In the past decade alone, the NBA has seen more than its fair share of “superteams,” in which some of the league’s top players partner up to go ring chasing. In Boston, trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett gave Paul Pierce, a 1998 Celtics draftee, the pair of All-Star running mates he so desperately needed to help elevate the C’s to their first title since the first iteration of the “Big Three” in Boston: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
Subsequent seasons have seen similar partnerships, with the Heat famously landing both LeBron James and Chris Bosh during the 2010 offseason to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, and, of course, the 2016 offseason in which Kevin Durant spurned his own superstar OKC teammate Russell Westbrook to join a talent-laden roster in Golden State headed by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Although the aforementioned “superteams” have all performed exceptionally well (Boston won the title in 2008; Miami won titles in 2012 and 2013; and Golden State is currently atop the Western Conference standings), there are other examples that didn’t exactly pan out, demonstrating that merely creating a so-called superteam does not guarantee a championship or even a trip to the NBA Finals, especially when the roster features great players on the backside of their careers.
The 2003-04 and 2012-13 Lakers serve as potent examples of failed superteams, as Gary Payton and Karl Malone could not elevate Shaq and Kobe to another title in 2004, and Steve Nash and Dwight Howard never meshed well with Bryant in 2013. There are plenty of other examples of failed superstar partnerships, but it is the many “superteams” that never came to be that is perhaps most interesting.
There have been far too many instances in which burgeoning superteams featuring a roster loaded with talented young superstars are broken up long before any member of the core group is close to reaching the prime of their career, with OKC’s trio of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook being the most glaring example in today’s NBA. There have also been a number of trade agreements and free agent deals that would have brought together some of the NBA’s top talent, only to collapse at the last possible moment.
The 15 entries that follow are made up of the many “what-if” scenarios that would have radically altered the NBA’s competitive landscape had they come to fruition and each entry explores the countless superteam situations that came so close to playing out in reality by attempting to answer some of the more interesting hypothetical questions that naturally arise, such as:
- What could Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter have accomplished as longtime teammates with the Toronto Raptors?
- How many more banners would be hanging from the rafters of the United Center if LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all signed with the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls during the turbulent 2010 offseason?
- What would Stephen Curry's phenomenal bag of playmaking tricks include if he had served as Steve Nash’s rookie understudy with the Phoenix Suns?
15 Toronto Raptors - Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter
Although McGrady and Carter spent three seasons as teammates in Toronto, it remains an open question what the Raptors might have accomplished if the pairing had remained intact as both players entered the prime of their careers. McGrady, who was just 20 when he departed for Orlando in 2000, went on to make seven consecutive All-Star teams while leading the NBA in scoring twice. During the seven seasons after he fled Toronto, T-Mac averaged 26.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game, outpacing his early career production with the Raptors by a wide margin.
Without McGrady on the roster, Carter still carried the Raptors to a 47-win season in 2000-01, taking the eventual Eastern Conference champion 76ers to seven games in a second-round matchup. During a time in which the Eastern Conference was wide open, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which McGrady and Carter (who was just 23 when McGrady left for Orlando) could take the Raptors to the NBA Finals on multiple occasions.
The high-flying duo surely would have made Toronto a compelling destination for free agents, enabling the Raptors to fill out the roster with up-and-coming talent rather than the aging veterans the team surrounded Carter with at the time. Add 2003 draftee Chris Bosh (a scenario admittedly unlikely to occur if Toronto had both Carter and McGrady for the 2002-03 season) into the mix and the Raptors could have easily dominated in the East for a solid decade or more.
McGrady certainly believes that the Raptors could have achieved great things had he remained with Carter and the Raptors, and in 2013 he told The Star as much, saying, “In hindsight … I wish I had stayed in Toronto. There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often.”
14 Phoenix Suns – Stephen Curry, Steve Nash, and Jason Richardson
On draft day in 2009, Steve Kerr, then the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, believed he had a deal in place to land Stephen Curry from the Golden State Warriors. The agreement, which the Warriors ultimately backed out of at the last minute, would send Amar'e Stoudemire to Golden State in exchange for the draft rights to Curry, taken by the Warriors with 7th pick.
Had the deal gone through, Curry would have spent his rookie season being mentored by Steve Nash, one of the most creative up-tempo point guards in recent history. Curry would have also played alongside several talented veterans in Jason Richardson, Vince Carter (who joined the Suns during Curry's second NBA season), and a surprisingly resurgent Grant Hill.
