Why NBA teams should avoid Star Power
I know the title might be a bit of surprise but hear me out on this on. Adding stars to a team is not the way to go in the NBA, but not in a way you are thinking about it. It has been said many times over that the NBA is a player’s league. Stars in the NBA have a much larger impact on a team’s success than in the other major American sports. Ever since 2010 the main goal of every team was to mimic what the Miami Heat did in forming what has been dubbed a “Big Three.” While there have been successful attempts at winning championships by adding star players, there have also been some very (very) unsuccessful attempts at forming super teams or adding players, who have the moniker of being a star. In this piece I will be showcasing some of the failed super teams and what models should be followed to achieve championship greatness in the NBA.
2011/12 New York Knicks
It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over a decade since Carmelo Anthony first became a Knick. In all honesty, it wasn’t until years later that I even knew the Carmelo didn’t even start his career with the Knicks. Back during February of 2011, the Denver Nuggets shipped off their all-star in Carmelo Anthony along with Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman. While it was great the Knicks got an All-NBA talent, they had to give up a lot of depth in Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and a 2014 first round pick. That pick ended up turning into Doug McDermott, but eventually morphed into Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic after a trade the with Chicago Bulls on draft night.
The Knicks would end up getting 28 games from Carmelo in that first season and went 14-14 to finish the year at 42-40 and would claim just the six seed heading into the playoffs. They would be rewarded by playing the defending eastern conference champion and hated rival Boston Celtics (sound familiar Bulls fans?). New York would end up getting swept by the Celtics, where they lost by an average of 8.5 points. The next two years would be the best of the Carmelo era as they made the playoffs again but lost in the first round to the Miami Heat in five games in 2012 and lost to Miami again in the second round in 2013. They never made the playoffs again with Melo and would end up shipping him off to OKC during the 2017 off-season.
You need to get the right type of talent and have the supporting cast around him to be a title contending team. Melo was a fantastic scorer, but in all other aspects of the game he needed pieces around him, such as a playmaking point guard, 3 & D wings, and defensive big man. They had that in 2013 when they had a lineup of Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert, Melo, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. They won 54 games, but Miami was just too overpowered that season and the Knicks could do nothing. The Knicks emptied their cupboard when they traded for Melo who was on a one-year deal and could have easily signed with them instead. Melo is not the type of talent you empty your team for especially with only one year on his deal. That’s why the Knicks failed, they arguably overpaid for Melo in the trade, and he wasn’t the right type of NBA player to build around for a championship.
2013 Brooklyn Nets
The granddaddy of all failed super-teams, the 2013 Nets. After moving to Brooklyn in 2013, the Nets wanted to cement their status as a title contender and endear themselves to their new fans. So, in June of 2013, the Nets made a massive trade with division rival in the Boston Celtics as the C’s shed their old core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, along with Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and MarShon Brooks three first round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018) and then a pick swap in 2017. The Nets already had Joe Johnson and Deron Williams from the two previous off-seasons to go along with franchise star Brook Lopez, so they had hoped to create a Big Five by adding Garnett and Pierce. This would create problems in the short term and long-term future for the Nets (more on the long term later). The problem for the near future for the Nets at the time was that fact that Garnett was 37 years old, and Pierce was 34 years old. They were either on the tail end of their prime or completely out of it by the time they made their way to Brooklyn.
Just like their new neighbors (at the time) in New York, they didn’t have the right roster to deal with any of the contending teams in the east (Bulls, Heat, Pacers, Knicks) let it alone in the west (Thunder, Spurs, Nuggets). Even with all the talent, the lack of depth and the star power they chose wasn’t enough in their first season to win a title.
In the first round as the four seed, they took on the Chicago Bulls who were without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs and missed the entire 2012-13 season. In his place they were starting Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson at point guard. The Nets feel behind 3-1 in the series to Chicago after winning game one at home, which included a 142-134 loss in triple overtime in game four thanks to an epic performance by Nate Robinson who had 34 points.
The Nets would fight back in games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7 back in Brooklyn. Despite having home court advantage, it wouldn’t save the Nets from an awful first half, falling behind by 17 points and would end up losing Game 7 in heartbreaking fashion, 99-93, thanks to 24 points and 14 rebounds from Joakim Noah and 24 points from Marco Belinelli. That’s about the same level of success this Nets core would have as they would only reach the second round the following year but lost in five games to the Miami Heat.
