The National Basketball Association has always been the sport most known for its star power. Since 1946, the NBA has entertained basketball fans around the world. From Wilt Chamberlain, to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, to Magic Johnson, to Larry Bird, to Michael Jordan, to Shaquille O’Neal, to LeBron James, stars have carried the sport due to the impact they can have on a game. Since they’re only five players on the court at one time, superstars have typically meant more in basketball than any other sport. However, recently, chemistry is becoming more of a factor in the 2020’s version of the NBA.
In last year’s postseason, even though they were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 51-21 record, the Suns were seen as underdogs heading into their first-round contest with the Lakers due to LA containing arguably the two best players in the series in James and Anthony Davis. Six games later, it was James, Davis and crew packing their lockers as Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the Suns moved on to a semifinals bout with the Nuggets. A Lakers team that had won the title six months earlier after dominating the NBA Bubble had been wiped away from the postseason in convincing fashion by the upstart Suns.
In the same postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, rising star Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, finally broke through and defeated Kevin Durant (who at the time many considered the best player in the world), James Harden and the Nets on their way to winning the first championship for Milwaukee since 1971. The Clippers, without their best player Kawhi Leonard, gave Phoenix everything they could handle in the conference finals, and the Hawks, led by a three-year player in Trae Young, defeated MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and the No. 1 seed Sixers in the semifinals. Atlanta was under .500 on March 30 at 23-24 after a loss to the Suns before going on their magical postseason run.
A lot of media pundits attributed the upsets in last year’s playoffs to the amount of injuries sustained, and while it is true stars such as Davis, Leonard and Harden all either missed significant time or were playing injured, last year’s playoffs don’t seem to be an anomaly anymore. The 2021 postseason looked to set a precedent of what NBA basketball in the 2020’s looks like: Chemistry matters more than star power.
It’s happening again in this year’s postseason. The Suns, with virtually the same team that made the NBA Finals last summer, easily finished the regular season with the best record at 64 wins, and the Pelicans gave them a fight in round one, and the Mavericks are doing the same currently in round two.
The Grizzlies finished with the NBA’s second-best record with 56 wins and only had one All-Star in Ja Morant. When the team did not have the services of Morant, they had a 20-5 record because they are a well-built team. They may not have many stars, but they have a boatload of solid players who have played a ton together.
The same can be said out East. The No. 1 seed Miami Heat have one star in Jimmy Butler. Whether you look at Butler as a star or a superstar is up for debate, but what’s not up for debate is Miami, much like Memphis, has a complete team. Bam Adebayo, Tyler Hero, Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Victor Oladipo. All of those players contribute for them, and it makes the team hard to guard.
If you would have told me two years ago a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on it would be swept in a playoff series, I would have not believed you, but that’s exactly what happened when Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics disposed of them in the first-round. While Tatum is rising into superstar status during this postseason in my opinion, no one would take him over Durant right now, but Boston’s mix of Tatum, combined with a star in Jaylen Brown, and the mix of solid role players in Marcus Smart and Robert Williams, gave Durant, Irving and the Nets fits. Boston is currently giving the World Champions a run for their money in the semifinals, and Milwaukee contains the best player in the world currently in my opinion.
The NBA still relies on star power and aggressiveness. The Bucks went out and traded for Holiday, and the Suns went out and traded for Paul before the 2020-2021 campaign began. The difference in today’s NBA is just because you have the best player on the court, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the series. With the talent that’s coming in at a rapid pace in the NBA due to the draft, players such as Luca Dondic, Morant and Young are evaluating their teams quickly, and it’s rendering teams built heavily on stars such as the Nets and Lakers helpless against the good teams because they don’t have the bench depth.
The good news for Cavs fans is the Cavs have followed the new NBA model. The Cavs have built through the draft and trades, as opposed to free agency. Evan Mobley is 20, Isaac Okoro is 21, Darius Garland is 22, Collin Sexton is 23, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkenen are 24. That’s a young core the team can build around, and they can use the success of the Grizzlies and Mavericks to model after.
Me and my All Things Cavs co-host Joey Schenieder have debated recently as to what the Cavs need to do this offseason. Do they make a lottery pick? Do they trade it and one of their big pieces for a superstar?
Two years ago, I think the answer would have been the latter, and it wouldn’t even have been a discussion. In 2014, the Cavs gave up their No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins in exchange for Kevin Love, a move that would help the team capture the first championship for the city of Cleveland two years later. In 2019, the Raptors rented Leonard for a year and won the championship. In 2020, the Lakers gave up almost their whole team for Davis and won the championship.
Today, I’m not sure if those all-in moves would win the Larry O’Brien trophy. The NBA has changed, Chemistry matters more than ever in today’s NBA, and it’s only going to be proven more throughout the next few seasons as more young stars enter the league.
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