The history of NBA superteams
From the Boston Celtics' Big Three to the all-conquering Golden State Warriors, this is the history of NBA superstars joining forces in pursuit of a title.
Nothing gets NBA fans talking more than the formation of a superteam.
The term, which generally refers to three or more All-Star calibre players teaming up, has become a regular source of debate over the past 15 years.
Some fans get excited by the prospect of seeing superstars play together, but many believe it shows a lack of competitive spirit in current players willing to join forces to pursue a championship.
The recent trade of James Harden from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets – forming a new superteam with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the process – has reignited the debate.
The Nets are now among the favourites in the NBA betting to win the 2020-21 NBA title.
In light of the trade, here is the history of superteams in the NBA, from those in the modern era to the superteams of the past, along with a few that failed to achieve the success they seemed destined for.
2007-12 Boston Celtics
The 2007 Celtics were the first modern NBA superteam.
Boston were coming off a season in which they finished in last place in the Eastern Conference despite having five-time All-Star Paul Pierce in his prime.
Then, general manager Danny Ainge pulled off two huge trades, acquiring sharpshooter Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics and 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
‘The Big Three’ made the Celtics an instant contender, and they pulled off one of the most dramatic turnarounds in league history by going 66-16 in their first season and beating the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title.
The Celtics returned to the Finals two years later, losing a rematch with Los Angeles Lakers, and were playoff mainstays up until Allen joined the Miami Heat – breaking up the Big Three – in 2012.
2010-14 Miami Heat
No superteam is more famous or controversial than the 2010 Miami Heat.
As LeBron James, the biggest star in basketball, approached free agency, rumours circulated that he would be joining forces with fellow All-Stars and free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
James confirmed his departure from Cleveland in a now infamous TV special named ‘The Decision’, as he and Bosh joined Wade in Miami to form the NBA’s newest Big Three.
Cavaliers supporters burned LeBron jerseys, former players criticised him for deserting his hometown team, and fans around the league celebrated the Heat’s defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.
Miami soon found their groove, however, and won titles in 2012 and 2013 as LeBron was named NBA MVP in both seasons.
‘The Heatles’ stayed together for four seasons in total, reaching the Finals every year before James returned home to Cleveland, forming another superteam in the process.
2014-17 Cleveland Cavaliers
Having won two titles with the Heat and cemented his place as the NBA’s best player, it was time for King James to return home.
The four-time MVP announced he was re-joining Cleveland in the summer of 2014, leading a roster that included budding superstar Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rookie of the Year.
Two elite players weren’t enough for the Cavs, though, as they quickly traded the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft for three-time All-Star Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Once again, LeBron was part of a Big Three, and they reached the Finals in their first season but lost to the Golden State Warriors.
Cleveland won their first ever championship the following year, though, beating Golden State in seven games.
This superteam was broken up in 2017 as Irving requested a trade to the Boston Celtics, and LeBron left a year later with much more goodwill from the Cavaliers fans than his previous departure.
2016-19 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors were arguably a superteam even before the summer of 2016.
The trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green had led them to the 2015 title and then the greatest regular season ever (73-9) before their defeat to the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.
They then signed Kevin Durant, a top-five player in the league, forming perhaps the scariest quartet of players the NBA had ever seen.
Curry and Durant had won the previous three league MVP awards between them and formed a devastating offensive combination as the Warriors romped to back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.
Like LeBron before him, Durant faced a huge amount of criticism for joining what was already the best team in the NBA, and he was the first of the Golden State foursome to leave, joining the Brooklyn Nets as a free agent in 2019.
SUPERTEAMS OF THE PAST
1982-86 Philadelphia 76ers
Although the superteam is considered a modern NBA phenomenon, there are a few examples of elite players joining forces in previous eras, too.
In the summer of 1982, the 76ers were coming off a Finals run, led by Hall of Famers Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks.
They added a fourth Hall of Famer by signing free agent centre Moses Malone, a two-time MVP who declared Philly would go “fo’, fo’, fo’” in the playoffs – in other words, sweeping all three series 4-0.
The Sixers almost lived up to Malone’s proclamation. He won league MVP for the third time before they went 12-1 in the postseason to win the 1983 title.
