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The Successes and Failures of NBA Super-Teams

One of the knocks about the NBA is that there isn’t any parity going on.  That seems to be true as the Warriors and Cavaliers are facing off for a 4th straight time in the NBA Finals.  But truth be told, when has the League had actual true parity?  The year Michael Jordan traded his own shoe brand for cleats?  So for people to say that the NBA has a problem of having parity, hasn’t seen the NBA for the last 20-25 years, and even longer when you had the Lakers and Celtics religiously fighting it out in June back in the 80’s.

The other knock has been the fear of having “Super-Teams” going on, thus continuing to have little-to-no-parity.  But if you have seen the NBA in the past 20 years and how the salary cap has gone on, we’ve seen a lot of Super-Teams come and go.  Some were successful and others were not.

To me, a successful Super-Team has to accomplish the main goal of winning an NBA Championship (what the idea is set out to do, right?), and stick around for a while.  I think the first thing is to define a Super-Team:

A Super-Team needs to have at least 3 NBA stars in their prime or very close to their prime where they are still a major factor in contributing while being a major favorite to win the NBA Finals.  So what makes the teams successful?

1st: They need to have at least one of the stars to have been “home-grown.”  It is somebody who knows and understands the franchise, especially one that has an identity.  The star has to show the other stars how things work in that environment.  Nearly all of the Super-Teams, success or failure, has that guy.  The thing is, it is that guy’s responsibility to really show them how it is done.

2nd: All the stars’ egos need to be checked and know their roles.  This is always hard especially with players in the midst of their primes or had been the focal point of a previous franchise.  They come in to expect that the team will rotate around them and experience a major culture shock when it isn’t, thus creating problems, whether or not it was intended.

3rd: A coach who can handle those stars.  If you look at teams who gained success with the Super-Team, it is because of how they handled their stars.  Most coaches who were successful still treated their stars who were likely high maintenance with class and dignity, thus trying not to alienate their guys all the while still making sure the team was on the right track.

We have seen over time the Super-Teams that generated abuzz, back from the 96-98 Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets in 1998-1999, the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers, the 2008-2010 Boston Celtics, and through the Warriors today.  But there have been other Super-Teams that have been forgotten through time, and we will look at those as well.

Phoenix

1994-1995 PHOENIX SUNS (Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Danny Manning):  I loved watching the Suns in the early-to-mid 90’s when Barkley went to the Desert.  Phoenix won 63 games in 1992-1993 in Barkley’s first year and got to the NBA Finals before losing to the Bulls.  The next year, Phoenix blew a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semis to Houston and lost in 7.  The Suns needed to get deep and brought in All-Star Danny Manning to help out.  Add in you had an All-Star backcourt in Johnson (a great and underrated PG) and Majerle (mostly off the bench, but could shoot the daylights out of the ball), and then Phoenix added Kings star Wayman Tisdale to help out the frontcourt.  Phoenix looked to be the heavy favorites out West.  In this case, everybody knew their roles well.  It was Barkley’s team, and the vets of KJ and Thunder Dan knew it and were fine with it.  However, the Suns had difficulty playing defense and had no answers for big men who could dominate a la Hakeem Olajuwon, who took them to the woodshed in 1994, and then again in 1995 when Phoenix blew another series lead on Houston (both 2-0 and 3-1) in the semis.  In this case, where the Suns fell was that coach Paul Westphal may have been over his head with the X’s and O’s of the NBA.  Phoenix fell apart the year after, going 41-41 and Barkley was pretty discontent on how things were going that year and was shipped to Houston.

Bulls

1995-1998 CHICAGO BULLS (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman): Until recent with Golden State, this has been the prime example of how a Super-Team worked.  Jordan was the focal point, Pippen was the guy behind the guy, and Rodman knew his role, of rebounding and getting into opposing teams’ heads.  Of course, originally it seemed like it was a bad idea to bring Rodman aboard from the prior years of the Jordan Bulls vs. the Bad Boy Pistons where Rodman religiously mugged both Jordan & Pippen to the point Pippen wanted nothing to do with him.  After being convinced by the Bulls, Pippen was fine with bringing Rodman (though you could sense tension among Rodman & Pippen even in that period with Chicago).  However, Phil Jackson handled Rodman’s antics nearly flawlessly while Jordan would smile and really say “well, that’s Rodman for you.”  What you got was a team with strong chemistry, great coaching and knowing what it took to win.  Of course, it helped that Jordan, Pippen, and Phil all won world titles from 1991-1993 while Rodman won two in 89-90 with Detroit.  But it worked until the Bulls front office blew up the team after the 1998-1999 lockout.

