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How to Build an NBA Championship Roster

What do the last few NBA Finals all have in common, and what does that tell us about the 2022 edition? Let’s talk about the secret sauce that every NBA champion needs.

Both the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors understand that it’s not easy to make it to the NBA Finals, let alone win it. Furthermore, they’re aware that there isn’t some secret recipe for winning an NBA championship.

Or is there?

Sure, you need star scorers, a serviceable head coach, timely defense, and some luck to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. However, an NBA organization’s front office has to be smart with the salary cap to fit the puzzle pieces together.

With the NBA Finals right around the corner, let’s study some recent NBA champions to see how they distributed their player contracts.

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But before we dig into the previous champions, here’s the financial makeup of the Celtics and the Warriors.

All salary figures via Spotrac; “% of salary cap” reflects the NBA’s soft salary cap of $112,414,000 for the 2021-22 season.

2021-22 Celtics

Team salary spending: $134.27M
Highest-paid player: Jayson Tatum ($28.1M)
Leading playoff scorer: Jayson Tatum (27 ppg)

Starting 5 salary breakdown:

PG Marcus Smart: $14.3M

  • % of cap: 12.76
  • % of team spending: 10.66

SG Jaylen Brown: $25.3M

  • % of cap: 22.52
  • % of team spending: 18.82

SF Jayson Tatum: $28.1M

  • % of cap: 25
  • % of team spending: 20.9

PF/C Al Horford: $27M

  • % of cap: 24.02
  • % of team spending: 20.08

PF/C Robert Williams III: $3.6M

  • % of cap: 3.26
  • % of team spending: 2.72
2021-22 Warriors

Team salary spending: $184M
Highest-paid player: Stephen Curry ($45.78M)
Leading playoff scorer: Stephen Curry (25.9 ppg)

Starting 5 salary breakdown:

PG Stephen Curry: $45.78M

  • % of cap: 40.73
  • % of team spending: 24.88

SG Klay Thompson: $37.9M

  • % of cap: 33.79
  • % of team spending: 20.64

SF Andrew Wiggins: $31.5M

  • % of cap: 28.09
  • % of team spending: 17.16

PF/C Draymond Green: $24M

  • % of cap: 21.37
  • % of team spending: 13.06

PF/C Kevon Looney $5.1M

  • % of cap: 4.61
  • % of team spending: 2.81

Both teams are heavily invested in their starting fives; nevertheless, they also managed to find some tremendous value on the transaction market. Whether through the draft or free agency, key players like Grant Williams and Derrick White for the Celtics and Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga for the Warriors have bolstered their rosters for a meager price, giving their respective front offices some helpful flexibility this year and beyond.

Nearly every player in both teams’ short playoff rotations has executed their roles to perfection, giving us a window into the kind of roster construction that’s necessary to win an NBA championship here and now.

With that in mind, let’s dig into the past champions to see if there are any patterns.

2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks

  • 2020-21 NBA salary cap: $109,140,000
  • Highest-paid player: Khris Middleton ($33.05M)
  • Leading playoff scorer: Giannis Antetokounmpo (35.2 ppg)
  • Finals MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Secret weapon with a team-friendly deal: PJ Tucker
Starting 5 salary breakdown:

PG Jrue Holiday: $25M

  • % of cap: 24.76
  • % of team spending: 20.29

SG Khris Middleton: $33M

  • % of cap: 30.28
  • % of team spending: 24.81

SF PJ Tucker: $7.9M

  • % of cap: 7.3
  • % of team spending: 5.98

PF Giannis Antetokounmpo: $27.5M

  • % of cap: 25.22
  • % of team spending: 20.66

C Brook Lopez: $12.6M

  • % of cap: 11.63
  • % of team spending: 9.53
The Secret Recipe for the Bucks’ 2021 NBA Championship

There’s no doubt that Antetokounmpo was the best player on the Bucks and arguably the best player in the NBA. And yet, the Greek Freak did not constitute the highest cap hit on the team, coming in behind Middleton, a pivotal piece of the championship run, scoring 24 points per game and shooting 44% from the field.

The secret recipe for the Bucks was how they used their deep bench to accompany their stars. The Bucks had a trio of serviceable three-point shooters in PJ Tucker, Pat Connaughton, and Bobby Portis, all of whom made less than $10 million. Both Connaughton and Portis were on extremely team-friendly deals, earning less than $5 million that year while combining to average 16.9 points per game off the bench.

While Giannis can be a one-man army on both ends of the floor, the Bucks did a fantastic job surrounding him with complementary defensive players and shooters you can’t afford to leave open.

2019–20 Los Angeles Lakers

  • 2019-20 NBA salary cap: $109,140,000
  • Highest-paid player: LeBron James (37.44M)
  • Leading playoff scorer: LeBron James (29.8 ppg)
  • Finals MVP: LeBron James
  • Secret weapon with a team-friendly deal: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Starting 5 salary breakdown:

SG Danny Green: $14.63M

  • % of cap: 13.41
  • % of team spending: 11.8

SG/SF Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: $8.14M

  • % of cap: 7.46
  • % of team spending: 6.57

SF LeBron James: $37.44M

  • % of cap: 34.3
  • % of team spending: 30.19

PF Anthony Davis: $27.09M

  • % of cap: 24.82
  • % of team spending: 21.85

C JaVale McGee: $4M

  • % of cap: 3.67
  • % of team spending: 3.22
The Secret Recipe for the Lakers’ 2020 NBA Championship

It’s no secret that LeBron drove the bubble-bound Lakers. He was a postseason hero once again, putting the team’s weight on his shoulders, leading LA in points per game, minutes, and shooting percentage.

