Don't Blame LeBron and Melo, Forming NBA Superteams is Nothing New

| by David Berri

Editor’s Note:  Nerd Numbers – from Andres (Dre) Alvarez – is temporarily unavailable.  And yes, that means the Automated Wins Produced site is down as well.  But that hasn’t stopped Dre from writing.  The following is in response to people who think the sky is falling because Melo has forced a trade to New York.  Turns out – as this great column indicates — this has happened before. 

By the way…before you get to reading Dre’s latest, let me also give a shout out to Mosi Platt.  On Wednesday I wrote a quick post on Mike Bibby’s move to Miami.  Mosi has written something that is much better: Did Losing to the Knicks Push Arroyo Out and Bring Bibby In?  So click on over to Mosi’s work and then come back here (or you can read Dre’s work first and then check out Mosi’s post; either order will work!)

The Story

The labor talks are coming and Melo’s decision to force himself onto New York has added alarm. It appears that the new thing to do in the NBA is for the top players to decide to play together and form a few super teams. This means only large market teams will have the good players and the league will fall into disrepair.

The NBA is a very different league than the other major sports in the US. In the NFL, where I believe there are 47.3 players on the field with 24.5 different positions (sarcasm, but isn’t football complicated?) it’s rough for one player to have complete control of a team. In the NHL even the league’s iron men only play about 1/3 of the game. In MLB players are forced to be only 1/9 of the offense (even less with the DH aka the dumbest rule ever) and are only responsible for a small part of the field on defense. In the NBA though a player can play almost the entire game and be the key player on both offense and defense. As I’ve noted only 46 players in the last 33 years were responsible for 80% of the regular season success of their playoff teams.

The scarcity of these top players does allow for super teams ruling the league a very scary possibility. Did I say possibility? I meant reality. In the last 30 years only 9 franchises have won a title. With Miami, Los Angeles (the good one), San Antonio, Boston and Chicago all in the hunt it doesn’t look like this year will change that.  The idea that 2011 is the year where suddenly the competitive balance in the NBA vanishes is a myth. It was never there to begin with.

Perhaps the real issue though is that recently the players have been calling the shots. If LeBron decides to hop ship to Miami and Melo decides to go to New York then what’s to stop your team’s best player from just deciding they want to play wherever they like? (For the record when I phrase it like that it makes me feel very awkward as a fan.)

The truth is that in the last 30 years almost all of the championship teams in the NBA managed to win by grabbing a star player from another team. Another scary fact is that much of the time this was driven by the player’s desire to play in a better market — or for a contender — and not by savvy front office movers. Let’s run down the list shall we?

The 1981,1984,1985,1987 and 1988 Los Angeles Lakers

Calling the shots: The Players (1)

The Player: Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1976)

Kareem Abdul Jabbar decided he would rather play in a big market than for Milwaukee. Can you blame him? A few helpful draft-picks in Magic Johnson and later James Worthy helped the Lakers to multiple titles. The first step though was grabbing one of the top players in the league from a small market team. This was of course driven by Kareem’s decision to move. Even back in the 1970s players were calling the shots!

The 1982, 1984 and 1986 Boston Celtics

Calling the shots: The Management (1)

Robert Parish was perishing on a terrible Golden State team. It turned out Boston already had a big name on their roster and just needed another big name or two. Golden State gave up the Chief (and a draft pick that turned into Kevin McHale but who’s counting?) and let Boston turn into a power house. I’m sure it will make Golden State much happier to know it wasn’t a whiny player forcing his way onto a better team but terrible management that let this happen.

The 1983 Philladelphia Seventy-Sixers

Calling the shots: The Players (2)

The Player: Moses Malone (1983)

Your team has recently made the finals. You have the league MVP. You get to feel the pain as they leave to a juggernaut team and all you get is some chump change in a fake trade. I’m not talking about LeBron James. I’m talking about Moses Malone almost 30 years ago. Heat fans will hope this plays out the same as it did for the Sixers.