With Stoudemire on the roster, the 2009-10 Suns won 54 games and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, but the team endured a disappointing season the following year, one which may have been avoided if Curry began his career with the Suns rather than the Warriors. Although Curry was not yet an MVP-caliber player during his sophomore season, he would have given the Suns plenty of offensive production while reducing the burden on the aging, but still effective Nash.
At the very least, adding Curry to an aging Suns roster would have yielded an entertaining brand of up-tempo basketball featuring two of the NBA's greatest playmaking maestros in Curry and Nash.
13 Minnesota Timberwolves – Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury
It is all too easy to dismiss the championship potential of a Minnesota roster built around the KG-Marbury pairing, particularly when looking back on what most would agree was a disappointing NBA career out of Marbury. During the brief time KG and Marbury were teammates, they were a truly dynamic pairing and were perhaps the most electric duo in the NBA at the time. During Marbury’s last full season in Minnesota, the T-Wolves won 45 games and earned a trip to the playoffs -- all while relying on a 20-year-old point guard in Marbury and a 21-year-old power forward in Garnett.
After Marbury left Minnesota -- either because of homesickness for New York or a bruised ego over KG's huge contract -- he continued to put up big numbers and even earned a pair of All-Star appearances. Unfortunately, the mercurial point guard was never quite able to live up to the seemingly limitless potential he flashed so frequently while playing alongside Garnett. Simply put, Garnett and Marbury made each other and their T-Wolves teammates better, but Marbury could not singlehandedly elevate an entire franchise in the same way as Garnett.
Without Marbury, the Garnett-led Timberwolves posted several 50-win seasons and were considered legitimate contenders out of the Western Conference. If Marbury remained in Minnesota with KG, it is entirely possible that the point guard would have enjoyed a more productive career while helping the Wolves climb the ladder in a difficult Western Conference on the way to multiple NBA Finals berths.
If nothing else, a roster potentially featuring KG, Marbury, and Latrell Sprewell would certainly qualify as one of the most entertaining and explosively unstable groupings in recent memory.
12 Charlotte Hornets – Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson
During their final season as teammates in Charlotte, the young duo of Alonzo Mourning (24 and in his third NBA season) and Larry Johnson (25 and in his fourth NBA season) led the Hornets to a 50-win season and a trip to the playoffs. Although Mourning and Johnson could not will the Hornets past the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the first round, the Hornets were in a great position to build a roster around two of the best young players in the NBA at the time.
When the Hornets and Mourning couldn’t agree on a new contract following the 1994-95 campaign, the dominant center was traded to the Miami Heat, where he would go on to be named an All-Star five additional times (he made two appearances with the Hornets) and would make the playoffs in each of the six seasons following his departure from Charlotte. Mourning’s defection also strained his relationship with Johnson and the former teammates feuded rather famously for the remainder of the 90s.
Although Mourning and Johnson were both plagued by devastating injuries and other issues in the years that followed, it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which Mourning and Johnson remain together in Charlotte and make the Hornets title contenders in a strong Eastern Conference. Despite their relative youth, Mourning and Johnson had each made two All-Star teams during their time in Charlotte and, by adding just a few key pieces to build around a talented young core, were very much on the precipice of championship contention.
11 Orlando Magic – Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway
Shaq spent just four years in Orlando and was only 24 when he left for the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was already the most dominant center in the NBA and, along with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, had taken a young Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals in 1995. With Nick Anderson, Dennis “3-D” Scott, and Horace Grant already on the roster, Orlando was set up for a lengthy and perhaps even historic run of success, but ultimately failed to keep the O’Neal-Hardaway duo together when it botched contract negotiations with Shaq in the summer of 1996.
Looking back, it is tempting to consider how many titles Shaq could have won playing alongside Penny -- a playmaker and a deferential, willing sidekick who many viewed as the second coming of Magic Johnson -- rather than Kobe Bryant. By all accounts, the Lakers of the Shaq-Kobe era won three consecutive NBA Championships in spite of the toxic relationship between the team's two superstars, whereas the Penny-Shaq combination could have had far more staying power if the Magic had simply offered their dominant center the max-level contract that should have been a no-brainer.
Orlando, even without Shaq, had no problem attracting the best players in the NBA during free agency, landing talented young stars in Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady during the 2000 offseason alone. Although a Magic team with Shaq and a healthy Penny on its payroll wouldn’t quite have the same cap space as it did at the time, the presence of a championship-caliber roster would have guaranteed that Orlando remained one of the most attractive destinations in the NBA, ensuring a lengthy run of success for the Shaq-Penny partnership -- at least in the alternate universe in which Shaq re-signs with the Magic and Penny remains healthy and productive.
