There has been a lot of talk in the NBA about players “teaming up” and creating “super teams”. First of all, the only super team we’ve seen in this era were the Golden State Warriors when they signed Kevin Durant. Outside of that, we haven’t seen a true super team since the 80’s when there was two: Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
The NBA Governors have tried to incentivize superstars to stay with their team by putting in restrictions. The NBA put in luxury taxes. Punitive luxury taxes. Put in rules that make it harder to consumate a sign and trade. They’ve hard capped teams. Rules allow the current team to offer more than any other team. And, none of this has worked because NBA superstars want to win, even if that means taking less money elsewhere.
The rules have allowed the “middle class” to make more money than they’ve ever imagined while the superstars don’t make what their true market value. That has been good for the NBPA but it’s also made it harder for teams to keep superstars.
But, the two players who have sent a signal that a change is coming, are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Why is it those two? Because those two left great basketball situations where they won a title(s) because they didn’t feel fulfilled.
Irving left Cleveland because he didn’t want to be second fiddle to LeBron James. Despite hitting the go ahead basket in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, everyone knew that LeBron was Michael Jackson and Irving was Tito. That didn’t sit well with Irving who always saw himself as being on the same level as LeBron. Yes, there’s a little disillusion in Mr. Flat Earth but I digress.
Durant was in a similar situation. Despite winning back to back NBA Finals MVPs, the Warriors are thought of as being Steph Curry’s team. Part of the reason why is because the Warriors won an NBA championship two seasons before Durant’s arrival. The year before Durant signed there, the Warriors won an NBA record 73 games. Durant never got the adulation from his peers he thought he would get.
So both players looked around for a situation where they could win a championship and get the credit they feel like they earned. That place was Brooklyn. On the surface, it looks like this is the same old “teaming up”. Did they go as a package? Yes. Did they try to create a “super team”? No.
Players aren’t dumb. They know going to a team alone isn’t going to be enough. The NBA has more depth than it’s ever had. A lot more than 1980’s-1990’s. As Bomani Jones said in a recent podcast, “You didn’t have to team up like that back in the day because there wasn’t as many good dudes.” Jones couldn’t be more spot on. The NBA is so talent rich right now that we could be living in the true golden age of the league.
The other big move was Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard didn’t make the same mistake as Durant. If he signs with the Lakers, it looks like an attempt as developing a “super team”. Even if they win the title, he faces the same lack of respect that Durant received, despite having won a title in two different cities. But, Leonard also knew, no matter where he went, he couldn’t go alone. So when it came down to the Toronto Raptors and the Clippers, Paul George was a willing tag along. Ultimately, with the cooperation of the Oklahoma City Thunder, George move to the Clippers along with Leonard and, for the first time, the Clipper franchise is the favorite to win the NBA title.
While all of this is happening, teams like the New Orleans Pelicans are putting together an exciting team. They have the potential to be the Dominique Wilkins led Atlanta Hawks on steroids. Even a team like the New York Knicks are putting together a base of young players to build around after losing out in free agency.
The NBA has a hybrid of eras at work. Superstars know you probably aren’t even going to make the playoffs, nevertheless win a title, with an Allen Iverson “it’s about me” attitude. You’re not going to get the credit from your peers if you piggy back on a team already great. Organizations have realized if they want to compete, they have to be competent or great players won’t come. Just having cap space isn’t enough.
What the players have done is create the best league in the world because what what the demand out of themselves and the organizations that they play for.
Go look at the rosters in the NBA. You’ll see rosters that could have won a title in another era not even make the playoffs in this era. How crazy is that? It’s crazy enough that we are embarking on the Golden Era of the NBA.