1982-89 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers won the NBA title in 1980 and 1982 thanks to the dynamic duo of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the arrival of James Worthy after that second championship set LA up to dominate the league for a decade.
The defending champions had the top pick in the 1982 draft thanks to a trade they made with the Cavaliers two years earlier, and they used that to select Worthy, forming one of the league’s greatest ever Big Threes.
Magic and Kareem are among the top 10 players ever to play the game, but ‘Big Game James’ was a superstar in his own right, with seven All-Star appearances and a Finals MVP award in 1988.
The trio played together up until Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement in 1989 – winning three more titles in the process – and all three were chosen among the NBA’s 50 greatest ever players in 1996.
1983-90 Boston Celtics
The Lakers’ main rival throughout the 1980s was another superteam.
The Celtics were already among the best teams in the NBA thanks to their trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, but the addition of Dennis Johnson – the 1979 Finals MVP – made them a juggernaut.
They beat the Lakers 4-3 in the Finals in Johnson’s first season, with Bird claiming the regular season and Finals MVP awards.
Boston reached the Finals in the following three seasons, too, losing to the Lakers in 1985 and 1987 but claiming another title in 1986.
Their key foursome stuck together for seven years in total before Johnson retired in 1990.
1995-98 Chicago Bulls
With Michael Jordan back out of retirement, the Bulls were ready to retake their place on the NBA throne.
Ahead of the 1995-96 season, Chicago GM Jerry Krause pulled off a trade for controversial San Antonio Spurs forward Dennis Rodman.
Rodman’s outlandish behaviour off the court often overshadowed what a great player he was. A two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he brought a toughness and unselfish attitude to the Bulls that made him an ideal team-mate for Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Chicago had already won three titles in the 1990s, but Rodman took them to another level and they three-peated for the second time between 1996 and 1998.
That final season would be the last of the Bulls dynasty as Jordan retired, Pippen was traded to Houston (more on that shortly) and Rodman signed with the Lakers.
1998-99 Houston Rockets
Not all superteams are success stories.
Coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit in 1998, the Rockets swung for the fences by trading for Scottie Pippen, who joined Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley in Houston.
The five-time All-Star had just won a third consecutive title with the Chicago Bulls and now formed a Big Three with the experience to go all the way in the lockout-shortened 1998-99.
Unfortunately, the aging trio of Olajuwon, Barkley and Pippen didn’t have the legs to beat a Los Angeles Lakers team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rockets were swiftly eliminated, Pippen was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston didn’t reach the postseason for another four years.
2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers
Speaking of Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, they rebounded from a second-round exit in 2003 by adding two-time MVP Karl Malone and nine-time All-Star Gary Payton in free agency.
Like the Rockets, this Lakers team had an incredible amount of experience, and they became favourites for the title after completing the double signing.
Injuries affected the Big Four’s play all season, though, and Shaq and Kobe’s tumultuous relationship off the court hardly helped as the Lakers reached the Finals but lost to the Detroit Pistons.
The feud between O’Neil and Bryant led to the former being traded to the Heat, while Payton was traded to the Celtics and Malone retired.
2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers
With Bryant now an aging star approaching the end of his career, the Lakers attempted to help him win his sixth title by bringing in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to form a Big Four along with power forward Pau Gasol.
Nash was a two-time MVP earlier in his career, but Howard was the real star – a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who could be the future of the franchise when Bryant retired.
However, Howard’s laid-back personality never meshed with the uber-competitive Bryant.
They posted their worst record since 2007, crashed out of the playoffs in the first round after Bryant tore his Achilles, and were abandoned by Howard in free agency soon afterwards.
2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder
Having lost Durant to the Warriors, the Thunder were stuck in NBA purgatory. They had a solid roster led by 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook, but weren’t quite good enough to compete for a title.
In the summer of 2017 they tried to get over the hump by trading for four-time All-Star Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, along with Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time All-Star and one of the greatest scorers ever, albeit one nearing the end of his career.
On paper, the Thunder suddenly had a Big Three, but the trio didn’t gel and they were eliminated by the far less heralded Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs.
Anthony was traded to the Atlanta Hawks soon after the season ended, bringing an end to a disastrous year-long experiment.