NBA Super Teams and the History
There was a whole lot of doth-protesting-too-much going on during this year’s NBA Finals, hoops by way of Hamlet one might say.
As the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers met as undeniably the league’s two most talented and formidable teams, Kevin Durant and LeBron James each grew uncomfortable with assertions they had stacked their respective decks to eliminate most serious competition.
James – who has been the orchestrator of two so-called Super Teams that won a total of NBA rings, first in Miami and then in Cleveland – went into denial mode after his Cavaliers squad lost their title defense in five games this spring.
“I don’t believe I’ve played for a super team,” James said that night at Oracle Arena. “I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe we’re a super team here.”
A couple days later, it was Durant’s turn, spinning like a dervish to make it seem like the Warriors were just some fluke of nature in winding up with four of the NBA’s top 15 players or so in one locker room.
Durant went Ancestry.com in his comments, breaking down the lineage for how Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green arrived in Oakland without big reputations. And to that extent, he was right.
But Durant’s arrival last summer – a four-time scoring champion, one-time MVP and most coveted free agent of 2016 joining the 73-victory juggernaut that barely eliminated Durant’s Thunder squad – was anything but organic.
Still, he had the temerity to say: “Super Team? No, we just work extremely well together. Coach [Steve Kerr] puts us in position to maximize our strengths.”
Ahem. The Twittersphere rightly set Durant straight on that disingenuousness.
Only a week earlier on a Finals off-day, and more in keeping with the spirit of what everyone was seeing with their very eyes, James had spoken with the precision of a future franchise owner and personnel expert in dissecting differences in roster-building between this season’s Golden State team and his 2010-2014 Heat teams. The idea of multiple stars congregating in just a few markets was just fine with him.
“It’s great for our league,” James said. “Right now, look at our TV ratings, look at the money our league is pouring in. I mean, guys are loving the game, our fans love the game. … No matter who I’m’ going against, if I’m going against four Hall of Famers like I said before the series started with Draymond, Klay, Steph and K.D., or if I’m going against two or whatever the case may be, I’m always excited to play the game.”
Twenty-eight other teams might not have shared that view last season, but hey, the man was on a roll.
“Is it fair that the New York Yankees in the ‘90s was adding piece after piece after piece after piece,” James said. “I mean, if you have the opportunity to do that – is it fair that the Cowboys added Deion Sanders.
“I mean, listen. It happens. It’s sports. You have an opportunity to sign one of the best players, and you can do it, go ahead and do it. Why not? If I become an owner, I’m going to try to sign everybody.”
The controversy over teams packing two, three, four or more superstars is roaring these days as the NBA and its fans consider the prospect of Warriors-Cavs V, VI, VII and beyond. Rubber matches are one thing, Roman numerals quite another.
And already, this offseason – with Houston dredging space to bring in star point guard Chris Paul, with the Cavaliers and the Celtics driven to upgrade already formidable rosters and with even young center Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota crowing about his team’s new Big Three (KAT, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins) – has turned into a nuclear arms race.
Before we go further, we should define what a Super Team is:
— It boasts two, three or more stars on its roster, any one of whom would be able to anchor a franchise on his own.
— Trades and/or free agency had to have been used to unite those stars, either in their prime or at least after obvious, recognized success (All-Star appearances, all-NBA selections, major awards won).
— The team needs to be a reasonable contender, not merely a collection of big names past their prime and far back of the reigning conference or league champs.
— Bonus points if media outlets have carried one or more stories about the alleged Super Team wondering a) if one basketball is enough, or b) how the stars’ strong personalities might gel or repel.
Historically, it’s rare that an NBA champion hasn’t had two or more All-Stars or even future Hall of Famers (Golden State in 1975, Seattle in 1979 and Detroit in 2004 come to mind). But based on the criteria above, even the great Minneapolis Lakers teams (five titles from 1949 to 1954) and the Red Auerbach/Bill Russell Celtics don’t qualify as precursors of today’s Super Teams.
The Lakers rounded up legendary players such as George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin and Vern Mikkelsen the old-fashioned way, by drafting and developing. Ditto for those Celtics that won 11 titles in 13 years. Russell arrived in a trade the day he was drafted and the rest of them – Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and more – essentially were homegrown or acquired without fanfare or portfolios.
The same held true for the later champs in Boston and Los Angeles. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge didn’t arrive fully formed and ready to kick NBA butt any more than Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy or Michael Cooper did.
Similarly, Chicago’s dynasty was built off one draft pick (Michael Jordan) and one trade (for Scottie Pippen), with entirely different supporting casts for each three-peat. Kobe Bryant was a rookie fresh from high school when the Lakers added him in the same offseason they landed Shaquille O’Neal. No Super Team approach there, either.
