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The Boston Celtics started the NBA's superteam boom in the summer of 2007 when they united Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with Paul Pierce to create a 66-win champion overnight. In the process, they established a rough blueprint of what we considered to be a superteam moving forward. 

At least one superstar needed to be acquired through external means. In Boston's case, there were two. The depth needed to be comprised mostly of unproven players on rookie contracts (in their case, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Leon Powe and Tony Allen) and veterans who took pay cuts to join them (James Posey and Eddie House). They were usually able to snag a higher-end veteran or two through the buyout market (Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown), and were off to the races from there.

The next batch of superteams more or less followed this formula. The Miami Heat paired Dwyane Wade with LeBron James and Chris Bosh and slowly accumulated surrounding veterans in the ensuing years. The Golden State Warriors upped the ante in 2016 by using a once-in-a-lifetime cap spike to get to four stars. Meanwhile, less successful three-star (remember Carmelo Anthony and Paul George joining Russell Westbrook?) and two-star (the ill-fated James Harden-Chris Paul duo, for example) variants became increasingly common. 

As time passed, these superteams became decidedly less super. Think of the teams from the 2023-24 season that fit that model. The Phoenix Suns were swept out of the first round in their first season with Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker together. The Los Angeles Clippers only stole two games against the eventual Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks. Granted, you could argue that on some level, both of those teams lost to opponents who check a few "superteam" boxes of their own. Both Minnesota (Rudy Gobert) and Dallas (Kyrie Irving) added All-Stars externally to their existing cores. 

But neither of those teams really resembled the 2008 Celtics or their immediate successors. The Mavericks and Timberwolves are far deeper. Their balance sheets are more, well, balanced. Their cores were built methodically over time and added to opportunistically, as opposed to the Celtics, who were slapped together on the fly. The Clippers and Suns tried it the 2008 Celtics way. Look where it got them. The lesson here is that being super means something different in 2024 than it did in 2008.

No team was more super this season than the Boston Celtics. They weren't just the best team of the 2023-24 regular season. They have thus far been one of the best teams in any season. Their net rating of +11.7 is the third-best of all time, trailing only the Chicago Bulls in 1996 and 1997. Their +10.4 playoff net rating is the eighth best in league history thus far. They are one of only nine teams in the past 40 years to reach the Finals with 20 or fewer total losses. This is certainly a superteam's resume, but of course, if that were the only criteria, this wouldn't be such a modern phenomenon.

The term, as we've covered, refers more to roster construction than success. By those metrics, it depends how far you want to stretch the terms we've set. Boston only had two 2024 All-Stars. Not a great start. Both of those All-Stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have spent their entire careers with the Celtics. Again, this isn't usually how we'd define a superteam.

The Celtics had chances to go all in for a third enormous name. Beal, for instance, is a longtime friend of Tatum's, as both grew up in the St. Louis area. The Celtics were mentioned as a possible destination for Durant in the summer of 2022. Go back far enough and the Celtics were linked to just about every big name on the trade market. When Danny Ainge was building his version of the Celtics, he wanted to pair Anthony Davis with Irving. Paul George and Jimmy Butler were discussed at various points.

But Brad Stevens has taken a different approach. The consensus explanation for Boston's dominance this season has been its top-end depth. The Celtics don't have three great players. They have six very good ones. Three of them, Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford, made All-Star teams playing for someone other than the Celtics. A fourth, Derrick White, was acquired before his prime and may yet get there wearing green and white.

The Celtics did go the external addition route, they just chose to do it with multiple players rather than a single big swing. Their depth is mostly comprised of younger players on cheap contracts like Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard. Horford likely could heave earned more had he chosen to reach free agency after the 2022-23 season, but he extended early at a team-friendly rate to ensure he could stick with a winner. The Celtics didn't add a major piece through the buyout market, but the new CBA didn't allow them to. They did nab Xavier Tillman as injury insurance for Porzingis, and sure enough, he played some playoff minutes in the first three rounds with Porzingis sidelined.