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1996-1999 HOUSTON ROCKETS (Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler from 1996-1998; Scottie Pippen in 1998-1999):  Houston to some NBA fans will have the 1994 & 1995 titles marked with the * by it because those were the years Jordan had retired.  Desperate to have the Finals to decide who was the best team of the 90’s the Rockets pushed to get a third star themselves after being swept unceremoniously by Seattle in 1996.  They got Charles Barkley to go with Hakeem (who was still in his prime) and Clyde Drexler (who was nearing the end of his career).  They had a coach in Rudy Tomjanovich, who won those two titles, but did it with Hakeem and mostly great role guys like Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, and Mario Elie.  One problem was Houston sacrificed depth to get Barkley (Horry and Cassell went to Phoenix in that trade).  The other issue was that while Hakeem was the mainstay in Houston, he was a “lead-by-example” guy.  He wasn’t one to talk with Barkley and Drexler wasn’t in too much of a position either as he was still a “new” guy in Houston and he too was more of a soft-spoken guy.  After the 1998 season, Drexler retired and the Rockets grabbed 6x world champion Scottie Pippen.  Many penned Houston as being the front-runners in the West again for the 1999 season.  It didn’t work.  Pippen looked like a fish out of water with what Houston wanted him to do, taking major hits in his statistical.  Adding on, Barkley and Pippen bickered on and off the court with each other and Pippen wanted out after one year as Pippen’s run in Houston was forgettable to say the least.  Hakeem wasn’t going to get involved with that while Rudy T was no Phil to keep Pippen in the mix.  So to me while the Rockets had 3 years of this, I don’t think anybody checked Barkley and then later Pippen of how things should have gone in Houston.  Hakeem wasn’t the guy to tell them to do so nor did Tomjanovich.

Blazers

1999-2001 PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith):  We forget this team had a roster.  Many viewed Pippen’s year in Houston as a lost year.  He got traded to the Blazers after wanting out of Houston.  The Blazers also added shooting guard Steve Smith from Atlanta, who was regarded as one of the best shooting guards in the league at that time (and an All-Star in 1998) while moving the troubled Isaiah Rider in the process.  Adding on, the Blazers had a great young power forward in Rasheed Wallace, who was establishing himself into a superstar.  The Blazers had come up short in the 1999 Western Conference Finals to the Spurs.  And in 2000 with all the new faces including the underrated Detlef Schrempf and defensive guru Stacey Augmon (who had been a part of the Pippen trade but came back to Portland), the Blazers went 59-23 and got to the Western Conference Finals against the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, and blew a 15-point 4th quarter lead in Game 7.  The Blazers beefed up the frontcourt trying to off-set Shaq and traded for Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp before the 2000-2001 season.  However, the Trailblazer squad had more issues off the court than on the court as players were arrested for possession (including Wallace), and there wasn’t much of harmony or leadership with the Blazers (and at this point were becoming nicknamed the Jailblazers for all the run-ins with the law) and the team fell apart quickly after that.

Lakers

2003-2004 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone): After the 2002-2003 season where the Lakers couldn’t 4-peat their run after being eliminated by eventual champion San Antonio, Los Angeles re-tooled.  Big-time.  The Lakers acquired legendary power forward Karl Malone and point guard Gary Payton to go with Shaq and Kobe.  What could go wrong?  Well, everything.  Kobe as he was rehabbing from his knee injury in Denver, was accused of sexual assault, which took its toll on the team, missing games for that alone.  His rift with Shaq was very public as both were trying to lay claim of “whose team was it?” and created major chemistry issues in the locker room.  Malone was oft-injured in his lone Lakers season and wasn’t anywhere near the same guy he was in Utah, despite sacrificing his numbers and knowing his role (where he still played strong defense against Tim Duncan in the playoffs).  And Payton looked lost in Phil’s triangle offense.  I think with Malone & Payton, they were willing to check their egos at the door, knowing their time of trying to win one was shrinking (and Payton did end up winning one with Miami in 2006), but the animosity between Kobe and Shaq was too cancerous to get that title while it seemed like Phil was tired of everything by this point.  Somehow the Lakers did get back to the Finals and were heavy favorites to win, but were destroyed by the team-oriented Pistons in 5.  Anybody who says team chemistry is overrated, needs to look at this year.

