The Power Of Two The formula for success in the NBA used to require a triumvirate of talent. In today's league, it just takes a pair

November 01, 1999

General managers and coaches love to talk about the importance of
chemistry in piecing together a team. Chemistry, however, is a
science and the assembling of a champion is anything but. In
fact, mathematics is the discipline that really applies to such
construction jobs, with certain formulas for victory emerging
over time. One of them, call it the Threesome Theorem, holds that
a team's best chance to win an NBA title is to make sure that
three elite players factor into the equation.

There are data to support that supposition. With Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, the Los Angeles
Lakers won three league championships in the 1980s. When the
Lakers didn't prevail, the Boston Celtics, who won three titles
that decade by building on the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert
Parish foundation, usually did. Since then, many a contender
with two elite players has turned into Carl Sagan, looking for
one more star. Among the searchers last season were the Lakers,
who traded for sharpshooting forward Glen Rice to complement
center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, and the Houston
Rockets, who acquired Scottie Pippen to expand the Hakeem
Olajuwon-Charles Barkley duo into a trio.

But champions these days stand on two sturdy legs, not a tripod.
The team that dominated the '90s, the Chicago Bulls, was defined
by a brace of preeminent players, Pippen and Michael Jordan. The
Threesome Theorem, like the two-hand set shot and commercial
flights, is obsolete in today's NBA. The formula that's now
holding up best is the Pair Postulate. "I'd rather have two
great ones and a bunch of unselfish guys," says Philadelphia
76ers coach Larry Brown. "It takes more than great players. It
takes guys who understand what the team is about."

The number of believers in the Pair Postulate is growing--and so
is the evidence that supports it. Last season's Finals matched
teams that relied on the two-star system: the San Antonio Spurs,
with forward Tim Duncan and center David Robinson, and the New
York Knicks, with guards Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. As
for L.A. and Houston, the addition of a third top player didn't
just fail to pay off; it also might very well have moved them
further from a championship. The Lakers were more effective with
Eddie Jones as an excellent supporting player than they were
after trading him to the Charlotte Hornets to get Rice. The
Rockets were better with Barkley and Olajuwon than they were
after adding Pippen to the mix.

"I'd rather be on a team with one superstar, who everybody knows,
without hesitation, is the Man," says Denver Nuggets guard Bryant
Stith. "Then you need one other very good player to complement
your superstar, three guys to plug into that starting five and
some guys coming off the bench who understand their roles."

That sounds like a description of the Spurs and the Knicks, who
figure to go deep into the playoffs again this season. The Pair
Postulate is why other teams who fit the model--such as the Miami
Heat with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, and the Utah Jazz
with Karl Malone and John Stockton--shouldn't be dismissed as
title contenders. It's why the Portland Trail Blazers may find,
as they did last year, that they actually have too many
All-Star-caliber players to win a championship: the recently
obtained Pippen and guard Steve Smith, plus forwards Brian Grant
and Rasheed Wallace and playmaker Damon Stoudamire. It's why the
success of the Phoenix Suns depends largely on whether newly
acquired shooting guard Penny Hardaway blends with point guard
Jason Kidd as the team's second star--and whether forward Tom
Gugliotta, a former All-Star, can adjust to being part of the
supporting cast. It's why the Indiana Pacers, longtime contenders
with guard Reggie Miller and center Rik Smits as their mainstays,
may slip this season as Smits's effectiveness is continually
reduced by injury. It's why the Sacramento Kings, who have
perhaps the most promising tandem in the league, power forward
Chris Webber and point guard Jason Williams, have reason to feel
they are on a championship track.

Having a pair of top guns rather than a trio simplifies matters
in two key areas: payroll and players' roles. The main reason the
Lakers couldn't make a competitive offer last summer to
free-agent power forward Charles Oakley, a blue-collar worker who
would have been a perfect fit for them, was that the gargantuan
contracts of Bryant, O'Neal and Rice consumed so much of the
salary-cap room that the club had only a $2 million slot. Oakley
turned down L.A.'s offer and re-signed with the Toronto Raptors
for $18 million over three years. The Celtics had the makings of
a three-star outfit with forwards Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce
and guard Ron Mercer, but they didn't want to commit superstar
money to Mercer, so they traded him to Denver, a move that should
eventually benefit both teams. Walker and Pierce are the backbone
of the Boston team, while Mercer and forward Antonio McDyess
could lead the Nuggets out of mediocrity.

"The problem today is, teams have to decide whether they can
afford to keep three top-flight players," says Lakers president
Jerry West. "It is going to be increasingly difficult, with the
constraints put on budgets, to keep players and keep them happy,
especially in light of the fact that some players are being paid
star salaries when they shouldn't be."

