use John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating. PER is imperfect, but it gives us a quick snapshot of a player’s effectiveness, and it’s readily available at basketball-reference.com. Here is how Roy compares with the best player (not necessarily the Finals MVP) for the past 30 NBA champions, with their regular-season PER for the title season, their career, and their best three-year period. I’ve also included where Bill Simmons ranks the players among the all-time greats.
*—Ranking was before Bryant led the Lakers to the 2009 title, and Wade is still in mid-career.
That is an impressive list. Of the 30 teams, 26 of them have been led by somebody who won at least one regular-season MVP award during their career. The exceptions: Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, and Isiah Thomas (two titles). A total of 28 of those titles have been won by players Simmons ranks among the top 23 of all-time. That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument: Would Garnett rank No. 22 if he hadn’t finally won a title? Still, championships are won by the definitive players of their generation — again, with that one exception.
Roy’s PER of 21.5 this year is exceeded by the best player on nearly every one of those teams. To be fair, that’s down quite a bit from last year, when his PER was 24.0, but even that mark ranks below most of the title-winning players.
And that should matter to the Blazers. To answer the question: Yes, Roy is good enough to be the best player on a championship team, if you look at that one exception. The 2004 Pistons won the title with a roster that featured Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Mehmet Okur. They had a great defensive center (Ben Wallace), a great point guard (Billups, despite shooting 39 percent from the field), and balanced scoring. Their leading scorer, Hamilton, averaged 17.6 points a game. Roy is better than anybody those Pistons had.
The Pistons of 1989 and 1990 also won titles with a defense-first, scoring-by-committee philosophy. But that is where the exceptions to the Alpha Dogs Win Titles Theorem end, and that’s a difficult model to follow.
Brandon Roy, for all of his talent, is never going to be Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or even Dwyane Wade. And that’s what makes Greg Oden so crucial to Portland’s title hopes. This group of Blazers can win a title one of two ways: Either Oden becomes a monster who is clearly their best player and an MVP candidate; or Oden becomes a defensive stopper who contributes to a remarkable collaborative effort.
The collaboration plan is the most difficult to execute. You need a great distributor at point guard (which they have now in Andre Miller, but he’s 34 years old), and you need a deep collection of scoring threats. You are less able to find minutes for limited role players, say a defensive specialist who is an offensive liability like Bruce Bowen was with the Spurs. You can’t have a “point” guard who is primarily a spot-up 3-point shooter, like Derek Fisher with the Lakers. You must have a hybrid scorer who can post up or go outside, like Price did for the Pistons. You need to be able to put five scorers on the floor at a time, because you don’t have Kobe Bryant to bail you out late in the shot clock. You need a great defensive center, like Wallace was for the Pistons.
So yes, if you consider the 2004 Pistons, Brandon Roy is good enough to be the best player on a championship team. But it’s not likely that you’ll win a title if he is your best player, and that should influence how the Blazers build their roster for the future.