Inside the New Superstar Reality of the NBA

The biggest names in basketball are done playing musical chairs for now. As the real games begin, does anyone really want to be like Steph and Co. anyway? B/R Mag criss-crossed the country to ask everyone—from Hoodie Melo to CP3 and, yes, even the Nets—to take a long look in the mirror.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterAND JONATHAN ABRAMSOctober 16, 2017

Sometimes, as he quietly prepares for the day and the shower steam settles across his bathroom, Daryl Morey sees a vague image take shape in the fog: four intersecting lines, forming three points at the top and two at the bottom.

Is it?

Could it be?

"I see a W in the mirror," the Houston Rockets general manager says, with the same gravity as the horror-film kid who sees dead people.

Not any "W." That "W." The one belonging to a certain superteam residing in the Bay Area. The one with the (gulp) Death Lineup. The one that dismembered every playoff foe last spring, going 16-1 on the way to the championship. The one that demoralized LeBron James. The one that's been terrorizing the NBA for the last three years.

The Warriors of Golden State are on Morey's mind when he lies down and when he rises up, during his morning commute and right now, mid-afternoon, as he picks over the last bites of a Cajun crab cocktail.

“I see a W in the mirror," Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey says about the Warriors.
“I see a W in the mirror," Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey says about the Warriors.(Getty Images)

"The reality is, they kick our ass," Morey tells B/R Mag. "I think they've won 22 out of our last 25. Getting hit in the face over and over is a good way to be humbled and think about how to beat someone, right?"

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(Technically, it's 20 out of 25, including the playoffs, but the hangover feels the same.)

So though Morey was only kidding about specters in the bathroom fog, and he's not literally obsessing about the Dubs every minute of every day, he's not not obsessing, either. Morey is thinking about them. A lot. He has to. They all do.

In Cleveland, coaches are already devising schemes for a potential Finals rematch next June while welcoming a batch of flashy reinforcements: Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder and (eventually) Isaiah Thomas.

In Oklahoma City, the staff is working feverishly to blend two new stars (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) with their newly minted MVP (Russell Westbrook), praying that a new Big Three might conquer the four-headed beast by the Bay.

Boston blew up a 53-win roster to make room for All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics seemingly have the talent to dethrone the Cavs in the East, which means they could be seeing the Warriors next June. So, you know, don't be surprised if Brad Stevens sees a "W" in the bathroom mirror fog, too.

The NBA offseason played out like a wicked game of musical chairs, with All-Stars scrambling for open roster spots—preferably to link up with fellow stars—and team executives shredding their rosters to make room for elite talent.

All told, eight recent All-Stars changed teams between June 22 and Sept. 25—an unprecedented and mind-blowing talent migration. Chris Paul is now a Rocket, riding with James Harden. Jimmy Butler is now a Minnesota Timberwolf, mentoring Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Paul Millsap is a Denver Nugget, flanking Nikola Jokic.

It's as if the basketball gods, angered by a preposterous talent imbalance, shook the NBA like a snow globe and reordered the landscape, hoping a new rival might emerge to challenge Steph Curry and Co.

The stakes of playing the Warriors and beating them have never been greater.
The stakes of playing the Warriors and beating them have never been greater.(Getty Images)

As the stars settled in a handful of cities, the shift left massive holes across the grid—in Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Salt Lake and New York.

You might call this the Warriors Effect: a frantic rush to either match the firepower of Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, or abandon hope entirely.

"It's not OK to just be OK," Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie observes. "What it makes teams do is really choose—either I'm going to really go take a shot at Goliath or I'm not. And if I'm not, I might as well be young and develop. So it's killed a lot of the middle."

It's not quite that clear cut. Every franchise is subject to its own pressures and timelines. The Bulls jettisoned Butler because they were treading water and needed a reset. George forced a trade out of Indiana, and Irving forced his way out of Cleveland, for wildly different reasons.

Even the arms race atop the West is being fueled in part by happenstance. The Thunder would still be a one-star show if George and Anthony hadn't grown disillusioned with their prior teams. The Rockets wouldn't have Paul if he still believed in the Clippers.

And yet, there is a clear imperative at work for these franchises: If you have a superstar in his prime, there's no choice but to keep adding, lest you waste his best years. Every move necessarily takes the Warriors into consideration.

