NBA Players Who Made Their Own Super Teams
Lebron James now has shape-shifted the NBA three times, and he thinks the league’s ongoing super-teams trend is good for pro basketball.
Others contend it is somewhere between unfair and boring. Unless you root for the Golden State Warriors.
"Is it fair?” said LeBron, when posed the super-team question during a post-game news conference at the 2017 NBA Finals, in which his Cleveland Cavaliers squad was losing three games to none. “I don't care. I think it's great. It's great for our league. Look at our TV ratings. Look at the money our league is pouring in.”
True enough. The NBA is global and glamorous as measured by both revenue and social media metrics.
But will fans tire of watching the Warriors win NBA titles?
LeBron has played in eight straight Finals. Is that too much? Is the NBA diluting the value of its draft?
Answer: If you can’t beat ‘em, sign ‘em. Change the game.
And, no, the draft is where these super teams all originate.
Here is our countdown of the top 12 NBA free agents who created super teams, ranked in order of impact on winning NBA titles.
#12: Tom Chambers, Phoenix Suns, 1988
Wait, what, Tom Chambers makes the list? Yes. Here’s why.
During the summer of 1988, 30 NBA summers ago, the just-reworked NBA collective bargaining agreement (insiders like to call it the CBA) created unrestricted free agency for the first time. That meant players could leave a team, sign with another franchise, and the vacated team was not able to match the contract.
Chambers, a seven-year vet tired of vying for playing time with the Seattle Supersonics, inked a deal with Phoenix. Chambers meshed effectively with the Suns' core of Kevin Johnson (the former mayor of Sacramento), Jeff Hornacek (recently fired as Knicks coach) and Tyrone Corbin to make the 1989 NBA Finals.
Chambers averaged 26 points that season and continued to fill the hoop with the Charles Barkley-led team that couldn’t quite get past the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Finals, though we all had fun exploring the public friendship and rivalry of Sir Charles and Michael Jordan.
Chambers also made the All-Star team three times during his Phoenix days.
Make no mistake, Chambers kick-started free agency and the nascent super-team math of adding unrestricted free agents to the NBA formula of building by draft choices and trades.
#11: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets, 2018
NBA diehards know that Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets in 2017. They also likely recall that Paul gave up the chance to become an unrestricted free agent that summer to form a super-team alliance with James Harden.
But it might have slipped by that Paul signed a four-year free-agency deal this July, getting $40 million per season. Just past midnight on July 1, Paul tweeted out an all-caps message: UNFINISHED BUSINESS—RUN IT BACK.
We are buying.
Paul gets No. 11 as a placeholder for when he and James Harden and Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony topple the Warriors during the 2019 playoffs (or 2020 at the latest). It’s gonna happen because it might have happened already if Paul wasn’t slowed by a right hamstring injury that prevented him from playing a Game 7 against the Warriors.
Paul buys in completely to D’Antoni’s system (who in turn buys into Daryl Morey’s concept) of shooting threes. Harden and Clint Capela run the pick-and-roll while everybody else gets open. Paul does the same when Harden gets a breather on the bench.
It is hard — top-level NBA hard — to defend if the shooters do their jobs. Smother Harden, and the shooters kill you. Cheat toward the shooters, Harden crashes the hoop like a champion boxer pummeling a contender in a trapped corner.
Carmelo will be one of those reliable shooters — in part because he likes (er, loves) to shoot and in bigger part because Paul is one of Carmelo’s best friends. Paul makes sure Carmelo continues buying in and says forget the D’Antoni Knicks days.
Both Paul and Carmelo are also besties with LeBron, so both guys are highly motivated to sport bragging rights one of these summers soon on the annual yacht trip.
Plus, remember Carmelo signed with Houston for the veteran minimum of $2.4 million. The duo with Harden will create a super-team core that topples Golden State, maybe for just one year and no guarantees they get past Toronto or Boston or (fill in the blank) in the NBA Finals.
But the guess here is West is best and wins the 2019 title.
Either way, it’s enough if Paul and The Beard and company drop the Warriors’ W streak this coming spring or next.
#10: Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons, 2002
Based on his historic run with Detroit, which included rejuvenating Pistons grit and grind sorely missed since the last title in 1990, Chauncey Billups could be rated higher on this list.
Trouble is, Billups himself made the Pistons a super team, with a subtle nod to Ben Wallace, who was an undrafted free agent.
Billups’ return on investment for his six-year, $35 million contract? Six straight conference finals, two NBA Finals and a 2004 NBA title, dousing a potential four-peat by super teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Billups won the Finals MVP that June, plus made the All-NBA team three times during the Pistons years.
Detroit retired his number in 2016.
Billups averaged 16 points and 6 assists per game playing in Detroit, elevating any number of role players to form a composite super team. He played ferocious defense (demanding his teammates do the same) and hit many so clutch game-winning field goals with the Pistons he earned the nickname “Mr. Big Shot."
