Super Teams: The Story of Basketball

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Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Since its creation in the 19th century, basketball has evolved to become a highly enjoyed sport with millions of fans. With a large level of success, competition adapts. As history shows, there are two types of successful teams in basketball. 

The first is a team that is built from the ground up. These teams are the first to give their players a chance either by drafting them or signing them into the National Basketball Association (NBA). Their players undergo multiple years of development before becoming league-wide powerhouses for the team who first believed in them.

History has shown that these teams can be great. They have demanded a certain amount of innate basketball and relational clarity that seem to be irreproducible elsewhere. It is basketball in its purest form and the fans adore this type of team. They are bred within the walls of their city, weathered, tested and ultimately deemed victorious. There is a sense of pride and love that fosters within these teams and the people who follow them.

Think the 1960s Boston Celtics with Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn or the 2000s San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili. Finally, in recent memory, there’s the 2015 Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. 

These teams, which represent some of basketball’s most beloved collections, are not “super teams.” The term “super team” came from an implication of “breaking the rules,” or the “natural cycle” of the construction of a team. 

However, the second type of team—a team that is constructed through transactions including free agent signings and trades—is often considered artificial. After the players’ arrival, these teams immediately become an on-court force and a talking point for all fans. Even if the team does not eventually win a championship, their presence is certainly felt throughout the NBA and the rest of the sports world.

Think the 1969 Los Angeles Lakers with their Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, or the 2008 Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Finally, the 2012 Miami Heat with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. 

Since NBA player Oscar Robertson’s unprecedented lawsuit, Robertson v. National Basketball Association that set in place new free agency rules, the NBA has become a mobile league for players. Unlike the National Football League, where the team owners control most of the power, NBA players are equipped with a strong voice in which team they get to play for. To a large extent, the NBA is a star-driven league defined by the individual players rather than the greater collective. There are many reasons for this such as the playoffs being multiple seven-game series, having only five players on the court and all players playing both offense and defense. 

This leaves basketball history in an interesting place. It has been saturated with teams that have two or three great players who are positioned to lead their teams to the promised land of a defining achievement: an NBA championship. Nearly every single team that has won an NBA championship has had multiple great players, and at every turn, systems seem to fall short when it counts. 

History has shown that there is no substitute for a great player as coaches and schemes crumble in their wake. Still, no team can win without chemistry. In the NBA, the beauty of team construction lies within the balance between stardom and chemistry. It is a tale as old as time.

On Aug. 8, 2010, LeBron James famously announced his decision to leave his home team Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in South Beach, Florida. The announcement marked the start of new movements: “The Player Empowerment” and the “super team” era. 

After years of falling short of a championship due to a lack of a strong supporting cast of players, James took matters into his own hands and dashed for sunnier skies. He immediately became the NBA’s biggest villain. In distraught Cleveland, it was arguable that there was not one James jersey left without ash marks and fire coals that seeped into the charred polyester. Many fans desperately did not want James’ plan to work in his quest for a championship ring, but more importantly other players, executives and coaches watched with curious eyes. 

Three years later, James had won two championships with his new self-constructed Miami Heat “super team.” It proved his model worked, cascading “the LeBron effect” across the NBA. In 2016, Kevin Durant announced his “Next Chapter,” leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the loaded-up Warriors. One year later, Paul George was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Thunder to team up with Russell Westbrook. The former New Orleans Pelican Anthony Davis sat out games, forced his way to the Lakers and won last year’s NBA title with them. For superstars, the NBA has become an ongoing train ride with yearly stops — “Where to next?” 

These moves changed the model for young fans that have grown up rooting for a specific player instead of a team. It unhinges old Bulls fans when their youngest son dons a blue jersey because their favorite player bolts to the Knicks. As time goes forward, these moves are more and more common, just like the shift in fandom. In fact, the NBA is currently awaiting the next steps in Bradley Beal’s frustrating saga with the Washington Wizards. 

Many fans feel that the “super team” era is new and a movement tainting the “sport” of basketball. There’s a large population of longtime basketball fans that miss the grit, heart and the loyalty of the old days. They miss the parity, and the idea that any team can become great on their own rather than being dependent on an acquisition. There’s resentment for the way things are. Still, their nostalgic perspective does have some validity. Players have slowly gained more influence over their whereabouts, and basketball trends have changed substantially over the years.