Tying your title chances to one player is usually a recipe for disaster, but when you’re talking about LeBron, all bets are off. Once again, he was the exception to a whole lot of rules.

Meanwhile, Davis was the Robin to James’s Batman, and apart from those two, Caldwell-Pope was the only player on the 12-man roster to average over 10 points per game.

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2018–19 Toronto Raptors

2018-19 NBA salary cap: $101,869,000
Highest-paid player: Kyle Lowry ($32,700,000)
Leading playoff scorer: Kawhi Leonard (28.5 ppg)
Finals MVP: Kawhi Leonard
Secret weapon on a team-friendly deal: Pascal Siakam

Starting 5 salary breakdown:

PG Kyle Lowry: $32.7M

  • % of cap: 32.1
  • % of team spending: 23.7

SG Danny Green: $10M

  • % of cap: 9.82
  • % of team spending: 7.26

SF Kawhi Leonard: $23.1M

  • % of cap: 22.69
  • % of team spending: 16.77

PF Pascal Siakam: $1.54M

  • % of cap: 1.52
  • % of team spending: 1.12

C Marc Gasol: $24.12M

  • % of cap: 23.68
  • % of team spending: 17.5
The Secret Recipe for the Raptors’ 2019 NBA Championship

Everything magically came together for the Raptors to win the 2018-19 title. The newly acquired Kawhi was in peak terminator form, finally healthy enough to play to his maximum potential. Siakam was blooming into an All-NBA caliber player that was critically still on his rookie deal, and Fred VanVleet began to emerge as a scorer, impact perimeter defender, and leader in the locker room.

Leonard was the best player on the team, earning Finals MVP and leading the team in scoring. However, the Raptor title was indeed a team effort across the board. Five players averaged double-digit scoring or close to it, and almost the entire roster had a 50% effective shooting percentage or higher. (Don’t think that Masai Ujiri regretted dealing Jonas Valančiūnas for Marc Gasol.)

The 2018-19 Raptors may have had both buzzer-beater luck and opponent injury luck their side, but they also had a team full of hungry players who refused to take no for an answer.

2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers

2015-16 NBA salary cap: $70,000,000
Highest-paid player: LeBron James ($22.97M)
Leading playoff scorer: LeBron James: 29.7 ppg
Finals MVP: LeBron James
Team Friendly Contract Secret Weapon: J.R. Smith

Starting five base salaries:

PG Kyrie Irving: $16.41M

  • % of cap: 23.44
  • % of team spending: 15.15

SG J.R. Smith: $5M

  • % of cap: 7.14
  • % of team spending: 4.62

SF LeBron James: $22.97M

  • % of cap: 32.82
  • % of team spending: 21.21

PF Kevin Love: $19.69M

  • % of cap: 28.13
  • % of team spending: 18.18

C Tristan Thompson: $14.26M

  • % of cap: 20.37
  • % of team spending: 13.12
The Secret Recipe for the Cavs’ 2016 NBA Championship

Similar to his run with the Lakers, King James had to shoulder an incredible amount of the championship load. This time, however, Kyrie Irving was a fully-formed sidekick. He hit clutch shots and created opportunities to take opponents off the dribble, shooting over 46% from the field.

Both Kevin Love and JR Smith were able to stretch the floor for LeBron and Kyrie, giving the offense what turned out to be more than just a puncher’s chance against the Warriors’ “Death Lineup.” Thompson was also a rebounding machine, with over 10 per game during the playoffs.

LBJ did lead the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, and (naturally) minutes played per game during this run, but this time, he had just enough shooting around him to outlast the 73-9 Warriors in seven games.

3 Rules for NBA Championship Roster Construction

The 25% Superstar: Generally, a team’s best player shouldn’t take up more than 25% of a team’s total salary spending in a given year.

  • Every great player should try to maximize their dollars for the sake of their families and futures, but for those who want to win, an organization needs the flexibility to bring in complementary pieces and sign specialists on team-friendly deals.
  • This means that if a team wants to sign a player like Steph Curry to a supermax deal (35% of the salary cap under the rules of the current CBA), it must be prepared to spend well into the luxury tax to round out the rest of its roster.
  • The exception to the rule based on recent results is LeBron James, a true outlier in terms of his sheer all-around production.

The Other 25 Rule: You’re also going to need a dominant offensive threat to score at least 25 points per game when it counts — and in some years, that’s being conservative.

  • Organizations should hope that a player could average around 28 points per game as a shot-maker that can create both for himself and others when the game slows down to the pace of a half-court offense.

The Single-digit Millionaire: Such a first-world problem! NBA teams only have so much money to work with, so somebody has to make a sacrifice and play at a level above what his cap number would suggest.

  • Usually, the player making single-digit millions is the player who has maximized his role. Whether it’s playing lockdown defense, making timely shots, or making hustle plays, at least one of these unsung heroes is needed to win a title in today’s NBA.
  • Specifically, a team like the 2021-22 Lakers that goes too heavy on big, expensive names and is forced to fill out the rest of its roster with minimum contracts violates this rule.

Based on these observations, both the Warriors and Celtics fit the criteria necessary to win a championship. Both Tatum and Curry account for less than 25% of the team’s total salary spending and average over 25 points per game.

Note the single-digit millionaires, Robert Williams and Looney, the former of whom has particularly mastered his role as the defensive anchor of the Celtics, guarding in the post and stepping out to the perimeter to contest three-point shots. On the other side, Looney has become a rebounding machine for the Warriors. His ability to box out, win loose balls, and get second-chance points was a significant component of getting the Warriors to the finals.

While both teams fit our recipe of a champion, only one team will walk away with the NBA title. But even the losing team can take heart that running things back next year and maintaining fidelity to our three rules puts them right back in the mix for a championship in 2022-23.

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