Can we say goodbye to the 'superteams' now?
The Lakers, Clippers and Nets are all gone and the NBA playoffs are better for it
LeBron James ushered in two different and awful pop culture phenomenons on July 8, 2010.
It was that day on a made-for-ESPN 75-minute show called “The Decision” he announced he would “take my talents to South Beach,” thereby leaving Cleveland for the Miami, strong-arming into creation the first NBA “superteam” while simultaneously adding to the language that grating phrase in all its forms.
All these years later, we may never rid ourselves of King James’ assault on alliteration, though the era of the superteam may well be done.
There had been super teams before:
The old Celtics.
Wilt and Jerry West’s Lakers.
Kareem and Magic’s Lakers.
The Bad Boy Pistons.
Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers.
What there had not been was superstars coming together, practically renting a franchise, playing de facto general manager and building a team from the top down in selfish pursuit of championships.
James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and, though they failed to sniff James’ predicted seven titles, they managed two over four seasons, in 2012 and 2013.
It was enough for the idea to grow some legs and eventually give us …
• James, Anthony Davis and, later, Russell Westbrook, with the Lakers.
• Kawhi Leonard exiting Toronto and Paul George Oklahoma City for the L.A. Clippers.
• The Rockets first pairing James Harden with Chris Paul and, when that blew up, Westbrook.
• Kevin Durant bolting Golden State for Brooklyn, to be joined by Kyrie Irving and, for a while, Harden, too.
Blame him for the popularity of a losing proposition, one that’s pretty much worked just for him and even then only to a point.
Because Wade was the real leader in Miami and the coach, Erik Spoelstra, though nobody knew it at the time, turned out to be an all-timer, too. That and Los Angeles’ 2020 title may be asterisk-worthy, coming in the Disney bubble.
The rest have flamed out.
The Lakers haven’t won a playoff series the last two seasons and missed the postseason entirely this one.
The Rockets reached the 2018 Western Conference finals but went no further and, now in tatters, have won 37 of their last 152 games.
The Clippers also reached the Western Conference finals, just last season, but were a play-in team this one, failing to reach the main postseason draw.
The Nets have won one playoff series the last two seasons and Tuesday were swept out of the first round by a Boston team built from the ground up.
Beyond poor results, the problem with “superteams” can be the destruction left in their wake.
The Lakers are on the hook for the final year of Westbrook’s contract, $47 million, unless he opts out of it, and seemingly no way to put a cohesive team on the floor.
The Rockets, as mentioned, have already self-immolated and while their recent fortunes may appear to parallel a team like Oklahoma City, the Thunder have four things Houston doesn’t: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, a million draft picks and a general manager who knows what to do with them.
Leonard missed the season to injury and should be back and healthy next year, so maybe the Clippers still have some life. Next season will also be his 12th year in the league and George’s 13th, so maybe they don’t.
Speaking after being eliminated on Tuesday, Irving said he’s planning to stick it out with the Nets, alongside Durant, in the long term, leading to this doozy of a quote.
"When I say I'm here with Kev, I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe (Tsai, owner) and Sean (Marks, GM) and just our group of family members that we have in our organization.
“So it's not just about me and Kev, I don't want to make it just about that. We are cornerstones here, but we have Ben, we have a few other guys under contract.
"And I think we just gotta make some moves this offseason, really talk about it and really be intentional about what we're building and have some fun with it, make it enjoyable and hopefully we get to start from Day 1 just as a squad and as a family and we just really worry about us.”
Given Irving’s mercurial ways, it’s not clear if that’s a promise, a threat or both.
It is, though, part and parcel of the era James created when he chose Miami over Cleveland and everybody else.
Before, players did not place themselves in front of the franchise, to say nothing of the franchise placing the players in front of itself.
Though Leonard may come back next season ready to go, he’s only played 70 games in a season twice, the last time five years ago and George is no bargain either, missing 24, 18 and 51 games each of his last three seasons.
Irving hasn’t played 70 since playing 72 for Cleveland in 2016-17 and this season played just 29, refusing to get vaccinated, thereby not being allowed to play at home until just six home games remained.
Davis doesn’t have to load manage himself into unavailability, he’s just hurt all the time, missing 36 games last season and 42 this one.
Finally, given the keys to the kingdom, is Harden ever happy? Is the fanbase of his team ever happy? It’s like he deserves an entire column to himself.
You know who’s still going?
Chris Paul’s still going.
All his team’s have done since he got away from Harden is overachieve. Because of the player he is and the example he sets.
Not making it about him.
Not having to be load managed either.
Maybe that’s the new model.
It’s a lot more fun to root for.
Come to think of it, given who’s been eliminated, it’s safe to turn the NBA playoffs on again. Good stories, not bad ones, abound.
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