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What makes a superteam?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The dominating run to the NBA title by the Golden State Warriors is now in our rearview mirror and there’s no shortage of discussion about what their victory means for the league as a whole. In particular, a lot of talk has centered around the concept of the “superteam.”

Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors last summer, uniting the two players who had won the three most recent MVP awards and giving Golden State four current All-Stars in their prime, provided the latest fuel to the conversation.

After the Warriors won the championship, the topic even found its way into their championship parade Thursday, as Draymond Green called out LeBron James during his speech: “They want to talk about superteam this, superteam that, ‘I never played on a superteam.’ You started the superteam, bro!”

What exactly makes a team a superteam is hard to define. It feels like one of those things where you just know it when you see it. However, a couple of factors appear to go into fans’ thinking on the subject. They appear to praise a player who sticks it out with the team that drafted him. They also seem to like groups that grow together over a period of time rather than getting thrown together like a band of mercenaries.

Looking back at the last 10 NBA champions, I checked out how those teams were constructed, focusing on the top five players on the team in terms of total minutes played during the playoffs (data via Basketball Reference). Admittedly, it’s not a perfect measure of the team as a whole. There are situations like Chris Bosh missing the list in 2012 after losing time to injury, and somebody like Andrew Bynum having a highly impactful role in shorter stints off the bench in Los Angeles. Still, it gives you a good idea who was on the court the most, and thus, the most representative portion of the team.

I then calculated what percentage of the five-man unit was originally drafted by the team and how long they’ve been in that uniform. For instances where a guy left and came back to the team that originally drafted him, I split the difference between his current stint and overall tenure. If someone was acquired via a draft-night trade or signed as an undrafted rookie, I counted it the same as being drafted by the team.

2008 Boston Celtics

Paul Pierce – Drafted 10th overall, 10th year with team
Ray Allen – Acquired via trade; first year with team
Kevin Garnett – Acquired via trade; first year with team
Rajon Rondo – Drafted 21st overall (acquired via draft-night trade); second year with team
Kendrick Perkins – Drafted 27th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); fifth year with team

Drafted: 60 percent. Average years with team: 3.8.

Starting with where a “Big 3” first heavily entering our basketball conversations, the Celtics won the title in the first year after trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Despite having the second-shortest average tenure of the teams on this list, Boston doesn’t receive the same sort of blowback in people’s minds. Maybe it’s because Pierce, Rondo and Perkins were all home-grown guys, so it still had a feel of continuity even with the addition of two future Hall-of-Famers. Or maybe Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office pulling the strings is just more palatable to people than players picking their place of employment. But it’s worth noting that Garnett had to agree to sign long-term in Boston in order for the trade to be completed. Nevertheless, it’s fitting that this group starts our list, because I think it kick-started the idea that you need multiple stars to compete.

2009 Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant – Selected 13th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); 13th year with team
Pau Gasol – Acquired via trade; second year with team
Lamar Odom – Acquired via trade; fifth year with team
Trevor Ariza – Acquired via trade; second year with team
Derek Fisher – Signed as free agent / originally drafted 24th overall; second year with team during current stint / 10th year with team overall

Drafted: 30 percent. Average years with team: 5.6.

2010 Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant – Selected 13th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); 14th year with team
Pau Gasol – Acquired via trade; third year with team
Metta World Peace – Signed as free agent; first year with team
Derek Fisher – Signed as free agent / originally drafted 24th overall; third year with team during current stint / 11th year with team overall
Lamar Odom – Acquired via trade; sixth year with team

Drafted: 30 percent. Average years with team: 6.2.

The two Lakers title teams were as low as any team on the list in terms of home-grown guys. However, there would never be any talk of a superteam in Los Angeles, for the simple fact that anything involving Kobe Bryant is solely about him. These were Kobe’s teams, plain and simple. Even though he was playing alongside guys who had been All-Stars and someone who will likely be in the Hall of Fame in Gasol, these groups felt like a huge step down in complementary talent after Kobe had been running alongside Shaq for the first part of his career. After over a decade in L.A., Kobe was the Lakers and the Lakers were Kobe.

2011 Dallas Mavericks

Dirk Nowitzki – Drafted ninth overall (acquired via draft-night trade); 13th year with team
Jason Kidd – Acquired via trade / originally drafted second overall; fourth year with team during current stint / seventh year with team overall
Shawn Marion – Acquired via sign-and-trade; second year with team
Jason Terry – Acquired via trade; seventh year with team
Tyson Chandler – Acquired via trade; first year with team

Drafted: 30 percent. Average years with team: 5.7.

This Mavericks group is very similar to the past two Lakers champions in that they had only one main star drafted by the team who had stayed for the duration of his career. The main difference is that unlike Kobe, Dirk didn’t have a few titles already under his belt, so there was a huge feeling of his deserving the win after years of struggle. The fact that Dallas beat LeBron’s post-Decision Heat, when they were an NBA villain unlike we had seen in recent memory, also helped the Mavericks in the court of public opinion.