But “super teams” are not new. In fact, “super teams” date back to the Wilt Chamberlain 1968 trade from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Los Angeles Lakers in one of the most blockbuster deals in NBA history. The trade paired Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor alongside Chamberlain in a grave attempt to tackle Bill Russell’s almighty Celtics. 

Just three years later, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was traded from the Baltimore Bullets to the rival New York Knicks, pairing him with Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier to unite one of the most terrifying backcourts in NBA history. 

In perhaps the most famous example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor, requested a trade out of the Milwaukee Bucks. Abdul-Jabbar was eventually sent to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, connecting and igniting one of the NBA’s greatest teams: the “Showtime” Lakers.

First of all, what is a “super team?” What are some examples of them? How many exist today? What can we expect in the future?

There is no concrete definition of a “super team,” however, there are a few standard markings of one. After extensive research and consideration, the following can be considered a good representation of what the basketball community considers a “super team.” 


A team must satisfy each of the four conditions in order to be classified as a “super team”:

  1. Three’s a Crowd
    • The team must have had three players that are in the Hall of Fame 
      • OR
    • For current teams, the team must satisfy one of the following three conditions:
    • three players with five or more All-Star Appearances
    • three players with five seasons averaging at least 20 points per game
    • three players with five All-NBA team selections (first team, second team or third team)
  1. Behind Enemy Lines
    • The team must acquire at least one-star player from another franchise through free agency or a trade
  2. Welcome to the Dark Side: Polarity
    • The team must be “basketball villains,” commanding an immediate national wave of opposition
  3. There’s No ‘I’ in Team: Join Or Die
    • The team’s players must sacrifice previous personal glory and control, in order to enhance the functioning of the team

A “super team” is not always successful. A number of them have flopped, leaving fan bases shattered for what could have been. “Super teams” can be dominating upon construction; there is no period of authentication as is necessary with great organic teams. These teams are always menacing, talented and unproven in the beginning. Some fail, some succeed and some do a little of both. Either way, “super teams” spark large intrigue for everybody and as history shows, basketball wouldn’t be the same without them.

Here are a few cases of “super teams” throughout basketball history. First, the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers.

The “Showtime” Lakers: 1979-1991

Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Notable People

Guard Magic Johnson (HOF) #32

Forward/Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (HOF) #33

Forward James Worthy (HOF) #42

Forward Jamaal Wilkes (HOF)

Forward/Center Bob McAdoo (HOF)

Head Coach Pat Riley (HOF)

Championships

Five

Memorable Moments

The “Sky-Hook”

Hollywood

Tragic Johnson

The “Showtime” Lakers is one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. They housed Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, two of the greatest players in NBA history. They also featured “Big Game James” Worthy and hall of fame coach Pat Riley. The team won five championships during the “Showtime” era, bringing Hollywood celebrities courtside at every opportunity. It seemed like they had a yearly date with the Larry Bird-led Celtics in the NBA Finals, and their up-tempo and fastbreak reliant playstyle changed basketball forever. Ask any Laker fan what their favorite word is. They’ll all say the same thing: “Showtime.”

The New “Big Three:” 2007-2012

Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Notable People

Forward/Center Kevin Garnett (HOF) #5

Forward Paul Pierce #34

Guard Ray Allen (HOF) #20

Guard Rajon Rondo

Head Coach Doc Rivers

Championships

One

Memorable Moments

The Turnaround: 42-game improvement in the regular season

Lakers vs. Celtics: Part I, Part II

Back On Top

When Paul Pierce’s Celtics career seemed to be reaching a plateau, Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge traded for perennial all-star Ray Allen and former MVP Kevin Garnett within a one month span. The trade sought to overpower the rest of the NBA alongside Doc Rivers’ instruction. The Celtics went 66-16 in their first season, winning the NBA championship against the Los Angeles Lakers. The New “Big Three” stayed together for another five seasons, but never won another title. Historically, the team is regarded as a success; winning a ring is hard, and the Celtics did just that. But with a team that had so much talent, the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics were far from a truly iconic basketball team.

