When ex-Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency, many fans chided him for taking the “easy route” out of the situation. Durant, they claimed, had decided to go to a team that was already championship caliber instead of staying in Oklahoma City and building a championship team himself.
A few years earlier, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James announced his much-maligned move to join the Miami Heat alongside fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The team won back-to-back titles and went to the Finals for four consecutive years.
Before that, the combination of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen dominated the league, going to the finals twice in three years and posting multiple 60-win seasons. Moving further down the National Basketball Association (NBA) timeline, we continue to find stacked teams that often begin the season as heavy favorites to win the championship. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in the 1990s. The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. Bill Russell’s Celtics, who won eight straight titles between 1959 and 1966. Since its inception, the NBA has rarely been a league of parity.
However, the free agency superteam as we know it is actually a relatively recent invention. Most recent superteams are a result of players being acquired via unrestricted free agency, a concept that allows players to switch teams in free agency without repercussions which did not truly exist until 1988. Since then, many teams have followed the blueprint of finding one or two marquee players, then adding complementary players via free agency.
Unexpectedly, this route to the championship has not been without criticism. Many feel that those who join superteams are weak-minded and simply looking for the ever-elusive championship ring, which carries more weight than ever on a player’s legacy.
Durant’s move to join an already-loaded Warriors team that had broken the single-season wins record the year prior was the move that once again, gave the critics of the superteam plenty of fresh ammunition. It appeared that unlike before, when superstars joined together on average teams to turn them into superteams, top free agents would simply join the best team in the league.
“The fact that he [Durant] weakened another team and he’s gonna kind of gravy train on a terrific Warriors team,” said NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, an outspoken opponent of superteams, “[I’m] just disappointed.”
Especially outraged by Durant’s decision were Thunder fans, who were quick to label him a traitor and a coward for joining a team that was not only already record-breakingly successful, but one that had knocked his team out of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion less than a year ago in game seven of the Western Conference Finals.
When Durant returned to Oklahoma City as a member of the Warriors, he was met with distasteful signs and jeers by the crowd. The team itself even handed out shirts labeling him a coward to fans entering the arena.
But despite the intensity that surrounded the game, the supposed feud between the teams never manifested itself on the court. The Warriors cruised to a 21-point win, led by Durant’s season-high 40 points in the blowout.
This decidedly uneventful result of a supposedly marquee matchup has become a cornerstone in the argument against the superteam – the idea that these teams reduce league-wide viewership.
Many claim that since the presence of superteams means that there are only three or four realistic contenders for the championship, fans of other teams will lose interest in following the league.
Nevertheless, supporters of superteams will argue that a different team has won the championship each of the last four years, a feat not seen in decades that points to an unexpected increase in parity during the new era of superteams.
But this new increase in parity is not as clear-cut as it appears. Certain telltale signs point to a decrease in parity over the last few seasons, despite the winner of the Finals being unique each of the last four years.
What do each of the last six NBA Finals have in common? The presence of LeBron James. Moreover, James’ Cleveland Cavaliers have faced the Stephen Curry led Golden State Warriors in each of the last two Finals.
This season, a rematch of the last two years is often seen as nearly inevitable by many, including the teams themselves, who have been acquiring role players through signing and trade in an attempt to defeat the other team, without even considering the possibility of being defeated within their own conference.
In response to claims of predictability, those in favor of superteams will argue that the NBA has never been more exciting, shown by skyrocketing TV ratings, all-time highs in popularity among youth and an increasing role in popular culture the NBA has not had since Michael Jordan starred in Space Jam over 20 years ago.
On top of that, many would say that the superteam is just plain fun. There are few things in sports more entertaining than watching the Golden State Warriors shower down deep threes on an opponent as the Oracle Arena crowd rises up for each possession. Indeed, hardly anything is more wildly engaging than watching Kyrie Irving float up an alley-oop to LeBron James for the one-handed dunk.
In today’s sports world dominated by 30-second highlights on social media, nothing gets the audiences going like the display of utter control and dominance that a superteam exemplifies.
This, combined with the league’s complicated history with the superteams, means that the superteam, like it or not, is most likely here to stay.