#9: Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers, 1982
Moses Malone signed an offer sheet with the Sixers in 1982 as a restricted free agent. Then Houston Rockets matched the offer, then two weeks traded the big man to Philly.
So, technically, it is a trade, or sign-and-trade, but for this list, we are ruling it a free-agent move (or as "free" as free could be in the early 1980s NBA).
No doubt, the eventual move shape-shifted the NBA with Malone, reigning MVP, joining forces with Julius Erving, aka Dr. J. They won the 1983 title together, and Malone earned back-to-back MVP honors, the first time a player has ever done it with two different teams.
That 1983 NBA title was the only championship notched by Hall of Famers Malone and Erving. Yet what a glorious year, especially the 12-1 postseason run that ended with Malone winning the Finals MVP.
Many fans might not suspect it, but Dr. J identifies the late Malone (he died of heart disease at 60 in 2015) as a favorite teammate and admired Malone’s individuality.
Malone averaged 24 points per game during his four Sixers seasons along with 13 to 15 rebounds per game.
#8: Julius Erving, Philadelphia 76ers, 1976
NBA historians who double as nitpickers would say that Dr. J was traded from the New York Nets to the Sixers—after the Knicks turned down Erving as “compensation” for the former ABA Nets encroaching on New York territory. The Knicks wanted to see the Nets fold instead.
So the Sixers jumped in, paying $6 million to the Nets (who used it to stay solvent and in the league) for Dr. J’s contract. Let’s rule it a free-agent move, especially since Erving was joining ABA MVP George McGinnis, ABA All-Star Caldwell Jones (another favorite teammate of Dr. J) and Darryl Dawkins.
Dr. J led that super group to the the 1977 NBA Finals, ousting defending champion Boston to get there. Philly went up 2-0 but ended up losing to Bill Walton and the Portland Trailblazers.
No worries. Dr. J eventually won a NBA title with Moses Malone (see No. 8 on this list), mesmerizing hoops fans the world over with his dunking prowess.
Erving also was the first NBA player to get his own shoe endorsement deal (paving the way for Michael Jordan’s immense fortune and, well, pretty much every member of today’s NBA).
He averaged 22 points and nearly seven rebounds every game during his Philly years.
#7: Jamaal Wilkes, Los Angeles Lakers, 1977
The summer of 1976 featured the first free-agent class in the NBA — sort of. Waiting nearly all summer for then-Commissioner Larry O’Brien to rule on free-agent compensation, players and general managers alike were disappointed.
NBA Players Association attorney Larry Fleisher, who helped negotiate the agreement, told The Washington Post that teams made an "obvious attempt not to get into a bidding war and not upset the salary structure. And they had what I feel is an illegal fear of what they would have to pay for compensation."
For his part, Washington Bullets GM Bob Ferry said, "We still don't have compensation ruling on a major superstar. That's what everyone would like to see."
No superstars moved teams that summer. But Jamaal Wilkes did, fleeing Golden State for the Los Angeles Lakers. It turned to be a steal and cinched super-team status for the “Showtime” Lakers that featured Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers franchise won three titles in Wilkes’ eight seasons. The former UCLA star averaged more than 20 points per game for five straight seasons, beginning in 1978-79.
The kicker: Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals against the 76ers. Magic had to play center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar. He scores 42 points. Big stuff, no doubt.
Equally large to the 1980 title? Wilkes scored 37 points and pulled down 10 rebounds that night.
#6: Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls, 1995
Say what you want about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. They deserve the praise for six Bulls titles in the 1990s. Lots of it.
But Michael and Scottie and Phil don’t win the last three without Dennis Rodman. The former Pistons Bad Boy brought the necessary rebounds, grit, nose rings and championship rings (two NBA titles from Detroit) to form a Bulls super team.
Rodman figured out how to co-exist with Jordan and Pippen — not easy (ask Will Perdue and even Steve Kerr).
The free spirit played three years in Chicago and won three titles. He went from sneering foe to the teammate who averaged more than 15 rebounds per game (just what Chicago needed), played lights-out defense (annoying Karl Malone in back-to-back Finals), pulled up fallen Bulls when they were knocked down, and (furs and all) made just about every team bus, plane and practice.
Let’s not overlook those five NBA titles. That's the same total as Tim Duncan and Kerr (the player). Jordan and Pippen helped Rodman earn an undisputed high place in the NBA record books, and Rodman helped them become a dynasty.
#5: Chris Bosh, Miami Heat, 2010
Chris Bosh gets high marks for linking up with fellow free agent LeBron James to join Dwyane Wade to form a super team built more on free agents than draft choices and trades.
Basketball experts, especially scouts and GMs, are vehement that LeBron and D-Wade needed Bosh on the defensive boards plus the 18-plus points he averaged to play in four straight NBA Finals and win two during the LeBron years in South Beach.
More high marks for Bosh adjusting his style of play and overall game to his superstar teammates. One example: Bosh averaged 22.5 points per game in his previous five seasons in Toronto. What’s more, Bosh always seemed to be the fall guy when the Heat were slumping during regular seasons or falling short in the Finals.
