After suffering his fifth-career Finals defeat at the hands of a star-studded Golden State Warrior squad on June 12, LeBron James was asked by reporters if he regretted starting the “Superteam” trend. Quizzically, he responded: “I don’t believe I’ve played for a super team.”
Later that week, speaking at the Warrior victory parade, persistent bone-to-picker Draymond Green was incredulous about James’ super-denial. “You started the Superteam, bro!” Refusing to bow to self-awareness, though, Green went on to downplay the Warriors own Super-status by rattling off his and his teammates’ modest draft origins, as evidence of their folksy humility.
With so much uncertainty about the proper definition of Superteam, it’s time to agree on some things. What exactly is a Superteam? And who is really to blame for starting the super-trend?
You know it when you see it
There is no consensus definition of Superteam, but like Potter Stewart said — you’ll know it when you see it. With due respect to Mr. James and Mr. Green, I believe there have been at least three knew-it-when-you-saw-it, obscene Superteams in recent NBA history: the 2016-17 Warriors, the 2010-11 Miami Heat, and the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. We can use the common characteristics between these three near-consensus Superteams to formulate a working definition for the term.
The plot above shows the best All-Star seasons by a trade or free-agent acquisition since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Among the top five or six best seasons produced by newly acquired players (ranked by box-plus minus), we find 2007-08 Kevin Garnett (BPM of 7.4), 2010-11 LeBron James (8.6), and 2016-17 Kevin Durant (8.0). Each of these guys was the catalyst of his Superteam’s formula for greatness.
For Boston, Superteamhood meant trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and combining these new stars with long-time Celtic hero, Paul Pierce. For Miami, two sign-and-trade agreements brokered for LeBron James and Chris Bosh created a trio of stars along with the once-and-future Heat champion Dwyane Wade. This year, Golden State paired a single free-agent superstar (Durant) with three incumbent All Stars (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green) to form a power-quartet.
The common thread running between these three teams is that each one successfully improved upon the previous season’s roster with a quick influx of proven talent.
Super but not a Superteam
By contrast, teams that have added players — even insta-superstar players — via the DRAFT have not been eligible for Superteam status. As you can see from the table below, there have been exceptional circumstances when outstanding rookie players made contributions to their teams that were comparable to the impact made by Garnett, James, or Durant during their Superteam debuts. Sure, some of these rookies — like Michael Jordan and Chris Paul — inherited bad teams. But others — like Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Larry Bird — had some very useful teammates from the beginning and found immediate success in the league. Magic teamed up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and Michael Cooper to win the title his rookie season. Bird had the support of Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, and Cedric Maxwell his first season and the addition of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish the following year was enough to push the Celtics over the championship hump. Likewise, Duncan needed only two seasons to win his first ring with the help of David Robinson et al.
Setting aside any philosophical debate about whether it’s really more “organic” for a team to succeed with a rookie selected by a lottery than it is for a team to succeed with a veteran who chose his own fate…the bottom line is that teams who have been built around rookies — even exceptional rookies — don’t tend to be labeled as Superteams.
While we’re trimming the list for Superteam contention, there’s another group we can go ahead and disqualify right now: all of those (not-nearly-so) Super (anymore) Teams. These are the rosters filled with household-name players, where everybody is a year or two past his prime. You know the type. Like the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets who tried to run it back with two-thirds of Boston’s Superteam, adding the 37-year-old Garnett and the 36-year-old Pierce to a veteran core of Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Andrei Kirilenko. Those fogies were bounced from the playoffs in the second round. The year before, the Lakers tried something similar in recruiting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to team up with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in L.A. What had sounded so great on paper ended with a first-round playoff sweep on TV. Even the 2003-04 Lakers can be painted with my broad “too-old” brush. Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were still in their primes, but the new additions that season — Gary Payton, Karl Malone, and Horace Grant — were just a smidge too-far gone to earn Superteam credentials.
