The death of the NBA superteam (for now)


The Warriors, built over time.
Image: Getty Images

The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors Finals was one of the more engaging championship fights of recent memory. The Celtics were on a Cinderella tear on their way to facing a retooled, post-Kevin Durant Warriors. Both teams had organically built the backbone of their roster through adept drafting and shrewd, minor trades.

For the first time since 2007, we had two teams in the NBA Finals whose roster wasn’t built through a superstar trade. It’s taken 14 seasons to kill the superteam, for now. The modern superteam as we know it was formed in 2007 by the Boston Celtics when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair with Paul Pierce. The Los Angeles Lakers raised the stakes the following year by trading for Pau Gasol, pairing him with Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. These two teams made up five of the six competitors for three straight Finals appearances.

The rest of the league took note, and in summer 2010, many teams prepared for the best free-agent class in the history of the NBA. The Miami Heat combined the superstar powers of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami alongside Dwyane Wade. This was a team never before seen. Where Garnett and Allen joined Peirce on the downside of their career, and Gasol joined Bryant and Odom as three players with mostly first-round exits to their resume as number one options, the three Heatles were joining forces in the heart of their prime years.

A few years before, the Lakers had used their Hollywood star power, legendary coach, and three-time championship duo Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant to lure a 35-year-old Payton and a 40-year-old Karl Malone to LA. Unfortunately, that team broke down and imploded in the Finals. Since that awkward attempt at pairing four current and former All-Stars, no team had thought to team up superstars who had carried their respective franchises to success at the peak of their careers. In the process, Miami broke the mold and almost broke the NBA.

Soon after, everyone tried to get in on the action. In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets tried to pair Garnett and Pierce with Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to form the next superteam, to embarrassing results. Then the Cleveland Cavaliers convinced James to come back to Cleveland to join a budding Kyrie Irving before trading for All-Star Kevin Love. Then the Golden State Warriors upped everyone’s ante by adding the best player in the NBA, Kevin Durant, to the best team in the NBA. Soon after, James formed another superteam in L.A. with Anthony Davis. From 2010, when the Heatles formed, to 2020, when James’ Lakers won the title, a superteam appeared in every Finals. Three of those teams were formed around James as the best player.

This makes this year’s Finals sweeter, watching two homemade rosters slug it out for all the marbles, a year after seeing the Milwaukee Bucks taking home the title. We have just survived the densest decade of superstar teams that took the fun out of predicting or caring who would make the Finals.

Looking toward the future, plenty of draft-built teams are poised to make deep runs. These teams were constructed without home run swings and rose out of the muck of the lottery to build a contender through the draft. In the West, we have the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, and the Warriors, who post-Durant have retooled through the draft save for the Andrew Wiggins trade. The East has the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Celtics, who ride the backs of their two in-house stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The handful of teams that have swung for the fences in trades and free agency have faltered in cringeworthy fashion. The Nets are seemingly imploding before our eyes after having, at one point, James Harden, Irving, and Durant on the same roster. The Lakers look broken and old, three years removed from their championship after adding Top 75 Players of All Time, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. The 76ers look further away from a championship after adding Harden last season. That leaves the Clippers, who gutted their roster to pair Kawhi Leonard and Paul George but have failed to make the Finals with the duo.

The future appears to be conquered by small-market teams who have used the draft to their advantage, hitting on a combination of sure bets, unknowns, and anomalies. Based on how much fun last season’s Finals were, we can expect the draft to replace free agency as the most important day of the year. At least for now.



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