10 Miami Heat – Hakeem Olajuwon, Steve Smith, and Glen Rice
In the fall of 1992, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets seemed destined for a parting of ways. Although several teams were interested in acquiring the longtime Houston big man, the Miami Heat came closest to landing Olajuwon -- along with Sleepy Floyd -- in exchange for a package of Rony Seikaly, Grant Long, and Harold Miner.
In hindsight, the deal seems like highway robbery for the Heat, who ultimately turned down the opportunity to acquire the future Hall of Famer. At the time, however, Seikaly (27) and Long (26) were just entering the prime of their respective careers and coming off great seasons, and Miner (21) was heralded as a future All-Star after sliding to the Heat at the tail end of the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery.
Olajuwon, who would go on to be named NBA Finals MVP during each of Houston’s back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 -- not to mention the 1994 NBA MVP and consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1993 and 1994 -- would have instead joined an already intriguing Heat roster featuring pair of versatile perimeter players in Glen Rice and Steve Smith, making Miami a legitimate threat in the East during a time in which Michael Jordan’s surprising retirement opened the door for the Rockets to win a pair of titles.
Even more intriguing is the fact that the trade package used to secure Olajuwon wouldn’t preclude the Heat from later acquiring Tim Hardaway from Golden State (for Bimbo Coles and Kevin Willis) in 1996. Having Olajuwon on the roster, of course, would make it far less likely for Miami to trade for Alonzo Mourning in 1995, but it’s possible that the Heat’s new head coach and president Pat Riley would still make the bold deal in order to ensure the club remained competitive even as Olajuwon’s career began to wind down.
9 Minnesota Timberwolves – Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups
When Chauncey Billups joined the Timberwolves on a two-year deal in the summer of 2000, the young point guard had already played for three different franchises over the first three seasons of his career and was viewed mainly as a backup point guard for veteran Terrell Brandon. Garnett, of course, was already one of the NBA’s most dominant players and had been friends with Billups going back to their high school days, so the two had already established a stong on- and off-court rapport long before they ever paired up in Minnesota.
With Brandon injured on a relatively frequent basis, Billups had plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents and often played brilliantly alongside Garnett. During Billups’ second and final season in Minnesota, the T-Wolves won 50 games with Billups taking over starting point duties for the bulk of the season, averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 assists in over 28 minutes per game.
After averaging 22 points and 5.7 assists per game during a first-round playoff loss, Billups landed a contract in Detroit and flourished with the Pistons, developing his famous reputation for late-game heroics while leading the Pistons to the 2004 NBA Championship.
It was during Billups’ run to the NBA Finals with the Pistons that Garnett enjoyed one of his finest seasons in Minnesota, winning the 2004 NBA MVP but again falling short in the NBA Playoffs. With Billups and Garnett together in Minnesota for more than just two seasons, the Timberwolves might have been able to avoid some of its playoff woes and finally reach the NBA Finals, all while maintaining some semblance of roster continuity and building around two future Hall of Famers in Billups and Garnett.
8 New York Knicks – Patrick Ewing and Isiah Thomas
The 1994 NBA Finals ended in heartbreaking fashion for the New York Knicks, as the team led by Patrick Ewing fell in seven games to the Houston Rockets. On the way to a 57-win regular season in 1993-94, the Knicks needed a point guard to replace the injured Doc Rivers, so the club turned to the Pistons to inquire about Isiah Thomas.
With the Pistons non-competitive and headed straight for the draft lottery, the teams agreed to a deal that would send Thomas to the Knicks in exchange for Tony Campbell and a draft pick (the same package the Knicks ultimately used to land Derek Harper). Obviously, the trade was never consummated, as the longtime Pistons point guard vetoed the deal that would have made him teammates with Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Anthony Mason.
Thomas spoke to the Chicago Tribune in 1998 about the nixed deal, asserting that the heartbreaking 1994 Finals outcome would never have come to pass for the Knicks had he approved of the deal, saying, "I will say we'd have won it in 1994.” Thomas then went on to explain in detail what would have been different if he had joined the Knicks:
“In that seventh game, when (John) Starks was shooting the ball like that (2 for 16), I would have said, `You’re not shooting anymore; get the ball to (Patrick) Ewing.' And if he couldn't throw it down there, I would have. I think (coach Pat) Riley probably would have stayed because we'd have won (the championship) and everyone would have been in love and happy. I don't know if we'd have been able to beat Chicago when Michael (Jordan) came back. But the war would have continued."
