Sorry Miami: The Boston Celtics Big Three Was Never an NBA Superteam

Brendan Millhouser@@ChiBdmContributor IIOctober 18, 2010

Superteam, No.  Just damn good.
Superteam, No. Just damn good.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

     This summer a trio of superstars came together in a free agent coup that has changed the face of the modern NBA.  The teaming of 3 certified superstars of the game is certainly a gigantic news story.

      Some fans have embraced what ESPN has dubbed "Miami Thrice," while plenty of others have taken a very negative view of the move.  And just like American Presidential elections, these opinions are generally split along party lines.  Heat fans are on one side of the aisle (guess which) and most (not all) of the NBA's other fans occupy the other.  Also from the world of politics has come the emergence of "talking points" that Miami's fans have used to deflect criticism both warranted and not.  My research will debunk at least one aspect of their argument.  And here are the questions I aim to answer.

     Is there precedent in the modern NBA for such a dramatic free agent team-up, or are King James and company treading new ground?

     And if that precedent exists, did Boston create the first "Superteam" when they paired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with Paul Pierce in 2007?

      It's the most credible sounding counterpoint to the anti-Heat crowd, which states that Boston's big three was the original shot across the bow when it came to star hoarding.  After all, on the surface, there would appear to be similarities to how these teams were assembled.

     Is there precedent in the modern NBA for such a dramatic free agent team-up, or are King James and company treading new ground?

     Before we get to the details, its important to set the criteria.  Instead of lumping the entire disjointed history of the league into this discussion, I have decided to only include the modern era as a source of investigation.  This current period began the day that Shaquille O'Neal announced he was leaving the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.

     That decision clearly was a game-changer, and jolted the NBA into the realization that free agency was a powerful tool.  Despite all of the salary incentives in place for stars to stay with the home team, it would not prevent everyone from testing the market.

     In the absence of Michael Jordan, who was playing minor league baseball at the time, Shaq was the biggest star in Basketball.  Because of his current refusal to retire on anyone else's terms but his own, it seems easy to forget how dominant O'Neal was in his youth.  While other stars had left via trade or signed as free agents past their primes, no one of his caliber had ever just simply left town over the Summer.

     Go ahead and take the cushions off your couch  and see what you find.  Even if its a ball of lint and a TV guide, that would be more than Orlando got in return for the man that they groomed into stardom from the day they drafted him 4 years prior.  Shaq Fu started to look a lot like Shaq F-U in the wake of his departure to the bright lights of Los Angeles.  Needless to say, it was a bit unsettling.  Every front office in the sport took notice.

     This move obviously caused a shift in the team power rankings, but more significant was the cultural shift in how business would be done.  Players began to wield a bit more leverage due to the threat of just picking up and leaving the day that they are no longer contractually obligated.  Owners and GM's alternately were forced to ponder trading their stars rather than risk gaining nothing in return.  It signaled the beginning of a new era where star players changing uniforms was no longer uncommon.  The 15 year period that leads up to the current 2010-2011 season is what I will deem the modern era.

Despite the new reality of doing business in the league, it takes little more than a quick glance to realize that over that period of time there was really only one team that was created in a similarly dramatic and immediate fashion to the present Miami Heat team.

     The Boston Celtics were given a wildly successful face-lift during the 2007 off-season.  The preceding year saw the squad finish a dismal 24-58, which was good (or bad) enough to secure the 2nd worst record in the league.  Paul Pierce, their lone star was injured for significant stretches leaving a void in talent that was unable to be filled.  So while Dwyane Wade was putting the finishing touches on an NBA title for his South Beach admirers that very season, the once proud Celtics were sinking into oblivion.

Changes were on the way.  On June 28th, 2007 things began to get interesting.  The former SuperSonics dealt Ray Allen, Glen Davis and the 35th pick in the upcoming draft to the Celts for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and Jeff Green.  Not a bad start.

     Almost a month later, an equally important trade brought perennial all-star Kevin Garnett to the club from the lowly Timberwolves.  Al JeffersonRyan GomesSebastian TelfairGerald Green, and Theo Ratliff were all jettisoned to Minnesota, along with cash considerations.  In hindsight, that was like trading 5 bags of Cheetos and a gift certificate to Olive Garden for a Rolls Royce.  And Lest we not forget that this club did not have to give up its emerging talented point guard, Rajon Rondo.  

     Already the comparison to the Miami unit is becoming a bit muddled.  These improvements were strictly a result of trades.  Thats a far cry from the methods utilized by the Heat.  As we all know, Lebron James and Chris Bosh signed via free agency.  While Boston had to give something to get something, Miami's challenge was to clear enough cap space for two superstars while sending D-Wade out to close the deal.  Both were effective tools, but even to the unbiased observer, one strategy clearly took more effort and savvy in order to execute.

