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A History of Modern NBA Super Teams

LeBron James and Kevin Love have joined Kyrie Irving in Cleveland to form the NBA's newest super team. What can past super teams, from the title winning Miami Heat to the disastrous 2013 L.A. Lakers, tell us about the success of top players coming together?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

With the arrival of Kevin Love and the return of LeBron James to a Cleveland Cavaliers squad already headed by Kyrie Irving, three of the NBA’s best players at their respective positions have joined together to create basketball’s newest "super team." As tends to be the case, whenever three elite players come together, visions of banner rising, confetti dropping, and championship parades fill the imagination of their fans. This is understandable as, per league rules, you cannot double team three different players at the same time.

Yet, expectations always seem to be tempered. These "super teams" are typically universally forecasted to finish among the top of the standings, but there’s always reservations about placing them at the very top. While the talent is undoubtedly there, what always emerges are questions about fit, chemistry, and depth.

Personally, I’ve always subscribed to what I view is the textbook definition of a championship team: two stars, with one of them being a big man, surrounded by quality veteran role players. In my mind, a super team results in a product that is less than the sum of the parts. However, with the seemingly never-ending talk of stars possibly coming together, I thought I’d closely examine how "super teams" have performed over the past twenty years.

But first, what exactly is a super team? One could argue, and fairly so, that a team like the 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Lakers were super teams. They did have three top players after all in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. What I’m looking for, however, are star players who were brought together, not born together. Therefore, my description of a super team is this: at least three fairly elite players who came together within a span of two years, with at least two of those players coming through trade or free agency.

1996-1997 Houston Rockets

You have to give former Rockets general manager Bob Weinhauer credit – he’s not afraid to pull the big moves to give his team a lift. He was like the opposite of Billy Beane, unless we think of Beane this year, where he was even the opposite of himself.

After being anchored by MVP Hakeem Olajuwon to a championship in 1994, the Houston Rockets found themselves in a season-long funk that made their chance at a repeat unlikely. In order to spark their team, Houston traded for eight-time All Star Clyde Drexler, helping them win a second consecutive championship while shocking the league in the process. A similar record the following season, however, did not result in the same Cinderella run, as the Rockets suffered a second-round sweep at the hands of the Seattle SuperSonics. With this disappointment, Weinhauer made an even bigger move, trading four players for ten-time All Star Charles Barkley.

Trading for Barkley was like David Blaine trying to hold his breath under water. Either become a part of history, or there’s no tomorrow. As expected, the Rockets became contenders in the 1996-97 season, despite Barkley and Drexler missing a combined 49 games. They went 57-25, tying Seattle for the second best record in the West, and reaching the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, they fell to the Utah Jazz in six games. Considering all three of their stars were in their mid-30s, the window for contention closed quickly. Injuries resulted in just a 41-41 record the next year, and then Drexler retired.

Still, while the Rockets may not have won a championship, they undoubtedly put together an outstanding team. In 1996-97, Olajuwon, Barkley, and Drexler were on the floor together for a mere 40 games accumulating a 32-8 record, or the equivalent of 66 wins. Though they did mesh well immediately, their chemistry was nowhere near that of a Utah Jazz team, who’s leading duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone were in the midst of their twelfth year together. Injuries are a part of the game, but the Houston trio had been more acclimated to one another, one can imagine that they may have been able to edge past the Jazz for a trip to the Finals. In that case, they would have gone against the Chicago Bulls, who, despite Michael Jordan and a 69-13 record, did not possess a post presence that could have matched Olajuwon and Barkley.

2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers

After a disappointing season in which they won only 50 wins and fell in the second round, the Lakers made two groundbreaking moves to ensure a championship would come back to Hollywood. As if having the best center and the best shooting guard in the NBA in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who both had already won three titles together, wasn’t enough, the Lakers added two veterans who were still chasing a ring in Gary Payton and Karl Malone. While both may have been aging, they had each recorded 22 points per game the past season.

