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A Super-Serious Superteam Check-in

Three weeks into the season, it’s time to see just how super superteams like Golden State, Oklahoma City, and Houston are doing

NBA stars’ faces on superheroes’ bodies Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The second-worst example of a superteam—a team built of supposedly unfair amounts of talent—was when the Lakers paired up Kobe Bryant with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012-13. They were a truly joyless disaster. Nash, among the five or 10 most likable NBA superstars of all time, suffered his way through an injury-riddled season, so we were all robbed of his basketball effervescence. Kobe and Dwight openly hated each other, and it was Dwight Howard instead of Shaq that Kobe was fighting with, so it was way more sad than it was interesting. And Mike Brown was the coach of the team (which also featured Pau Gasol, who by that point was a bag of angry, rusted chains, and Metta World Peace, who was Metta World Peace), and asking Mike Brown to figure out how to manage that collection of personalities was like asking a tree to solve a Rubik’s cube.

The first-worst example of a superteam was last season when Derrick Rose said that the Knicks were a superteam because they’d signed him and Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah to play alongside Carmelo Anthony. My favorite stat from last season: The Super Knicks went the final three and a half months of the season without winning two games in a row. Even better: That streak started with a loss on Christmas Day, which was an exactly perfect Super Knicks thing.

Coincidentally, the best example of a superteam was also from last season. It was when the Warriors, who’d won a record-setting 73 games the prior season, added Kevin Durant to their roster. They were a menace (and still are a menace). It was like if the someone in the Avengers was like, “You know what’d be cool? If we had another Thor,” and then they went out and got another Thor. The Super Warriors blitzed their way to the 2017 championship, and in doing so have set up a number of superteam-based conversations and story lines and plot points for this season, the two most pressing being “How did we get here?” and “How are this season’s superteams doing?” Let’s answer them.

The backs of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade during their time with the Miami Heat Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Is LeBron James responsible for the modern version of NBA superteams?

That’s certainly a notion that’s been lobbed into the atmosphere for some time now, but it’s not entirely accurate. Superteams have existed in the NBA since (arguably) all the way back when Wilt Chamberlain forced his way to the Lakers in 1968 (joining up with guaranteed Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West).

If you want to find a historical team that mirrors something closer to the kind of superteam that we see today, you could go with, say, the 1982-83 Sixers. That was Dr. J’s Sixers team. They’d lost in the Finals in 1982 (and also in 1980), and so they brought in Moses Malone (who was the reigning MVP) to team up with him and Maurice Cheeks. They went on to win the title that year, and Moses won Finals MVP. (If you squint, this looks a little like the Warriors losing in the 2016 Finals, bringing in Kevin Durant, winning the title, and KD taking home the Finals MVP.)

You can also look at Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers in 2003-04, otherwise known as Satan’s Glory. And, if you’re especially hung up on the phrase “modern version” in the question, then you can point to Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen sidling up next to Paul Pierce in Boston to win the 2008 title.

A good and nuanced and correct way to explain the whole situation is what Andrew Lynch said in a piece that he wrote about superteams back in June, for Fox Sports. He said, “LeBron didn’t start the NBA’s love affair with superteams; he merely made it acceptable.” (Lynch also does a good job in that article of framing how the creation of free agency helped the NBA arrive to the point it’s at today. Go read it.)

Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

How are each of this season’s superteams doing?

Wait, wait, wait. Are you talking about a SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN? That’s what we’re going to do?


Beautiful. We should probably figure out which teams are actual superteams first, though. The Warriors are obviously a superteam, so they’re included here. Philosophically, the Oklahoma City Thunder can be considered a superteam, so they’re in, too. Are we still counting the Cavs as a superteam? You kind of have to, right? Given that they have LeBron (and Kevin Love) (and Dwyane Wade) (and, eventually, Isaiah Thomas). Where it gets tricky is when you start talking about teams like the Rockets, who probably aren’t technically a superteam but maybe might kiiiiiiiiind of be a superteam. (Having traded for one of the greatest point guards of all time tends to up your credibility in this department.)

And how about the Spurs? Are they a superteam? The Celtics? They were an assumed to be mini-superteam before the start of the season, but then my beloved Gordo got hurt and that discussion ended real quick. But then Kyrie’s went Nega Kyrie and the Celtics went on a nine-game win streak and so they are back in the discussion. What about the teams that nobody was really expecting anything out of, but have managed to look really good and promising through this first month of the season like the Knicks and the Magic. On and on, more and more.

OK, so we’re basically just including anybody right now, is what it seems like?

I think so, yeah. But not literally everybody. Just those eight teams mentioned. Those are the ones who come to mind when I hear the term “superteam.”

The Knicks and the Magic?

I mean, not really. But they’ve been to fun watch this season so fuck it. They’re included. So let’s go through each of those eights teams, listed in ascending order of ascending superteaminess, and figure out who’s accounted for and who’s not in our SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN.

James Harden and Chris Paul in the stands at Minute Maid Park Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Wait, wait. What’s the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN?

For the purposes of this article, let’s say the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is just a thing that lets us talk about whether or not a team is a superteam. If a team mentioned can (loosely) be considered a superteam, they are accounted for in the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN.

