It was March when a Sports Illustrated article declared the NBA season done, that June’s champion already a foregone conclusion:
The NBA should write B.B. King a nice royalty check, because one of his hits is the theme song for this season. The Thrill Is Gone, baby, and it’s been gone for quite a while, probably since…training camp. Seven weeks remain in the regular season, but is there any reason the engravers should not get started on the championship trophy right now?
This NBA season has been tailor-made for narcoleptics: Fall asleep, and you won’t miss a thing.
There is none of that now, and the lack of a team strong enough to challenge…is particularly disheartening for the league…No one’s lurking this year.
At this checkpoint, then, the most intriguing question seems to be, Is [their] supremacy good or bad for the NBA?
No surprise, right? After all, virtually everyone laments the lack of competitive balance in the NBA and now that DeMarcus Cousins has joined the team that has won three of the last four NBA championships, it seems inevitable that the Golden State Warriors will hang another banner in June. The season is foregone conclusion.
Never before, they claim, has the NBA been this top-heavy.
Yet those people don’t know their basketball history, nor do they recognize how their feelings on the subject may have changed.
The above SI article that is quoted? That is not from 2019 or 2018. It’s not even about the Warriors.
It’s from a 1997 cover story on how Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were so good they were bad for the NBA.
Just shy of two decades later, GQ published a story by the great Bethlehem Shoals with the headline, “The Golden State Warriors Are So Good They’re Ruining the NBA” and the sub-heading, “R.I.P. 2015–16 Season.”
Of course, that was the year that LeBron James was even more superhuman than usual, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks in the NBA Finals — including a triple double in Game 7 — and ended Cleveland’s half-century title drought and defeated a 73-win defending champion.
Yet, for some, no amount of heroics can fully redeem LeBron because of the unforgivable sin he committed by (gasp!) leaving for another team in free agency.
There is large contingent that will never forgive him and, consequently, could never imagine James’s legacy matching that of Bill Russell or Michael Jordan. After all, Jordan would have never left Chicago (his time with the Washington Wizards is ignored, now making his two years there underrated).
But there is a bit of revisionist history in that logic.
Russell played in a league that had only eight teams and one GM — Boston’s own Red Auerbach — that was light years ahead of his contemporaries and Jordan had often requested trades be made because he needed help, called the three seven-footers on the Bulls “twenty-one feet of shit,” and even came very close to signing a free agent contract with the rival New York Knicks.
Despite the fantastic on-court product, there is a cadre of many fans, particularly of a certain age, that decry the current state of the league and the way its teams are constructed. They have Rockwell-esque memories of the 1980s as being more competitive and far less top-heavy. Only, that’s not even close to accurate. A whopping five teams played in the NBA Finals over the span of the entire decade.
Charles Barkley, another curmudgeon, has said that he’d rather not win a wing than join a superteam. That’s a weird take considering he was part of a superteam, along with two other Hall of Famers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen. That team was plagued by injuries and lost in the first round of the playoffs, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in today’s parlance, it would have been considered a superteam.
First, the whole idea that teams are now just glorified fantasy rosters is a bit overblown. Looking at recent history, at least some key members of the NBA champion was drafted by that team — Dwyane Wade for Miami; Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio; LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for Cleveland; and Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green for Golden State — so it’s not as if all of these teams are just a collection of mercenaries.
Moreover, not only is choosing a free agent destination a player’s right, it’s not even a new phenomenon. Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent in July, 1988, but these types of moves have been part of NBA history.
It’s often said that this is the era of players choosing where to play, but that has been happening for at least a half-century.
Wilt Chamberlain orchestrated his trade from Philadelphia to Los Angeles:
“But the move had only the veneer of a standard NBA trade. In actuality, it was Wilt, then two years younger than LeBron is now and with comparable influence, pulling off a shadow free-agency move, 20 years before unrestricted free agency existed — and in doing so, simultaneously creating basketball’s earliest superteam.”
Anthony Davis is demanding a trade with a year left on his contract and is trying to dictate where he wants to go? Anyone that is offended by this or thinks it’s representative of the new NBA don’t know their history because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had threatened to sit out the final season of his contractif the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t trade him to New York or Los Angeles.
Speaking of the Lakers, two of that franchise’s icons both made very loud requests to be sent to another team. Magic Johnson publicly demanded a trade because he was feuding with the head coach and Kobe Bryant publicly demanded to be traded, ostensibly because there was a leak that he was responsible for Shaquille O’Neal being shipped to Miami, but really because he needed more help if he were to win.
In short, both superteams and players dictating where they would like to play has been a stable of the NBA since nearly the beginning.
What are some of the league’s great superteams?
Minneapolis Lakers (1949 — ‘55)
Led by George Mikan, basketball’s “first icon,” the Minneapolis Lakers were the league’s first dynasty, winning five championships in six years, becoming the first team to threepeat, and even acting as a major factor in the merger of the nation’s two leagues,the National Basketball League (NBL) and the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which created the NBA. Mikan was undeniably great — he won two additional championships for the Chicago American Gears and the Lakers in his first two seasons in the NBL, which are not recognized by the NBA and while the BAA/NBA didn’t award an MVP until 1956, he undoubtedly would have won several, maybe even six — yet he did have plenty of help. Every year from 1949 through 1955, Mikan had three Hall of Fame teammates by his side, except for 1953 — ’54 when the Lakers’ entire starting five was bound for the Hall. The league’s first superteam.
Boston Celtics (1956–’69)
The NBA had seventeen teams in 1950, but were down to only eight by 1955 when the Boston Celtics’ dynasty began. Bill Russell won eleven championships in thirteen years. It’s impossible to imagine that will ever happen again. He also never played with fewer than three Hall of Fame teammates and often had more than that, including four twice, five once, six five times, and a ridiculous seven twice.
