Is a Superteam Really Worth It in the NBA?
The NBA, much like just about everything else in life, is not immune to the allures of fads and trends. Lately, the professional basketball world has been captivated by the untrustworthy notion of the "superteam."
Perhaps the Miami Heat, winners of the last two championships, have forced everyone's hands.
Miami very much built a superteam, acquiring Chris Bosh and LeBron James in the same offseason to immediately form the league's newest Big Three. Since then, no Eastern Conference team has been able to serve as a fire extinguisher during the playoffs, instead succumbing to the Heat as they marched toward the NBA Finals.
Building a superteam has taken priority over the more traditional notions of building a team.
Forget about the Boston Celtics' blueprint from the 1950s and 1960s, one in which the draft was key and the team won no matter who was on the roster. Don't worry about the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, the team that achieved two three-peats by surrounding Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two homegrown talents, with more key parts.
The historical examples of the past no longer seem relevant, simply because it's in vogue to just wait for superstars to hit free agency before luring them into a new jersey.
It's too bad it just isn't worth it.
What Exactly is a Superteam?
There's a massive difference between a superteam and a super team, and that distinction is vital to answering the question originally posed in the headline.
While the former is a team artificially created with hefty expenditures and the promising rewards of free agency, the latter is a more organic creation. It's one that depends on player development and a front office's ability to both draft great players and surround talent with more complementary talent.
While the current version of the Heat qualifies as a superteam, not every great squad falls into the category. In fact, even teams with bona fide Big Threes don't have to be considered superteams.
Just super teams.
Take the San Antonio Spurs, who seem to be right in the thick of things every single year. They acquired all three of their superstars in the draft, taking Tim Duncan as a David Robinson replacement, then surrounding him with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The core of the team was acquired in natural fashion, even if many of the role players signed on in free agency.
But that's fine. There's no way to build a great team without utilizing what's available on the open market once in a while.
The Oklahoma City Thunder give us another example of a super team that wasn't a superteam. Before he traded away James Harden, general manager Sam Presti had stockpiled homegrown talent, as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the bearded sixth man were all draft-day acquisitions.
Essentially, the notion of a superteam boils down to one question: Did the organization in question have to do any scouting to recognize the main talent on the roster?
If the answer is yes, then the key pieces were either drafted or brought aboard via free agency or a trade before becoming superstars. But if the answer is no, the team let other organizations worry about player development.
The Heat, for example, didn't exactly need to figure out how good LeBron and Bosh were before signing them. However, the Thunder and Spurs did have to analyze how successful their star players would be before adding them to the roster.
Once a superteam is in the works, there are four routes to follow. Only one of them is ultimately positive, because given the financial expenditures associated with the concept, a championship is the only end game in mind. That would be the Miami Heat route, which is obvious enough that it doesn't need its own section.
Let's take a look at the other three, as shown by very modern teams.
The Los Angeles Lakers Route
If we're talking about a failure to meet expectations, no team in NBA history has been a better example than the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. That's not hyperbole.
Other teams have endured massive flops before, but not coupled with the ridiculous media hype produced by the current 24/7 coverage of the NBA and sports in general. The teams of earlier decades simply didn't receive as much attention as this one.
The Lakers Route involves putting together a team full of superstars and only keeping it together for one year. It's a distinct possibility when aging players are thrown together, as was the case with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
D12 isn't nearly as old as the other stars, but his back made him play like an old man at times.
Chemistry problems can arise, and even a single injury can derail a season. When the injuries pile up, that's just even more troubling.
Building chemistry between new players is a difficult process. It may not be as tough as learning how to deal with covalent bonds, stoichiometry and redox reactions, but it's still a daunting task for any team featuring a number of new players.
A collection of great players can only go so far, but a team full of great players can advance much further in the postseason. Making that transition from "collection" to "team" is the key to success, and it's a challenging necessity for superteams.
When the shift doesn't occur—whether because of injuries, coaching changes, clashing personalities or all three—disaster often results.
Now, look at what the Lakers are left working with.
They were spurned by Dwight, who chose to move on to the greener redder pastures of the Houston Rockets, and left without any money to spend. Now L.A. is in for a difficult season before starting from scratch during the summer of 2014.
Will the Lakers try to build another superteam?
The New York Knicks Route
While the Lakers decided to sign a few big-name free agents to pair with Kobe and Pau, the New York Knicks took a different route.
The Knicks Route happens when a team forms a Big Three completely from scratch, as New York did when it traded for both Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony—in separate transactions—and signed Amar'e Stoudemire.
Although the end result of this method isn't as disastrous as what happened to the Lakers' hopes and dreams, it's similarly problematic.
The Knicks committed to the Chandler-Anthony-Stoudemire trio, and it resulted in just a single playoff series victory. There could be a few more in 2014, but the championship aspirations appear to have deflated.
If title hopes are a balloon, the Lakers popped theirs while the Knicks watched as the helium slowly leaked out.
New York didn't leave itself room for much upward mobility, even in the face of declines from two of its three stars. Chandler suddenly lost some of his defensive effectiveness, and Stoudemire's knees forgot what joints were supposed to do. Yet the Knicks had/have no way to replace them because the money is just too tight.
Although the franchise doesn't have a single guaranteed contract on the books for 2015-16, a championship doesn't look likely in either of the next two seasons. And while the Knicks have plenty of money to spend in the 2015 offseason, they aren't exactly going to be working with the same superteam.
Much like the Lakers will be doing in 2014, they'll be starting completely from scratch, hoping to re-sign a few key players while taking a different route in search of playoff success.
The Dallas Mavericks/Atlanta Hawks Route
Not every superteam route actually involves building a stacked team, which means that this path might just be worse than the other two.
At least the Lakers and Knicks were both able to experience some excitement in the process and will get to see all the contracts come off the books in the near future. They aren't stuck in mid-level mediocrity, unlike the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks.
Both squads cleared up enough cap room to make a run at premier superstars like Chris Paul and D12, but each struck out. As a result, they were left scrambling to build competent rosters that could compete for a playoff spot, refusing to commit fully to the rebuilding process.
Atlanta and Dallas may both make the playoffs in 2013-14, though the Mavs have a much tougher road. But what's the point? Why fight for a bottom-seeded postseason berth year after year at the expense of ever truly competing for a title?
The harsh reality is that only one team can win a title each year, and just a few more can actually contend. While we may not realize it, the vast majority of teams chasing a superteam strike out, and the results aren't usually positive.
Out of the four possible routes when trying to manufacture a collection of superstars, this is the third negative one, and it just may be the least appealing.
Of the last 10 title-winning squads, only three have fallen into the "superteam" category. The '12 and '13 Heat are the most obvious examples, but let's not forget about the Boston Celtics in 2008. They landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair with Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, subsequently winning in their first season together.
Is building a superteam worth it?
However, the C's are an anomaly.
The other seven winners over the last decade were teams built in more traditional fashion. Even the Lakers weren't a superteam in 2009 or 2010. They had a stacked roster, but Pau Gasol was the only major piece who was brought on board right before the start of the championship-winning seasons.
Even though the current landscape of the NBA has encouraged, perhaps even necessitated, the building of superteams, it's by no means a foolproof strategy. In fact, trying to skirt the typical process of building a champion isn't worth the trouble.
There will always be exceptions—the Heat thank their lucky stars for that—but the risks outweigh the rewards.
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