Got it.

Good. Now, the eight teams:

The Knicks

Not actually a superteam, but it’s just neat that the Knicks are entertaining again so I’m going to put them in the conversation here. (It’s also a super duper amount of accidental shade to the Knicks franchise [and also to Carmelo] that they’re 6-4 and people are very excited about them.) As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Knicks are accounted for, sure, but not really. It’s like when you’re at the park about to play basketball and there are kids shooting on the court before the game actually gets started. The kids are there, but not really.

The Magic

They’re the same kind of superteam that the Knicks are right now, which is to say not one at all. But again: They’re fun, so it’s whatever.

Sidebar: A team near the Knicks/Magic-level of superteamdom that has the potential to actually become a real superteam is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their last 11 games of the season are against teams that are either going to be out of the playoffs or somewhere near the bottom of the playoff hunt. So if Minny runs off, say, a 10-1 or 9-2 record through those games going into the postseason then the Super Wolves are going to be favorites against whomever they end up playing.

The Spurs

Let’s go back to that Andrew Lynch article again. One of the things he does is create a guideline for determining whether or not a team is technically a superteam or not:

There are in fact three key indicators that you're dealing with a superteam:

1. Multiple Hall of Famers joining forces, with at least one superstar coming from an outside team;

2. The superteam-to-be already enjoying a certain level of success before taking the leap;

3. The newly formed superteam being seen as a juggernaut that threatens the balance of power in the NBA.

Those feel right to me. And they’re also why we have to eliminate the Spurs from superteam contention here. The only one of those requirements they meet is ... none of those requirements. The Spurs are a fine team, and when the playoffs start they’ll be a good team. They’re just not a superteam. Thus: As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Spurs are absent.

The Celtics

Surprise. Kyrie Irving, powered perhaps by the odd gravity of flat earth, has played like a warlock these past 19 days. He and Al Horford and their Other Guys look like serious threats to the Cavs’ assumed dominance of the Eastern Conference. It seems unlikely that they will be able to compete with the Warriors in the Finals, but it also feels like that’s not the point of this season for them. The goal for Boston and Kyrie is to snatch the crown off LeBron’s head. As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Celtics are accounted for and looking strong.

The Rockets

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since Chris Paul missed the end of the Rockets-Warriors game on opening night (which was a Rockets win) and every game since then with a knee injury. Let’s say, worst-case scenario, that Chris Paul is never quite able to recover fully from this injury. He pops in every once in awhile to play, but it’s clear to everyone that he’s just not Normal Chris Paul. Let’s also say that, best-case scenario of that worst-case scenario, that James Harden continues to mesmerize, and the Rockets became the runaway second-best team in the NBA. If the Rockets are rolling and the coaches decide to just shut Chris down for the season and he never really gets to play, do we still get to consider the Rockets a superteam? Or are they just a better version of last season’s Rockets (which was not a superteam)? I don’t know the answer here. I just know that James Harden is terrifying. As such: As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Rockets are accounted for and looking strong.

LeBron James celebrating after scoring Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Cavs

Really and truly and honestly, there are only three actual superteams currently in the NBA. It’s the Cavs (LeBron, Kevin Love, Wade, Isaiah, and a scarecrow in a Derrick Rose jersey), the Thunder (Russy, Carmelo, Paul George), and the Warriors (Steph, Klay, KD, Draymond). The Cavs are the most mysterious. It’s just hard to say if this listlessness they’ve been playing with the past three weeks is the same kind of malaise we’ve seen from them in other seasons or if it’s something more nefarious. As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Cavs are accounted for, but only barely. As it stands right now, it’s hard to picture the Cavs beating the Warriors from The Warriors movie, let alone the Warriors from the NBA.

The Thunder

The Thunder are somehow the most dangerous threat to the Warriors and also the least dangerous threat to them. It’s bizarre. You know what it feels like? I’ll tell you exactly what it feels like: My youngest son just turned 5 years old. In the lead-up to his birthday, my wife and I asked him what he wanted as a present. He said the only thing he wanted was a Lego version of a raptor. Try as we might (which really means she tried hard and I did nothing), neither of us were able to find one in an actual store. So what we did (what she did) was order one off the internet. When it got to our house some two weeks later, he was very, very excited about it and everyone was feeling pretty good.

The thing of it was, though, it was very clear that it wasn’t an official Lego thing (there was no Lego stamp on any of the pieces, and also it came in an unlabeled plastic bag rather than a box). So when he opened it and started trying to put together he immediately noticed a problem: Rather than the raptor having a right leg and a left leg, it had two right legs. So he had what at first looked like all of the parts of this very cool, very fun, very great new toy in his hands. But upon closer inspection, he noticed that there was a redundancy there that made the whole thing feel very lackluster and unnecessary. That’s what the Thunder feel like right now. Now, there’s a happy ending to the story: My wife was smart enough to order multiple raptors, so she just pieced a proper one together and now it’s the most coveted toy in the house. Here’s hoping that a similar thing happens to the Thunder. As far as the SUPERTEAM CHECK-IN is concerned, the Thunder are accounted for, but nobody’s put them together correctly yet.

The Warriors