 The 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons

Calling the shots: The Management (2)

The Player: Bill Laimbeer (1982)

Laimbeer had to wait until the Pistons drafted Dennis Rodman to have another solid player to propel his team to greatness. Cleveland let another big name go for not much in return. Luckily (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) Laimbeer was traded before he ever had a chance to be a truly great player in Cleveland.

The 1994 Houston Rockets

Calling the shots: The Management (3)

The Player: Otis Thorpe (1989)

Otis Thorpe was immediately paired with Hakeem. They had to lay low until the Pistons got old and the Bulls weakened with Jordan deciding to play baseball. It’s hard to think of this move as fleecing another team as Rodney McCray was part of the trade and he played well for Sacramento. Moving on.

The 1995 Houston Rockets

Calling the shots: The Players (3)

The Player: Clyde Drexler (1995)

What do you do if you were on a great team that missed its shot? Well, just ask your management to trade you to the defending champs. Clyde managed to finally get a ring on his finger and was a great pickup for the Rockets. Oddly this was at the cost of Otis Thorpe.

The 1996, 1997 and 1998 Chicago Bulls

Calling the shots: The Management (4)

The Player: Dennis Rodman (1996)

The Bulls lost some time and talent when Jordan took a break. They shipped Horace Grant and needed some “size”. Management took a chance on Dennis Rodman and it paid off in huge ways. Rodman, Pippen and Jordan were three of the league’s top players and they dominated the league for three years. I don’t remember this being a world ending event at the time.

The 2000, 2001 and 2002 Los Angeles Lakers

Calling the shots: The Players (4)

The Players: Shaquille O’Neal (1996)

Orlando did everything it could to keep Shaq including giving him a contract offer that let him leverage a sweet deal from Los Angeles. Like Kareem before him Shaq wanted to go to a big market where he could work on his side projects like his great rapping and acting careers. Orlando couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the fact Shaq decided to play for another team, even though the NBA rules made Shaq play in Orlando at far below market value for four years.

The 2004 Detroit Pistons

Calling the shots: Management (5)

The Players: Ben Wallace (2001)

Ben Wallace helped bring the Pistons back to their glory days. People say this team didn’t have a star. Yes it did, it was Ben Wallace and Orlando foolishly gave him away thinking he was just a consolation prize for Grant Hill (funny how that worked out). People can praise Joe Dumars for this masterful stroke or just thank his dumb luck, take your pick.

The 2006 Miami Heat

Calling the shots: The Players (5)

The Players: Shaquille O’Neal (2005)

Shaq wanted a contract and a title. He was able to force his way into both when Los Angeles didn’t think he was worth the money. Miami benefited from this trade by getting a title. They then managed to ship Shaq’s large contract and as a byproduct get cap space to let LeBron make a similar call. If the players are calling the shots in Miami, well all I can say is that I am jealous of Miami.

The 2008 Boston Celtics

Calling the shots: The Players (6)

The Players: Kevin Garnett (2008)

I will join your team if you give me a lucrative long term deal, star teammates and a title shot! Yup KG pulled the same trick as LeBron and got immediate results. If he’d decided to do this a few years sooner it’s possible Boston could have had even greater success than two finals appearances and a title in three years.

The 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Lakers

Calling the shots: The Management (6)

The Players: Pau Gasol (2008)

Here’s an interesting note. The Celtics in 2008 were turned into a contender because the players called the shots. In an almost odd move the front offices pulled off a trade that made a super team to counter them by sending Pau to Los Angeles. Long term this deal wasn’t a bad deal for Memphis, but if owners are worried about creating super teams it is curious the defending champs were constructed thanks to the owners making a super team.

Summing Up

The 1991-1993 Bulls and the 1999,2003,2005,2007 San Antonio Spurs were the only title teams I could find where they won by drafting top players. Twenty three out of the last thirty titles have been won thanks to either players or management moving a star player to their team. The key is that the players have done this just as often as the management. There isn’t some great conspiracy ruining the league. There is a shortage of good players (read Wages of Wins for more info) and the good teams are those that manage to get them. I don’t think Miami will tear the league up because LeBron decided to play there. I don’t think New York has a real shot at the title. What I do think is that good players will play where they want, savvy managers will find a way to get them, and fans will watch them play. That is unless there’s a lockout.