Hear Me Out: Rest easy the NBA super team era
April 28, 2022
Remember when super teams were all the rage in the NBA? Every offseason, headlines ran like, Super Team X will dominate this season and for the next decade. Disgruntled superstar wants out and wants to teammate up with other superstars. The Knicks looking to build their own super team. (One of the funniest running jokes in the NBA is that the Knicks organization and their fans believe they’re a free agent destination with that owner.) But after the disastrous seasons by two super teams this season, the super team blueprint might be dead in the NBA.
Well, maybe not dead, but it’s going dormant.
Look at the best teams in this year’s playoffs; the Suns, Grizz, Heat, Celtics, Bucks and Warriors are all similar in that they have one to two superstars with some stars and really, really good players around them. Their rotations run seven to eight deep, and those rotation players can give you a consistent 15-20 solid minutes of play. All of these teams are homegrown, or the “right way” for the purists, in that they’re constructed mostly through the draft, developed their young talent while making smart free agent signings and/or timely trades.
The shift toward homegrown rosters has been happening for the past five years and change. And with the results of this season, that homegrown roster construction is here to stay.
The two super teams put together this season failed miserably, the Lakers and Nets. The Lakers couldn’t even make the play-in games, let alone the playoffs. It’s laughable now, considering how poorly the season went for the Lakers, but they were a title contender in the preseason.
All season long, the Nets have been considered a title contender pre-and-post the Harden trade and with Kyrie playing just over a third of the games this season. Even with the regular season winding down, there was almost a daily discussion about the top seeds in the East avoiding a first-round matchup vs. the Nets.
You could fairly argue that both the Nets and Lakers weren’t just poorly constructed super teams, but poorly constructed teams. The Lakers treated things like it was NBA 2K, thinking it was a video game, and as long as you got players rated 80 or higher, you’ll be a winning team. Not taking into account who would play defense on this team. The Lakers built their roster on a hope and prayer that none of their three superstars, a 39-year-old LeBron, Anthony “Street Clothes” Davis and a clearly past his prime Russell Westbrook, would ever miss extensive time.
The Lakers were 11-10 with their Big Three out on the court. Not exactly lighting it up. Even at full strength, they weren’t that good. They were a bottom-of-the-league defensive unit, and as bad as their defensive numbers were, watching their defensive effort (if you can call it that) was even worse. Their offense was just as uninspiring and painful to watch and ranked toward the league’s bottom. In fact, their offense was just as bad if not worse than some of the teams who were outright tanking.
The Nets weren’t as bad as the Lakers. They did at least make the playoffs but still had major flaws. The Nets can score, even against the best defense in the league, they’ve put up points and even held leads. They just can’t stop anyone.
Nets head coach Steve Nash has caught some flak during this series against the Celtics, but what’s he supposed to do with this roster. Kevin Durant is an underrated rim protector and solid defender, and Bruce Brown is a pesky defender but not an elite shutdown guy. Outside of those two, it’s been a buffet for the Celtics in who they want to pick on for that offensive possession.
Nash was so desperate in Game 3 that he threw out Blake Griffin in a grasping at straws move. It was the first action Griffin saw in the series, and up to that point, he had only played in eight games post-All-Star break. Griffin played nearly eight minutes, played hard and hit a couple of big 3s, but the Celtics gleefully hunted him on the Nets’ defensive end like they were General Zaroff.
You need guys who can create their own shot while creating for others in the playoffs, but you also need to play defense. The Warriors are a great offense and are assassins from deep, but they can get key stops on defense and legit defensive stops at that. Not what the Nets do and just pray or have Kyrie wave his sage for a miss on an open look for the Celtics.
The Nets just weren’t built for playoff basketball, and trading James Harden was a mistake, as weird as that sounds. The Nets got Harden last season but sent away Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen. Levert is a good scoring guard who would’ve been a big boost for the Nets coming off the bench. Allen turned into one of the league’s best interior defenders who can switch on to guards. He’s also really good at finishing around the rim.
I get that the Nets had to trade Harden away because he was being a pain, but trading him to the Sixers was the mistake. Trading Harden away, the Nets got Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and Ben Simmons. Since Simmons didn’t play a single minute for the Nets this season, they basically traded Curry and what’s left of Drummond for Harden.
(The second Harden trade might be the rare instance where no one wins the trade. Especially if the Sixers blow this 3-0 lead to Toronto. If there was a group to waste a 3-0 lead, it’d be a Doc Rivers and James Harden team.)
Like I said earlier, the super team blueprint isn’t dead but likely dormant for a stretch. Injuries and whatnot exposed both of the super teams this season, but that is a risk you take with a super team. It’s part of the trade-off in getting another superstar; you sacrifice your roster depth and flexibility.
Title windows are small, but they’re even smaller with higher expectations for super teams. Add in the luxury tax penalties, and you need two chips within three seasons; otherwise, it’s viewed as a failure. And as we’ve seen, it’s also tough to put these super teams together. Not only do you need the three superstars or two top seven players, but you have to build a roster around them with a bunch of mid-level to league minimum players. One injury to one of your superstars, and it gets tricky. (It’s probably also a lesson in not letting players have too much roster control.)
Take a look at the Finals teams the past few seasons. Toss out the LeBron Lakers and Warriors because they were your typical super teams. Outside of those teams, you have homegrown teams. There are the Suns, Bucks, Raptors and Heat. The Bucks and Raptors won it all, while the Suns and Heat are having sustained success because they didn’t overindulge with superstar talent and developed legit roster depth.
The NBA has usually thrived with one dominant team, but the homegrown movement has taken over. Looking at the remaining contenders, you can see a shift in roster construction philosophy, and it is here for the long haul. Time for the super team era to go into hibernation.