Boston

2007-2012 BOSTON CELTICS (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen):  I was skeptical it would work for the Celtics.  Garnett and Allen came over in trades as it was no secret Boston wanted both to go along their star Paul Pierce.  Garnett had a great run in Minnesota with only one trip to the Western Conference Finals to show for it, but the Wolves needed a rebuild.  Allen had been in Seattle for a few years and the Sonics were also rebuilding and planning their move to Oklahoma City and wanted to win a title.  The hype of the Boston Big Three was in full gear in 2007-2008.  And honestly, it worked like a charm.  While Garnett, because of his all-around play got a lot of love and Allen was that pure shooter, even though they were considered superstars, they knew Boston was really Paul Pierce’s team and they both fell in line.  And what you got was a near harmonious trio that worked together nearly perfectly.  Adding they had a veteran coach in Doc Rivers who faced off against the original Big Three of Bird, McHale, and Parrish, coached them perfectly.  Adding to it, other guys like Rajon Rondo stepped up while having depth in James Posey, Eddie House, and Kendrick Perkins chipped in and really gave the team that push above to give them the NBA championship in 2008.  Boston’s Big Three 2.0 stuck together for a while and remained near the top of the NBA and the East, but the depth waned despite the rise of Rondo, who was trying to establish himself as a superstar.  And this time the rise of LeBron was coming on fast as the Celtics had no answers for the new King of the NBA.

Heat

2010-2014 MIAMI HEAT (Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh):  This is where the whole Super-Team really got publicized.  When this went down, it was literally a show in Miami. It was “hey, look at us, we are the new Big Three!” between the friends of James, Wade, and Bosh.  The Heat took a similar path like Boston, building up the depth behind those three as they were “harmonious” as well in this time span.  For as much of a star LeBron was, he also knew it was Wade’s team as did Bosh.  But with the whole “show” mentality that came in the first year, thanks to LeBron’s nationally televised “decision” it may have worn thin on the team with the scrutiny and many believed Erik Spoelstra was the wrong guy for the job.  However, as the scrutiny waned, Miami rolled the next year, thumping Oklahoma City with a nice surplus of role guys like Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier while Spoelstra handling his stars pretty well (though many point to Pat Riley holding all the cards still).  The Heat repeated with the same bunch in 2013 even adding Ray Allen into the fold by taking out the Spurs in 7 and got to the Finals once more in 2014, but were handed an easy loss by the same Spurs squad.  Adding on, while LeBron and Wade were friends and their play complimented each other perfectly, James knew Miami wasn’t his team and it wore on him.  He would end the Miami party and go back home to Cleveland after the 2014 season.

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2014-2017 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love):  All the talk from people that Cleveland never had a Super-Team in LeBron’s 2nd go around must have really forgotten when it started, many penned them as having one.  Kevin Love was coming into his own in Minnesota, averaging a double-double every night (and when I mean by that, I mean he was doing 25 points, 12 rebounds double-double).  So you had LeBron, a guy who was becoming a force down low in Love, and superstar on the rise in Kyrie Irving.  The next Big Three!  And, no.  It is hard to keep players scoring 25 points or more when you had two of them on the same team while you had another sitting over 20 himself.  So something gave and Kevin Love had become the fall guy, which irked many people in Cleveland, including James himself so there had seemed to be a chemistry issue early on.  After the first season where the Cavs made it to the Finals, more issues arose and many believed James had been the driving force of David Blatt’s firing and hiring of Tyronn Lue, meaning that James and not anybody else was in control of the team.  The Cavs won the 2016 Finals over Golden State as LeBron had an amazing run to the title while Kyrie Irving solidified himself as a superstar, but with that arose another issue of Kyrie wanting the Cavaliers to be his team.  Of course, despite leaving for four seasons, the Cavs returned to being LeBron’s team, meaning there was an unhappy camper in Irving.  So the Super-Team ended with the trade of Kyrie to Boston though the Cavs themselves thanks to LeBron remain the East’s Beasts.

