Why The New NBA Arms Race Is Good For Basketball
Basketball, like all other facets of life on earth, is cyclical. History repeats itself, florals are forever the hot new look for spring and five NBA franchises have, between them, won 48 championships.
Super teams have always existed within the NBA. The Lakers, Celtics, Bad Boy era Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls, the Spurs, teams of this calibre dominating the league is the rule. The anomalies have come in the shake-ups, in the one-off wins of underdogs or teams with the unique chemistry and apparent destiny to burn white hot for a season and come apart. To argue that the current iteration of super teams, admitted behemoths of skill and versatility, signal a death knell for the NBA is as alarmist as it is counterintuitive.
Maybe you want to see Golden State turn LeBron into a jacked up version of the wailing drama mask, unravelled by calls not going his way into a loss, or you want to see the Cavs repeat. Maybe you’re just watching for the spectacle. Regardless of how annoying they can be when you’re living through the seasons they dominate, super teams are important for more than just the ratings they rake in. They are the pressure behind the tectonic plates of the league that force change and shape the landscape of the NBA.
Sometimes the work they do is obvious. LeBron’s return to Cleveland signaled a shift that it had become acceptable, even encouraged, for players to assert themselves and control the trajectories of their individual careers out in the open, rather than relying on franchise front offices to orchestrate plans behind closed doors. Durant may well have walked, but would he have felt the same momentum to do so if LeBron had not reaped the rewards of a similar move? A shakeup that signaled, in their defeat to the Cavs, that Golden State, somehow, was still missing a piece to make them champions?
The warm reception of Warriors fans had to feel good, too. Their reaction at Durant’s decision to choose them, rather than stay in Oklahoma City where he was already loved and might well have led the team to a Finals run signaled a new bargaining chip for the NBA superstar – the power to decide for themselves, expectations be damned. It’s a strange thing that grown men whose jobs are to be extraordinary aren’t afforded the same autonomy in their career choices as the regular rest of us because they are beholden, seemingly, to the league. It’s a stale mode of thought that deserves to be turned on its head and it’s the advent of the super team that’s partly responsible for dismantling the antiquated logic of loyalty above what’s best for your career, or yourself, in sports. The OKC community may have made effigies of Durant’s jersey to better illuminate his path west across the plains, but his future is now lit up by promise, and him going ISO-career meant the missing piece needed to soup-up a super team.
However these finals end up, the forming of the super teams involved have set off a basketball arms race and upped the ante for the rest of the league. Even if they aren’t contenders, every franchise is going to need to navigate this new territory to remain relevant in the league. The super team elevates the game beyond just level of play, every element – coaching, strategy, trades, drafting – will need to be undertaken with a heightened level of intent.
But where does all that leave franchises that can’t afford to stack superstars and hold a salary balance well over the cap? If the trend of player-driven ISO-career trades is replacing package deals of many players parceled up for the quick, hopeful fix of one, and tanking is on the outs as far as a contingency plan (The Process might only work once), how do good teams with one or two MVPs instead of five, compete?
The D-League is a good place to start. As of now the farm system in the NBA is an underused asset. The 2016-2017 season saw 22 affiliate teams, next season that will jump to 26 (it will also adopt the unfortunate moniker of the G-League, thanks to the millions of dollars and billions of electrolytes of Gatorade). Of the current players in the NBA, 44 percent of them got a start in the D-League, including Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside and Amir Johnson. It’s not a quick fix, and certainly not for franchises willing to immolate their entire roster just to shill for a superstar, but it will offer teams with patience for the long game a chance to shore up their benches and better equip their draft picks for on-court minutes.
Super teams don’t really affect the draft any differently, only the teams solely reliant on this chiefly crapshoot of a system (i.e. Manu Ginobli went 57th). The win or rebuild school of thought revolves around drafting a superstar, a player to reconstruct the ruins of the team that was just blown up to usher them in. Super teams won’t stop franchises from blowing up, but they will force that reaction to happen faster, especially if a GM’s first impulse is going full Pompeii. What will be more interesting to see is if teams start deciding to strategize by drafting according to type as an antidote for the reigning super teams.
Were the Bucks gunning for Thon Maker all along, knowing he wasn’t predicted to draft especially high but that he fit the prototype – long and lean with a wingspan that could wrap around LeBron twice – for the kind of player they were forging a new style of gameplay with? The Raptors, too, have tinkered away for years, making adjustments and tweaks that will benefit their core, while hoarding a veritable bumper crop of rookies with an eye to the long game. LeBron doesn’t stunt the development of the players that happen to be in the league at the same time as him. Player development is better because he’s dominating. Like the super team he’s a part of, his existence forces adaptation, honed play, expeditious evolution. Boston rose rapidly up the ranks this year and is currently enjoying the best conditions – a potential 1st round pick, leveraging the momentum of this past season – to come out of chrysalis as the newest super team. But whatever they do – hang onto the pick or pass it off for someone like, say, Boogie – the next super team is going to look a lot different.
It’s ironic that the existence of such untouchable, seemingly unbeatable teams is what signals, pretty much from their initiation, their own demise. While they accelerate the very evolution of the league, super teams have a short shelf life. They become boring, they get bad, they turn evil; whatever the outcome, they incite the desire for their destruction.
It’s thrilling to see a team so thoroughly stacked crush one season. As a fan you want to see good basketball and seeing such good basketball executed, basically flawlessly, makes you willing to forgive the likely indignity of your own team getting annihilated. Perfect basketball gets boring though, and rather than argue this is evidence we’re all spoiled brats when it comes to this present manifestation of super teams, I’d rather say that in the NBA, perhaps above over any other professionally played sport, it’s the give and take, the upsets, the explosive moments that allow insight to the individual players, that make for the best games.
So if there’s one thing above all else we should thank super teams for, it’s that without them one of the finest phenomena of sport wouldn’t exist: the underdog. Would it have been as exciting a thing, essentially magic, to see the 2004 Pistons topple the Lakers, if it weren’t so completely unexpected? To see a fairy tale of a dark horse of a team who just wanted it, dominating the team who expected it? A ragtag group of guys including Rasheed Wallace, Chauncy Billups and Ben Wallace, effectively dismantled a super team that included Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Phil Jackson coaching. Super teams test your limits as a fan, if you’re lucky enough to call one your team then you have to be wondering how long it will last, if you’re on the other end then I feel you. But those upsets, the accompanying ulcers and the flashes of hope that an overthrow could happen again, make everything electric and only exist because of a lack of league parity.
In these Finals we’ll see two super teams, and within them an absolutely absurd microcosm of deciding who is the better one. Is Cleveland the underdog in this situation? Or is it Golden State because they blew it last year? Will JR Smith soon have two championships rings, will Matt Barnes have one? It’s an entirely new level of competition and the rest of the league is going to have to keep up.