The Inbounds: Why superstar teams need more than celebrity

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

For some reason, in the past 15 or so years, there has been a flood of songs by celebrities about being a celebrity, most by pretty terrible celebrities.

It's famous people writing or performing songs about being famous. It falls into the same category as when I start writing posts about writing posts, or a politician running on a campaign about how he campaigns. The songs often become popular because they're by popular artists with catchy hooks. But in reality, no one actually cares. None of these songs is included in lists of the iconic songs of an artist. We care that people are famous, and about how they feel about being famous, but not about artistic works about being famous.

It's pretty much hedonism of the self.

And to get this away from being a Chuck Klosterman column, I realized it's a lot like what tems have done in this "superstar team-up" era we have going on in the NBA. When the Houston Rockets, darlings of the idea that you can build your team using smart signings and value players brought along by development and chemistry ditches the idea in pursuit of Howard the Schmuck, then you know we've hit a new level. And all of this is built around a rather self-important idea that having famous people makes what you do relevant, when in reality, it's not really true.

These teams have lauded themselves for grabbing these stars. It's supposed to usher in an ara of contention heretofore unseen by these teams. By my count the list of "superstar team-ups" in the NBA currently is as follows.

Throw in the Boston Celtics, who started this latest run on mega-teams and only recently self-destructed, and you have nine teams over the past five seasons who built superstar teams, with only two having done most of the work in the draft (Chicago and Oklahoma City).

(I don't count the San Antonio Spurs, because their coach and their system are their biggest superstars, and they've moved away from relying on their actual stars in recent years.)

Number of teams that have won titles if you don't count the Lakers pre-Nash: two.

Now, you can go ahead and throw out there that every single one of those teams has made the playoffs, and been a pretty high seed in most cases, since bringing in the starlight. But you don't throw out the kind of money that you pay for these teams to make the playoffs. You pay that money to win championships. Yes, seven of those teams (Boston, Chicago, OKC twice and the Heat thrice) have made the conference finals. But for the money paid, it doesn't seem to work out.

Bringing together superstar teams isn't evening the field, because there's only one superstar team that matters: Miami. Look at the teams that gave the Heat real trouble. The Mavericks did so with a comprehensive team approach (Tyson Chandler couldn't be considered a superstar till he was in Dallas, but I would consider him now, even though he played better in Dallas; just go with me on this). The Pacers and Spurs also relied on contributions from everyone and a strong set of principles on both sides of the ball.

You can put Boston 2012 in there if you want as the exception. I don't, because those Celtics relied strongly on a team concept, Chris Bosh was hurt, and when LeBron flipped the switch, he leveled the franchise.

But even then, let's consider Boston, because it kind of reinforces the point. Boston's players won in their first year, but that was in a much weaker NBA environment. More importantly, though, they had a central team identity, "Ubuntu" to bring it together.

Even the pre-Nash Lakers with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom were tethered by Phil Jackson's triangle. The modern equivalents, your Knicks, your Nets, and as we seem then now, the Rockets, have no such identity. Neither did the Heat in 2011. They didn't understand who they were, individually alongside one another, or together. It wasn't until 2012 and Erik Spoelstra's underrated courage to go with a smallball approach that flies in the face of much of what we've come to understand about playoff basketball that they got it.

Instead, the idea has been "Let's get all these top players, cap space be damned, throw in some fringe signings, make some T-shirts, and go to war!"

Go ask the Lakers how that worked out, or the Nets.

But there's so much more to it than that. So even as Houston celebrates its newfound fortune and we begin to evaluate them as title contenders, we should be patient. Houston, more than other teams, seems to understand the work that has to be done. But it takes time. Players take time to understand how to play next to one another. The Knicks brought in new players last season, but in truth, it was the comfort of time that allowed them to formulate their plan of being driven by Carmelo Anthony (which is also the cause of their ceiling, but that's for another time).

The Nets will be better next season, and credit will be given to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but it will also come from Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez having had time to learn how to play together. The Clippers, too, will improve -- and that will be in part because of the comfort Chris Paul will come to know with his counterparts as much as Doc Rivers' influence will impact things.

And maybe the biggest regret for Lakers fans is that we'll never get to discover what last year's Lakers would look like this season. Not only under the awning of better health, but with a firmer foundation built on familiarity.

Patience is the most valuable commodity in the NBA, and time follows behind it. The NBA is endlessly rattled on about as a player's league, a league of stars. And those platitudes ring true, but they're tempered in this age where the competition is as high as it has been, overall, since the '80s, maybe ever. (Jordan's superiority does not a strong league make.) LeBron James' reign as the once and future king does not confound this, it reinforces his dominance over a league top heavy, and with depth at the top.

So yes, the Rockets will be a force most likely, and should Howard return to 2011 form, they can be counted among the contenders, or at least sub-contenders to the crown. But this will take time. As we've seen the major market teams gobble up stars more and more, we've also come to understand how much more complicated the process is for them, and that it's as much about the team they put around those beasts and the way the team is structured as it is about the talent at the helm.

You're not a celebrity because you sing about your celebrity, and you're not a legendary team because of the legends that play for you. The process, it would seem, takes a bit more.

 
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