It's possibly the hottest question in basketball right now: will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh join forces to create the ultimate team? It is an intriguing question, to be sure. Those three All-Stars wearing the same uniform would certainly be a potent combination on paper. But sports aren't played on paper.
The 2008 Boston Celtics. The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers. The 1997 Houston Rockets. The 1968 Los Angeles Lakers. Four attempts to create superteams.
The 1967 Lakers, led by Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Archie Clark had just completed a season in which they lost in the NBA Finals to the hated Boston Celtics. Following that loss, owner Jack Kent Cooke engineered on of the biggest blockbuster trades in NBA history, sending Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers, and Archie Clark to Philadelphia in exchange for 1967 MVP Wilt Chamberlain.
The trade paid off immediately. The superteam of Chamberlain, West, and Baylor led the Lakers to the best record in the league in 1968-1969. However, as had become the trend over the decade, the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the championship round once again.
In each of the following seasons, L.A. would once again fail in the final round, this time against the New York Knickerbockers. In 1971, they wouldn't even get to the championship round, losing in the Western Conference Finals.
During these three failed attempts to win with a superteam, the stars each put up impressive statistics. Chamberlain was the league's best rebounder, West was the top combo guard, and Baylor was a 20-and-10 performer every night. Yet, they still failed to complete their ultimate goal.
The goal would be realized in 1972. However, the method by which it came to fruition should be a cautionary tale to all future superteams. Early in the 1971-1972 season, the great Elgin Baylor retired. In the first game following his retirement, the Chamberlain-West-Gail Goodrich Lakers won. They would continue to win, to the tune of an NBA record 33 consecutive victories.
The Lakers would win their first championship in L.A. that season.
The '97 Rockets were among the most loaded teams ever. They brought together three of the greatest players of all-time: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley. While each player was on the down slope of their careers, they all remained stars capable of carrying their teams.
Olajuwon and Drexler had teamed for a championship in 1995. In the following season, they lost to the powerful Seattle Supersonics in the second round of the playoffs. Attempting to regain the title that they had held in 1994 and 1995, they signed Charles Barkley, creating a superteam.
The trio was immediately successful together, leading the Rockets to a 57-25 regular season. They would then get revenge on the Supersonics, defeating the defending Western Conference Champions in seven games. However, facing the mighty Utah Jazz in the Conference Finals, they would fall in six games.
The following season, the Rockets would barely make the playoffs at 41-41, as the trio of stars began to falter. In the first, round, despite taking the Jazz to the limit, they would again fail to regain the championship.
While it may not be a true superteam, it should be noted that in 1998, following the dissolution of the Chicago Bulls and retirement of Clyde Drexler, the Rockets put together a team featuring Olajuwon, Barkley, and Scottie Pippen. However, this attempt at putting together three stars would also fail, as Houston would be crushed in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers were coming off a of season in which they had their four-peat attempt brought to a screeching halt in the second round of the 2003 playoffs. In the following offseason, they would sign stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone, and add them to a team already featuring Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and coach Phil Jackson. Possibly the most loaded team of all-time. A championship seemed a foregone conclusion.
Alas, following a season full of trials and tribulations, a Laker title was not to be. Payton struggled to fit into the offense, to the point that his agent complained to the Laker coaching staff about how his client was being utilized. Karl Malone suffered the first major injury of his career. Shaq and Kobe dueled for control of the team. Bryant was in and out of court throughout the season. And, in the end, the Lakers lost to a Piston team full of role players who fit in perfectly together.
The team would be dismantled in the offseason, with only Bryant remaining from the superteam. The experiment had failed.
Attempts at superteams are not entirely negative. The 2008 Boston Celtics stand as the only true success story among superteams. Coming off a season in which they occupied the bottom spot in the league for much of the year, the proud franchise added All-Stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to play alongside mainstay Paul Pierce. The team would produce shocking results.
After finishing as the best team in the NBA, the Celtics would struggle through the first three rounds of the playoffs. However, they did eventually reach NBA Finals for the first time in decades. Facing the rival Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics would dominate, winning in six games.
Four attempts at superteams (five if you count the 1998-1999 Houston Rockets). One success. This is no coincidence. There is a reason that superteams fail.
Aside from the 2008 Celtics, every attempt to group three or more superstars together has failed. One of the main reasons for this is the excess of egos. Every one of the aforementioned teams was successful in the regular season. However, in playoff basketball, each of the three players attempted to be the star-among-stars. In 1968, it was Jerry West. In 1996, it was Clyde Drexler. In 2004, it was Kobe Bryant.
However, in 2008, no player attempted to rise above their teammates. Ray Allen became a spot-up shooter and lockdown defender. Paul Pierce raised his level of play on defense, and became a creator for others on offense. Kevin Garnett developed into a mid-range shooter and post threat, and won Defensive Player of the Year. This willingness to sacrifice an individual game in the pursuit of a title is the only such instance among superteams.
Another issue with superteams is their lack of cohesiveness. The many superstars on these teams are brought together out of situations where they were asked to carry the load. Charles Barkley had carried the Suns before he came to Houston. Karl Malone and Gary Payton were the centerpieces of their respective teams. Attempting to force these players to play a game that they have never had to play before asks too much.
The only way a superteam can truly be successful is if it is created naturally, through the draft and free agency over a number of years.
The 1960s Boston Celtics were possibly the most star-studded team ever. However, the superstars that populated those teams were not brought together in one offseason; they came together over a number of years. The 1980s Celtics and Lakers were also filled with Hall of Fame talent, but that talent was collected over the years.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were so successful together because they developed naturally as teammates over time, and were surrounded by role players. Their roles on the team also helped, as Bryant was a perimeter player who needed the ball more often to be successful, while O'Neal did not require long dribble-heavy possessions to succeed.
It is for all of these reasons that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh should avoid joining forces. They all come from teams that asked them to carry the entire load. They all require the ball in their hands to be successful. And there is a major risk that Wade or James would attempt to take over in the postseason.
Putting those three players in Chicago, where they would play with another player who needs the ball (Derrick Rose) would create even more problems. Sure, a loaded Bulls team might make it to the Finals, a la the 2004 Lakers, but they would certainly be defeated by a more balanced and naturally formed team, like the current Laker team.
If James, Wade, and Bosh create a superteam, they are only increasing the likelihood of a Laker three-peat. If either Wade or James were to pair with Bosh, they would have a chance of overthrowing L.A. However, by creating a major imbalance of power in the Eastern Conference if they join together, they would make the Lakers' task that much easier.
For the sake of competitive basketball, I hope that these three stars do not attempt to join forces. They are too entertaining as individual players at such a young age to sacrifice their games for the betterment of the team. Just two of them coming together is enough. A Wade-Bosh pairing, for example, could be almost as good as Kobe-Gasol. The three together, though, is too much.
Superteams almost always fail in basketball. For all the focus on individuals in this sport, it is a team game. A truly great team will always trump a star-filled team. As basketball fans, we can only hope that these three players realize this.