Throughout the regular season, the Lakers suffered more heavily from off-court issues than on-court. In addition to all of the Big Four except for Gary Payton playing less than 70 games, tension between O’Neal and Bryant peaked, and Bryant was hindered by his sexual assault case. Through it all, Los Angeles managed to go 56-26 and reach the NBA Finals. They were the heavy favorites, but in an imitation of the Titanic, a long, exciting, and eventful ride completely sunk. In what is considered one of the biggest upsets in Finals history, the Lakers lost three straight games to the 54-28 Detroit Pistons, losing in five, with the sole win being an overtime victory.

Yet, between everything personal, legal, systematical, and medical, the Lakers may very well have still won a championship in most years. When all four stars were together, the Lakers went 30-9. More impressively, they played like a championship team throughout the first three rounds. They beat both the team with the conference’s best record (Minnesota) and best point differential (San Antonio). In the Finals, the Lakers were the heavy favorites, but looking back, one could easily argue that they should have been the heavy underdogs.

People tend to forget just how dominant the Pistons were after trading for Rasheed Wallace. They registered a 17-4 record in games Wallace played, but more incredibly, they averaged 90.1 points per game, while limiting their opponents to 76.8. Based on those numbers, they had an 82-game win expectancy of 74 wins.

Consider this: the Detroit Pistons with Wallace had a point differential of +13.3, while the Lakers with all members of the Big Four were +5.3. Based on how well Detroit was playing, they should have been 8.0 point favorites. What was the average margin of victory the first four games of the Finals (Malone sat out the fifth)? Exactly 8.0.

With the Big Four all on the court, the Lakers throughout the regular season, playoffs, and Finals played like a 60 win team. If they hadn’t run into a Pistons team that was playing improbably well, they may still have won a championship. O’Neal reflected that if he and Bryant had stayed together, they probably won have won two or three more titles, and that could be very well true.

2007-2008 Boston Celtics

After a disastrous 24-58 season, the storied franchise, two decades removed from their last title, had reached just about the lowest point in its team’s history. With Paul Pierce, Boston had a star player, but nearing age 30, the likelihood that the then lifelong-Celtic would win a championship with the team was slim. After failing to get a top-two pick in the draft, the Celtics decided to go all-in, and acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, two veterans also stuck in franchises going nowhere.

The 2008 Boston Celtics proved to be to super teams what Pulp Fiction is to ensemble casts; put a bunch of talented people together, and there’s non-stop fun from beginning to end. The Celtics finished the 2008 season at 66-16 and defeated their rival Lakers in the finals. Over the next three seasons, they were consistent contenders, averaging 56 wins and coming one game short of a second championship in 2010. Injuries and age burdened the team in 2011-12, but despite a 39-27 finish, they mustered one last hoorah, taking the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

With that said, what’s more to ask? For some, one title may not be enough, and it’s not unreasonable to think they could have won more.

Despite Garnett missing much of the 2008-2009 season and all of the playoffs, the Celtics went 62-20 and challenged the eventual Eastern Conference championship Orlando Magic to seven games in the semifinals. If Garnett had played in the postseason, I can’t imagine them losing to Orlando. I would also favor them over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the hypothetical Eastern Conference Finals considering they won three of four in the regular season and beat them the following year. Perhaps they lose to the Lakers in the Finals, but the Garnett injury deprived the Celtics of back-to-back Finals appearances

As for the next year, people like to speculate whether a healthy Kendrick Perkins would have made the difference in Game 7, in which the Celtics lost by four to lose the championship. It very well may have, but since the Lakers won the previous three home games by 8.7 points, and the Lakers managed just 32.5% from the field that game anyways, I highly doubt Perkin’s defense would have mattered.