7 Seattle Supersonics – Scottie Pippen, Gary Payton, and Detlef Schrempf
Coming off a season in which they won a league-best 63 games -- yet still fell to the Denver Nuggets in a stunning first-round playoff upset -- the Seattle Supersonics had the opportunity to acquire Scottie Pippen from the Chicago Bulls. The Sonics balked at giving up a 24-year-old Shawn Kemp (along with Ricky Pierce and the right to swap draft positions) to get Pippen, then 28, but coming off a season in which he averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.9 steals per game while leading the Bulls to 55 wins in the absence of the recently retired Michael Jordan.
Pairing Pippen with Payton would have brought together two of the best defensive players of all-time, making the Sonics an absolute nightmare on the defensive end without sacrificing the team’s offensive firepower. Although Kemp looked poised to enjoy a lengthy and dominant NBA career, Pippen ultimately proved to be the far superior player and could have elevated an already outstanding Sonics team, in which he would have joined two fellow All-Stars in Payton and Detlef Schrempf.
6 Los Angeles Lakers – Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard
A remarkably uncommon set of circumstances caused one of the most infamous and contentious chain of events to ever take place during the David Stern era of the NBA, with Chris Paul being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team deal also involving the Rockets and Hornets and centering around Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Goran Dragic. Stern, of course, vetoed the deal, citing “basketball reasons,” and he was able to do so only because the Hornets were owned by the NBA at the time, even if Dell Demps was technically the acting GM.
Since Stern stepped in, we can never know what the Lakers could have accomplished with a roster built around the best point guard in the league and one the best wing scorers of all time while both were at the peak of their powers. Even after acquiring Paul, the Lakers would have had the assets to trade for Howard, who would be the most obvious beneficiary of Paul’s ability to get big men easy baskets at the rim (somewhere, DeAndre Jordan is nodding in agreement as he writes another thank-you note -- on State Farm Insurance stationery, no less -- to David Stern).
5 Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Andrew Wiggins
After emerging victorious in the 2016 NBA Finals behind the James-Irving-Love triumvirate, the Cavs surely feel no regret over trading away Wiggins for Love during the summer of 2014. There is a scenario, however, in which the Cavs hold onto Wiggins, a talented wing scorer who is currently averaging over 21.7 points per game with a young Minnesota team, and still land Love -- or any other max-level free agent available during the 2015 offseason.
Instead of trading Wiggins for just one guaranteed season of Love, the Cavs could have kept Wiggins in the fold on his relatively meager rookie-scale contract. When Love opted for free agency the following summer, the Cavs would still be able to offer the same max-level deal and assemble the very same roster that won the 2016 title, with Andrew Wiggins serving as a cost-effective bonus. LeBron, still a dominant, MVP-caliber player even at 32, could serve as a mentor to Wiggins, ensuring the athletically gifted wing becomes the franchise cornerstone so many believe him to be.
It’s hard to quibble over roster construction and cap space when discussing the reigning NBA champs -- and perhaps Love would have signed elsewhere in free agency if he had not been traded to Cleveland -- but the Cavs could have instead been looking at an NBA dynasty with plenty of staying power. In this alternate scenario, the Cavs are rewarded for their patience and continue to contend for titles every year, with LeBron eventually passing the torch to the two superstars he helped develop in both Irving and Wiggins.
4 Detroit Pistons – Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace
In 2004, the Pistons beat the Lakers in five games to win the franchise’s first title since the era of the “Bad Boys." Led by Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince, Detroit was able to defeat a Lakers team just one season removed from winning three consecutive titles, even as Darko Milicic, the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, watched from the bench.
Much has been made of the fact that the Pistons passed on Carmelo Anthony, who instead went third to the Nuggets, to take Milicic, a raw talent saddled with a most unfortunate nickname: "The Human Victory Cigar." Despite winning a title without Melo on the roster, members of the 2004 title team have openly wondered might have been.
If Detroit had added Anthony to an already talented veteran roster, Billups believes the Pistons could have been transformed into a legitimate NBA dynasty, saying, "We probably would have had three championships.” Billups also explained how Anthony would have been changed for the better, offering an interesting take on Melo’s alternate career path with Detroit:
"That ball-stopping mentality that Carmelo has? He wouldn't have had that if he was a Piston. We wouldn't let him play like that. He would have been a much better player than he is now—and he's a great player now. This guy would have been, he would have been an absolute icon, because winning takes you there."
