“Super Teams” are officially taking over the NBA. But aren’t they a little late to the party? Probably, at least for the start of it. After all, the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant almost three years ago, moving them from the “best team in the league” category into the simultaneously loved and hated “Super Team” category. They subsequently destroyed just about everyone they came up against on their way to two straight titles and are most likely going to win a third at the end of the 2018–19 season. The signing of Durant was incredibly controversial, and many talking heads claimed the NBA had lost all parity. When one team wins two finals in a row with a combined series score of 8–1 (4–1 in 2017 and 4–0 in 2018), it’s hard to argue the league might be a bit unbalanced. But, it looks like that is about to change. There are two new super teams on the rise. With the NBA trade deadline often comes mind-blowing transactions, and this season certainly did not disappoint. Many teams made moves before the deadline, but two teams stood out the most: the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Philadelphia currently sits fourth in the extremely tight Eastern Conference race — the top five spots are so close that they can change on any given day. The Sixers already made headlines by trading starters Dario Saric and Robert Covington for controversial superstar Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves back in November. Many pundits were skeptical of how Butler — a player who is known for his isolation, or one-on-one, play — would fit with the rest of the Sixers’ starting lineup. After all, Philadelphia’s head coach Brett Brown is a former assistant to San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, who is famous for his well-crafted offense that emphasizes ball movement to find the best shot. The issue for the Sixers, however, would not come with Butler, but with their disappointing bench. After marginally losing ground in the standings and dropping from third to fifth, General Manager Elton Brand had seen enough. Brand, in his first year as general manager, orchestrated the second blockbuster trade of the season.
Philadelphia traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, talented rookie Landry Shamet and multiple draft picks, including one that potentially could be used on Lebron James, Jr., to the Los Angeles Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott. Often people will look for winners and losers of any trade, but it’s hard to find a loser here. The Clippers have committed to rebuilding, and Shamet plus the draft picks are a very nice return. Conversely, the Sixers have every intention of competing, both this season and in the coming five or six seasons at least, and adding the offensive powerhouse that is Harris almost guarantees a spot in the finals. Not only does Harris add more points for the team than Chandler did from the power forward position, but he opens up spacing for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to work in the low post and under the basket more, as Harris shoots a very respectable 44 percent from three. Not only that, but by adding another tall, offensively skilled player, the Sixers create a serious matchup issue for just about every team in the league. Because Simmons stands at a towering 6’10”, it’s highly unlikely the opposing team’s point guard will be able to cover him. Simmons is really a power forward with the skill set of a point guard and is often covered by other teams’ power or small forwards. This tactic worked earlier in the season because Chandler was having one of the worst seasons of his career.
Now, however, teams must respect the fact that all five of the Sixers starters can score reliably. This creates a problem when 6’3″ Steph Curry must guard Simmons, who operates best in the low post and under the basket. The final cherry on top for Philadelphia is the other two pieces acquired in the trade. Marjanovic is a ridiculous 7’3″ and fills the backup center role the Sixers desperately needed in order to give Embiid more rest. Scott is a career three-point shooter, and while he is currently having a down year, he still provides important spacing on the floor as neither Simmons nor Sixers’ backup point guard TJ McConnell shoot the three very well. With this trade, the Sixers bolstered their starting five and their bench, setting themselves up for a strong playoff run. And, until about four hours before the deadline closed, they looked like the best team in the East. That is, until Milwaukee made a move of their own.
The Bucks, first in the East, essentially traded peanuts for New Orleans Pelicans’ power forward Nikola Mirotic. For those who follow the NBA, you might be thinking, “But the Bucks already have MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo (ahn-tay-toe-koom-po), what more could they need?” You would be right. The Bucks have the best record in the league for a reason, and it’s mainly because Antetokounmpo is playing lights-out. “The Greek Freak” dominates in the restricted area, leading the league in points in the paint per game. For everything Antetokounmpo is in the paint, however, he is not behind the three-point line. Antetokounmpo shoots an incredibly disappointing 21 percent from three on around 2.5 attempts per game. Luckily for him, the other four Bucks starters can hit the three-ball pretty consistently. However, the Bucks are currently playing what really amounts to three guards and two forwards. Against smaller teams this works well, because guard/forward Khris Middleton is 6’8″, taller than most shooting guards and some small forwards. However, against taller lineups — like the “new look” 76ers — the combo of Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton won’t be enough to guard the towering Sixers. Bledsoe can match up onto the smaller J.J. Redick, but Brogdon is too short to guard Butler, Simmons or Harris.
Enter Mirotic. At 6’10”, Mirotic can reliably hope to contain either Simmons or Harris, with Middleton guarding Butler and Antetokounmpo taking whoever Mirotic doesn’t. Plus, Mirotic is yet another solid three-point shooter. This means that not only are the Bucks more evenly matched on defense for their likely conference finals opponent, but Antetoukounmpo is given more space to work in the paint, as the defenders not guarding him have to respect the fact that his teammates can all make a three. The icing on the cake? Mirotic averages almost eight rebounds a game, with 1.5 of them being on the offensive side; just more chances for Antetokounmpo to score. The Bucks were able to maintain their potent offense, prepare for a knock-down, drag-out series with the Sixers and create a matchup issue for the Warriors all in one trade.
The real question is: Does any of this matter? The Warriors just won the finals last season and kept their core of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, so beating them in a seven-game series was going to be hard enough. On top of that, however, the Warriors added Demarcus Cousins in free agency, easily a top five center in the league. Both teams do look potent, though, as the Sixers recently dismantled the Los Angeles Lakers 143–120 and the Bucks continue to dominate opponents. So yeah, the Bucks and Sixers missed the start time of the Super Team rager. But, isn’t it always better to be fashionably late?