Superteams: Let's look at the contenders based on star power

Minutes after his Cleveland Cavaliers lost the 2017 NBA Finals to a juggernaut Golden State Warriors squad, LeBron James was still playing hard-nosed defense.

When asked for his take, given his role in forming two famous superteams, James pushed back: “I don’t believe I’ve played for a superteam. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe we’re a superteam here. So, no, I don’t really, I don’t.”

LeBron was drawing a line, implying that his Miami and Cleveland championship teams had been built differently than the Warriors. “Their team was already kind of put together,” James said during the Finals. “For me, when I left [Cleveland] to go to Miami, we had to build something. We brought in eight or nine guys, and we had to build something, and when I came back here we had to build something again.”

That may be true, but you can see how James’ definition is rather limited and perhaps self-serving. The fact is, with the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and LeBron’s Heatles as examples, superteams are coming together in all kinds of ways, and in all shapes and sizes.

In the effort to dethrone NBA champion Golden State or to be the first team since 2010 to knock a LeBron superteam out of the Eastern Conference playoffs, players are joining forces in new superstar combos that we barely could have imagined a decade ago.

We are most definitely in the superteam era. So how’s it going as teams load up to compete with Golden State and Cleveland?

To figure that out, I set up four tiers of teams on a superteam scale, looking at every team with at least two established current stars.

Who qualifies as a star? A player has to have been on an All-Star team or an All-NBA team in any of the previous three seasons. A superteam gets five points for first-team All-NBA, three points for second-team All-NBA and one point for All-NBA third team or an All-Star team. Players over 35 don’t count, since we’re talking about stars near their peak.

Let’s dive in.


Tier 1: The true superteams

Golden State Warriors

Stars: Four (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson)

SuperPoints: 36 (Curry 16, Durant 9, Green 6, Thompson 5)

This is a superteam that embraces the name. Remember, they hosted a “Super Villains” party back in November with a customized Snapchat filter and a fancy balloon arrangement to boot.

Even dominating this points system probably understates their superteam standing. The Warriors are in the discussion for the best team ever despite not having a single player voted first-team All-NBA. If Curry and Durant were voted first-team All-NBA this season, they’d be bumped up to 40 SuperPoints. Even still, the Warriors have drawn the ire of the rest of the league by compiling four stars and are 14 points higher than the next-best team. Oh, and that’s not including the 2015 Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala.

How they move up: They don’t, really. The best chance for a fifth star is probably Patrick McCaw, but he’s a second-rounder who averaged just 4.0 points this season. Then again, Green averaged 2.9 points during his rookie campaign and he’s now accepting NBA awards in tuxedo shorts.


Cleveland Cavaliers

Stars: Three (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love)

SuperPoints: 22 (James 18, Irving 3, Love 1).

Wanna know why the Warriors and Cavs make up the only Finals trilogy in NBA history, and why they’re a favorite to make it a Round 4? The Cavs are still the only big three in the NBA while the Warriors are the only big four. Everyone else is still hoping to find that third piece.

There’s no doubt that the Cavs are a superteam, even if LeBron doesn’t see it that way. In case you forgot, Love averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds before joining the Cavs. He’s a star. Proof: Love has averaged 35.7 points per 36 minutes without James or Irving on the floor, per NBAWowy.com. But until they get a fourth star …

How they move up: First, they probably have to find a GM. Then, they have to pray for internal development. As is, the Cavs have no cap space and probably can’t add any significant players unless they break up the current big three.

Or there’s this: convince Carmelo Anthony to take a buyout with the Knicks and sign for the midlevel exception ($ 5.1 million). The crazy thing? Adding Anthony would still leave the Cavs 11 points behind the Warriors in star power.


Tier 2: Super duos

Houston Rockets

Stars: Two (James Harden and Chris Paul)

SuperPoints: 21 (Harden 13, Paul 8)

For Houston’s sake, let’s hope this has a better outcome than the Harden-Dwight Howard partnership. Yes, that super duo reached the 2015 Western Conference finals — at the expense of Paul’s Clippers, mind you — but GM Daryl Morey couldn’t find a third star to complement Harden and Howard, so he retooled by letting Howard walk to Atlanta. A year later, Morey’s still searching for the third piece. While it’s true that the 1994 Rockets won a title with only two stars (Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe qualified), that year the NBA didn’t have Michael Jordan — or this Warriors team.

