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The NBA’s transition from marketing superstars to super teams

FILE - In this June 2, 1987, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers’ Earvin “Magic” Johnson scrambles for th
The Lakers and Celtics of the 1980’s were NBA super teams before the term even existed.
(Mark Avery / AP)

The Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the 1966 NBA Finals, the same year David Stern began working with the league as outside counsel.

In 1984, the year David Stern took over as commissioner, the Celtics again beat the Lakers in seven games to win the championship. There were eight eventual Hall of Famers battling for the title in 1966. There were nine in 1984.

Strangely enough, there weren’t any “super teams” present and no one player did it by themselves.

Stern is credited with building the NBA into the economic and cultural behemoth it is today. In the late 1970s and into the early ’80s, the league didn’t have much of a national audience, in large part because it was saddled with a lackluster TV deal and an image problem stemming from substance abuse by some players. Stern managed to turn things around by orchestrating the marketing shift from team driven rivalries to star player/personality storylines.

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Less Lakers versus Celtics and more Magic versus Bird. Isiah Thomas and the Pistons. The Chicago Bulls playing The Supremes to Michael Jordan’s Diana Ross. The change not only made for great TV, it made for compelling media coverage. Unfortunately, it also paved the way to today’s halfwit notions that superstar players win championships by themselves and “super teams” cheapen the game.

This is what happens when fans and the media give a marketable player such as Jordan all of the credit for wins and his teammates all of the blame for losses. Or when Hall of Fame players who were flanked by other Hall of Fame players rewrite their own history while mocking LeBron James for going to Miami.

As with most things in life, the truth is nestled in the bosom of nuance. While shades of gray may be great for a book title, most Americans find it useless in the realm of public discourse.

It’s Democrat or Republican; gay or straight; Star Wars or Star Trek.

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This is particularly true with sports debates, which admittedly is a topic saturated with quantitative arguing points but should still be ran through the filter of context for accurate portrayal.

For example, my buddy Ric Bucher was on Fox Sports’ “Speak for Yourself” recently and, in regards to the possibility at the time of Kawhi Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers, said “he loses very valuable space for himself because, right now, he’s being portrayed as the one guy who says, ‘I don’t need anybody, I can do this on my own.’ ”

I don’t fault Bucher for pointing out what some folks are thinking. I do fault the thinking.

For starters, Kyle Lowry has been named an All-Star the past five seasons. Pascal Siakam was named this season’s most improved player. Midseason acquisition Marc Gasol was All-NBA first team in 2015 and an All-Star in 2017. No bench player hit more 3 pointers in NBA Finals history than Fred VanVleet.

Leonard is one of the best three players in the league, but to suggest he didn’t have a significant amount of help this season is not only ignoring the contributions of the other Raptors — many of whom were part of last year’s 59-win team — but is categorically wrong.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of debate, he did it alone. Why? Because he’s the star.

But Leonard’s not stupid. He knows how talented the Raptors were. He knows the talent of the Miami Heat squad that beat his Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals. He remembers the talent of the 2014 Spurs that won the rematch. He made phone calls to Kevin Durant and Paul George because he knows, regardless of what the folks at the local barbershop say, no one does it alone.

Stern saved the league by making it individual driven, but the pendulum has swung so far over that perhaps this free agency period will mark the beginning of a much-needed correction in the narrative. Are the Philadelphia 76ers a “super team”? When Kevin Durant is healthy, what about the Brooklyn Nets? The Golden State Warriors will start the season with two All-Stars and a third recovering from a knee injury, are they no longer a “super team”? The old-look Houston Rockets or the new-look Lakers and Clippers?

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It feels as if the basketball community has begun to recognize that all of this chatter of talented teams “ruining” the league and superstars winning on their own is just a bunch of mumbo jumbo that ignores history. When Stern started working with the NBA and later became the commissioner, the best teams were stacked with talent.

The same was true when Adam Silver took over.

Despite the narrative, this season’s champion was stacked with talent. The upcoming season will likely be the same. The branding of the league has changed over the years, how a team is constructed has changed a bit, but ultimately the recipe to a championship has not. You need talent. A lot of it, including superstars. But the idea of a “super team” has its roots in a savvy marketing shift and is so blatantly steeped in intellectual laziness it should be banned from repeating.

Consider this: When Red Auerbach put Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish together, he was dubbed a genius. When LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh put themselves together, they were chided for trying to win “the easy way,” as if Run TMC won multiple championships or Curt Flood’s fight for free agency was meant to behold professional athletes to a collection of unwritten rules.

From my vantage point, the only thing “super” about that Miami team was the empowerment of the key players involved. For just as Stern is credited with saving the NBA, the players should be credited — not ridiculed — for taking more ownership of it. It’s always been a player’s league; now they’re acting like it.


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