If we haven’t learned anything else from the 2021-22 NBA season, we’ve learned that going all in on free agency or a trade to create a “super team” or “big 3” may no longer be a viable way to build a championship team. The Nets trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving ended before it truly got a chance to begin. The three players only played in 16 games together before Harden was recently traded to Philadelphia, which was somehow fewer games than the Los Angeles Lakers’ trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The Lakers have been awful, with or without Davis on the court thanks to a lack of chemistry and fit with Westbrook in the lineup. Should we have seen this coming, though? Recent NBA history would say yes, because nothing ever really goes as planned.
Let’s go back to the summer of 2007. More specifically the night of the 2007 NBA Draft. Many people don’t think of this as the start of the super team movement in the NBA, but hear me out. On this night, the Boston Celtics traded for Ray Allen, then followed that up by acquiring Kevin Garnett via trade three days later. These two, along with All Star forward Paul Pierce, formed a formidable trio or “Big 3” as they were often referred to. We didn’t know it at the time, but these moves affected what NBA teams believed was the amount of talent necessary in order to win a championship. Those Celtics went on to win the title in 2008 (insert Kevin Garnett yelling “Anything is possible!!”). After a knee injury to Garnett derailed plans for a repeat in 2009, the Celtics took the Los Angeles Lakers to 7 games in the 2010 NBA Finals. By 2012, Garnett and Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets, Ray Allen left in free agency to join the rival Miami Heat and the super team experiment was done. Not only had things ended but they ended somewhat ugly.
That Miami Heat team I mentioned took the super team experiment to a different level. Not only did they form their version of a Big 3, but they did it with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all in the prime of their careers. Expectations went through the roof after the three stars’ infamous post-free agency pep rally. The Heat fell short of those expectations in year one, losing the Finals in 6 games to the Dallas Mavericks. They went on to win back to back championships in 2012 and 2013 before losing to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. James ultimately went back to Cleveland that summer, while Bosh and Wade remained in Miami before Bosh was forced to retire due to health reasons. While this ending wasn’t quite the ugly ending that Boston’s Big 3 went through, it was still informative. Yes, the Heat went to FOUR consecutive NBA Finals. Yes, they won 2 championships. But, in the moment, only being together for four seasons seemed like a disappointment. Maybe building a super team wasn’t a sustainable way to win long term, after all.
We thought the Golden State Warriors might’ve cracked the super team code. After seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2015 to win a championship with home grown stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, they carried that momentum into 2016 to the tune of a 73-9 regular season record before blowing a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. That summer, the league’s new TV deal caused a dramatic increase in the salary cap, allowing those same 73-9 Warriors to add former league MVP Kevin Durant via free agency. The immediate thought was that this team would win championships for the foreseeable future. They cruised to a 16-1 playoff record and Finals win in 2017. They were pushed to 7 games in the 2018 Western Conference Finals by the Houston Rockets before sweeping the NBA Finals. But by the summer of 2018, rumors were already starting to come out about Kevin Durant’s intentions to stay with the Warriors long term. These rumors then led to an on-court argument between Durant and Draymond Green that all but sealed the deal on Durant’s exit. Through all of the turmoil, the Warriors still made the NBA Finals again in 2019. They were ultimately undone by an Achilles injury to Durant and Klay Thompson’s ACL tear, losing in 6 games to the Toronto Raptors. That off-season Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets and the Warriors dynasty was now done.
Will we see another team try the super team strategy? Probably. Teams will continue to exhaust all options when it comes to having a chance to win a championship. But as is the case with all championship contenders, the entire plan can come crumbling down because of injuries, player egos or just simply not being able to put the right role players around your stars. Also, do we really see any of the NBA’s young stars feeling the need to team up? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks showed us last year that it’s still possible to stay the course with one franchise star while figuring out the parts around him. Guys like Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Ja Morant have teams of their own that are on the rise. Would it make sense to leave that on the table? I don’t see it, but this league will always remind us to never say never. For now, the NBA’s super team era is finished. An era, just like it’s teams, that was fun while it lasted.
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Written by Josh Price
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