"It's impossible to add decent-to-solid players and catch them," Morey says. "The only way to catch them is to add elite guys and try to make it work."

Two stars is the minimum. Three is preferable. Four is a near-impossible ideal.

Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets in June in hopes of bolstering their lineup.
Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets in June in hopes of bolstering their lineup.(Getty Images)

So Morey snatched Paul in June, made a run at George and Butler and spent the entire summer chasing Anthony. The Rockets couldn't land a third star, but they now boast two elite playmakers and a defense fortified by PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. They have talent, depth and versatility.

"We got a chance, man," Harden says. "We're so dynamic."

For all the summer blockbusters, the Warriors—already regarded as one of the most talent-rich teams in NBA history—enter the new season as overwhelming favorites to repeat as champions. For the second straight year, there is little suspense about the title chase. Every pundit, oddsmaker and computer model forecasts another parade in Oakland.

In the annual poll of general managers, a record 93 percent chose the Warriors to repeat (and the Warriors, by rule, couldn't vote for themselves).

And yet, many of those same GMs defiantly fortified their rosters this summer, as if to say, collectively, We're not giving up. But also, There's more to this league than what happens in June.

The reality? For all the obsessing over the Warriors, much of what happens this season will have nothing to do with the Warriors at all.

The trio of Ben Simmons (left), Joel Embiid (center) and Markelle Fultz (right) could be a bright spot for the Sixers season.
The trio of Ben Simmons (left), Joel Embiid (center) and Markelle Fultz (right) could be a bright spot for the Sixers season.(Getty Images)

The Philadelphia 76ers, their tanking odyssey finally over, are just eager to see their Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons-Markelle Fultz vision come to life. The Nuggets, giddy over the unexpected stardom of Jokic and the fortuitous addition of Millsap, just want to end a four-year playoff drought—even if it means getting swept by the Warriors in the first round.

The Warriors' inevitability will have no impact on the pace of the Nets' rebuilding project in Brooklyn, or the pace of Lonzo Ball's NBA education in Los Angeles. The Warriors, for all their greatness, are irrelevant to the Suns' development, the Knicks' chaos, or whatever it is the Bulls are doing.

The Warriors matter greatly to the Cavs, who might have just one more shot at the title before LeBron flees again. They matter to the Rockets and Thunder, who made all-in moves to contend this season, and to the Spurs, who view title contention as a divine right.

But for much of the NBA, the Warriors are merely a model to admire, emulate or simply envy.

Carmelo Anthony sat in a now-familiar hoodie and a still-unfamiliar Thunder jersey, fielding a volley of questions during Oklahoma City's media day last month. The newness of the most recent and sizable move in the NBA's star wars in Golden State vs. Everybody had yet to fade.

A reporter began a question concerning Anthony's no-trade clause and reported unwillingness in accepting Oklahoma City as a trade destination.

"That's 'cause nobody really knew me, but…" Anthony started before the journalist's question veered elsewhere.

Anthony later told B/R Mag that his mandate to waive his no-trade clause consisted of finding a workable deal.

"The trade clause to me was waived if it was a situation I felt like I wanted to go to," Anthony says about his decision to waive his contract with the Knicks.
"The trade clause to me was waived if it was a situation I felt like I wanted to go to," Anthony says about his decision to waive his contract with the Knicks.(Getty Images)

"The trade clause was the topic of discussion for everybody. 'Oh, he won't go here because he don't want to waive his trade clause,'" Anthony says. "Like, that never was the case. The case was, if it was a deal that I felt like could work for me and for the organization, then I'd waive my trade clause. It never was an issue of, 'I don't want to waive my trade clause.' The trade clause to me was waived if it was a situation I felt like I wanted to go to."

Anthony waived. The NBA shook while still staggering from a number of offseason moves by teams envisioning a means to counter Golden State.

Anthony wanted to join Harden and Paul in Houston, or his buddy LeBron in Cleveland. Instead, he joined Oklahoma City, where GM Sam Presti had already pulled off one heist after first trading for George, frustrated after his years in Indiana and with one foot already headed toward free agency and Los Angeles.