Philadelphia 76ers (1966 — ‘67)
Led by four Hall of Famers — Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham — the Sixers snapped the Celtics’ streak of eight straight titles and set the league mark for victories with 68 in the process.
Philadelphia 76ers (1982 — ‘83)
Only one Milwaukee Bucks victory in the Eastern Conference Finals stopped Moses Malone’s “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’” prediction from becoming true. Along with Malone, the Sixers boasted Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, among other great players like the “Boston Strangler,” Andrew Toney.
Los Angeles Lakers (1979 — ‘91)
A true dynasty, the Lakers reached the NBA Finals nine times in twelve years, including four in a row from 1982 — ’85, winning five championships. The roster never had fewer than two Hall of Famers and had as many as five three times and while Magic Johnson and James Worthy were drafted by L.A., Kareem was not.
Boston Celtics (1980 — ‘87)
The Lakers’ rival and mirror image, the Celtics made the Finals five times in seven years, including four in a row from 1984 — ’87, hanging three banners in the process, with four or five Hall of Famers on every squad, including transplants Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson.
Detroit Pistons (1987 — ‘90)
Often overlooked between the reigns of the Lakers/Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls, the Detroit Pistons of the late ’80s made it to three straight NBA Finals, winning the final two, with four Hall of Famers the first two of those years, including new addition Adrian Dantley.
Chicago Bulls (1995— ‘98)
Yes, the Chicago Bulls began winning in 1991, but while the first threepeat had some very good players, Horace Grant, John Paxson, and Bill Cartwright would never be considered super. It was the addition of two-time champion Dennis Rodman in the summer of 1995, as a response to the hole left by Grant’s departure, that turned Chicago into a superteam, one that set the then-record for victories in a season en route to three more titles.
Los Angeles Lakers (1999 — ‘02)
In the summer of 1996, the Lakers signed Shaquille O’Neal and traded with the Charlotte Hornets to draft high school phenom Kobe Bryant, but it was another addition to the bench that turned them into a superteam — the hiring of future Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson. The Lakers won three straight championships and reached the NBA Finals again in ’04 before trading away O’Neal. While Mitch Richmond served as a role player for the third title team in ’01 — ’02, until Bryant is elected in 2021, Shaq is the only Hall of Fame player on the first two championship teams.
Boston Celtics (2007 — ‘08)
Everyone points to LeBron and The Decision, but the new era of superteams (and a major reason James knew he couldn’t do it alone) began in the summer of 2007 when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were traded to Boston and joined Paul Pierce in Celtic green. They were within a Game 7 loss in 2010 from winning two titles in three years.
Miami Heat (2010 — ‘14)
The squad that is blamed for somehow ruining the NBA, Miami’s Big Three was only together for four years — when LeBron left, a dynasty flew out the window — they reached the NBA Finals in all four years, winning the Larry O’Brien trophy twice. All three will one day be in the Hall of Fame, where they will join Ray Allen who played on the ’12 — ’13 championship team.
Golden State Warriors (2014 — ?)
Four consecutive NBA Finals appearances (so far). Three championships (so far). A style of play that revolutionized not only the league, but basketball on all levels. The Warriors are the NBA’s platinum standard. After losing in the 2016 Finals (after having a 3–1 series lead), they added one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Kevin Durant, to a team that won the most regular season games in history. Oh yeah, and then two years later they added DeMarcus Cousins.How many of them will be enshrined? At least three (Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant), but 2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala both have a shot to make it as well. Everyone assumes the Warriors dynasty will end — and it certainly will — but it may not end as soon as others think (or hope).
What constitutes a superteam anyway?
Do teams win titles because they have Hall of Famers or do players become Hall of Famers because they win multiple titles? The answer, of course, is that they feed one another, so the line of demarcation on what is — and is not — a superteam is a fuzzy one.
There were many more squads that could have been included on the list above, like the 1970 — ’71 Milwaukee Bucks with Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor; the 1969 — ’70 Knicks had four Hall of Famers while the ’72 — ’73 team had six; the 2003 — ’04 Pistons (who, as of this writing, have zero members in Springfield); the ’05 — ’06 Heat who will ultimately have four HoF’ers (along with another in coach Pat Riley) but two of them — Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton — were at the end of their careers; or any of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs teams.
Those teams all won. How about those that lost?
In addition to the the Olajuwon/Barkley/Pippen Rockets of 1998 — ’99, there were:
- 1968 — ’71 Los Angeles Lakers added Wilt Chamberlain to a roster that already had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but in three seasons they failed to win a title (they won in ’72 with the addition of Gail Goodrich, another Hall of Famer, but Baylor had retired nine games into the season)
- 1996 — ’97 Houston Rockets of Olajuwon, Barkley, and Clyde Drexler lost in the Western Conference Finals in six games
- 2003 — ’04 Lakers, which added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the roster along with Shaq and Kobe to have four future Hall of Famers fell in the NBA Finals in five games
- 2012 — ’13 Lakers with Steve Nash & Dwight Howard joining Kobe, Ron Artest, and Pau Gasol to boast five all-stars but injuries to Nash and Bryant led to them getting swept in the first round
- 2013 — ’14 Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson lost in five games in the second round of the playoffs
- 2017 — ’18 Houston Rockets featured James Harden and Chris Paul, two certain Hall of Famers, and was built to beat the Warriors, but fell to Golden State in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals
That’s a relatively short list, but if the trend of superstar players joining up to play together keeps rising, the number of superteams that failed will only continue to grow.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.