The definition of a Superteam
So then, here’s my proposal for the proper definition of a Superteam: any team who adds an All-NBA level player via trade or free agency and — including the new player — has a roster with at least three All-Star players during the season or partial season following the acquisition. Poring over Basketball-Reference data for teams matching those criteria produced a tidy list of 11 possible Superteams from NBA history:
At the top, we see the aforementioned Super-trio of the Warriors, Heat, and Celtics; our training set. This was a pretty successful bunch: three immediate Finals appearances and two titles.
Next on the list are the 1996-97 Houston Rockets, who were just two years removed from the second of back-to-back championships when they obtained Charles Barkley from the Phoenix Suns. Barkley was a 3rd-Team All-NBA performer in 1996. In Houston, he joined fellow hall-of-famers Hakeem Olajuwon (2nd-Team in 1996) and Clyde Drexler (3rd-Team in 1995), but the talented Rockets were never able to make it back to the Finals.
The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers have a lot in common with this year’s Warriors Superteam. The Sixers lost the 1982 Finals to the Lakers. In the following offseason, Philadelphia signed Moses Malone as a free agent. Together, Malone and his new teammate, Julius Erving, won three straight MVP Awards (1981-1983). Bobby Jones had been an All-Star in 1982 and Mo Cheeks and Andrew Toney were All Stars in 1983. The Sixers went 65-17 in the 1982-83 regular season and won the championship after dropping just one postseason game. Their opponent in the Finals was the Lakers again, in a re-match of the year before. Sound familiar?
The 1980-81 Phoenix Suns feel like a bit of an outlier, here. They had the worst playoff performance of any Superteam on the list and the least-recognizable star players, too. In defense of their inclusion, Truck Robinson was a 1st-Team All-NBA player in 1978, Walter Davis was a 2nd-Teamer in 1979, and Dennis Johnson was a 2nd-Teamer in 1980 and a 1st-Teamer in 1981. So, maybe this is the forgotten Superteam?
Rounding out this half-century of NBA history are two Wilt Chamberlain-led squads. According to former 76ers General Manager Jack Ramsay, Chamberlain forced the team to trade him to the Lakers prior to the 1968-69 season where he teamed up with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In 1968, Chamberlain had won his third straight MVP, Baylor and West were each All-NBA selections as well (1st and 2nd Teams, respectively), and each one is still considered to rank among the top-20 players of all time. The Lakers had reached the Finals in 1968 without Chamberlain and they made it back twice more after he arrived, but it wasn’t until the 1971-72 season that they broke through with a record-setting 33-game winning streak and a championship.
Just before that, though, Chamberlain had been part of another Superteam hustle. During the 1964-65 season, he was traded from the San Francisco Warriors to Philadelphia. In Philly, he joined fellow All-NBA talent, Hal Greer as well as Larry Costello and rookie Luke Jackson who were all named All Stars in 1965. The Super-Sixers were disappointed in 1965, but won a championship two years later.
Remembering the first Superteam
This is the part of the list where things get a little dicey. Recall that from the 1950-51 season to the 1960-61 season there was a limited number of teams in the league — somewhere between eight and 11 teams every year. So, having a team with three All-Stars wasn’t really an extraordinary feat. In 1954, for example, four different teams had a trio of All Stars: Boston, Minnesota, Rochester, and Syracuse. Despite this caveat, one of the three 1950s-era teams on the list does deserve credit for inventing the Superteam.
Midway through the 1956-57 season, the St. Louis Hawks traded for Slater Martin. Martin — a perennial 2nd-Team All-NBA player for the Lakers — met Bob Pettit in St. Louis. Pettit was the 1956 MVP, so Martin and Pettit were basically the Durant and Curry of their day. Except, if Durant was a 5-foot-10 170-pound white guy who had never considered taking a 3-point shot in his life.
Martin and Pettit were supported by Ed Macauley, who had been a 2nd-Team All-NBA selection in 1954 and Cliff Hagan who would be one in 1958. The Hawks lost the championship in a Game 7 nail bitter against the Celtics in 1957 (125-123), but they overcame Boston in a Finals rematch the following year. That’s a very Superteam thing to do.