Three in-their-prime superstars linking up was a line of demarcation — with top talents showing they can have as much say in shaping rosters as the executives hired to do just that.
Eight years after the Big Three danced onstage amid billowing smoke, NBA stars are dictating player movement more than ever. Nothing has fueled that power more than Team USA, an incubator of sorts for such bold-name partnerships.
“If you don’t have a super team, or three superstars, or three all-stars on your team, it’s very hard to win,” Washington Wizards guard John Wall said at Team USA’s minicamp last month.
Team USA’s return to prominence over the past decade has allowed the NBA’s stars to mingle with the sport’s other elite players, further developing relationships that sometimes date from college, high school and AAU.
Those connections have created high-profile unions across the league: According to rumor, the Heat’s Big Three initially began discussing plans to play together while James, Wade and Bosh were part of the so-called Redeem Team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; the Golden State Warriors’ recruitment of Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins was helped, in part, by previous Team USA experiences; and the same goes for Carmelo Anthony agreeing to join Paul George and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City last summer, then teaming up with Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston this month.
Even future rumored partnerships, such as one involving Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler, are created from the same group of candidates, as NBA watchers try to anticipate the next big pairing-up.
Such movement has already led to a direct pooling of talent on Team USA itself. Of the 35 players in contention for spots on next year’s World Cup roster, five — Durant, Cousins, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — are Warriors. Three others — Paul, Harden and Eric Gordon — are Rockets. With another eight teams featuring two players in the program, 24 of the 35 players on Team USA’s preliminary roster come from 10 of the NBA’s 30 teams.
Retired stars from Charles Barkley to Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan have derided modern superstars for joining forces to chase championships, which baffles current players.
“No team has won [a title] where one single guy was the lone star and it was their team. It’s not that era. I’m not sure how the veterans, the legends, don’t understand that part,” said George, who stayed with Westbrook by re-signing with the Thunder this summer. “It’s a different game now. For those guys to chime in and say we’re not built the same . . . I never understood that, because who would we be fooling if we went out alone and tried to go up against the Warriors?
“The best guy in our league right now couldn’t do it. [James] got swept [in the 2018 Finals]. So that just goes to show you at this point what it takes to win. Because you need guys that are alike talent-wise and skill set-wise to win championships.”
Through the first seven decades of NBA history, championship teams were built by general managers drafting, trading for and, occasionally, signing one star free agent. Regardless of the era — the Boston Celtics of the ’60s, ’80s and even late 2000s, the Los Angeles Lakers of the ’80s and early 2000s, the ’90s Chicago Bulls — championship DNA was forged only one way.
James, Wade and Bosh changed that paradigm.
“Back in the day, guys were stuck on teams,” George said. “It was up to the front office to build around that one guy, and that one guy was going to bring championships to them. It’s not the same now. . . . [Players] understand that, and we know what it takes.”
Front-office executives, for their part, see benefits in stars taking a more proactive role in team building, especially if it inadvertently helps the franchise’s bottom line more than the players’.
Though players taking increased ownership can siphon some control from the front office, multiple executives said players taking pay cuts to fit under the salary cap, all for the purpose of banding together, only helps general managers.
Not everyone, though, can participate in this arms race. Being part of Team USA allows Mike Conley Jr. an opportunity to look at what could be — but isn’t. Though he has been a key part of Memphis’s successful run this decade, including seven straight playoff berths and an appearance in the 2013 Western Conference finals, those “Grit ’N’ Grind” Grizzlies had no realistic shot at stars such as James, Durant or Harden on the open market.
“Yeah, it definitely can be frustrating,” Conley said. “Being in Memphis, being part of a smaller market, you have a tough time in free agency, and you have to build through the draft. With all the things teams have been able to accomplish through free agency, and through all the player movement, you kind of miss out on that.”
Still, teams such as Memphis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Utah have proved small markets aren’t doomed. They just require smart management to maximize their assets. And today’s players are increasingly seeking strong management as much as market size. George, for example, publicly praised Thunder General Manager Sam Presti’s work as part of the reason he re-signed with Oklahoma City.
“A lot of people need to understand this: Players want to win,” the Rockets’ Gordon said. “They want to go to winning situations. When you have a winning culture, things become so much easier. It’s good to see all these super teams, because [it means] guys are willing to win.”
But once those stars align, Harden cautioned, it’s up to them to make it work.
“You’ve got to figure it out. You’ve got to compete,” the reigning league MVP said. “You’ve got to get your [butt] in that gym and try to get to that level that the top is at. If you don’t, you’re never going to get there.”
Honing one’s craft alone isn’t enough. For the game’s elite to win, it requires picking up the phone.