But anyone who claims the NBA didn’t have its share of Super Teams, or attempts at building them, before the 2010-11 Miami Heat (or even their inspiration, the 2007-08 Boston Celtics), needs to keep reading. Here are the most memorable ones prior to these Warriors and Cavaliers:
1968-69 Los Angeles Lakers
Super stars: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor
Super run: Three seasons. Zero rings.
Super results: 149-97 (.606) … Lost in Finals (1969), lost in Finals (1970), lost in conference finals (1971)
Super start: With the leverage on his side of potentially jumping to the ABA, Chamberlain – already the most dominant player in league history – told the Sixers he wanted to be traded to Seattle, Los Angeles or San Diego. He was sent to L.A. for Archie Clark, Jerry Chambers and Darrall Imhoff.
Super notes: West and Baylor had been to five Finals with Los Angeles, losing each time to Boston. Chamberlain had led Philadelphia to one of the best seasons in NBA history in 1967, including a 68-13 record and a five-game elimination of Boston in the East finals to snap the Celtics’ championship streak. … By the start of their first season together, Chamberlain was 32, West 30 and Baylor 34. … In their first season together, they each put up big numbers – West 25.9 ppg, Baylor 24.8 and Chamberlain 20.5 ppg with 21.1 rpg – and led the Lakers to their most victories ever (55). But they lost to their shared nemeses, the Celtics. … In 1969-70, Chamberlain returned from knee surgery just before the playoffs, but the Lakers lost in seven games to New York. … The next season, it was Baylor succumbing to injury, then a loss in the West finals to eventual champion Milwaukee and sky-hooking star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. … Ironically, it was after Baylor’s retirement nine games into the 1971-71 season that the Lakers won the first championship of their Los Angeles era. That team posted a then-record 69-13 mark, won 33 consecutive games for a record that still stands and went 12-3 in the playoffs, beating Chicago, Milwaukee and New York for the title.
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
Super stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson
Super run: Four seasons. One ring.
Super results: 248-80 (.756) … Won NBA championship (1971), lost West finals (1972), lost West semifinals (1973), lost Finals (1974).
Super start: After holding out to block a trade to the Baltimore Bullets during the 1969-70 season, Oscar Robertson acquiesced when his friend and former Cincinnati Royals roommate working with Milwaukee, Wayne Embry, persuaded him to consider the Bucks. Robertson was acquired for Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson
Super notes: Robertson had averaged 29.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 10.3 apg over his first 10 NBA seasons, playing in the All-Star Game each season but missing the playoffs four times and advancing beyond the first round just twice. … He was 32 in his first season with the Bucks, a team featuring eight players with only one or two years of experience – including Abdul-Jabbar, then just 23. .. Milwaukee won 66 games, led the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating and went 12-2 to win the title in the expansion franchise’s third season. … Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s MVP in ’71, ’72 and ’74, considered virtually unstoppable with his sky hook. … Robertson’s career was winding down, though only six NBA guards last season and four in 2015-16 topped the 15.1 ppg and 7.2 apg the Big O averaged over his final three years. … The closest the Bucks got to a third star was Bobby Dandridge, who averaged 19.0 ppg and 7.1 rpg during the four-year run and won another title in 1978 with Washington. … Actually, they came close to a Hall of Famer in 1972 when Embry drafted a guy named Julius Erving out of Massachusetts but Dr. J had signed with the ABA and never did join Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson on a [BEGIN ITALICS] real [END ITALICS] super team.
1971-72 New York Knicks
Super stars: Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley
Super run: Three seasons. One ring.
Super results: 154-92 (.626) … Lost in Finals (1972), won NBA championship (1973), lost in East finals (1974).
Super start: Rattling the entire NBA at the time, the Knicks – remodeling on the fly to shore up an aging roster – acquired Monroe, Baltimore’s scoring star, in exchange for role players Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth and cash.
Super notes: As Harvey Araton of the New York Times wrote in his 2011 book on the Knicks, “When the Garden Was Eden,” acquiring Monroe was a stunner. “Imagine hearing in 1985 that Magic Johnson had been traded to the Celtics — that’s how unimaginable the dealing of Earl Monroe to the Knicks was in 1971,” Araton described it. … Fast-forward to today and the deal was not unlike Chris Paul heading to Houston to play alongside James Harden, though with Harden in the Monroe role. … New York already had added seven-time All-Star Lucas as a quality big to weather Reed’s creaky knees. … Could the “Pearl” harness his game to play alongside “Clyde?” Monroe could and he did, helping the Knicks – who had claimed the 1970 championship – extend their excellence. They got to the Finals again, losing to a superior Lakers team in ’72, then bumped to 57 victories and a 12-5 playoff run to win it a year later. In ’74, New York slipped offensively into the bottom half of the 17-team league, and Reed, Lucas and Dave DeBusschere all were gone by 1974-75. … Year later, Monroe still was wondering if he should have stayed in Baltimore vs. sacrificing his individual game to blend into New York’s ensemble. He had been a Top 10 scorer in his first three NBA seasons, but he averaged 13.9 ppg in his first three years in New York. Monroe wound up with a ring and reached the Hall of Fame, but the dazzling playground legend ranks 81st in NBA career scoring, behind the likes of Otis Thorpe and Rolando Blackman. … Years later, while wearing that Knicks ring, Monroe told a Baltimore sportswriter: “I would have been revered as a different type of player, who would have accomplished all the things that I started out to accomplish.”
