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Is the NBA’s Superteam Era Already Over?

In the summer of 2019, the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets all made blockbuster moves to pair superstar duos. Just over three years later, each team is struggling to scrape by. What happened? And what does it mean for the future of team-building?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Remember when landing a superteam was a windfall? When acquiring multiple superstars made virtually any team an instant title contender—if not the instant title favorite? There was a reason for all of that consternation over player empowerment and collusion that you tuned out over the past few years: When stars aligned, the on-court product was unimpeachable.

But three weeks into the 2022-23 season, the only thing a superteam is giving its fan base is an ulcer. Three years after the historic offseason that brought Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George to Los Angeles and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn, the Lakers and Clippers have the league’s two worst offenses and the Nets are so toxic they need to be talked out of decisions that are literally offensive. The Lakers are tied for the fewest wins in the league, the Nets can’t crack the play-in field, and yet it’s the Clippers, at a respectable 7-5, gripping the steering wheel tight with both hands as they wait out another injury absence from Leonard.

“We got to find a way to have fun, have some joy,” John Wall recently told The Athletic. “Like I told the guys in the locker room, I said, ‘Enjoy it. I had the game taken away from me for two years.’ We just don’t be having no joy, not having no fun. I think we all feel like it’s a lot of pressure on us.”

Every superteam formed by LeBron James, the Osiris of this paradigm shift, has ultimately petered out, as win-now role players aged and interpersonal clashes mounted. But even the hobbled Heat and the defenseless Cavaliers made the Finals in their fourth and final seasons. The check came early for the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets: None of these teams won a single playoff game last season, their third since the summer of 2019. And their payment plan is much longer: None has control over their own first-round draft picks until 2026 at the earliest.

Making matters worse, teams jilted by those same star players are flying past them in the title race: The Cavs, who stacked lottery selections in the wake of LeBron’s second departure before adding Donovan Mitchell during the offseason, rate as the best team in the NBA. The Pelicans, built partially through players and picks from the Lakers, have every Blog Boy in a tizzy. And while the Warriors and Celtics have had their fair share of troubles recently, both just made it to the Finals, largely through internal development.

For more than a decade, the NBA operated under the assumption that aggregating superstars was the key to success, to the point that even a 73-win team had to enlist a former MVP for reinforcement. But it’s jarring watching the league these days and seeing a team led by James and Davis—still ranked among the league’s 20 best players despite recent setbacks—look downright feckless against a no-star, all-vibes outfit like the Jazz. It’s early, shooting luck will even out, etc., etc., yet it’s hard not to wonder whether the three teams expected to dominate the league just three calendar years ago are already drawing dead—and if the blueprint that built those and other recent superteams has suddenly become outdated.

That’s not to say that the lure of star power has somehow diminished. The Cavs, lest we forget, just forked over a half decade of future draft picks to add Mitchell, whose blistering start has been the engine of Cleveland’s early success. But there’s a big difference between adding a star to an existing core, as the Hawks and Timberwolves also did this past offseason, and starting from scratch with a newly acquired superstar (or two or three) as the center of your franchise’s universe. One augments a team and its culture; the other replaces them. And by the summer of 2019, the latter was the cost of doing business with the very best players in the league.

After bristling against the hard-line HEAT CULTURE, James expanded his purview, from control over his choice of team to control of his team’s decisions. Most notably, he signed short-term contracts with the Cavs that applied pressure on the front office to make moves that prioritized the present-day team above all else. When he got to the Lakers, James added the influence of Klutch Sports into his tool belt, and his franchise and his agency worked in tandem to gut the roster and bring Davis on board.

That subtle evolution in power-grabbing trickled down to the stars following James’s blueprint, emboldening their own demands. It’s why Durant and Irving joined the Nets not as their new star players, but as “partners,” with voting rights on who coaches and who the team acquires. And why the Clippers paid what was then a record-smashing price to acquire George just to get Leonard on their side of the hallway.

None of these players can be faulted for wanting dominion over their careers, or for accepting more power when it’s been given to them; after all, league history is littered with players whose growth was stunted by the bad choices of their general managers. The problem is that, by and large, these superstars have been awful at making those same decisions.

Durant chose to hitch his post-Warriors legacy to Irving, a player who cares more about defending conspiratorial bullshit he found on Instagram than any opposing guard, and later James Harden, who side-stepped out of town after enduring 13 months of Kyrie’s third-eye wisdom. Davis was dominant in the Lakers’ title run but has never grown into being the guiding force that James needs in the twilight of his career; as a follow-up, LeBron reportedly advocated for the trade for Russell Westbrook, who produced one of the worst individual seasons in recent history and has now settled into a role as a $47 million bench scorer.

