Knicks vs. Warriors: Examining what makes an NBA 'super-team'
What makes a team "super" and how is it different based on context?
The NBA joke-of-the-week involves Derrick Rose and the New York Knicks. In an interview with NBA.com, the new Knicks point guard alluded to the idea of there being two "super-teams" in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson ... and Rose's Knicks, with himself, Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah and Kristaps Porzingis.
From NBA.com, emphasis mine:
ROSE: (Expectations are) high. I mean, with these teams right now, they're saying us and Golden State are the super teams, and they're trying not to build that many super teams, and Adam Silver came out with the statement and this and that. And the expectations I think of us, we just want to win. Talking to Melo and all the guys who've been around. You've got Brandon who just signed for one year, he's got to show why he's there. I've got to show why I'm there. Joakim has to show why he's there. Everybody's trying to prove themselves. When you've got a group like that, it's like, alright, I know everybody wants to do that, but we're going to break this down as simple as possible, and try to win every game. I think winning takes care of every category, as far as being an athlete. You look at endorsements, being on the floor, almost everything -- I think winning takes care of all that. And if you're in the league, winning takes care of all the mistakes, or if you have any problems on teams.
Immediately the jokes started flying in, most notably about the fact that Rose was right. The Knicks indeed put together a super-team ... if this group played in 2011.
There are any number of reasons to unleash snark on Rose's remark. Honestly, though, the comment is in line with how Rose still views himself, given his preseason comments last year about what he expects from his next contract.
But Rose's comments do present an interesting question unintentionally. How do we define a super-team in the NBA?
WHAT IS A SUPER-TEAM?
Among the major team sports in the U.S., the concept of a super-team is only really possible in the NBA and MLS. In baseball and football, no individual player has enough impact on the game to change not only a team's chances for winning but to alter the league's ecosystem. We've seen big-talent teams on the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, but rarely do they ever dominate in a way that elite-talent combinations can in basketball.
In the NBA, one starter can significantly alter a team's prospects, and more than that, individual talent is the biggest driver of success -- over strategy, coaching and team play or style. It's why teams that are well built with good talent lose in the playoffs if it lacks a star. (See: Celtics, Boston.) But while several teams have more than one star, they're not all super-teams, yet all super-teams have stars.
Here are some of the factors that help define a super-team in the NBA:
A Super Team needs at least two superstars and at least on additional star
First you'd have to define "stars" and that itself can be tricky. You can have "stars" like Al Horford or DeMar DeRozan, who are multiple-time All-Stars and marquee players on their teams ... and then there are "stars" like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Triad Heat provide the best kind of model for how to evaluate these teams.
You need three stars. If you have two stars, that is not a super-team; no one ever called the Thunder a super-team despite Serge Ibaka being a near All-Star. You need three legitimate stars, but you also need at least two "superstars." Chris Bosh, despite ultimately proving more important in that run for Miami than Dwyane Wade, was still not a superstar for the duration.
As another example, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were superstars when the Boston Celtics' super-team formed in 2008; Ray Allen was that complementary star.
With regards to the Knicks it's important to note that the idea of a player being a "star" or "superstar" lingers past their peak. Joakim Noah was definitely as much of a "star" in 2013 as Chris Bosh was in 2010. However, for it to be a real super-team, those players have to still be in their primes in a very evident way. This is why the 1997 Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley were not a super-team (and were a pretty good comparison for this Knicks squad).
That brings up a tough call. The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers were definitely regarded as a super-team when they added Gary Payton (35) and Karl Malone (40). So why was that a super-team and this current Knicks team isn't?
A Super Team cannot form from the draft alone
Interesting element in this is that to really be considered a "super-team," one of the stars has to be added in free agency or trade after the other players on the team have become stars. For example: No one would really call the current Clippers a super-team because when Chris Paul joined in 2012, only Blake Griffin was considered a star; J.J. Redick just barely falls beneath the label of "star" and DeAndre Jordan lies somewhere in a murky nebulous star/non-star state.
This is why the Warriors, who drafted Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, were not truly considered a true super-team. You can't draft a super-team, but if you draft the other members of a super-team, and then add a free agent (Kevin Durant) when the other players you drafted have become stars (or superstars, arguably), then you are definitely a super-team. But the Showtime Lakers already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then drafted Magic Johnson, and while Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper were stars and Hall-of-Fame caliber guys, they don't resonate on the same star level.
