The NBA trade deadline just ended, and wow, was it a humdinger. Nikola Mirotic to Milwaukee! Tobias Harris to Philadelphia! Marc Gasol to Toronto! Kristaps Porzingis! The biggest news concerned the transaction that wasn’t: Anthony Davis stayed with New Orleans despite an aggressive courtship by the Los Angeles Lakers. Such a move, had it gone down, would have been a “league changing” transaction, said Zach Lowe of ESPN in his podcast. It would’ve been the biggest trade since the Bucks sent Kareem Abdul Jabbar to the Lakers, he said. And wait till this summer, when Boston makes a play for the league’s best big man.
Roster volatility is the new normal
The moves remade their franchises, but player movement has moved at a fast clip for a while now. Gone are the days when teams fielded essentially the same team year after year, tinkering with it on the fringes, adding a key guy or two, but keeping an identity for years. Players switch teams more frequently these days. It seems fewer players can now be associated with a single franchise.
Why? Partly it’s a result of the team owners trying to save themselves from their own incompetence. Thanks to the last CBA, widely regarded as a win for the owners, player contracts are now four years long at best (five years in special instances), so owners who throw money at the wrong guys don’t make quite the massive self-inflicted wound when they shoot themselves in the foot. (Which they still do. See the John Wall contract.)
Yet these protections have worked out favoring the players as well. In exchange for the reduction in stability, players have shown less loyalty to franchises and been more willing to change jerseys. Which means power has shifted from the franchise to the player. Roster volatility is the new normal, which means that, as pundits like to say, it’s a player’s league now.
The need to win ringz
Which is what they want. This volatility has helped players in their quest to achieve championships and put a positive spin on the narrative of their careers. In this insightful Grantland piecefrom five years ago, Zach Lowe takes a look at how the toxic mix of two ideas, that only championship rings matter (COUNT THE RINGZ!!!) and the concern for legacy, has skewed our perception of some truly excellent players. His chief example is Chris Paul, but the same analysis can very well apply to many others.
Take Kevin Durant. The need to be recognized as a winner explains why he chose to join the Golden State Warriors when he hit free agency in 2016. He was of course an excellent two-way player, nearly seven feet and quick and athletic, an all-time great shooter and a rim-protecting beast. But he was also a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder that got into the finals just once in nine years. He wasn’t a winner.
The Warriors weren’t like previous superteams, which were mediocrities before stars signed on (Boston in 2007, Miami in 2010, Cleveland in 2014). They had made the NBA Finals in consecutive years, winning the first time and getting within a hair’s breadth of another trophy in the second (not to mention setting a regular-season record for wins). After falling to the Cavaliers in Game Seven (the score was tied with a minute left), the Warriors signed Durant and formed the mother of all superteams.
Did Durant or any of his new teammates care that they won the next championships handily? No. He was now a champion, with multiple trophies on his shelf. Durant was the same player he’d been on the OKC Thunder, but he was on a much better team now, and he won rings. He will never join the list of the league’s best players never to win it all.
Durant understood what LeBron James did, who himself saw what the 2007 Celtics had done: stockpile talent. Of course other things matter. Good coaching. Health. The favor of that fickle goddess Fortune. But in NBA basketball the biggest thing that determines success is your talent level.
The playoff format and randomness
One thing rarely recognized as responsible for this confluence of beliefs that has spurred the formation of superteams is the league’s playoff format (four rounds of best-of-seven, head-to-head contests). The teams with more talent usually win. Look at the playoff results. Every year the higher seed usually beats the lower seed, no matter how long and tense the series.
Sure, there’s the occasional surprise (Golden State surprising top seed Dallas in 2007 because Dirk Nowitzki hadn’t figured out how to shoot over smaller, more athletic defenders; Memphis using its size and brawn to overpower the highly favored San Antonio in 2011). Matchups matter, and one team’s weakness might play right into an opponent’s strength. But the long history of the NBA playoffs tells us that given seven attempts to win four games, the underdog usually can’t. (A five-seed beating a four-seed doesn’t count, since their records are often nearly identical.)
The last time a real underdog had the chance to win it all was in the lockout-shortened 1998–99 season, when the No. 8 seed in the East, the New York Knicks, stormed to a championship matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. (The Spurs won and began its two-decade reign as the league’s model franchise.)
Great players want championships above all. It’s part of their concern for their legacy. They want to be remembered as winners. And the best, surest way to do that in a system that highly favors the more talented team is to assemble the best talent. Hence the modern superteam.
If the NBA playoffs were more like the NCAA’s March Madness, things might be different. The top college basketball tournament in the US pits the best teams against each other in a series of one-game knockouts. In just over a month, more than sixty teams attempt to be the last team standing in several rounds of loser-go-home games. Happenstance gets magnified, luck looms large. An untimely injury, a streaky shooter catching fire, a lucky break (like a half-court heave at the buzzer) can send a weaker team past a stronger one. Predicting the winners of the different “brackets” is as much fun as the games themselves. But stretch out those single games into best-of-seven series, the smaller the role of randomness becomes.
A baseball comparison
Compare the NBA to another league where things aren’t so predictable.
There’s a truism in Major League Baseball that’s become popular: The playoffs are a crapshoot. It’s a stretch, but not by much. In that league, teams assemble the best talent they can, yes, but because so many more players go into a baseball team, and because baseball has randomness baked into it (it’s a more egalitarian sport, requiring more players and more balance up and down rosters), the winners are harder to foresee.
Before the 2018 season, Baseball America’s eight writers chose four teams to win it all. Sports Illustrated’s eight writers chose five. When the year ended, no one had guessed right: the Boston Red Sox were the champs. I went back a year and looked up predictions for 2017 and found that only a few sportswriters working in the many different websites correctly foretold that the Houston Astros would win their first title. These experts were just as likely to name four or five other teams as the likely winner.
But in the NBA, try to find a reputable sportswriter who didn’t predict a Warriors win this past season. Or the season before. Or who didn’t foresee yet another Golden State–Cleveland final. They knew what was coming, and they were right.
The superteam is here to stay
I’m aware that I might be overstating things. Maybe these Durant–era Warriors are an aberration. After all, smart money is on KD leaving the Warriors after the season (he’s a free agent again), which means Golden State will be mortal once more, and other teams will feel better about coming at them.
There will be more competition at the very top. Maybe the Houston Rockets will finally eclipse them next year. Maybe LeBron, with a new superstar alongside him (Anthony Davis? Kawhi Leonard?), will take the Lakers into the finals. Maybe the OKC Thunder, led by Russell Westbrook and sidekick Paul George, will finally get over the hump.
Maybe a team from the resurgent East will win it all. What used to be the weaker conference is where the excitement is now, and the arms race among the four top teams heated up at the trade deadline. Any of them could give the Warriors a tough finals series in a few months.
But the likely ending is still this: the Warriors win. We all saw it before the season started, and it’s still the likely outcome. But even if they don’t, even if a new champion gets crowned in June, what we won’t see is the end of the superteam. The mother of all superteams might be defeated or disbanded, but that doesn’t mean players won’t stop trying to put their own version of it together. It’s the best way to win, after all. And winning is still everything. Count the ringz.
Photographs from the players' Instagram accounts