Wanting to disrupt the NBA’s traditional power dynamics is an admirable goal. If Stan Van Gundy can get a shot as a coach/GM, why can’t a well-connected superstar like KD play a bigger role in personnel moves? But so far, Durant’s run as pseudo-CEO hasn’t been much better than Elizabeth Holmes’s.

Oddly enough, Leonard, the least congenial of the trio, had the most success finding a star partner. George has shaken off some early playoff letdowns to become an ideal sidekick—a player just as capable of dropping 35 on any given night as he is downshifting to a 3-and-D role, and just as happy to do either. There simply haven’t been many opportunities for George to play off of Kawhi. Over three-plus seasons in L.A., Leonard has missed 127 of the Clippers’ regular-season games, or 53 percent. Most of the absences can be attributed to the torn ACL that cost Kawhi all of last season and the end of the Clippers’ 2021 run to the Western Conference finals, but after two games of a stilted bench role, Leonard was recently mysteriously shut down yet again, with no timetable for his return.

The DNPs—and, before that, the constant roster shuffling to account for a meticulous load-management schedule—have been an energy suck for a franchise built to Leonard’s specifications, but he isn’t the only superstar missing in action.

Big-Time Players Miss Big-Time Games

Player Team Missed Games Since 2019 Offseason Percentage of Total Games Missed
Player Team Missed Games Since 2019 Offseason Percentage of Total Games Missed
Kevin Durant Nets 136 57%
Kyrie Irving Nets 127 53%
Kawhi Leonard Clippers 127 53%
Paul George Clippers 94 40%
Anthony Davis Lakers 88 37%
LeBron James Lakers 58 25%

One of the main advantages of compiling star power is supposed to be the safety net it provides against injury; when one star is out, the thinking goes, you simply lean on another. But only the Clippers have managed to play even adequately this season amid the churn of absences. Part of that success may be attributable to the Clippers’ decision to bubble-wrap their two max players with a historic amount of depth, whereas the Lakers and Nets historically whiffed on trades for third stars (and in Brooklyn’s case, the re-trading of a third star for a lesser third star). But the league as a whole also seems deeper and more talented than the days of LeBron’s first Big Three, when one of the biggest obstacles to the Finals was literally a very large man. These days, even a matchup with the 3-9 Magic requires game-planning against a 6-foot-10 big man with the body control and ballhandling skills of a young LeBron.

The aggressive trades by the coastal elites have spurred other teams to build more boldly, too. To keep Giannis Antetokounmpo off the open market, the Bucks dealt the rights to five draft picks for Jrue Holiday. It took four first-round picks for Atlanta and Minnesota to land Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert, respectively, and five firsts for Cleveland to get Mitchell. That’s four more teams all in on the present-day product, in addition to the host of others that got there more organically.

Of the four small-market tradees, only Gobert has made an All-NBA team, and only Gobert and Mitchell have made more than one All-Star appearance. While accomplished, these players simply aren’t on the same level as 2019 Davis and George, both of whom had previously finished top three in MVP voting. But the Davis and George trades, while boons for the L.A. teams, were also clear warnings to any team (and perhaps more importantly, owner) in a less glamorous market: If you want to keep the stars you have, you need to pay the exorbitant price to win now. In other words, LeBron’s and Kawhi’s power plays galvanized their competition into making similar moves, creating superish teams with younger stars and deeper rosters on the same timeline as the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets.

The question now is whether that next wave of stars will follow LeBron’s lead when their contracts begin to run out. As exhilarating as Mitchell has been in his short tenure with Cleveland, he hasn’t yet reached the point when he’ll be able to make his own decision. The 26-year-old holds a player option for the 2025-26 season, at which point the Cavs’ core of 20-somethings should be reaching the peak of their powers, but an untimely injury or an owner’s unwillingness to go deep into the tax for multiple max contracts or a preference to play elsewhere could derail even the best-laid plans. And with massive new TV deals expected to lead to a surge in the salary cap, extensions—which James, Durant, and Leonard all eventually signed with their current teams—aren’t much of a tool for the home team, either.

As groundbreaking as James’s career moves have been, his root motivations were simple: He wanted to compete at the highest levels where and with whom he wanted. It’s hard to imagine how you’d legislate that out entirely—though, given the current pace of the star market, franchises may soon need even more help from themselves than the Stepien rule provides. But we may have reached a tipping point—or, if we haven’t quite yet, we soon will, as James ages into his 40s and, presumably, out of the title picture. The next era of the NBA is coming; whether it looks like the league that James helped build may rest on how the superteams that started this unprecedented arms race finish.