How “super team” slander exposes NBA media shortcomings

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NBA “super teams” are a lot like NBA 2K video games: Both come in new forms on an annual basis, generate buzz and revenue and then get thrown under the bus by basketball fans and analysts alike. But unlike NBA 2K games — which have offered me days of entertainment over the past ten years, but have become more thinly veiled cash grabs each year — NBA super teams are worth defending.

Here, I define super teams as squads that assume the status of consensus favorites to reach the NBA Finals immediately after a major free agency signing or blockbuster trade that adds a star player to a roster. For example, the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors — who went 73-9 — were not a super team. While they boasted a plethora of talented players, those players had been drafted by the Warriors organization and developed through the years. The 2016-2017 Golden State squad, which brought on Kevin Durant in free agency, was a super team.

The same rhetoric appears each time one of these groups is assembled. The moves are labeled “weak,” the players’ competitive drive is undermined and questions arise concerning whether a championship win by such a stacked roster would even bolster said players’ legacies. Commentators like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless tend to be two of the central figures loudly perpetuating these narratives.

This serves as the basis of one of the central hypocrisies in today’s basketball media analysis: Players who churn out phenomenal performances on a nightly basis but are members of noncontending teams have their feats scoffed at and labeled meaningless. Then, when they join teams which actually have the potential to win a championship, they are called uncompetitive. If you won’t acknowledge an individual’s greatness because he plays for a losing team, why condemn him for joining a team that has a chance at winning?

Russell Westbrook is a prime example of a player whose accomplishments are blown off because he hasn’t come close to winning a championship as the best player on a team. Particularly in his MVP season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook was a one-of-a-kind player. He was explosive, both in the sense that he possessed exceptional quickness and leaping ability and in that he brought a fiery passion to every contest. With these qualities, Westbrook made a playoff team of a fairly mediocre roster.

But even after Westbrook became just the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double over an entire season, his team’s lack of success that postseason led to questions about his abilities as an individual. These questions were so persistent that Westbrook’s equally outstanding accomplishments in the subsequent two seasons — during which he again averaged a triple-double — went under the radar, and Westbrook received zero first-place MVP votes.

He was labeled a “stat-padder,” someone who selfishly prioritizes his statistical output over playing winning basketball. The narrative that Westbrook cared more about his individual accolades was inescapable, and it continues to follow him to this day as he puts up impressive stats on a subpar Washington Wizards squad.

If Westbrook were to join the Brooklyn Nets or the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency this summer, though, he would be slandered by sports news outlets and casual basketball fans alike. Immediately, he would subvert the narrative about his selfishness, but news analysts would ask where his competitive edge went. They’d call him a “ring chaser” who could never win on his own. In short, Westbrook and his contemporaries are damned if they do join a super team and damned if they don’t.

So if Westbrook plays for a middle-of-the-road team with an outside chance at a championship, will that spare him from media criticism? Well, that description pretty much fits the Thunder when they had Westbrook and Paul George at the same time, and that team’s lack of playoff success may have drawn more ire from Smith, Bayless and their media peers than any other Westbrook-centric group.

In late March, Westbrook addressed some of Smith’s remarks about him not being a champion despite having had great teammates throughout his NBA career.

“A championship won’t change my life,” Westbrook said. “I’m happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion. I don’t have to be an NBA champion.”

One would be hard-pressed to formulate a more graceful response. Surely, though, players who request trades or make particular free agency signings in order to create super teams don’t feel the same way as Westbrook. These players are frustrated by things they hear about themselves in the media and are looking for an escape.

Smith, Bayless and others love to debate legacy. And whether a player has won a championship or not is always part of that discussion. Before joining the Warriors, Durant — who is notoriously insecure — was certainly feeling the pressure from media outlets as he entered the backend of his prime without a ring. Signing with Golden State offered him an out.

I don’t blame Durant’s being upset about media narratives for his departure from Oklahoma City. I blame the individuals who perpetuated the idea that his legacy would be tarnished if he never won a championship in the first place.

It may not be as fun to watch an NBA season unfold when there is a clear title favorite, but imagine the tremendous pressure that superstars bear when they have yet to earn a ring. For those who are willing to accept a reduced role on a stacked roster — and in doing so, face harsh media criticism — it’s worth trying to sympathize with their decisions. So, if Brooklyn wins a championship this season, try to muster a smile.

Ethan Moutes is a deputy sports editor and a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].