Last night, the NBA’s Superteam era entered its absurdist period.
The Golden State Warriors—winners of three of the last four NBA titles, a team that won 73 games, a team that pays two of the three best players in the league for their on-court services—acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins off the free-agent pile on a measly one-year, $5.3 million contract.
In doing this, the Warriors, whose occasional lethargy was the only thing keeping them from playing functionally perfect modern professional basketball, have both added to their already-absurd four-All-Star-two-MVP-roster and addressed their only weakness: a tendency to occasionally get played by large, low-block scoring centers. Cousins is the antidote to this. Presuming he won’t be completely destroyed by his Achilles tear—given it’s a tricky injury that has fucked up a lot of careers, and the only tiny bit of risk built into this deal—his presence on the team basically makes them a perfect basketball unit, the NBA’s 1927 Yankees, an unstoppable force that might as well make the rest of the league go try water polo for a year.
This shit sucks. The very structure of basketball, where single players are worth dozens of wins and probability is something of a tertiary concern when analyzing larger sample sizes, lends itself to dynastic streaks. The Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years, the Lakers and Bulls won titles in sets of three, the Spurs sat around and calmly sniped five titles just by remaining consistent while everyone else came and went.
Usually, this is OK: Other teams are still fun to follow, and the pure gauntlet nature of the playoffs—16 wins in 28 tries or get the fuck out—give the winner of the title and that team’s best player a real gravitas pretty much every year. The NBA isn’t MLB or even the NFL, where teams of Eli Mannings slip into titles on the regular. You have to plan and execute and bleed to win; work at the top of your insanely prodigious talent. There is no other alternative. Luck is not here to help. It’s cool. But in the last decade or so, the changing behavior of OG players has made the already-profound heights a team has to scale to make it to the promised land shoot into fucking space.
DeMarcus Cousins has never played in a playoff game. It’s not his fault, really. His Sacramento Kings squads set records for malfeasance, with the shitty, shitty Maloof siblings nickel-and-diming the squad into irrelevance right after he got drafted, and Silicon Valley weirdo Vivek Ranadive buying the team and imposing a series of deeply goofy-ass decisions on their roster and front-office personnel. It did not matter how good he was, and God knows he was excellent—a mobile, skilled and strong big man the likes of which the league hasn’t seen since Hakeem. His team just couldn’t get its shit together for five minutes, much less a whole season.
But basketball doesn’t tend to give deference to dudes who miss the playoffs. Mike Trout can be widely regarded as the best player in baseball while languishing on Angels’ teams that shit the bed, but basketball players are never given that latitude. A player whose team doesn’t make the playoffs, doesn’t win the title, is never afforded the same respect as players who win titles, even when those players are transparently flawed dickheads who run Shaq out of town.
Truly great players who made tons of All-Star squads and deep playoff runs and brought new ways of thinking to the game—Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Elgin Baylor, Dominique Wilkins, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and countless others—are cursed to walk around with gray clouds over their reputations, simply because they never played in a context where they could make it happen.
This culture has colossally warped the incentive structure within the NBA. Where once, great players were single-mindedly obsessed with being “The Man,” the dude everything rotated around, big money and big respect, the league became newly obsessed with the title as an end unto itself, and players became totally willing to sacrifice whatever to make it happen.
It began in 2007, when the Boston Celtics shipped out a heap of young players and brought back slightly aged versions of generational do-everything forward Kevin Garnett and ace shooter Ray Allen to play with chunky, loathsome forward Paul Pierce. Separately, these three dudes were Hall-of-Famers without titles, great talents who all made and lost in a Conference Finals as the best player on their squads.
But when they wound up together, they became a rope that choked out the rest of the league, notching a 67-win season, winning the NBA title, and taking all three of them from “Excellent player who couldn’t make it happen” to “UNDENIABLE WINNERS, LEGENDS” overnight.
A rational reading suggests that, yes, these dudes sacrificed to be on an excellent team but winning that shit didn’t make them any better than they were before they picked up a trophy and soaked themselves with Champagne. The world of the NBA, a game built on arbitrary rules that dictate arbitrary executable geometries, is not exactly prone to bloodless, rationalist self-perception. It’s built on the shifting sands of honor and victory. What happens has no fixed meaning except the one that society imposes on it—meaning that players are often more than happy to play along.
DeMarcus, signed to a one-year deal worth significantly below his market value, claims that no team aside from the Warriors wanted him. Considering the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers have been actively dropping fairly useful players in an attempt to free up space to sign and trade him, it is likely that he is… exaggerating this. There is simply no way this isn’t an extreme sacrifice made in the service of playing for a sure-fire contender. It’s probably the most extreme we have on file, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first of its kind.
After the Celtics formed in 2007, LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers made the Finals the year before the Big 3 came together, became that squad’s most prominent victim, losing to Paul Pierce and his merry band of dickheads in two separate series—including one where they were prohibitively favored. LeBron, the best player of his generation and a dude who had ambitions that went far beyond basketball, was acutely aware that he needed to win a title to make that shit happen.
The rest, I suspect you know: LeBron took a page out of his rivals’ book, called up Chris Bosh and his good friend Dwyane Wade, and they teamed up in Miami. He took a fat pay cut to fit everyone in, knowing full well that this squad would be favored to win the championship, allowing him to fulfill his ultimate destiny.
It paid off, for the most part. Sure, there was an embarrassing loss to Dallas that first year, and the team looked profoundly worn the fuck out when the Spurs took it to them in 2014, but LeBron heaved himself out of the (extremely fake) Ewing space and into the realm of pure greatness.
DeMarcus almost made the playoffs last year, after getting traded to the New Orleans Pelicans and teaming up with star forward and latter-day Kevin Garnett Anthony Davis. But right as he could taste it, disaster struck: Boogie tore his Achilles tendon and lost a whole season to surgery.
Sitting on the bench, watching his squad wipe out the sad-ass Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, it’s hard not to imagine that Boogie found himself thinking extremely hard about what he wanted out of basketball, with the specter of the end of his career getting shoved in his face. He clearly decided he wanted titles—or a title, at least. And he knew there was one way to make that happen as quickly as possible, and that was to do what LeBron did before him: Take a big-ass pay cut to get on a team that was clearly favored to win a championship.
There is only one team like that in the current NBA—in all of professional sports, for that matter. It is the Warriors. It was a no-brainer. He will now spend half the season healing with the help of a world-class training staff that has worked miracles with Steph Curry’s touchy ankles, join the squad around the All-Star break, play a role, waltz into the playoffs and into the Finals, and almost certainly win a title. If he decides he wants to stay, the team will have his Bird rights and be in a position to pay him a better salary, next year. It’s foolproof…
Because, people, there is hope. The Superteam doesn’t always win out. Wilt Chamberlain joined a Lakers squad that already had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, just to find himself run over by Bill Russell and the funky ’70s Knicks. Karl Malone wandered over to Kobe/Shaq Lakers, only to get caught up in one of the weirdest-imaginable controversies and get stomped to death by the bootheel of the mighty 2004 Nobody-Ass Pistons. Those Garnett Celtics only managed one title. The Heat only caught two. Moses Malone joined Dr. J and the Sixers, managed to sneak one, then got buried under the Celtics’ Larry Bird avalanche.
The fact of the matter is this: You can do everything you can to ensure victory, and in the NBA, it works, most of the time. But luck and chemistry and unexpected developments happen. Certainly, sitting here, the 2019 Warriors look utterly unstoppable. But so did Rome. The building blocks of sports are human bodies and minds—materials that are unstable, if nothing else.