Not all teams are created equal, nor are they created equally. Though franchises look to emulate successful models or mimic particular elements of other teams’ strategies they find to be palatable, the construction of each and every roster in the N.B.A. is a unique process. So few team centerpieces fit into a convenient mold, which makes building around them a challenge specific to their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies.
So the effects of removing such a centerpiece -– whether due to injury, suspension, or some other misfortune -– differ greatly depending on the particulars of the team’s construction. Take Kobe Bryant out of the lineup for a night, for example, and the Lakers may still be competent due to the empowerment of the triangle offense. Certain systems are more accommodating to personnel losses than others, and the players surrounding a superstar differ in their ability to carry on during times of star-less turmoil.
Typically, teams that fail without one of their top players suffer from a lack of diversification in a particular skill. When one player is required to dominate a certain dimension of the team’s play, they become far more valuable than merely the extent of their abilities. Dwight Howard is Orlando’s only competent rebounder/interior defender, Steve Nash is Phoenix’s only truly productive, playmaker, and as was made painfully apparent last night, Dirk Nowitzki is Dallas’ one true source of shot creation.
Over at the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog, I wrote a bit on the structure of the Mavs’ offense, and why — as we saw last night — losing Dirk Nowitzki for any given period of time does greater damage to the Dallas offense than the Lakers losing Kobe Bryant, for example. The Mavs beat out the Thunder with their defense, but on those nights where the D isn’t rotating as it should, the Mavs have to have Nowitzki.