The Heatles: 2010-2014

Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Notable People

Forward LeBron James #6

Guard Dwyane Wade #3

Forward Chris Bosh #1

Head Coach Eric Spoelstra

Championships

Two

Memorable Moments

The Streak: 27-game winning streak

LeBron’s Return to Cleveland

“It’s About Damn Time”

LeBron James’ arrival in Miami is the most notorious signing in NBA history. When they fell short in their first season, people questioned whether or not James could perform when it mattered. Two years later, the Heat answered the critics: back-to-back championships. However, the lack of depth for Miami certainly took its toll. It was clear that there wasn’t sustainability within this current team as there was with other “super teams” in the past. The Heat fell short to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, breaking up James, Wade and Bosh for good. Although the Heat weren’t exactly the team that “stacked” rings like James had promised, they proved that mobility worked.

The Fakers: 2012-2014

Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Notable People

Guard Kobe Bryant #24

Center Dwight Howard #12

Guard Steve Nash #10  

Forward Pau Gasol

Head Coach Mike D’Antoni

Championships

Zero


Kobe Bryant had not won a title since the departure of Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. But when Kobe finally did it with forward Pau Gasol in 2010, the Lakers were hungry for more; they wanted to pair Kobe with superstar talent for one more run. That offseason they landed all-star point guard Chris Paul in a three-way trade from the New Orleans Hornets. However, NBA Commissioner David Stern controversially vetoed the trade, which forced former General Manager Mitch Kupchak to seek other options.

Kupchak seized the market that year, making a huge splash when he acquired former MVP guard Steve Nash and all-star center Dwight Howard through trades in 2012. This left an immediate response across the league: Kobe, Howard, Nash and Gasol. The roster, at face value, shook the league and fans throughout, as the Lakers looked to make yet another esteemed championship run. 

In their first season together since the signings, the Lakers fell far below expectations, barely squeezing into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed with a 45-37 record. The season was defined by bad team chemistry and injuries. The flop of a superteam Lakers capped off the final stretch of their season on the worst possible note  —  Bryant tore his achilles against the Golden State Warriors, putting the moratorium on their championship hopes. It was almost no surprise to many that the No. 2 seeded San Antonio Spurs bounced the Lakers in the first round, putting an end to the nightmare season. 

Howard dashed for Houston in the ensuing offseason, Nash was a shell of his former MVP self and the structure of the team built around Bryant quickly collapsed. Nash retired after one more run with the Lakers who failed to make the playoffs due to Bryant’s injury. This era for the Lakers was a complete disaster, and it is a prime example that the “super team” model can fail.

The Brooklyn Nets: 2021-Present

Graphic by Amalia Navarro/Staff

Notable People

Forward Kevin Durant #7

Guard James Harden #13

Guard Kyrie Irving #11

Head Coach Steve Nash

Championships

???

Memorable Moments

The New, New York Franchise

Today, the league is well-entrenched within the “super team” era. We have seen so many teams try their hands at their own version of a “super team.” On Jan. 14, 2021, the Houston Rockets sent former MVP guard James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster three-team trade, forming their very own. The Nets paired Harden alongside another former MVP forward Kevin Durant and all-star guard Kyrie Irving, two of basketball’s finest players; this left NBA fans in complete and utter devastation.

Brooklyn is currently the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference even without Durant’s presence on the court for most of the season due to his injury. Additionally, Harden missed 18 games on the back end of the season after aggravating his hamstring. Nash, in his first season as a head coach, managed to keep the Nets afloat with one of the most constantly changing rotations in the league. There is no question that the Nets have the highest upside of any team in the NBA, but there are a lot of questions about the feasibility of the three players’ coexistence in the playoffs, a lack of a proven supporting cast, and the missed time. As the NBA season approaches its maximum intensity in the playoffs, time will only tell whether Brooklyn can etch their name in the books of basketball immortality or if they’ll find themselves upon the wall of “what could have been.”


Matthew Zeko is a Staff Writer. He can be reached at mzeko@uci.edu.