"I'm past that stage of it being awkward or weird," George tells B/R Mag. "I'm a Thunder. I'm comfortable with that now."

An offseason ago, Oklahoma City lost Kevin Durant to Golden State, where he fit right in. The Thunder are now scrambling to figure how best to integrate their three stars—each accustomed to being a No. 1 option, together combining for around 60 shots per game last season.

"We all are different," George says. "Melo's a scorer and can do multiple things. I love being a two-way guy, being the glue guy, being the facilitator, rebounder and scorer. Russ is the engine. Russ is going to keep us going. Russ is going to keep us attacking, keep the tempo up, keep us [getting to the foul line]. And he rebounds. He's excellent in the open court. We all have different talents and special skills that we can all bring to this team."

Westbrook showed the futility in a one-man stand last season, as he awed and astonished his way to an MVP but also a first-round exit. Cleveland swept George's Pacers. Anthony, with his legacy firmly on the line, missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season with the Knicks. They are united in the push to figure it all out and venture deep into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook received his first MVP award last season.
Russell Westbrook received his first MVP award last season.(Getty Images)

"You can't just put three stars together and expect it to be instant wins or instant progress, I guess," George says. "You need to have three guys that know how to play with one another, and that's what it comes down to. At this point, it's hard for guys to do it alone. You look at what Russ did. One of the best players, the MVP last year, averaged a triple-double, and yet he had a hard time getting out of the first round. It's tough.

"No matter how special you are, just a little help goes a long ways."

One of the team's holdover starters from a season ago, Steven Adams, says he did not sense any more urgency this training camp than in years past. Any team flexing Durant or Westbrook or both faces extreme expectations every year.

Adams jokes that he could tell George and Anthony would be good teammates by their firm handshakes. He did not have much else to go on.

"In New Zealand, you do do that," Adams tells B/R Mag. "You give a good handshake and then you can tell if the dude's respectable in that sense. It's different over here, though. So, it was more a joke.

"But what I've read from them and just in the time so far, they're just happy-go easy dudes, which is exactly what you need. They're not high maintenance at all, which is obviously a deal-breaker for most people."

There's honesty in the playfulness. The stars are all familiar with one another. But the roster will not be for a while, at least until it is tested late in a game and it's decided who will be steering the team in the closing moments.

That's up to head coach Billy Donovan.

"When you have this many new players, it takes time for people to get to know each other," Donovan says. "Heck, Carmelo came in here and I know of Carmelo, but it's not like we had some longstanding relationship with each other. I'm looking forward to spending more time with him."

Donovan says this is not quite like what he had in college, with stars aligned toward one goal en route to consecutive championships at Florida. To him, every situation is different. He sees Anthony as a star and not a reclamation project after an unsettling end to his New York tenure.

"No matter how special you are, just a little help goes a long ways," the Thunder's Paul George says.
"No matter how special you are, just a little help goes a long ways," the Thunder's Paul George says.(Getty Images)

"It was well-documented what he had to deal with there and what he went through there," Donovan says. "Plus, it's in New York. He's a pro. He's a 15-year vet, 10-time All-Star. He's seen it all, and I think probably at different points of times in his career, these different experiences have probably made him stronger as a person. But I don't think necessarily building him up.

"It's probably more collectively he and I and the rest of the group trying to figure out how do we take advantage of who he is and how he is going to be able to help the group. That's really what it comes down to."

This could all be a short experiment. Westbrook is fully committed to the organization after agreeing to a five-year, $205 million extension. But while George is saying all the right things about joining Oklahoma City, he can walk after the season. Likewise, Anthony can opt out and be gone next summer, too.

In the interim, they may present the best counter to a Golden State team streaking toward a fourth straight Finals appearance.

It's risky to presume that every All-Star move is a reaction to the Warriors—and doubly so if the All-Star in question is Chris Paul.

It's true that, as the captain of the Clippers, the anchor of a talent-rich lineup that included Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Paul never could chart a path to the Finals. It’s true that the Clippers were a depressing 1-11 against the Warriors over the last three seasons. And though the Clippers did not see the Warriors in the last three postseasons, it was clear Golden State presented an immovable obstacle.

It's reasonable to wonder how different things would be had the Clippers broken through.

