Two months ago I wrote (gleefully) that the NBA Super Teams — teams that sold their souls to superstars who collaborated with other superstars to form instant championship teams (or that was the theory anyway) — were struggling. Well, I’m happy (actually very, very happy!) to report that the verdict is in and it’s official: They flamed out.

And that’s good for the NBA, which has allowed players to stack the deck since LeBron James formed his first super team in Miami years ago.

This year: The Los Angeles LeBrons finished 11th and missed the playoffs completely. The team that LeBron formed and demanded — including the disastrous acquisition of Russell Westbrook — won just 33 of 82 games. Then he blamed the team formerly known as the Lakers and demanded that they fix his mess, to which they responded: You made this mess, you fix it.

Twenty-two teams won more games than the LeBrons, who boast the fourth highest salary in the league at $136 million. The team formerly known as the Lakers deserved it; they cast off a group of young, promising players to sign LeBron and his all-stars, and this is what it got them.

“I can/will NOT miss the postseason again for my career! This (profanity) HURT,” he tweeted with his usual elegance.

Let’s hope he’s wrong.

The Los Angeles Kawhis finished ninth in the Western Conference and were eliminated in the play-in tournament by the New Orleans Pelicans, the eighth best team in the West — a team that finished with a record of 36-46, the worst of any playoff team since 1997 (note: the Pelicans are another team that has built its roster organically and they’re giving the league-leading Suns all they can handle in the playoffs). It was a disappointing performance for a team whose roster features Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and commanded the third highest salary in the league at $167 million. Of course we can’t really know how the L.A. Kawhis might have fared if an injured Leonard hadn’t missed the entire 2021-22 season.

Super Teams are struggling — and that’s a good thing
How many times will Jazz be undone by a role player in the playoffs?

The Brooklyn Durants finished seventh in the Eastern Conference — 14th overall — and currently trail the Boston Celtics in their first-round playoff series 3-0. A loaded roster of Kevin Durant, grumpy Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry won just 44 games, but they did have the second-highest team salary in the league at $171 million.

In other words, three of the four highest paid teams in the NBA (all of them Super Teams) bombed.

Then there are the teams that did things the old-fashioned way: They earned it. They didn’t take shortcuts; they built their teams organically, drafting smart, developing talent, signing free agents that complemented existing players. And their players — unlike Durant, Irving, George, Anthony Davis and of course James — haven’t run off to form an instant championship contender with other star players, but have worked to make their own teams good, the way Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did.

These teams have other things in common: They let their coaches, well, coach, instead of ceding control to powerful, highly paid stars (see LeBron); they have shunned “positionless” basketball, another side effect of superstars who spend a lot of time dribbling for shots and roaming wherever they please; and they play a more team-oriented, nuanced game that even includes defense (imagine that) and mid-range shots.

Here’s a quick look at the top finishers in each conference: 

Eastern Conference

  1. Miami Heat. Led by smart, savvy Pat Riley, the Miami Heat president since 1995, the Heat were the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, winning 53 games. Jimmy Butler is the top player in a grinding, hardworking team culture, blending in with four other key players who were all drafted by the Heat.
  2. Boston Celtics. Built by the shrewd wheeling and dealing of former general manager Danny Ainge and current GM Brad Stevens, the team features six key players who were drafted and developed by the club, the best being Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have built a team that should be a force for the next few years.
  3. Milwaukee Bucks. The defending NBA champions are led by the best player in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP whom the Bucks stole with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. They built this team through the draft and player development.

Western Conference

  1. Phoenix Suns. They are another good team with a good general manager, James Jones, who has built the roster from the ground up. The Suns drafted four of their top six players, including rising star Devin Booker, the 13th pick of the 2015 draft. Two seasons ago they also added free agent/mercenary Chris Paul, who is playing for his fourth team in six years. The Suns won 64 games this season, by far the most in the league.
  2. Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies, who have also thrived with a strong general manager and coach (see a pattern here?), drafted and developed five of their top seven players, including Ja Morant, whom they made the second overall pick of the 2019 draft. 
  3. Golden State Warriors. Overseen by an excellent owner, general manager and coach, they have an uncanny ability to find and draft great players. They drafted nine of their top 10 players, including Jordan Poole (the 28th pick in 2019), Draymond Green (35th pick of the 2012 draft), Klay Thompson (11th pick of the 2011 draft), and Steph Curry (seventh pick of the 2009 draft).

There are other teams that finished among the best in the NBA this season who also built their teams the right way with savvy coaches and general managers — the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz among them.

Let’s hope that last year’s win by the Bucks and the developments this season are the start of a new era in the NBA, one in which Super Teams no longer have their way with the league.