How they move up: The Rockets whiffed on Paul George this time around, but they could revisit a trade if the Oklahoma City experiment falters. Don’t dismiss an acquisition of Anthony or DeAndre Jordan, which would give them their first big three since the 1996-97 team featuring Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Morey’s best friend, Charles Barkley.

DeMarcus Cousins would be an interesting target, but it’s doubtful New Orleans would take Ryan Anderson back, even if Clint Capela and a future first-rounder were attached.


New Orleans Pelicans

Stars: Two (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins)

SuperPoints: 21 (Davis 13 and Cousins 8)

And this isn’t even counting Jrue Holiday, who was a 2013 All-Star, but too early to qualify for this list. No one is calling the Pelicans a superteam yet, despite Holiday’s $ 123 million contract that could balloon to $ 150 million, according to our own Adrian Wojnarowski.

No one can boast a Twin Towers frontline as formidable as New Orleans’ version. Fit is a real concern here, considering the Pelicans went a disappointing 6-11 with Cousins in the lineup next to Davis. An offseason should help Alvin Gentry and his staff maximize their talents.

How they move up: It’s hard to see how Holiday, even with a healthy full season, would beat out a loaded West backcourt to another All-Star bid or All-NBA team. Crazier things have happened in this league. The real problem is that the team lacks movable assets to exchange for the third star.

For example, Solomon Hill, Omer Asik and E’Twaun Moore will make $ 31 million combined next season and they ranked 126th, 204th and 286th in ESPN’s RPM last season, respectively. However, the team does have all its first-round picks going forward.


Oklahoma City Thunder

Stars: Two (Russell Westbrook and Paul George)

SuperPoints: 19 (Westbrook 16, George 3)

What a coup by GM Sam Presti. Not only did Presti nab a star without giving up much, but he also indirectly depressed the trade market in case he wanted to add a third star. George isn’t the same caliber as Durant, but he’s a surefire top-20 player for the Thunder to pair with Westbrook. This team is one move away from being a superteam, which seemed little more than a pipe dream a week ago.

For what it’s worth, the 2011-12 roster that went to the Finals drew a score of 26 SuperPoints, a figure that would land in second place on this current list.

How they move up: Again, if Victor Oladipo on a swollen contract and Domantas Sabonis are what it takes to nab a star player on an expiring contract, then who knows what Presti can pull off as an encore? If Steven Adams makes the leap that many expected last season, they can achieve superteam status without making a trade. Keep an eye on Jordan, who could be their 2009 Tyson Chandler — although that deadline trade was rescinded due to a failed physical.


San Antonio Spurs

Stars: Two (Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge)

SuperPoints: 18 (Leonard 12, Aldridge 6)

If we based the rubric purely on team wins, the Spurs would be at the top of this list. But no one’s calling this a superteam. This is a super franchise starring Leonard. The Spurs became the first team in NBA history to win over 60 games with only one All-Star on the team (Leonard).

Bringing back Pau Gasol would technically make this a big three because of his 2014-15 All-NBA appearance and two All-Star bids in the last three seasons, but he’ll be 37 on Thursday and not close to a seventh All-Star bid. Not helping Aldridge’s current star status is this fact: He averaged a career-low 16.5 points per game this postseason and scored in single digits in two of his three games without Leonard by his side. Yikes.

How they move up: Moving Aldridge would be considered a sell-low move, so it’s hard to see them making a serious upgrade with him as the centerpiece in a deal. There are other interesting “buy-low” candidates out there like Andre Drummond and Anthony. Internal development from Kyle Anderson or Dejounte Murray is probably the best bet.