2012 Miami Heat

LeBron James – Signed as free agent; second year with team
Dwyane Wade – Drafted fifth overall; ninth year with team
Mario Chalmers – Drafted 34th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); fourth year with team
Shane Battier – Signed as free agent; first year with team
Udonis Haslem – Signed as undrafted rookie; ninth year with team

Drafted: 60 percent. Average years with team: 5.0.

2013 Miami Heat

Albert Pena/Icon Sportswire

Albert Pena/Icon Sportswire

LeBron James – Signed as free agent; third year with team
Dwyane Wade – Drafted fifth overall; 10th year with team
Chris Bosh – Acquired via sign-and-trade; third year with team
Mario Chalmers – Drafted 34th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); fifth year with team
Ray Allen – Signed as free agent; first year with team

Drafted: 40 percent. Average years with team: 4.4.

After the setback to the Mavericks, Miami broke through with back-to-back titles, giving LeBron the hardware he craved when taking his talents to South Beach in the first place. Regardless of what LeBron says in 2017, these were undeniably superteams, especially the 2013 squad that saw Ray Allen sign on as a free agent. That team had four (likely) Hall-of-Famers in the starting lineup, and we saw how every Hall-of-Famer was needed when Allen saved Miami’s season with his incredible 3-pointer at the end of Game 6 of the Finals.

2014 San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan – Drafted first overall; 17th year with team
Kawhi Leonard – Drafted 15th overall (acquired via draft-night trade); third year with team
Tony Parker – Drafted 28th overall; 13th year with team
Boris Diaw – Signed off waivers; third year with team
Manu Ginobili – Drafted 57th overall; 12th year with team

Drafted: 80 percent. Average years with team: 9.6.

The redemption factor for San Antonio this season, winning after having a title ripped from them so cruelly the year before, made this championship a feel-good story for the ages. Despite having a handful of Hall-of-Famers themselves, the Spurs avoided any hint of a superteam designation because their core was all drafted by the team. The lone exception from their top-five unit was Diaw, who was thought so little of before coming to San Antonio that Charlotte released him. San Antonio is all about its system, culture and Gregg Popovich. There’s no room for talk about a superteam when you’ve been winning for two decades.

2015 Golden State Warriors

Steph Curry – Drafted seventh overall; sixth year with team
Draymond Green – Drafted 35th overall; third year with team
Klay Thompson – Drafted 11th overall; fourth year with team
Harrison Barnes – Drafted seventh overall; third year with team
Andre Iguodala – Acquired via sign-and-trade; second year with team

Drafted: 80 percent. Average years with team: 3.6.

Interestingly, this version of the Warriors is the only team, along with San Antonio, to have drafted four guys from among their top-five unit. That’s why superteam wasn’t discussed nearly as much in 2015 as 2017. This was peak MVP Steph Curry and peak Splash Brothers. Everyone felt good about watching an exciting new brand of basketball, and seeing the Warriors franchise end a long title drought made for a fun ride. The only naysayers may have come as a result of this team having the shortest average tenure of any team on our list. There’s somewhat of a “you need to take your lumps first” in basketball circles; Golden State was so good, so quickly, that itskipped a few steps.

2016 Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James – Signed as free agent / originally drafted firth overall; second year with team during current stint / ninth year with team overall
Kyrie Irving – Drafted first overall; fifth year with team
J.R. Smith – Acquired via trade; second year with team
Tristan Thompson – Drafted fourth overall; fifth year with team
Kevin Love – Acquired via trade; second year with team

Drafted: 50 percent. Average years with team: 3.9.

What more needs to be said about LeBron winning a title back home? He ended the Cleveland curse with a historic 3-1 comeback in the Finals, preventing the 73-win Warriors from completing what many might have been considered the best season in NBA history. Even though he had orchestrated the trade for Kevin Love as part of his stipulation to rejoin the Cavaliers, LeBron’s individual transcendence in carrying Cleveland to a title overshadowed any real notion of superteam. You don’t call something a superteam when King James is playing like a superhero.

2017 Golden State Warriors

Steph Curry – Drafted seventh overall; eighth year with team
Klay Thompson – Drafted 11th overall; sixth year with team
Draymond Green – Drafted 35th overall; fifth year with team
Kevin Durant – Signed as free agent; first year with team
Andre Iguodala – Acquired via sign-and-trade; fourth year with team

Drafted: 60 percent. Average years with team: 4.8.

Now, we reach the current nexus of the superteam concept, as Kevin Durant’s arrival in the Bay Area formed a voltron of basketball dominance that came one game away from a 16-0 playoff run. The Warriors are right around average in regard to the measurements we are noting in this list, slightly more home-grown than average with a bit shorter tenure. Seemingly, the difference with Golden State now is that all the players are firmly in their prime, so unlike the Miami and Boston teams during the past decade, their title window is much more indefinite. The noise on the Warriors superteam has ratcheted up because it’s not only a question for other teams of how they’re going to beat them next year, it’s how are they going to beat them over the next half decade.

After watching Golden State rampage through a 99-game season to their way to a four-hour championship parade Thursday, I still don’t know quite where we draw the line on what constitutes a superteam. But I do know I sympathize with the plight of any other organization tasked with the responsibility of stopping this one.

Overall averages: Drafted – 52 percent; years with team – 5.3.

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