By the same notion, the San Antonio Spurs have featured three future-Hall-of-Fame players and won multiple titles with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They then added Kawhi Leonard, yet were still not considered a super-team. Even more interesting if you take into account the "free agent star acquisition" corollary, the Spurs weren't even considered a super-team last year after having those four and then adding LaMarcus Aldridge.
So in the end, we wind up with categorizations all over the map for teams that could be, or were, described as super-teams.
Superstars: Stephen Curry, Kevin DurantStars: Klay Thompson, Draymond Green*
(*You can definitely make the argument for those two as superstars, I'm just playing it conservatively here.)
Superstars: LeBron James
Stars: Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving
Superstars: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton
Superstars: Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol*
(*Nash had slipped, but was still an incredible player coming off the 2012 season; the injuries hadn't really ruined him yet because he was still with Phoenix's magical training staff. Gasol was still considered one of, if not the best big man in the league at that point.)
Superstars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade
Stars: Chris Bosh
Superstars: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce*
Stars: Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo
(*Realistically this was only a super-team until about 2012 when they lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. What's interesting is that they were a super-team with the "Three Amigos" and then at the time when Allen started to slide with age, becoming just a spot-up shooter, Rondo emerged.)
Stars: Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce*
(*This one's tough. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated when they formed and while the team was a flaming disaster that wound up costing the Nets every draft pick for what feels like a decade, at the time, most people thought they'd be great. I thought they'd win 62 games for crying out loud. Whoops. But Garnett and Pierce were definitely past their primes, and Williams and Lopez were never that good -- in Brooklyn, at least. This one might be the best example of a team we thought was a super-team that maybe we should have examined closer.)
Superstars: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol
Stars: Andrew Bynum
(*The biggest reason you would call them a super-team is that the Lakers went from good team to "Man, they are the favorites in the West" when they traded for Gasol in 2008. They won two titles, but that's hindsight. It definitely felt like when the Lakers added Gasol that things had tipped, even though Bynum had only really emerged in 2008, and then he went down with a knee injury that severely impacted his career.)
Superstars: Hakeem Olajuwon
Stars: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler*
(*This one, maybe more than any other, suffers the most as history recedes because of their failure. Barkley's fall-off was really what wound up meaning this team wasn't a super-team, but it's entirely possible that, like the 2014 Nets, they were considered as such going into the season. In the end, though, all three star players were past their primes, and that impacts things.)
Superstars: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul
Stars: DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick
Not a super-team because: Paul wasn't added when the stars had hit their primes.
Superstars: Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire
Star: Tyson Chandler
Not a super-team because: There were already signs of Stoudemire's injury decline and Anthony's relative inability to carry the team.
Superstars: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant
Star: Serge Ibaka
Not a super-team because: All their star talent was drafted.
Superstars: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
Stars: David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard
Not a super-team because: All their star talent was drafted.
Superstars: Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway
Stars: Dennis Scott, Horace Grant
Not a super-team because: Grant was never quite a real "star" -- he wasn't on Bosh's level, for example, and their superstar talent was drafted.
Superstars: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen
Stars: Dennis Rodman
Not a super-team because: All their superstar talent was drafted.
Superstars: Kawhi Leonard
Stars: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge
Not a super-team because: I'm not honestly sure, but it has something to do with the inherent "Spurs-ness" of the team.
Superstars: Derrick Rose
Stars: Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer
Not a super-team because: Rose wasn't a superstar when Boozer was added, and Boozer wasn't quite the level of star, despite being a huge free agent in 2010 to define them as such. This team was awfully good in the one year Rose was healthy (2011) though.
Superstars: Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming
Stars: Ron Artest
Not a super-team because: This team was crazy hyped at the time; people might have hinted at this being a super-team if healthy. But with Yao's injuries already an issue as well as McGrady's, and Artest a definable star, but not elite, they just don't make the cut. This team for the brief time it was healthy, though, is crazy underrated historically.
Superstars: Carmelo Anthony
Stars: Derrick Rose, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
In the end, we see that really you can make the same description about super-teams as you can in the famous quote about pornography from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."
You know that the Warriors this season are a super-team, just as you know that the Knicks very much are not ... unless you're Derrick Rose. The nature of these definitions is complicated and can shift instantly built upon certain elements.
Beyond all of these definitions, though, is maybe a bigger point. Look through that list of "definite" super-teams. Every one except the 2013 Lakers wound up winning a title with that core. The drop-off is steep after that, but there's a reason these teams are called "super."
Talent in the NBA matters more than anything, and having the embarrassment of riches that elicits that description means good teams for your chances of winning a title.
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