Tier 3: On the fringe

LA Clippers

Stars: Two (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan)

SuperPoints: 10 (Jordan 8, Griffin 2)

The stunning thing here is that Jordan, not Griffin, is the bigger star in terms of current accolades. Griffin just signed a monster $ 173 million contract, but the results haven’t been great in recent years. He has exchanged dunks for 3s, which is probably smart for his durability. Griffin has missed the last two All-Star games due to injury and his only All-NBA appearance in the last three seasons was at third-team level. He’s not the box-office hit he used to be; his dunk rate has been sliced to a third of what it was in 2011-12.

There were some recent whispers that the Clippers would move Jordan in an effort to upgrade the roster with smaller pieces, but such a move would probably kick them off this list. This was one of the best big threes in the league with Paul around, but it’s possible that it will be a big zero if Griffin’s health betrays him again and Jordan is moved.

How they move up: The Clippers’ recent obsession with older vets leaves this roster with little hope for a blossoming All-Star. When Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and the coach’s son are the best bets for the next star in waiting, that’s not a good sign. Jerry West has some work to do. It’s hard seeing the next superteam for Steve Ballmer’s new arena.


Boston Celtics

Stars: 2 (Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford)

SuperPoints: 7 (Thomas 5, Horford 2)

Chew on this: The Cavs, Celtics and Raptors combined still don’t have more SuperPoints than the Warriors. That’s why the Celtics haven’t been considered legitimate championship contenders despite nabbing the East’s No. 1 seed. In fact, if the Celtics were in the West, they’d rank seventh in star power by this rubric.

The analytical look is a bit more favorable for the Celtics’ supporting cast. Jae Crowder ranked in the top 30 by RPM this past season (don’t look at Thomas’ ranking). But this Celtics team isn’t anywhere near the 2007-08 superteam that beat the star-studded Lakers in the Finals.

How they move up: Signing Gordon Hayward would help, but he has been named an All-Star just once in his career and missed out on the latest All-NBA squad, giving him a whopping one point on this scale. He’s arguably a better player than some of the stars on this list, but no one would mistake the Celtics for a superteam even if he came to Boston. A Hayward-Thomas-Horford big three won’t rival Cleveland’s star trio, but they have plenty of youngsters who could help in the superteam department.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the war chest of future first-rounders could produce a 2020 superteam in time for LeBron’s supposed decline. If Danny Ainge has a change of heart and pulls the trigger on a trade, look for the following names to be on their radar: Cousins, Jordan and Drummond.


Toronto Raptors

Stars: 2 (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan)

SuperPoints: 7 (Lowry 4, DeRozan 3)

Masai Ujiri is keeping the band together. By bringing back Lowry (three years, $ 100 million) and Serge Ibaka (three years, $ 65 million), the Raptors essentially announced that they’re content with being good and not great. Being the new Atlanta Hawks isn’t the worst thing in the world. That also means no superteam expectations.

How they move up: Jonas Valanciunas finally makes the leap into stardom. Barring that, there’s no superteam in Toronto anytime soon. With the Ibaka and Lowry signings, the team has trod into luxury tax territory, making its flexibility almost nil. Being a perennial playoff team with 50-ish wins shouldn’t be laughed at. But they’re definitely a tier below in the star department.


Tier 4: Tomorrow’s superteam

Minnesota Timberwolves

Stars: 2 (Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague)

SuperPoints: 5 (Butler 4 and Teague 1)

Meet everyone’s favorite superteam of tomorrow. Believe it or not, Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t yet qualified for “star” status by this measure, which shows just how close this team is to superteam territory. RPM still views Andrew Wiggins‘ peripherals as questionable enough to slot him outside the NBA’s top 250, but his scoring average — 23.6 points per game last season — suggests he’s on the cusp of stardom.

Teague probably will fall off this list soon. But between Towns and Butler, this team has some MVP candidates on deck. Remember, Butler was the seventh-best player by RPM this past season. If Towns’ defense improves, he’ll make this a no-doubt super duo in no time. But only five SuperPoints keep them from the upper echelons.

How they move up: You don’t have to squint hard at all to see a superteam consisting of Towns, Butler and Wiggins, but the third piece is probably further away than most would think. If another team is higher on Wiggins, don’t be surprised if the new Minnesota regime, which did not draft him, puts Wiggins in a trade for a win-now player — for the second time in his career.

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