Knicks

2016-2017 NEW YORK KNICKS (Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Rose):  High risk, high reward turned out to be high risk and……..no reward.  The Knicks, who seem to have been rebuilding forever now, thought the light was a the end of the tunnel with having Carmelo Anthony with young star Kristaps Porzingis being a good tandem.  So with the East being down forever, they figured adding a key star would put them over the top.  So they traded for Chicago star Derrick Rose.  And it was a disaster from the get-go.  Rose was relatively healthy (only missed 18 games as a Knick), but just seemed aloof with the team.  Porzingis missed time with injury too, but still was a factor.  And Anthony somewhat reverted back to his old ways of playing less team ball and more of trying to be “the man” again in New York and the Knicks failed in that aspect.  With a head coach not really understanding today’s players in Jeff Hornacek and Phil Jackson who was heavily critical of Carmelo and others and always a step behind in the front office, it was no surprise the Knicks crashed and burned in this one season.

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2017-2018 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George):  Probably no player in the NBA from an on-court perspective has been as polarizing as Russell Westbrook.  He is the first guy to average a triple double in a season since Oscar Robertson and Westbrook has done it in back-to-back years.  Some think he is trying to do too much and it has worn him out.  Others think he is a stat-padder and a gloryhound.  Either way, the Thunder needed help for Westbrook after the 2017 season where they were bounced out of the first round by Houston.  So they did what others have done: get two more superstars.  Oklahoma traded for Paul George, who had established himself as a stellar all-around player with the Pacers and averaged over 20 with Indiana.  Then the Thunder acquired Knicks star Carmelo Anthony before the season started.  Everything was supposed to be perfect: a storyline of a Warriors/Thunder Western Conference Finals rematch was going to happen as Oklahoma City would exact revenge on Kevin Durant leaving for the hated Warriors.  And then the season started.  Westbrook still did his thing and Paul George was a good compliment to Westbrook.  However, Anthony was really without a position, and a major role on the team, frustrating the guy who believes he is still a franchise player and may have possibly worn thin on certain teammates.  Add in the fact that everybody knew it was now Westbrook’s undisputed squad which Billy Donovan probably gave too much control to his star, it may have really irked Anthony to the point where he went off after the Thunder’s first round series elimination pretty much saying Oklahoma City had no clue on how to handle a player of his caliber.  And hints that Carmelo refused to come off the bench as a role player probably didn’t help matters either.  With George probably leaving this summer, it seemed like OKC is probably one of the biggest failures of a Super-Team as they only improved 1 game from the year before (48 wins from 47 the year before) and only more extra playoff game (losing in 6 to Utah this year from losing in 5 to Houston last year).

Golden State

2016-PRESENT GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant):  Unlike the others, the Warriors did their Super-Team from the inside, as Curry, Green, and Thompson are all home-grown Warrior guys.  They won a title in 2015 without Kevin Durant but blew a 3-1 Finals lead in 2016 which would have netted Golden State a repeat, which sent the Warriors in mad frenzy.  So they signed Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City, a guy who nearly took down the Warriors in 2016 in the Western Conference Finals (and may have had Westbrook hadn’t decided he wanted to “get his share” of the love in Game Six).  Many thought it would be too much of an ego driven squad with notably Green and Durant, but Durant’s main focus was to win a championship.  He has known his role to the Warriors and has fit in to the brotherhood of that team nearly perfectly to the point of a repeat is likely now for Golden State.  And having Steve Kerr, who saw Phil Jackson handle Michael, Scottie, and Dennis the way he did, really helps Golden State more.  Of course, when you have players who were built by the team they are on for the Super-Team, it is a great recipe for success.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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1 Comment on The Successes and Failures of NBA Super-Teams

  1. Antwon Smith // June 6, 2018 at 8:03 am // Reply

    Great read! Super teams have to become one and have a great coach that can keep the ego of the main star at bay. it’s a tough job that only a few coach can pull off.

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