When LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, a popular narrative emerged: this is a cop out.
Many commentators scolded LeBron for teaming up with other stars. To be a truly great he had to go it alone, they argued, building his own team from scratch wherein he was the single, unrivalled pillar.
The gist of the argument was stars of a certain size must be kept separate. Having two or more elite-level players was framed as an ethical problem — as if LeBron was violating the unwritten code that only championships won alone are truly legitimate.
That line of thinking was always wrong.
But only in the last half-decade have NBA teams and stars fully embraced the superteam model that LeBron popularised — where you scrap your entire roster, acquire three top players, and bring in veterans and rookies to play around them.
@miamiheatThe Celtics did it and won in 2008. The Heat did it and won in 2012. The Knicks, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, and Nets have all tried to replicate that model by, sometimes shamelessly, chasing star players.
It is now the dominant model to build a championship team.
And its dominance can be linked to the death of one assumption — the same false assumption that had people shaming LeBron James in 2010 — that it’s virtuous for NBA player to try and win by himself.
The futile struggle of Kevin Durant in these playoffs is a perfect example.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are an NBA anomaly. They hit the jackpot through the draft, didn’t overreach for pricey free agents, and organically grew a juggernaut from nothing. No other NBA team is built this way.
But without Russell Westbrook they’ve degenerated into a fairly typical one-man team. They are basically Iverson’s 2000 Sixers or Kobe’s mid-00s Lakers.
They are what the 2011 Cavaliers would have looked like if LeBron had come back.
It’s not pretty. There’s nothing virtuous about it. Durant has to do everything by himself (which is what many people thought LeBron should have tried to do by staying in Cleveland), and it’s absolutely brutal to watch.
Durant hasn’t just been the best player in the 2013 Playoffs so far, he’s having one of the best individual playoffs in NBA history.
He averaging 32 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 41 minutes per game. Only LeBron James and Oscar Robertson have ever done that in a playoffs.
Since Westbrook went out, he’s averaging 33-10-6 in 44 minutes, which hasn’t been done in 50 years.
He is playing as well as you can possibly play. If you dreamt up a scenario where a one-man team won a title, Durant would be playing roughly as well as he’s actually playing right now.
Yet the Thunder are on the verge of a relatively early exit from the playoffs.
It’s impossible to win with one player in today’s NBA. There’s too much talent, the league is too top-heavy, and too many teams hoarding stars. Even the purportedly star-less Grizzlies have the Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol, an All-Star in Zach Randolph, and a top-10 point guard in Mike Conley.
The one-man team is dead, and so is the idea that there’s any inherent value in a player trying to win by himself. And you only need to look at Durant’s playoffs to see it.
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