When the Heat won their first championship in 2012, Bosh scored 24 points in the Game 5 clincher while also averaging 10 rebounds per game.
And let’s not forget the 2013 Finals, which are remembered for Ray Allen’s famed last-second 3-pointer in Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs to force a Game 7 that the Heat won for their second straight title.
But Bosh backers — and LeBron fans, for that matter — remember that when LeBron missed his own trey, Bosh grabbed the rebound and kicked it back out to Allen.
#4: Lebron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014
This is a sentimental choice, yes, but more than that.
The sentimental stuff: Cleveland needed a winner after a 52-year sports title drought. The last one was the Browns in 1964 in pre-Super Bowls. LeBron's hometown of Akron is bursting with Cavs, Browns and Indians fans. He carried the city and everyone’s hearts on his back when he decided to opt out of Miami during the summer of 2014.
The more-than-that stuff: The first return season fell short, though the Cavs making the Finals marked LeBron as the first player to reach five straight NBA Finals since a bunch of Celtics in the 1960s. His effort was valiant as both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving missed most of the 2015 Finals. The Cavs — with LeBron shooting, rebounding, assisting, blocking and stealing — won two of the first three against the Warriors before Steve Kerr and his coaching staff figured out how to neutralize the LBJ Factor.
The 2016 Finals rematch with Golden State didn’t start out as the happy ending that Cleveland craved and which earned LeBron Free Agency 2.0 this ranking (hey, we are about to find out how 3.0 is going to work out). The Warriors went up 3-1 before LeBron went next level and took Love and Irving and the rest of the Cavs with him to win three straight and a sweet title.
LeBron won that Finals MVP, averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, 2.5 blocks and 2.5 steals.
But what everyone remembers best is LeBron lived up to his promise to bring a championship to his home region.
#3: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors, 2016
The debate rages to this day about Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City (and Russell Westbrook) to jump on the title express in the Bay Area.
Is that what a true champion does — join the reigning champs?
Isn’t there more honor getting to the Finals the hard way with OKC?
Quick example from those who Du-Rant: What if Michael Jordan, tired of getting banged around in the paint by the "Bad Boys" Pistons, signed with Detroit instead of, well, you know the rest.
Debate all you want, but Durant has won two titles and delivered two Finals MVPs.
In the 2017 Finals, he averaged 35 points, 8-plus rebounds and 5 assists.
In the 2018 sweep of Cleveland, Durant dropped a 29/11/7 line for the series, including 43 points in Game 3. He scored a whole lot of clutch points during stretches when Steph Curry was not 100 percent.
Rant if you must, but Durant is the tipping point for the most super of NBA super teams.
Yes, we will entertain another round to discuss the 1960s Celtics, 1980s Lakers, 1990s Bulls, and maybe even the Oughts’ Shaq-Kobe Lakers.
But here’s the thing: The Warriors match up now with titles, regular-season wins records and more, yet they have seasons remaining to build the resume. All while LeBron James and cast of future Hall of Famers are forming their own superhero alliances.
And you have to admire Durant’s follow-up with his self-proclaimed interest in Silicon Valley after he signed with the Warriors. His company has invested in Postmates, Lime (formerly LimeBike), the pizza chain Pieology, drink WTRMLN WTR, cloud startup Rubrik, spare-change app Acorns, and more.
#2: Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 1996
Fun fact about Shaq: He used to carry a sack of club sandwiches pretty much everywhere he went. At least that is a story that made the rounds covering the NBA in the 1990s and I am sticking with it.
One story without question: Shaq’s signing with the Lakers in 1996 revived basketball in Los Angeles.
Oh, sure, some guy named Kobe played alongside him in purple and gold, but make no mistake that the big man was an unstoppable force during the Lakers’ three-peat in 2001, 2002 and 2003. He averaged 28 points per game, plus nearly a dozen rebounds and 2 to 3 blocks every night.
Funny, in Los Angeles, part of the super team included coach Phil Jackson, fresh off a couple of three-peats in Chicago. The Zenmaster didn't show up until 2000, but Jackson guided Shaq to find the hyper-focus that transported him to his best on-court self.
#1: Lebron James, Miami Heat, 2010
All props to Shaq and those three straight NBA titles he won with the Lakers, but LeBron James (2010 edition) deciding to “take his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat” is the ultimate super-team move by a free agent.
LeBron linked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (see No. 5 on this list) to lead the Heat to four straight Finals and two titles while dominating the league with a four-season average of 27 points per game, plus 6 to 7 assists and 7 to 8 rebounds. Every night during that span.
What’s more, Lebron shape-shifted the league at a time when that was not the trend. His friendship with Wade motivated the two superstars to say, hey, let’s play together. They convinced another buddy, Bosh, that instantly creating a super team on their own was doable.
And, yes, technically, LeBron’s move to Miami was a sign-and-trade deal between Cleveland and Miami.
But that is the final reason this is No. 1 on our list: LeBron willed this decision from start to finish.