      I hope no one considers clearing cap space with a full two years notice some sort of achievement.  Every single team that had a chance this year at landing James was able to accomplish that feat. (Chicago, New Jersey, New York, Miami, the LA Clippers.)  It's also a pretty easy proposition when you are aware (like the Heat was most likely) what was going to happen in the end.  There is a reason that Stephen A. Smith broke the story long before the announcement.  More than just Lebron knew.  

     But the differences don't end there.  There is also a pretty decent disparity in talent obtained by the teams in their breakout offseasons.

     The biggest current knock on Boston's chances at reaching the finals again is the overall age of the team.  All three of their stars are on the downslope of their careers.   But even in their prime years, which would include the season before their blockbuster team-up, 2006-2007 the trio of Wade, Lebron, and Bosh were statistically a better group.  What makes it more imposing is that all three young future Heat teammates were still improving at the time.

     Let's crunch the numbers.  Lebron James was leading his team almost singlehandedly and averaging 27.3 points per game on his way to a Finals berth.  This also included playing the point on many occasions and racking up assists as well (6.0 per game.)  

     Even more astounding is that Dwyane Wade was only half of the offensive one-punch of Miami's squad and still averaged 27.4 points per game, putting him only behind Kobe Bryant (31.6 ppg) that year in scoring.  It's a pretty safe bet that he relinquished a decent amount of the points that he could have scored to Shaq in the name of teamwork.  

     Even the least talented of the three, Chris Bosh was averaging 22.6 points per game AND 10.7 rebounds, which puts him above Garnett in scoring (22.4) and marginally below him in rebounds (12.8.)  So essentially, Miami's least talented star player who was still developing was almost as good as the most talented Boston player (Garnett) who was in his prime.  

     Ray Allen scored at a rate of 26.4 points per game, placing him below King James and D-Wade.  Paul Pierce averaged 25 points per game, once again only surpassing Bosh's totals.

     Even if you take into account the fact that Garnett's dominating defense does not always adhere itself to concrete stats, its pretty obvious that Lebron was the better player in a head to head matchup of top talents even back then.  He was averaging more assists than most point guards, scoring at an incredibly high level and was no slouch on defense either.  Garnett may have been a beast, but still not in Lebron's league.

     Let's discuss the performances of the two trios when it comes to playoff time.   Dwyane Wade has already shown a deft ability to shine in the post season and also has a ring on his finger.  Lebron has amassed some pretty impressive playoff numbers over his career. He even willed a subpar (at best)  team into the championship series against the Spurs in 2007.  In the Eastern Conference finals against the favored Detroit, I think we all remember him scoring 48 points and 29 0f 30 of his teams last points in a comeback win in game 5.  Marv Albert called it a "historic performance."Everyone seems to only remember his playoff performance this year which was outstanding, but not clutch.  Not to mention there was most likely an elbow issue affecting him.  But even if not, that wasn't really representative of his postseason career.

     Ray Allen is generally a cold-blooded assassin in the playoffs.  No one is a better pure shooter.  But he is prone to some erratic games.

     Remember his zero field goal performance right after his brilliant game in the Finals this year?

     Bosh does not have a big enough sample survey to judge him.  Although post players who take more high percentage shots seem to have more dependable and non fluctuating stats.  Garnett is known for upping his game just a bit during crucial times.  Once again, numbers don't tell the defensive whiz's full story.

     All in all, it appears that both units are pretty even when it comes to the intangibles of the postseason.  So even that does not go in the Celtic's favor when compared side by side.

The picture is getting pretty clear.  Even when the future Heat stars had not reached their full potential, the combination of the three was better than Boston's future three in the primes of their respective careers.  That even includes the playoffs.  And back to my earlier point, the Celts were created, much like the Kobe Bryant Lakers, through good trades and intelligent management.  

     If this does not dispel all the talk of the Celtics creating the first "superteam," then there is nothing that will.  Don't get me wrong.  Its not as if you can fault Pat Riley for taking advantage of an opportunity that fell in his lap.  Or even Dwayne Wade for inviting his buddies to the hometown team.  But I think we can put to rest any kind of chatter that Miami was just doing what other teams have done in the past.  Not even close.  I think its become pretty apparent that if this team fails, it will fail "historically." A new precedent has been set, and barring injuries, there is no excuse for leaving the playoffs without a title.

** Here is another article of mine that goes along well with this one.  It involves Kobe Bryant in relation to the Miami Superteam **


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