Now remember when I talked about the long-term consequences for the Nets, well that would come in those draft picks they gave up in the trade. The 2014 first round pick wasn’t bad as Boston took James Young with the 17th pick. However, those other picks would hit hard. After the Nets aged out their star players and left the Nets quickly became one of the worst teams in the league as the 2016 first rounder was used to select Jaylen Brown, the 2017 first rounder became number one overall before the Celtics traded back to number three and took Jayson Tatum. Then the 2018 first round pick ended up being Collin Sexton which the Celtics used to get Kyrie Irving. While it never led to championship glory, because of Tatum and Brown the Celtics just made the NBA Finals before the Nets in the 2010s and even now in the 2020s when the Nets have Kevin Durant and Irving. This was a clear example of a team chasing star talent and giving up way too much in the process. The Nets paid for past performance rather than buying for what a player could have brought to their team in the future.
2022 Los Angeles Lakers
The worst attempted “Super Team,” in NBA history goes to the 2022 Los Angeles Lakers. It’s hard to believe that just two seasons ago was on top of the NBA world after winning the 2020 title. While some people discount that ring because it was in the bubble (“Mickey Mouse Ring,”) the Lakers still were a talented team before the trip to the NBA bubble due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, things have changed quite a bit in those two years and the Lakers find themselves stuck in a horrible situation they put themselves into. After getting knocked out in the first round by the eventual Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns in 2021, the Lakers realized that they really needed to get a durable star player to put next to an aging Lebron James and an injury prone Anthony Davis.
Their first attempt to add to a contending roster was to try and sign DeMar Derozan who had spent the last three seasons averaging 21.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night for the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan would have been a great third option not only based on those numbers, but DeRozan has also played at least 60 games his entire career and had only missed 11 games in 2021 (total of 72 due to the COVID pandemic). Clearly that did not happen as DeRozan, along with former Laker guard Lonzo Ball, signed with the Chicago Bulls to team up with Zach Lavine and Nikola Vucevic. Not signing DeRozan turned out to be worse than most people thought as DeRozan had an MVP caliber season, averaging a career-high 27.9 points per game while shooting 50.4% from the field and a career high 35% from three on 1.9 attempts per game (third highest in his career). (Insert hands praying emoji here).
Behind the scenes it really seems the Lakers front office screwed the pooch as according to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk, the reason DeRozan didn’t sign with the “Lake Show,” was because, “the impression that I got from his camp was that DeRozan felt that the Lakers were in sort of disarray. They didn’t really have a vision. They didn’t know what they were doing.” I know the Lakers have been dysfunctional in the past, but this type of thing is something you expect to hear out of the Sacramento Kings or Orlando Magic front office, not the “mighty,” LA Lakers.
Thinking that they were no longer in contention or DeRozan, the Lakers moved on to their next target when on July 29 they traded for the 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook even though DeRozan would not sign with the Bulls in a sign-and-trade until Aug. 3. The Lakers sent Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, the 22nd pick in the 2021 draft (which became Isiah Jackson who was traded to the Pacers for Isiah Todd). At the time it was seen as a good move for the Lakers and the Wizards as the Lakers added a durable star/all-star level player while the Wizards shed a big contract and got some good role players. However that trade had a cascade effect as adding Westbrook’s remaining contract (1 yr plus a player option) of 44 million dollars, the Lakers couldn’t resign some of their core players to their title run such as Alex Caruso, who would end up also signing with the Bulls, despite Caruso wanting to stay in LA. So, in scramble to fill the team with any sort of depth outside of the three stars and Talen Horton Tucker, they signed a lot of players to one- and two-year deals including Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Deandre Jordan, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, and Rajon Rondo. A lot of old guys who really can’t defend anymore and young players who out-stayed their welcome with their first team. This would all surely get the Lakers back to championship glory right… right?
Well… the answer to that question is no. Not only did the new core not fit what the Lakers had in their stars, the injury bug hit the Lakers like a ton of bricks. LeBron and Davis were injured throughout most of the season. Nunn missed the year with a bone bruise in his knee, and most of the older players (Howard and Anthony) missed time during the season as well. While it may have been expected for the older players and Davis to miss time, their contingency plan of having Westbrook to carry them as he did in the past for other teams didn’t work either. The Lakers ranked 22nd in three-point percentage and when you have a player who is a career 30% three-point shooter it’s not a good mix.