This path might not sound quite as glitzy as the one taken by their 2008 counterparts, but as the Clippers and Suns proved, glamour does not not necessarily equal super. In the new financial world the NBA exists in, "glamour" and "super" might be fundamentally incompatible.

Any team would love to have three superstars. The problem is paying them. The new CBA that kicked in this season added a number of restrictions that made putting a functional team around three aging superstars significantly harder. Starting this season, teams above the first luxury tax apron couldn't sign most buyout players. Salary-matching rules in trades became stricter. Second-apron teams lost access to the taxpayer mid-level exception. These rules get even tighter in July. Second-apron teams won't be able to aggregate salary in trades. They have no wiggle room on tradable salary, and will now need to send out at least as much as they bring in.

You can survive these restrictions for a time if you drafted your own stars. Having high-end producers on rookie deals is a godsend in this environment, but even having them on the lower-end, 25% max as the Celtics do with Tatum and Brown, means quite a bit. Compare that to, say, Phoenix, which added two older stars on the highest possible 35% max while also paying their homegrown star, Booker, his own 35% max because he's a bit older and reached the supermax criteria, and you begin to see why the Celtics could afford to actually surround their best players properly while the Suns relied mostly on minimums. 

The bill will come due on Tatum and Brown eventually. Brown has already signed a supermax extension that hasn't kicked in yet. Tatum became eligible for one by earning All-NBA honors this season. But Boston built while they were reasonably cheap and before the CBA harshly limited their maneuverability. They added players who were expensive, but not prohibitively so, and they timed the moves brilliantly. 

They landed White in the first year of a below-market rookie extension he signed with the Spurs. They got Horford on a bloated contract he signed, ironically, when he left the Celtics in 2019, but didn't go on another shopping spree until after his expensive contract expired and was replaced by the cheaper extension. Boston landed Porzingis for very little asset value -- they gained two first-round picks when trading Marcus Smart for him! -- because he was an impending free agent, and they used that to their advantage. Rather than testing the open market, Boston took advantage of his higher 2022-23 salary ($36 million or so through a player option) to convince him to take a bit less in the next two years, $60 million in total. They pulled a similar trick with Holiday, though he needed four years of security to take a short-term pay cut.

All told, Boston will pay the quartet of Holiday, Porzingis, White and Horford roughly $88 million next season. That's a lot ... but Phoenix is paying Durant and Beal over $101 million combined. Are there scenarios in which you'd rather pay $101 million for two megastars than $88 million for four very good players? Sure, If both of those 35% max players are obvious All-NBA talents that can reliably stay healthy and have diverse and compatible skill sets. That obviously wasn't the case with Durant and Beal. Both dealt with injuries. Beal declined. Their skill sets were too similar (especially with Booker sharing it). If you can unite peak LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, you should probably do it. Obviously, opportunities to check all of those boxes are going to be rare, especially today.

But landing sub-superstar-level players on reasonable contracts? That's a more attainable goal, and in this new world, probably a worthier one if you have one or two true max players in place first. That caveat will likely always matter no matter the CBA changes. The 2004 Pistons aside, it's hard to imagine any team ever winning a championship without at least one first-team All-NBA-caliber player on the roster. But one or two of them might just be better than three when the realities of modern roster-building are accounted for.

Both finalists are proof of that. The Mavericks are here as much because of P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford as they are Kyrie Irving. There will always be an attraction to the idea of blindly mashing famous players together and hoping to figure the rest out later. Teams like that have won a lot of championships. But 2024 basketball is built for the 2024 Celtics, not their 2008 counterparts. The NBA is too deep, too injury-prone and too restricting to expect three players alone to win a championship unless those players are a degree of exceptional that almost never comes along. The more realistic future of the superteam will be on display in the Finals. It just might not look as super as you're used to.