Even if a team's three stars are happy with their contracts,
they'll often find something else to gripe about--such as their
shot totals. Consider the clashes Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal
Mashburn had when they formed what was seemingly a formidable
troika for the Dallas Mavericks in the mid '90s. "What we're
really talking about is ego," says Milwaukee Bucks coach George
Karl. "It's easier to manage two egos than three egos."

The Rockets discovered that a pair can beat three of a kind last
year when Pippen grumbled about his role as the third wheel most
of the season and finally was traded to Portland after firing
several verbal shots, one of them aimed squarely at Barkley's
backside. Pippen's time in Houston was a fiasco because the
Rockets couldn't find a way to fit him into an attack that
revolved around the post-up talents of Olajuwon and Barkley.

With defense dominating the game in the late '90s, stars have
fewer opportunities to shine. When the Celtics won the title in
'85-86, Bird, McHale and Parish averaged 45.9 shots among them,
roughly half the Celtics' total. Last year Barkley, Olajuwon and
Pippen also accounted for about half the Rockets' field goal
attempts, but their combined total was only 38.5 shots per game.
"In today's NBA, where most teams walk it up and down the court
and the coach calls every play from the side, there aren't enough
shots to get three players 15 shots a game," says Nuggets G.M.
and coach Dan Issel.

The Pair Postulate applies regardless of positions. The Spurs won
with two big men, the Knicks nearly won with two guards, and the
Jazz have reached the Finals twice with the classic
inside-outside pairing. One thing that does seem to be necessary
is for the twosome to be clearly subdivided into a leader and a
second banana. (That's a sorting-out process that the New York
guards, who came together in the postseason after center Patrick
Ewing's Achilles tendon injury, will still have to go through
during this season.) Certainly, the Duncan-Robinson pairing would
not have worked had Robinson not agreed to defer to Duncan at the
offensive end. It is the sort of sacrifice that neither O'Neal
nor Bryant seems willing to make in Los Angeles, even if Rice
weren't around to complicate matters.

Not everyone agrees that less is more. West, who was a member of
one of the great threesomes in NBA history when he was a Lakers
guard with center Wilt Chamberlain and forward Elgin Baylor,
still prefers a trio (even though he won his only championship,
in 1971-72, with Baylor sidelined). "I just think the way the
game is played today," he says, "you've got people double-teaming
on defense all over the place, trying to take the ball out of
more than one player's hands. I'd rather have more good players
than role players."

Some also would argue that although they had only two bona fide
stars, teams such as San Antonio and New York would not have gone
as far as they did without the emergence of dependable third
options--Sean Elliott for the Spurs and Marcus Camby for the
Knicks. To be sure, having a top twosome doesn't guarantee a long
playoff life. Washington tried to build around Webber and forward
Juwan Howard three years ago and went nowhere. The Jazz, with the
quintessential two-man nucleus in Stockton and Malone, simply
could never get past the Bulls and flopped in the first round
several times.

With the adoption of rules changes that leave the league on the
verge of another stylistic shift, will the three-star system be
more effective again? The game should be opened up, and scoring
should increase as a result of some of those changes: stricter
interpretation of fouls, especially physical play away from the
ball; prohibition of forearm checking, except below the free
throw line; a five-second rule limiting the amount of time an
offensive player with his back to the basket can control the ball
below the free throw line; and resetting the shot clock to 14
seconds instead of 24 on certain stoppages of play. That in turn
may allow the offensive pie to grow enough for three or more
players to again divide it to their satisfaction. If that
happens, a team such as the Lakers, with their triangle offense
and coach-psychologist Phil Jackson (page 82), may prove that a
pair of leading men are no longer sufficient. Or the Blazers may
show that raising stars to the fifth power is an equally valid
championship formula.

Until then the next champion is likely to be a team with a pair
of stars shining against a backdrop of smart, self-sacrificing
role players. There is still no team that fits that description
as well as San Antonio, which is why the Spurs may have another
twosome to be proud of by season's end--a pair of championship
rings.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Running mates Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES PORTO Desert duet Penny Hardaway and Jason Kidd COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN Inseparable Karl Malone and John Stockton COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER A pair of Kings Jason Williams and Chris Webber COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES PORTO Double trouble Tim Duncan and David Robinson TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]

Says Issel, "In today's NBA there aren't enough shots to get
three players 15 shots a game."

The twosome must be clearly subdivided into a leader and a second
banana.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)