1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers
Super stars: Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free
Super run: Two seasons. Zero rings.
Super results: 105-59 (.640) … Lost in NBA Finals (1977), lost East finals (1978).
Super start: Erving, the marquee player for the New York Nets, entered the NBA when four ABA franchises were absorbed into the league in June 1976. But the Nets needed cash to survive, so his rights were sold to Philadelphia four months later.
Super notes: The Sixers already had one of the ABA’s best players on board in McGinnis, who switched leagues one season earlier and led Philadelphia in 1975-76 with 23.0 ppg and 12.6 rpg. … Collins had been the NBA’s No. 1 pick overall in 1973 and averaged 20.8 ppg the season before Erving arrived. … Free, who launched an average of 19.1 shots per game in his career, put up more total field-goal attempts than all but 77 men who’ve played in the league (despite coming off the bench in 60 percent of his appearances). Add Darryl Dawkins and a couple more, and the question hanging over Philadelphia became: Is one ball enough? … Philadelphia outscored foes by an average of 4.0 points and got past Boston and Houston before facing and losing to Portland in the Finals. … The second season, the Sixers’ defense slipped noticeably, Erving and McGinnis took turns more than they played together. Despite upping to 55 victories, the individualism never dissipated. Billy Cunningham replaced Gene Shue as head coach and both McGinnis and Free were traded.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
Super stars: Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Andrew Toney
Super run: Four seasons. One ring.
Super results: 229-99 (.698) … Won the NBA championship (1983), lost in East first round (1984), lost in East finals (1985), lost on East semifinals (1986).
Super start: After Malone signed an offer sheet with the Sixers, Houston matched and then traded the Hall of Famer-to-be to Philadelphia for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first0round pick that became Rodney McCray.
Super notes: Philadelphia had averaged 60 victories for three seasons – configured around Erving, Collins, Cheeks and Jones from 1979 to 1982 – and twice lost in the Finals to the Lakers (who still had a game-changing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). So, the Sixers lured Malone, who at 26 already was a two-time MVP and five-time All-Star. The big man had averaged 26.1 points, 15.3 rebounds (6.7 offensively) and 9.6 free throw attempts in five full seasons in Houston (where saving money was a priority at the time of the deal). … The trade happened during an NBA promotional tour of China, with both Erving and Malone on the trip. So was noted Boston trash-talker M.L. Carr, who blanched at the news. “He got pale and said, ‘I can’t believe that. They just gave y’all the Eastern Conference and maybe the whole thing,’ ” Erving recalled Carr saying. … That’s what happened. Philadelphia went 65-17, outscored their foes by 7.4 points nightly and almost made good on Malone’s poetic “Fo’, fo’, fo’” prediction of sweeping through the plaoffs, losing only one game to Milwaukee in the East finals before spanking the Lakers. … The Sixers averaged 55 victories over the next three seasons but got stopped by the Nets, the Celtics and the Bucks in the spring. … By the ‘86 offseason, Erving was on his way out – he did a farewell tour in a final lap – and stress fractures in prolific shooting guard Andrew Toney’s feet derailed his career and caused a rift with Sixers management. … Meanwhile, the front office decided Malone was in decline. The big man was sent to Washington in a deal that brought back Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson; besides, Philadelphia already had burly young Charles Barkley. Of course, Malone lasted another nine seasons, averaging 16.2 points and 9.3 rebounds.
1996-97 Houston Rockets
Super stars: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen
Super run: Three seasons. Zero rings.
Super results: 129-85 (.603) … Lost in West finals (1997), lost in first round (1998), lost in first round (1999).
Super start: Hoping to re-spark a team that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, Houston traded for Barkley, sending to Phoenix Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant.
Super notes: Some might argue that the Rockets of two years earlier should be a stand-alone entry on this list, based on the acquisition of Drexler to boost them to their second championship. But the real Super Team maneuvers came when they brought Barkley, 33, to join Olajuwon, 33, and Clyde The Glide, 34. … Houston’s Big Three all put up All-Star numbers and the Rockets won 57 games, getting past Minnesota and Seattle before Utah (and John Stocktons 3-pointer in Game 6) eliminated them. … The Rockets sagged defensively and Barkley was limited by injury to just 41 starts, along with four bench appearances in the first-round loss to Utah. … Drexler retired before the post-lockout 1999 season and Pippen came in trade after the Bulls’ break-up. Houston managed a 31-19 record but lost in the first round to the budding Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers powerhouse. Pippen and Barkley didn’t click, so Pippen was dealt to Portland.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Super stars: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen
Super run: Five seasons. One ring.