Westbrook had his worst season since he was 21 years old as he only scored 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists but only shot 44% and 29.8% from three.
With everything that happened to the Lakers this season, they not only missed the top 6 seed to make the playoffs, but they also finished 11th in the West to miss the play-in, allowing the Spurs to claim the 10 seed. There have been bad “Super Teams,” in the past, but at least in the last decade they all made the playoffs. The 2022 Lakers were the first team that had three near All-NBA players on one team and missed the playoffs. I think the consensus amongst NBA fans is that the 2022 Lakers are the biggest failure of a team who looked to win the Championship heading into the season. I side with the consensus on this one.
The main reason these teams all failed is quite simple: they chose star-power over depth. While it may be simple to end it there, I think this discussion deserves some nuance. The deeper reason is the fact that these teams forgot about team building. In the NBA yes you need stars and all-stars to have a chance to compete in this league, but teams need to remember that they are still trying to build a cohesive team around those stars. Russell Westbrook did not fit the Lakers; the Carmelo trade sacrificed the Knicks depth and the Nets looked just for the names on paper rather then what the players were. That’s not to say that there haven’t been teams who made a trade for a star and have had success in winning a title and I think I have the perfect example below.
2019 Toronto Raptors
While there have been other success stories in terms of acquiring star talent (2020 Lakers, 2017 Warriors, 2021 Bucks, 2012 Miami Heat) I think the 2019 Toronto Raptors are the perfect example of what I am talking about. By the time the 2018 off-season had come, the Raptors were stuck. They were incredible regular season team, coming off a franchise record 59 wins and the one seed, Toronto got swept by franchise owner (at the time). LeBron James swept Toronto with LeBron on an absolute carry job as he averaged 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists for the 2018 playoffs.
The Raptors were truly at a crossroads, they had a clear ceiling with DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas but how they could improve on a team that just set a franchise record for wins. Then the 6 pulled off a stunner of a trade on July 18th, 2018. The Raptors sent off franchise star Demar DeRozan along with Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick (which became Keldon Johnson) for former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and 3 & D Wing Danny Green. It was a substantial risk for Masai Ujiri as Leonard was coming off a major ankle and leg injury after the 2018 Western Conference Finals. In the end though, it paid off in spades for the Raptors because not was the move sound, the Raptors didn’t have to give up other valuable players such as Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, or Valanciunas.
The move paid off as Kyle Lowry finally broke his playoff choker label, Siakam became the second option to a championship team and the Raptors were able to send off Valanciunas to the Grizzlies for Marc Gasol to help defend against the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It all lead to an incredible season where the Raptors won 58 games, good enough for second in the East, and won their first championship in franchise history. There were some incredible moments along the way, including the first game seven buzzer beater in NBA history, coming back from a 2-0 deficit against the Milwaukee Bucks and taking down the Golden State Warriors in the finals (albeit without KD most of the series and Klay Thompson getting injured in game 6).
With all that said, this is the exception that proves the rule that trading/acquiring star talent must be done in a calculated fashion. This was an exceedingly rare circumstance where the Raptors didn’t have to give up a ton of their depth to trade for a top-5 talent in the league at the time. Leonard also fit what the Raptors needed, a two-way proven playoff performer. Much of the examples of the failed super-teams I mentioned earlier didn’t fit the team identity or the team scheme all that well. The prevailing idea was always, “well they’re stars, they’ll figure out how to play with each other.” Sometimes stars just don’t fit right.
If you think about the 2nd three peat of the 90’s Bulls each of the “Big Three,” had a defined role. Rodman was the defensive anchor and rebounding machine, Pippen was the secondary scorer and primary perimeter defender, while Jordan was the number one scoring option and leader of the team.
The 2021 Nets are a prime example of just throwing stars at the wall because while KD, Harden and Kyrie are three of the greatest scorers of all-time, none of them played average to above average defense while there and it costed them in the end.
In closing, my main point in this: the stars NBA teams acquire need to fit not only what the team needs, but the style of play for that team. Otherwise, a "Mickey Mouse ring" might be all you get.