When Charles Barkley proclaimed in an interview with the New York Daily News that he was rooting against the Nets in their pursuit of the 2021 NBA championship, there might have been plenty of reasonable justifications for that preference.
James Harden’s push to get out of Houston was, to say the least, inelegant.
Kyrie Irving has lost more than a few admirers in his puzzling journey from the clever Uncle Drew character to the edge of the flat Earth.
Barkley, though, he is bothered by the Nets’ assembly of those two and Kevin Durant into the latest NBA Super Team.
“I’m rooting against all super teams,” Barkley said. “I’m old school.”
Is he old-school enough to have cheered against the original Super Team?
Because this did not begin with LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach to help Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh carry the Miami Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals. The NBA “Super Team” era did not begin with guys who grew up doing the Mikan Drill.
It began with George Mikan himself and the Hall of Famers who surrounded him with the Minneapolis Lakers, Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen, as they won five titles from 1949-56. It continued on through Bill Russell’s Celtics, the Clyde Frazier Knicks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s teaming with Oscar Robertson in 1971. It reached its peak in the ’80s, with the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that was loaded with Hall of Famers and surged through the next decade with the Chicago Bulls’ and Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, ultimately, Dennis Rodman.
There’s probably a book in the theory that the only NBA championship, ever, won by a not-super team came in 2004 with the Pistons’ unlikely triumph over the Shaq-Kobe Lakers Super Team.
If you don’t have a Super Team in place, your chances of winning the NBA championship are now, and have forever been, close to zero.
That’s one reason the NBA has such a whopping portion of teams that never have won its championship: 36.7 percent, compared to just 28.1 percent in the NFL and 20 percent in MLB in the seasons since the NBA was founded in 1947.
The difference seems to be in how the Super Team is constructed. There is this notion it’s somehow nobler for a general manager such as Red Auerbach or Jerry Krause to fleece the opposition in trades, or for San Antonio to get lucky in the draft (being No. 1 when David Robinson and Tim Duncan were available) or really smart (selecting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili when so many passed) — as opposed to players exercising their options as free agents to work where they want.
This is a silly conceit.
Building a championship team is extraordinarily difficult using any apparatus. Auerbach had to pull off the trade that brought in Robert Parish and No. 3 pick Kevin McHale in exchange for the No. 1 (Joe Barry Carroll) and No. 13 pick (Rickey Brown) in the 1980 draft to create the Celtics dynasty that won three titles from 1981-86. Sean Marks had to build a functional roster with three players consuming more than 60 percent of the current Nets’ payroll. There is no shortcut to winning.
If the players in the modern NBA seem “disloyal,” blame it on the owners whose fear and greed (but especially fear) led them to create the rookie salary cap in 1995. Instead of being able to secure gifted, NBA-ready rookies to their franchises for longer periods, the owners opted for low-balling younger, less-prepared players on short-team deals and then acting wounded when those same players are just as happy to take big money from a team in a city that may be closer to home or more suited to their ambitions.
Barkley told the Daily News of his concern that such cities as Houston (post-Harden), Oklahoma City (post-Durant) and Toronto (following the departure of Kawhi Leonard) had fallen off the NBA map after their stars headed elsewhere.
“I just don’t think that’s good for the game. Even though we didn’t win a championship, the Sixers were worth watching when I was there,” Barkley told the Daily News. “The Knicks were worth watching. The Pacers were worth watching when Reggie (Miller) was there. Same with Atlanta and Dominique (Wilkins). So I just don’t think it’s good for business, but these young kids, they all fold to peer pressure and feel like they got to win a championship or their life sucks.”
Setting aside the obviously disingenuous statement from someone who demanded to be traded from the Sixers to the Suns and later joined an aspiring Super Team in Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — each time without winning a title — there is the fact the Nets were never worth watching before Durant, Harden and Irving showed up. And now they are. The Lakers didn’t make the playoffs once from 2014-19, but LeBron James and Anthony Davis teamed up to deliver an NBA championship last season. There are very good, watchable NBA players in such locales as Portland (Damian Lillard), Denver (MVP Nikola Jokic), Salt Lake City (Donovan Mitchell) and Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo). The league has never had a period when there weren’t terrible teams that were best ignored.
Whether located in New Jersey or Brooklyn, the Nets were one of those teams for much of their NBA history. They won just one playoff series in their first 24 seasons in the league. They won just one playoff series — and 10 postseason games — in their first eight seasons in Brooklyn. They should eclipse both of those figures by the middle of next week.
And if it goes beyond that, all the way to the NBA Finals or the organization’s first championship, it will be just as admirable as any other great season by any other franchise. There is no right or wrong way to win, so long as it is within the rules of the game.