Russell Westbrook and James Harden are both giving the best Atlas impression through the early part of the season, carrying the disproportionate load of their respective teams on their backs. Like Westbrook, Harden, knows a thing or two about being the clear number one with no one else to defer to. Harden even went as far to call the Thunder a ‘one man show’ before the Oklahoma City-Houston game.
If anybody is qualified to comment on that situation, it’s certainly James Harden.
Oklahoma City is now 7-5, while Houston is just 6-5. The NBA is the only league where a single superstar can carry a team (à la the 2007 LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers), but as talent permeates and spreads itself throughout the league, and as superteams form and crumble, teams who rely on one superstar have seemed to fall by the wayside. In the league’s recent history, it hasn’t seemed feasible for a one- or no-superstar team to win the title. There are a number of reasons why.
The main reason is that history tells us so. Since 2000, there have been just three teams who have made it to the NBA finals with one or fewer superstars. Detroit was able to win without a single superstar, but rather with a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s take inventory. Here’s a list of teams who have made a Finals appearance since 2000 with one or fewer superstars. Most recent teams appear first:
(Quick note: the Spurs escape categorization. While an argument could be made that Tim Duncan was their only bona fide superstar, prime Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were top-20 players. Plus, having Gregg Popovich at the helm certainly changes things.)
2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks
Watching the ’10-’11 Dallas Mavericks was the most fun I’d ever had watching basketball up to that point. Forget that they had thumped the Thunder 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals. Dirk Nowitzki was an absolute force. It felt like he’d reached his final form. It didn’t matter if you got a hand in his face; Dirk was always going to nail the shot.
But the Mavs were so much more than Dirk: Jason ‘Jet’ Terry–Thunder killer number one–was a fearless scorer, unafraid to take important shots. An aging Jason Kidd finally managed to find some semblance of a consistent three-point shot to complement his transcendent court vision. Shawn Marion’s defense and energy made him the perfect role player. And the lynchpin of it all, Tyson Chandler, changed everything–their spacing, their interior defense, their rebounding–for the Mavs upon arriving.
They’re hard to compare, but Westbrook could conceivably hit Dirk’s level in the 2011 playoffs. The only problem is that Nowitzki’s supporting cast was miles ahead of what Russ has now.
The Mavericks were perenially on the cusp of winning a title, and seeing them trounce the newly-forged Miami Heat superteam was nothing short of vindication not just for Mark Cuban, but for the league as a whole. Perhaps realizing that he had captured lightning in a bottle, Mark Cuban decided to blow up the team the following offseason, dumping Tyson Chandler (among others) unceremoniously. Even when it does happen for a one superstar team, it might just get blown up anyway. The Mavs haven’t really recovered since.
2005-2006 Miami Heat
In terms of weirdness and ‘how in the hell did this team win a ring,’ the ’05-’06 Miami Heat team takes the cake. 24 year-old Dwyane Wade was the primary ball-handler and playmaker, the vocal leader, and the face of the franchise. Remind you a bit of Westbrook?
An aging and beleaguered Shaquille O’Neal played a relatively ancillary role for the Heat, and even he still admits incredulity at winning it all. Partying most nights isn’t typically a recipe for success (right, James Harden?), but then again, O’Neal was a different breed entirely.
Shaq was great for every team he was able to take the basketball floor, but he was certainly out of his glory days by 2006. Heat lifer Udonis Haslem, sharpshooter James Posey, and a past-his-prime Alonzo Mourning made up the rest of the Heat’s core. An aging Gary Payton and Antoine Walker also saw regular rotation minutes.
Simply put, Dwyane Wade willed his team to the playoffs, and once there he turned his game up to a notch then unseen. Quite a few questionable calls in Miami’s favor in addition to Wade’s transcendence propelled Miami to an NBA championship.
Composition-wise, the 2005-2006 Heat are quite similar to the current iteration of the Thunder. Unfortunately, the league has changed since. The ’05-’06 season fell in a down period for the league: talent was stretched as thin as ever, and scoring numbers were down across the board. Furthermore, Boston hadn’t quite put together the Pierce-Allen-Garnett combination that kicked off the ‘superteam’ trend. It was simply a version of ‘right time, right place,’ but then again, winning titles in this league is often a function of something so arbitrary.
2003-2004 Detroit Pistons
One of the underrated great teams in league history. Despite winning it all just 12 years ago, they’ve been all but forgotten in the wake of the superteams that came after.
The Pistons were able to bring to the court the most complete starting five ever for my money: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace. During the regular season, no player averaged over 20 points per game, and only Ben Wallace averaged double digits in a major statistical category (12.4 rebounds per game).
Each rotation player provided consistent, quality minutes, and everybody knew their role to a T. Larry Brown utilized his teams skills while masking their few weaknesses masterfully. Despite lacking a true superstar, they combined to become more than the sum of their gamely yet limited parts. Like an anti-’15/’16 Golden State Warriors, less meant more for the Detroit Pistons.
Chauncey Billups provided phenomenal court vision, clutch shooting, and impenetrable perimeter defense.
Rip Hamilton–the man, the myth, the plastic face mask–was an elite catch-and-shoot player who ran around the perimeter relentlessly in search of an open look.
Tayshaun Prince was the glue guy; he did many things well, but no one skill made itself apparent as elite.
Rasheed Wallace was a stretch four before stretch fours were fashionable, and he brought a sharp edge to a team of otherwise mild-mannered guys.
Ben Wallace anchored the defense. One of the underrated rim protectors (and centers, at that) of the modern NBA era.
The Detroit Pistons were an anomaly. By all measures they shouldn’t have beat the Lakers–a pre-superteam, if you will–but they did. In doing so, they unraveled the Lakers’ dynasty, and basketball wasn’t the same afterward.
As mentioned before, it’s easiest to draw a parallel between the ’15/’16 Thunder and the ’05/06 Heat. That is, if a parallel needs to be drawn. It’s not likely that a Westbrook-led Thunder could beat the Warriors or the Cavaliers in a seven game series, at least as currently composed. Crazier things have happened in this league, though.
Thunder fans must ask themselves sooner than later: “Is it fair to expect a title from this team, at least sometime down the line?” Moreover, Thunder supporters need to reckon with the idea that it might take decades to win a title, and even then, the glory might be short-lived.
Everybody knows the big goal: winning an NBA championship. Maybe it would be easier for Thunder supporters to stomach Durant’s defection had they never tasted success, never felt the bright lights of the NBA finals, never chased the Siren that is an NBA Championship ring.
It’s hard to try to guess out what will happen in the future. Each NBA season feels like a geological era, filled with its own crests and swells as well as its dips and dives. Once the season is over, the entire landscape of the league can change, just as it did last offseason.
For now, though, the Thunder have a bona fide superstar in Russell Westbrook, and that’s more than many other teams can say. Although ‘superteams’–at least as we know them–are a relatively new phenomenon, history has shown that one-superstar teams have, at worst, an outside shot at the title.
At best–and given a talented and complementary roster around Russell–the Thunder could win a title on Westbrook’s back. It may just take a bit of patience.