Super results: 273-121 (.693) … Won NBA championship (2008), Lost in East semifinals (2009), lost in Finals (2010), lost in East semifinals (2011), lost in East finals (2012).
Super start: Reluctant to leave Minnesota, Garnett finally accepts a trade to Boston to join newly acquired Allen and longtime Celtic Pierce.
Super notes: Danny Ainge shed his wheeling-and-dealing training wheels by getting both Allen and Garnett to Boston, teaming three veterans hungry for a title. … With almost no overlaps in skills – Pierce the scorer, Allen the shooter, Garnett the rebounder and defender – Boston sparked from the start, winning 29 of its first 32 games. … Key help came from center Kendrick Perkins, point guard Rajon Rondo and role players James Posey, Eddie House and Glen Davis. … Coach Doc Rivers sold his “Ubuntu” theme to the team, but the locker room was policed by the vets. … These Celtics earned their rings, going 16-10 to reach that “Anything is possible!” Game 6 victory over the Lakers. … Garnett got hurt the second year, playing just 57 games and missing the postseson. A thrilling seven-game first round against Chicago was entertaining but Boston lost in the semis. … Perkins got hurt and missed Game 7 of the Finals in 2010, enabling the Lakers to rally for the title in L.A. … In 2011, the Celtics got stopped by the Super Team they inspired in Miami. It happened again against the Heat a year later, and then Allen ended “Ubuntu” when he signed with the Miami crew in July 2012.
2010-11 Miami Heat
Super stars: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade
Super run: Four seasons. Two rings.
Super results: 224-88 (.718) … Lost in Finals (2011), won NBA championship (2012), won NBA championship (2013), lost in Finals (2014).
Super start: In a Boys & Girls Club gym in Greenwich, Conn., James ends weeks of speculation and nearly an hour of insufferable TV by announcing he was taking his talents … well, you know.
Super notes: The biggest difference in this Super Team was the active role of the principal players in its formulation, Bosh and James signing as free agents. Wade’s lack of serious interest in possible free-agent destinations of his own fueled rumors that the three stars had planned their convergence months or even years before. … James, Bosh and Wade were thrust into the “villains” role by many NBA fans for stacking the deck in talent and opting to gang up rather than beat each other en route to any team success. Former NBA greats weighed in questioning their competitive natures. … The Heat was a soap opera as much as a sports team, with 24/7 scrutiny, especially during a 9-8 start. … Their 12-3 rush through the first three rounds of the 2011 postseason suggested instant title, until Dallas found seams in their defense and psyches to take the Finals in six games. … Miami went 28-7 past the midpoint of the 66-game post-lockout schedule in Year 2. Even Bosh’s injury absence midway through the postseason couldn’t disrupt Miami this time (he came back in time to drop 19 points and eight rebounds on Boston in Game 7 of the East finals). … A 27-game winning streak among Miami’s 66 victories and Ray Allen’s 3-pointer to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Finals against San Antonio were the top highlights in ’13. James won his fourth MVP. … The Spurs fired back to take the title in ’14. Wade played in only 54 games, Allen didn’t return after the season and James opted to take the Super Team blueprint to Cleveland.
2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers
Super stars: Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol
Super run: One season. Zero rings.
Super results: 45-37 (.549) … Lost in West first round.
Super start: Thirty days after Nash was acquired from Phoenix, the Lakers were the ringleaders of a massive four-team, 12-player, four-draft pick trade to deliver Howard in August 2012.
Super notes: This was more of a Super Team attempt by the Lakers than in 2003, when greybeards Karl Malone and Gary Payton were jumping on the Shaq-Kobe bandwagon too late. … If oil and water had two more ornery cousins who didn’t get along, that’s how things went for the top-heavy Lakers squad. Bryant and Howard were the primary antagonists, the former considering the latter soft and not motivated enough, while Howard recoiled from what he felt was instant resentment from Bryant. Nash was a 38-year-old point guard who managed to suit up for only 50 games and Gasol rightfully felt neglected after helping Los Angeles win titles as Bryant’s sidekick in 2009 and 2010. … It was a pedestrian season from the start, with one winning streak of five games and a 36-35 mark as late as March 25 before a 9-2 rush just to make the postseason. The Spurs smacked them around by 75 points in a four-game sweep. … Howard signed as a free agent with Houston, Nash gutted out only 15 more games the next season and Bryant played six games in 2013-14 due to a torn Achilles tendon.