How might the “Super Team” phenomenon change the NBA landscape, and what does this mean for our favorite teams?
In a typical NBA season, five or six teams decide they have no chance to make a playoff run and deliberately tank their records in hopes of earning a better draft pick. This year, that number might jump to double digits in the face of the Brooklyn Nets super team. After opening the season as the third favorite to win the championship (behind the defending-champion Lakers and the consistently-dominant Bucks), Brooklyn traded for former MVP James Harden and signed 6-time All-Star Blake Griffin. Even though the preseason duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving has been sidelined with a variety of injuries for much of the season, the Nets are right at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, lead the league in Points Per Game by a wide margin, and won 9 of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break. So, how did this historic offensive juggernaut form in just two seasons, what does it mean for the rest of the NBA, and how will the league adapt if the experiment works?
The origins of the 2020-2021 Nets can be traced back to Kevin Durant’s horrific achilles injury in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Despite the Warriors’ dominance over the previous four seasons, Durant didn’t feel accepted as a part of the team (his reputation as a “snake” for joining Golden State couldn’t have helped) and decided to move on from the organization after a shocking loss to the Raptors. In Brooklyn, he met up with good friend Kyrie Irving, who had grown up a Nets fan, to form one of the strongest duos in the league. The decision was entirely premeditated, Durant later admitted, as he and Irving had discussed joining forces during the season before. The orchestrated move seemingly violated the NBA’s anti-tampering rules, which prevent players and organizations from recruiting stars who are under contract with opposing teams. But without any solid proof of collusion, the NBA doesn’t usually issue fines. Similar tampering rumors went viral in the weeks before Durant’s signing with the Warriors and LeBron James was nearly fined for recruiting Anthony Davis to join him in Los Angeles.
While Durant recovered from his injury during the 2019-2020 season, the Nets struggled. Irving, a player who had caused rifts in team chemistry at his previous two stops in Cleveland and Boston, played only 20 games due to injuries and personal issues, and also commented that the Nets “need one or two more pieces to complement” him and Durant. After finishing 7th in the Eastern Conference, Brooklyn was swept by Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.
A few months later, the Nets opened the 2020-2021 season with blowout wins over the Warriors and Celtics. Durant and Irving were in sync, but the team’s rotation players were also dominant. Meanwhile, a rift was forming between James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Harden, a fantastic scorer and a known diva himself, violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols, showed up to training camp late and out of shape, and criticized his team’s lack of talent. When he requested a trade, the organization agreed. On January 14th, Harden joined the Nets in exchange for four solid players and three first round picks, seemingly completing the roster and paving the way to a championship. The new-look Nets began winning games easily, and put on a nightly-showcase of offensive firepower comparable only to an All-Star team. Durant jumped into the MVP conversation, Irving hit career-high efficiency numbers, and Harden maintained his scoring while increasing his assists and shooting percentages. The experiment, both on the court and in the locker room, was working. It looked like the Nets would practically stride through the playoffs and collect the trophy in July.
The next move Brooklyn made, signing Blake Griffin to a veteran minimum contract, might have been the icing on the cake. Griffin, at one time considered the most athletic player in the NBA, is now a greatly-improved shooter who displays good passing and ball-handling skills for a 6’ 9” forward. What makes this signing so scary isn’t necessarily Griffin’s skills, but his salary: just $1.2 million for the remainder of the season. Griffin, although not nearly the player he used to be, was still in line to make $36.8 million this season and $39 million next year. Much like Tom Brady, Dwayne Wade, and other superstar athletes, Griffin accepted an unfair salary in exchange for, he hopes, a championship.
So, if Griffin is allowed to make this decision, what’s stopping the best ten players in the league from taking pay cuts, signing with the same city when they become free agents, and winning easily? Pretty much nothing. The NBA has minimum salary rules, which are based on the number of seasons a player has been in the league, ranging from $900,000 for a rookie to $2.5 million for an old-timer. For a billion-dollar franchise that’s allowed to spend more than $100 million on player salaries, a minimum contract is essentially free. While players are young and at the top of their game, they almost never forego as much money as Griffin did. But, if a group of superstars decided winning was more important, nothing is stopping them.
This origin story exposes a few different flaws in the NBA’s rules. Firstly, suspected tampering (which was never seriously investigated or enforced) brought the original two stars together. Then, James Harden used his power to request a trade and negotiate his way onto Brooklyn’s roster. Finally, Blake Griffin, tired of losing with the Pistons, gave up millions for the opportunity to win and further solidified the Nets as championship favorites.
All of this means nothing if Brooklyn doesn’t win. It’s certainly possible that the team’s chemistry will dissolve, or that the Lakers will add another star to match the Harden and Griffin signings. But, if the experiment does work, it will set a standard for the future: only teams with three or four Hall of Fame-caliber players can win. With that realization, the young, hardworking, talented teams around the league (think Celtics, Heat, Nuggets, Suns) might as well pack up and head home. Maybe all of their stars will join forces in another city and make a rival super team. The NBA could convert to the College Football format, in which the most successful and historic schools (Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State) attract all of the top recruits and proceed to win 95% of their games.
The NBA can avoid all of this chaos and loss of competition by implementing a few new rules. To start, the league can’t allow tampering. When it happens, it always gets leaked to the press in one way or another, and the league needs to take the rumors seriously. Also, superstars can’t hold as much power as they currently do over trades, free agency signings, and other front-office decisions. Harden’s power in the Houston organization was the key factor in his move to the Nets. And finally, the NBA needs to develop limits to salary cuts so that even if players are willing to sacrifice money for team success, they’re not allowed to join a championship-level team and go nearly unpaid (by NBA standards, of course).
If the Nets continue to dominate, as I expect they will, we might see a variety of reactions from opponents. Many teams will trade away their best players in exchange for draft picks and prospects, some may call for rule changes to prevent future super teams, and others might try to compete by adding more talent themselves. The remainder of this season will prove to be a fork in the road for the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver faces a tough decision: accept the super team trend and profit on the success of big markets like Los Angeles and New York, or clamp down on tampering, trading, and pay cuts, effectively eliminating the chance of another roster like Brooklyn’s. Even if Silver chooses the latter option, the Nets will be grandfathered in, guaranteeing them domination for the next few seasons.
As a Celtics fan, I try to maintain a sliver of hope that the fiery personalities in Brooklyn’s locker room will clash and limit the team’s on-court chemistry, or that Boston will match the Nets’ talent by adding its own superstar. Both seem unlikely. But more importantly, as an NBA fan, I hope that the league office will recognize the danger that super teams pose to basketball’s competitiveness and fairness before the more storied franchises take over for good.