NBA super teams aren’t new, and aren’t bad

Keegan Phillips, Contributing Writer

With the 2017-18 National Basketball Association season tipping off this week, sports commentators from across the country are voicing their opinions regarding who will ultimately hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy next June. Although the NBA consists of 30 teams, only five possess a legitimate shot at capturing the title this season.

In the competitive NBA environment, the reality that only a small percentage of teams may actually contend for a championship might appear problematic for the sport. Yet, the NBA is entering its golden age in terms of both popularity and financial success.

While the NBA’s exalted status can certainly be attributed to a combination of factors, a major reason is the evolution of super teams.  A super team contains multiple future hall of fame players, with many  of these superstars joining an already existing core of future hall of famers via trade or free agency.

The efficacy of NBA super teams has been the subject of intense debate recently, with the best player in NBA history, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, offering his candid opinion.

“I think it’s going to hurt the overall aspect of the league from a competitive standpoint,” Jordan said.    

Despite this controversy, the era of basketball super teams fits seamlessly into the entertainment spectacle that sports enthusiasts crave today. NBA fans love the drama that accompanies blockbuster deals and superstars teaming up in pursuit of a championship. While many believe that this is a modern phenomenon, super teams have actually existed in the NBA for decades.

In the first instance of a super team, Wilt Chamberlain, the only player to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for his entire NBA career, demanded a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 1968, after the team had just won the championship the previous season. As a result of the deal, Chamberlain joined future hall of fame players Elgin Baylor and Jerry West on the Los Angeles Lakers and would eventually win another title in 1972.

Professional basketball revolves around star power. Fans want to see the most talented players in the league on the court in the playoffs and the eventual championship series, and the era of the superteam featuring Lebron James, the NBA’s best, in the finals for each of the past seven years has fulfilled this wish.”

— Keegan Phillips

Prior to the 1970-71 NBA season, professional basketball’s most prolific scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor, and Oscar Robertson, renowned for averaging a triple-double — double digit points, rebounds, and assists — for an entire season, became teammates on the Milwaukee Bucks. Robertson, a 10-time NBA all-star, was traded to the Bucks and paired with Alcindor, helping the team attain a 66-16 record and a championship in their first season together.

Notwithstanding this long history, the super team has truly peaked in the modern era, beginning not with LeBron James transitioning from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat as many suspect, but with blockbuster trades made by the Boston Celtics in 2007.

The Celtics acquired superstars Ray Allen from the Seattle Supersonics and Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to unite with another future hall of famer, Paul Pierce. After finishing second to last in its conference the prior season, the Celtics posted the NBA’s best record the following year, culminating in a championship.

In the summer of 2010, NBA megastar LeBron James shook the sports world when he announced his decision to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in a television special viewed by almost 10 million people. James, a two-time league MVP, and Chris Bosh, a five-time all-star forward from the Toronto Raptors, joined former NBA Finals MVP Dwayne Wade, who already played for the Heat, creating the “Big Three” superteam.

The “Big Three” experienced significant success, making four consecutive appearances in the NBA finals and capturing two championships. Following the 2014 season, James returned to Cleveland in a quest to win a title with his hometown team, with budding Cavs superstar Kyrie Irving and all-star Kevin Love acquired in a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the three years since his return, the Cavs have been to the finals three times, winning one title.

Interestingly, despite the success of the “Big Three” and his recent Cavs squad, James recently denied ever being a member of a super team.

“I don’t believe I’ve played for a super team,” James said. “I don’t believe in that.”

Undoubtedly, the organization that has catapulted the era of the superteam to the next level is the Golden State Warriors. After winning the 2015 NBA title with a relatively homegrown roster, the Warriors recruited and signed free-agent superstar Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder following a loss in the 2016 finals to James’ Cavs.

This super team combined Durant, one of the best players in the world and a former NBA MVP, Rookie of the Year, and seven-time all-star, with Stephen Curry, another top five talent who was twice voted NBA MVP — not to mention future NBA Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and all-star Klay Thompson.

The super team frenzy continued in the 2017 offseason with several future hall of famers uniting to compete against the Cavaliers and Warriors. To put these moves in perspective, 16 of the NBA’s top 40 players this season as ranked by Bleacher Report now play on just five teams in the league.

In essence, the Rockets, Thunder, and Celtics have all assembled mini super teams of their own. The Thunder added future hall of famer Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers four-time all-star Paul George to an already playoff-caliber roster including last season’s NBA MVP, Russell Westbrook.

Many argue that these super teams will harm the NBA by destroying its competitive balance. Jordan expressed this position in a recent statement.

“You’re going to have one or two teams that are going to be great, and another 28 teams that are going to be garbage,” said Jordan. “Or they’re going to have a tough time surviving in the business environment.”

Despite Jordan’s concern, the NBA has flourished in the modern era of the super team.

During the 2016-17 season, the league established a new all-time attendance record for the third straight year with almost 22 million fans attending regular season games, according to an official release from the NBA. More importantly from a league perspective, 2016-17 represented the 13th consecutive season that NBA attendance has been 90 percent or more of arena capacity, meaning that even though many teams may not be NBA championship contenders, fans of these squads are still attending their games in record numbers.

Additionally, the NBA posted new records on the social media front, with increases of 40 percent in online impressions, 96 percent in video views, and 27 percent  in new fans , according to the same NBA release. In fact, the league noted it now has more than 1.3 billion likes and followers combined worldwide on all of its social media platforms, which is evidence of  its immense popularity in the super team era.

The fact last year’s NBA finals featured a third consecutive showdown between two super teams, the Warriors and the Cavaliers, did nothing to dampen interest in the championship series. In actuality, the series garnered the highest television ratings in almost 20 years, with a viewership of 20.4 million fans, making it the most watched finals since Jordan won his sixth and final title with the Chicago Bulls in 1998.

Professional basketball revolves around star power. Fans want to see the most talented players in the league on the court in the playoffs and the eventual championship series, and the era of the superteam featuring Lebron James, the NBA’s best, in the finals for each of the past seven years has fulfilled this wish.

The existence of the super teams in Golden State and Cleveland, and the roots of new super teams in Houston, Oklahoma City and Boston, have only served to heighten the interest in and anticipation for the upcoming season. Regardless of whether you are a fan of a super team or one of the other franchises in the league, the essential point remains — the super team is indeed super for the NBA.