Just don't suggest to Paul that he's in Houston because of it.

"My time was just up," he says curtly.

So here he is, one of the greatest point guards of all time, starting anew at age 32, voluntarily pairing himself with another ball-dominant guard in Harden, who last season moved to point guard and instantly became one of the best in the league.

"I'm excited, I know that much," Paul tells B/R Mag. "I'm excited about basketball. I'm excited about everything with this process."

For all the Clippers' talent, the burden was almost solely on Paul to create offensive opportunities. When he faltered, so did they. Now the burden will be shared, and while it will require some adjustment, Paul and Harden should fit seamlessly together.

Though both are best with the ball in their hands, neither one needs to dominate the ball to be effective. Indeed, Paul converted 49 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities from behind the arc last season, and Harden shot 38 percent.

"We got a chance, man," Harden says about this season. "We're so dynamic."
"We got a chance, man," Harden says about this season. "We're so dynamic."(Getty Images)

Before moving to Houston in 2012, Harden spent his early years toggling between guard spots, playing off Westbrook and Durant in Oklahoma. Sharing scoring and playmaking duties with Paul, in head coach Mike D'Antoni's fluid offense, should be easy.

"It happens just so naturally," Harden says. "We don't even plan it. Coach puts us in our spots, and we just play. We figure it out. One time it could be me [running the offense]; one time it could be him."

Four days into training camp, Harden said he'd already had more catch-and-shoot chances than he'd seen in years.

"We just know we have the same goal," Harden says, "and that's to win, to create opportunities for our teammates and then ourselves."

Morey is a devout believer in star power—grab as many as you can; figure out how they fit later—so trading for Paul was almost automatic once Paul signaled his interest. Houston won 55 games with Harden as the lone star last season and figures to approach 60 wins with Paul by his side.

But it's the moves around the margins that might determine whether the Rockets can take down the Warriors.

Tucker is a strong, athletic wing defender who can play either forward spot and even shift to center in small-ball lineups. He's the guy you want wrestling with Draymond Green in May. The slinky Mbah a Moute can guard four positions—a necessity against the Warriors, who force defenses to switch or else give up easy three-pointers.

With Trevor Ariza also in the mix, the Rockets have three rangy, versatile forwards who seem perfectly suited to defending Golden State.

"Having guys who can play different positions, I think it's a must nowadays," Mbah a Moute says. "We have the personnel to do it, so that's exciting."

Houston also has two nimble centers, Clint Capela and Nene (re-signed in July), who are capable of guarding on the perimeter.

"We'll probably switch a lot," D'Antoni says, "because you have a hard time if you don't switch against Golden State."

"We just know we have the same goal," Harden says, "and that's to win, to create opportunities for our teammates and then ourselves."
"We just know we have the same goal," Harden says, "and that's to win, to create opportunities for our teammates and then ourselves."(AP Images)

From their earliest meetings, the Rockets' coaching staff began discussing defensive strategies aimed at the Warriors—figuring that any defense remotely effective against them should be fairly solid against the other 28 teams.

"Golden State has set the bar," D'Antoni says. "It's a high bar."

Did Morey have the Warriors in mind in every transaction? Absolutely. Will it work? The Rockets do believe they've improved their odds. Does it make sense to tailor a roster for just one opponent? It does now.

If the Rockets make the conference finals, there is a greater than 90 percent chance they will either see the Warriors there or have had to beat them along the way, according to Houston's proprietary computer simulations.

So, yes, it was a no-brainer to acquire Paul, even if the Rockets already had an elite point guard. And yes, the Rockets aggressively pursued Anthony, waving off any concerns over shot selection or his shaky history with D'Antoni.

Because, no, there is no chance to beat the Warriors four times in a seven-game series without multiple stars, period.

"We have to," Morey says emphatically. "Like, I mean, they have four."

He chuckles at the absurdity.

"It's insane, actually."

The best view in the NBA, bar none, is from the eighth floor of an old warehouse building near the docks in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

There, just beyond the backboards, is an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, displaying the Manhattan skyline in all its breathtaking glory. This is the view from the Nets' practice court, as aspirational as it is inspirational.

Here, you cannot help but dream of stardom and glory…even if these ideals seem as distant as the Chrysler Building.

