NBA superteams have had a rough couple of weeks. James Harden, high-scoring guard for the Brooklyn Nets, got his reported wish and was offloaded to the Philadelphia 76ers and away from the basketball eminences surrounding him in Brooklyn — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. And the latest superteam constructed by the maestro of superteams — LeBron James — doesn’t seem to be working out in Los Angeles, where superstar Anthony Davis is frequently hurt and an error-prone Russell Westbrook is having trouble finding his role for the Lakers.
Superteams. It’s a new term with no official definition, but generally such a team is comprised of at least three Hall of Fame–quality players (a “big three”), in their prime, who band together willingly via free agency or forced trades. These are concentrations of superstars, in other words. And when you have superstars, you frequently have superegos (in a non-Freudian sense), and superegos can get super-unhappy when things don’t go as they want them to.
That seems to be what happened in Brooklyn. Harden, fresh from a year or so of trying to get the Houston Rockets to trade him, which included him reporting late to training camp out of shape and a little chubby, was dealt to Brooklyn a little over a year ago. There “the Beard” joined seven-time all-star Irving, who had forced one trade (from Cleveland to Boston) and was spending his time in Boston secretly plotting another, this one to the Nets. Both wanted to join super-duper all-star Kevin Durant (one of the three best players in the world), who had already won NBA championships on another superteam in California, Golden State.
Could superteams have seen their time in the sun?
But there were problems. Irving refused to get vaccinated and thus was barred from playing in Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s home gym; one of your superstars able to play in only half of your games would qualify as a problem, it seems to me. Also, Harden and Irving reportedly couldn’t get along, and Durant was out with a sprained MCL. At the time Harden was finally dealt to Philly, the Nets had lost 10 straight. So much for that superteam.
Out on the Left Coast it was a little different. LeBron James worked his magic — everybody wants to play with LeBron, it seems — to get Anthony Davis from New Orleans two years ago, and the duo carried the Lakers to the “bubble” championship during the COVID year. After a disappointing season last year, the team acquired Russell Westbrook, a freakishly talented nonshooter who has to have the ball to succeed. This, on a team helmed by LeBron, one of the best with-ball players in history. Thus does one of the basic rules of the game hinder the Lakers’ success: basketball is played with only one ball. Add to that frequent sidelining injuries to Davis and LeBron’s increasing “mortality” — he’s suffering significant injury now for the first time — and a roster of geezers by NBA standards (30 years old on average), and you have a sub-.500 team that is fighting for a playoff play-in spot.
Two superteams. Two super disappointments.
Could superteams have seen their time in the sun? It was an idea that hit the league like a monster slam when first conceived about a dozen years ago: great players pulling strings to get together on the same team and win multiple, possibly consecutive, championships. No more building a team through the draft and sensible trades — a grueling and frustrating process entailing years of gradual growth before championship contention is achieved. No, we’re going to get all the best players on one team and crush everybody. Instant success!
And succeed it did, spectacularly so … at first.
The explosion that kicked off the superteam era was an ego-driven prime-time media extravaganza. In the 2010 off-season, LeBron James, tired of the futility of playing for his native Cleveland Cavaliers, in one of the highest-profile relocations in sports history, inveigled no less than ESPN to devote 75 minutes of prime time to a creation called “The Decision,” at which he declared his intent to “take his talents to South Beach.” Joining him in Miami was superstar Chris Bosh, fresh off a 24-points-per-game season with the Toronto Raptors; the third star in the constellation was Dwyane Wade, who had averaged over 30 a game two seasons before for the hometown Heat. That Heat team stayed together for four years, reached the NBA Finals for four years, and took home two championships.
Since then, superteams have become a “thing.” LeBron quickly re-relocated back to Cleveland in 2014, and back into the hearts of Clevelanders who had spent four years hating him almost as much as they despised Art Modell, who had taken the Browns with him to Baltimore in 1995. Back in his “hometown” (actually, it’s Akron), the King joined Irving and brought in Kevin Love to form another “big three,” James’s second. This team gifted Cleveland with its first major sports title in 52 years with a 2016 NBA championship.
The team they beat in the Finals was the Golden State Warriors. Already superteam-ish with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green — all acquired via the draft — and winners of the 2015 title, the Warriors added Durant via free agency after losing to the Cavs, for the 2017 season, thus establishing a “big four” and evoking cries of “break up the Warriors” from the basketball commentariat. They promptly won back-to-back championships and narrowly missed in their quest for a three-peat, losing to a non-superteam called the Toronto Raptors. After sitting out the next season because of injury, Durant joined Irving in Brooklyn for the 2020–21 season, to be joined shortly by Harden.
There have been great teams in the past, obviously, and those teams featured great players. But they were not assembled in the same spirit, and often the same manner, as the modern superteams. From the Bill Russell Celtic dynasty to the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s to the nine-year run of excellence by the San Antonio Spurs from 1999 to 2007, great teams with constellations of stars have been built more haltingly, more gradually, with pieces being assembled via the draft or judicious trades. (READ MORE from Tom Raabe: Sports Gambling Gone Wild)
The superteam concept is different; the best players joining up for the sole goal of capturing championships seems unfair, and anti-competitive. It’s like two captains choosing teams at the playground, and one captain gets the first three picks. One pundit likened it to high-level European soccer, where only a few teams have a legitimate title shot.
No less an authority than Michael Jordan worried that players choosing where they can play would create a “talent discrepancy” in the league. Said he: “I think it’s going to start to hurt the overall aspect of the league from a competitive standpoint.”
Stars joining stars might be good for the city they land in, but the phenomenon frustrates the other teams and encourages them to engage in a superstar arms race, to form their own superteams. The number of franchises able to successfully pull that off is minuscule, and what results is an unhealthy concentration of talent and a top-heavy league that reduces a big chunk of the fanbase to debilitating resignation.
The Nets’ breakup, the Lakers’ troubles, and the fact that last year’s champion Milwaukee Bucks and runner-up Phoenix Suns were not stamped from the superteam mold offer hope that the era of the superteam may be coming to an end.