What I will argue is that the 2009-2010 Celtics were a championship caliber team…if Shaquille O’Neal had been healthy. Some would argue that the trade of Kendrick Perkins removed chemistry and toughness from the team, but I would suggest that it was the overall lack of a quality center that hurt them. After all, the Celtics were still elite with O’Neal (28-9) while having Perkins didn’t exactly elevate their game (8-4). If O’Neal was at full health during the playoffs, or if they had not traded Perkins, would the Celtics have beaten the Heat in the second round? Perhaps not, as Miami looked invincible against the East. But the Celtics with Perkins or O’Neal during the regular season did go 3-0 against Miami, so it’s not unthinkable.

2010-2011 Miami Heat

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh made the decision to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach, the Miami Heat had conceivably the three best players in the NBA at their respective positions. While they made a liar out of James and his "Not one, not two, not three" promise, James’ time in Miami can’t be considered a failure. James and Bosh came to Miami and accomplished what they set out to do, and that was finally win a ring. Additionally, most fan bases would be thrilled at the idea of four straight Finals appearances, granted they weren’t all losses.

While some may consider the LeBron-era in Miami as a failure due to their inability to win more than two championships, I would not. Multiple teams each season can be great, but only one can be number one. Being the best team in the conference all four years, and being the best team in the league for half of those may not be the most satisfying in context, but it did what a super team does, and that’s be elite.

2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers

Trying to defend the 2013 Lakers is akin to trying to suggest Twilight is a cinematic masterpiece; there’s just not much that can be said.

Led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers were only two seasons removed from back-to-back championships. With the signing of All Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, they were destined to win a championship at best, maybe lose in the second round if things took a turn for the worse. A 1-4 start, three different coaches, a sub-50 win season, a first round sweep, and an unfollow on Twitter all explain why these Lakers go down as the worst super team on this list. Yet, despite all that went wrong, things could have been a whole lot different.

For starters, they never had the right coach. As Uncle Ben stated to Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." The Lakers core had great power, but there was no one responsible enough to control them. Mike Brown couldn’t, and Mike D’Antoni couldn’t quite either. Does anyone think that if Phil Jackson had been hired, this team could have been true contenders? Bernie Bickerstaff, a quality but nothing-to-brag-about coach, went 4-1 with this team immediately after Mike Brown led them to a 1-4 start. Having the right coach matters.

Second, the team suffered greatly from injuries. Bryant, Howard, Gasol, and Nash were on the floor together for only 22 games. But here’s an extremely freaky fact: the Lakers were 8-14 in those games. I’d like to quote Monty Python for my next fun fact: "Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three." When exactly three of the Big Four played in a game, the Lakers were 31-14. That’s the equivalent of winning 57 games.

Is four stars perhaps too much power? This could possibly go back to coaching, as Phil Jackson managed just fine with four talented players.

Even with injuries, coaching, and a lack of cohesion, the disaster that was the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers still gave their fans hope as they turned it around in the latter part of the season. In the last 40 games, the Lakers finished 28-12 which, over the course of a season, equals 57 wins. If chemistry is a crucial factor in a team coming together, maybe, if nothing else, all the Lakers needed was time.

For all the criticism directed at the 2013 Lakers, would it be reasonable to think that if Phil Jackson was coach, and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash were healthy, that, with time, the Lakers would have looked like a championship by season’s end?

What we can take from this?

Based on recent teams, it’s fair to say that when three or four elite players are on the court together, that squad will be tough to beat. However, that’s not exactly breaking news.

I think if you’re a Cleveland Cavalier fan, you shouldn’t worry about whether Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James can coexist and develop chemistry with each other. Trust me, they will. Every team with perhaps the unusual exception of the 2013 Lakers were struck by other issues instead.

Rather, what Cleveland should be scared of is whether Kevin Love, who missed 64 games two season ago, and/or Kyrie Irving, who has missed at least ten games every year of his career, will be stricken with injuries in this new Cavaliers era. They might also worry whether David Blatt, the successful international coach, will be able to manage NBA players.

Every team faces its challenges, but these super teams, with the exception of the ’13 Lakers, still manage to contend. Will the Cleveland Cavaliers be great? Yes. Will they win a championship? That is yet to be seen.