The Nets were 30th among 30 teams last season, with an offense that ranked 28th, a defense that ranked 23rd, and a relevance somewhere below that.

They are starting over, again, with a flashy young point guard (D'Angelo Russell), a sharpshooting wing (Allen Crabbe), some sharp-minded veterans (DeMarre Carroll and Jeremy Lin) and a modestly interesting cast of hopefuls (Caris LeVert) and retreads (Timofey Mozgov).

"We're gonna bet on Brooklyn, the borough," Nets GM Sean Marks says. "We're gonna bet on this market. We're gonna bet on this fanbase."
"We're gonna bet on Brooklyn, the borough," Nets GM Sean Marks says. "We're gonna bet on this market. We're gonna bet on this fanbase."(Getty Images)

The Nets are as far as imaginable from the Warriors, both geographically and competitively. But not philosophically.

At their best, the Nets push the tempo, space the floor, move the ball and fire up a barrage of three-pointers—just like the Warriors, only without the star power (for now) and the results (yet).

"We want to be one of the unselfish teams," says Carroll, who helped the Atlanta Hawks reach the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. "We don't have a LeBron James or Kevin Durant walking through the door. We feel like we got to do it collectively."

This is year two of a wholesale reconstruction in Brooklyn, a project made more difficult by a lack of first-round draft picks. But the Nets are showing signs of life, thanks to the creativity of general manager Sean Marks and his staff.

They plucked Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, from the Lakers, who had soured on the showy young guard. They used their vast salary-cap room to take on Carroll (from Toronto) and Crabbe (from Portland), who had become too pricey for their capped-out former teams.

"We want to be one of the unselfish teams," says DeMarre Carroll. "We don't have a LeBron James or Kevin Durant walking through the door. We feel like we got to do it collectively."
"We want to be one of the unselfish teams," says DeMarre Carroll. "We don't have a LeBron James or Kevin Durant walking through the door. We feel like we got to do it collectively."(Getty Images)

Carroll, once one of the league's premier three-and-D wings, is trying to regain his form after two injury-marred seasons. Crabbe had the third-best three-point percentage in the league last season at 44.4 percent. Both could be in the opening-night lineup, along with Russell, Lin and Mozgov, backed by a bench featuring young prospects Levert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Jarrett Allen.

It's not a roster that will strike fear in Cleveland or Boston, or even Philadelphia. But it's a start.

In the near term, Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson are trying to build a culture, a style and a value system that define the franchise. Last season, with a stripped-down roster of mostly minor league talent, the Nets nevertheless impressed opponents with their hustle, aggression and ball movement.

Brooklyn had the league's eighth-best defense after the All-Star break, despite the lack of talent. For the season, the Nets were fourth in three-point attempts and first in pace—the very model of a modern-day NBA offense, a Warriors-esque offense.

Indeed, the Nets' style tracked closely with the Warriors', according to an analysis by Nylon Calculus. They just need more talent to make it all work.

"Listen, you can't copy 'em, because you can't make guys into [Curry and Durant]," Atkinson says. But, he adds: "This is a style of play that can win in this league. It's an entertaining style of play, and it's analytically sound."

It's also a style players enjoy.

The Nets look to show signs of life in the midst of rebuilding.
The Nets look to show signs of life in the midst of rebuilding.(Getty Images)

The plan here is clear: Play hard; be entertaining; win a few more games; cultivate a supportive, enjoyable atmosphere. Do that, and the talent will come.

"We're gonna bet on Brooklyn, the borough," Marks says. "We're gonna bet on this market. We're gonna bet on this fanbase."

There is no template for Marks to follow. No NBA franchise has ever executed a multiyear rebuild without the benefit of lottery picks, as the Nets are now doing.

But there was a team, not long ago, that perpetually mismanaged its assets, made all the wrong bets and spent years wandering in the NBA wilderness, before learning from its mistakes and charting a rational path back to respectability.

That team was the Golden State Warriors.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is a best-selling author and his next book, All the Pieces Matter, an oral history of The Wire, publishes in February. Follow him on Twitter, @Jpdabrams.

Abrams reported from Oklahoma City. Beck reported from Houston and Brooklyn.

Lead art by Brian Konnick.


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