3 Chicago Bulls – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Derrick Rose
During the same summer in which LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Chicago Bulls were feverishly trying to clear the cap space needed to land the trio that ultimately brought two titles to South Beach. In doing so, the Bulls could have added three of the NBA’s most gifted players in Wade, Bosh, and James to a roster that already included a still-healthy Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, and Joakim Noah, the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
With the wealth of talent already in place -- Chicago won 62 games during Miami’s first season with Wade, LeBron, and Bosh -- what kept the Bulls from landing the biggest free-agent prize in league history? Only Luol Deng stood in the way and it was the Bulls’ inability to finalize a trade to clear Deng’s contract from the team’s salary cap that ultimately prevented Wade, LeBron, and Bosh from signing with Chicago instead of Miami.
Wade, who joined the Bulls before the start of the 2016-17 season, recently recalled that both he and LeBron looked at Chicago and Miami as potential landing spots during the 2010 offseason, saying, “I know LeBron's eyes were here. I know my eyes were here." Wade then explained further, saying, "I mean, this was a place I wanted to play. It was a place LeBron also loved. We loved the city of Chicago. It's a great market as well.”
2 Orlando Magic – Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady
During the summer of 2000, the Orlando Magic set incredibly lofty goals for free agency and cleared enough cap space to sign two young superstars to max-level contracts -- with enough room remaining to entice a third. The Magic targeted Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady, hoping to bring in Duncan and Hill at max-level dollars while still convincing the young and relatively unproven McGrady to leave Toronto.
Hill and McGrady, of course, decided to join forces in Orlando on max contracts, and Duncan was intrigued enough by Orlando’s pitch that Spurs owner Peter Holt expressed concern about losing his franchise power forward to the Magic. Even David Robinson saw Orlando as a legitimate threat to land Duncan, as the former Spurs center left his vacation early to help convince his teammate to re-sign with San Antonio.
As Duncan considered the free-agent offer from Orlando, the Magic must have been dreaming of the inside-out game they could build with Hill and McGrady on the wings and Duncan in the post. With a roster built around three of the most talented young players in the NBA at the time, the league’s balance of power would have quickly shifted to Orlando and the Magic would have contended out of the East for the next 10-15 years.
When he joined Orlando, Hill was universally considered Michael Jordan’s heir-apparent following six standout seasons in Detroit, but, despite McGrady blossoming into one of the league’s best scorers, the injuries to Hill quickly dampened Orlando’s hopes of ever contending for a title. With Duncan on the roster, however, the Magic could have easily withstood the loss of Hill, allowing Hill to recover completely from his injury rather than rushing back like he did.
1 Oklahoma City Thunder – Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook
Sam Presti, the GM of the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder since 2007, is generally regarded as one of the shrewdest executives in the NBA, and plucking Kevin Durant (2007), Russell Westbrook (2008), Serge Ibaka (also 2008), and James Harden (2009) out of the NBA Draft certainly reinforces his reputation one of the league's top talent evaluators. Unfortunately, the core of what might have been a true, homegrown NBA dynasty in Oklahoma City was broken up before it ever had a chance to reach its full potential -- all due to a disastrous miscalculation regarding the future of the salary cap.
During the fall of 2012 -- just a few months after the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio earned a trip to the NBA Finals by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals -- Harden was traded to Houston for a relatively underwhelming package that included Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a pair of draft picks that eventually turned into Steven Adams and Mitch McGary.
The trade that sent Harden, then a 23-year-old sixth man on a loaded OKC roster, was motivated by OKC’s apparent belief that it could not keep Harden, Durant, and Westbrook together while still remaining under the salary cap. This would have been the case, except that a huge TV deal announced in 2014 resulted in a massive increase to the salary cap, making it entirely feasible that the Thunder could have given all three of its homegrown superstars max-level deals.
Since Harden’s departure, all three of the former OKC teammates have performed at an MVP level and are firmly entrenched among the top-10 players in the NBA today, and perhaps even make up three of the top five. With Harden, Durant, and Westbrook on the roster, OKC would have easily been perennial title contenders and might even have multiple championship banners hanging from the rafters of the team’s home arena.
Obviously -- and perhaps most painfully for the OKC fan base -- it's quite hard to imagine Durant deciding to go ring-chasing in Golden State with a championship-level roster in OKC, especially one built around two MVP-caliber teammates in Westbrook and Harden.
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