If superteams are not the thing that define this era of NBA basketball because, remember, Robert Parish was the third-best player in the ‘80s Celtics’ frontcourt, then maybe the bootleg superteam is the form we’re perfecting these days: the squad that has some names—maybe one or two slightly tarnished ones—and a not inconsiderable amount of talent that is also thoroughly doomed. I’m thinking specifically of last year’s Knicks—Kristaps Porzingis, post-umpteenth knee injury Derrick Rose, a completely wrecked Joakim Noah, and a noncommittal Carmelo Anthony—which Rose infamously described using the s-word, but before that debacle, we had the Kobe-Dwight-Nash hydra that slumbered through its sole season of existence, and the Pierce-Garnett-Williams experiment that Brooklyn is still paying for three years after it flopped. The league is now as deep with good and great players as it has ever been, which means we get to see the best teams play some staggeringly expressive and intelligent basketball. We also watch some tragicomic disasters when franchises strive for that ideal—delusionally or otherwise—and end up bruised and broken at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon.
To be fair to the Oklahoma City Thunder and to Carmelo, Russ Westbrook, and Paul George, they would be bona fide championship contenders if the Warriors weren’t around, and to be even more fair, Sam Presti’s gambit is much less likely to backfire spectacularly because he has not, as others mistakenly have before him, acquired stars who are coming off career-altering injuries or rapidly aging out of the league. Carmelo is thirty-three, not thirty-seven, and both Russ and George seem to have fully recovered from their past leg problems. A worst-case scenario that doesn’t involve some freak ACL tear will involve some intrasquad bickering and an offense that’s broken in a familiarly Thunderian way: too many isolations, tight contests won and lost via late-in-the-shot-clock desperation. That still makes them, what, a grumpy and vaguely dangerous seven-seed? And if it works out, it’ll be a fire, pissed-off fire, and ice thing with George and Russ screaming around the court and Melo calmly draining fifteen-footers from the elbow.
On-court product aside, this a fascinating confluence of career developments. We’re nearly certain this is a one-year stop for Paul George, who hasn’t been on a competitive team since the spring of 2014, when Roy Hibbert was playing like the Iron Giant with a hook shot and the Pacers could give LeBron’s Heat no small amount of trouble. If this Thunder season is merely a prelude to George spending most of his prime in Los Angeles, it’s a suitable one: we have gotten only a glimpse of what he’s capable of when the players around him are on his level. The Pacers got shook overnight and then George shattered his leg with Team USA. (It’s strange and discomfiting that two quite good Indiana teams over the past decade, the other being the Malice at the Palace squad, have had their respective rises so suddenly squashed.) George has existed for a while now in that slightly theoretical state where we know he’s one of the best fifteen or so players in the league, but we haven’t had the opportunity to appreciate the full breadth of his skill because he’s been playing with just-okay teammates in games of dubious consequence. In Oklahoma City, he’ll have the help and motivation he requires and he’ll hopefully explore the limits of his own talent.
By mid-March of last season, Westbrook had settled all his personal scores, the scores of his mother’s side of the family tree going back five generations, and several scores Billy Donovan had explicitly asked him not to settle. That was for the way they did Haldeman! he called out, presumably communing with Nixon’s ghost, after taking the ball coast-to-coast and finishing at the rim in the third quarter of an ordinary Tuesday night victory over the Pelicans. Russ was furious for eight-six games, and it was beautiful at times but also grindingly unpleasant in its totality. Tuning into Thunder games last year was like stepping into a universe where all music was the guitar solo from “Maggot Brain.”
Having other stars alongside him once again isn’t going to temper Russ’s rage, but he will at least have to curb his solipsism a bit. The Thunder can no longer function as Russ and four tortured extensions of his consciousness. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have gravity and wants and needs to be tended to. Russ wants to beat the Warriors more than anything, and the reality is he probably can’t, but he can give himself an outside shot if he can keep his internal drama internal rather than dragooning everyone around him into it.
And then there’s Carmelo. It is not, strictly speaking, true that he has lost his wife and is leaving the big city to score eighteen points a game and spend lonely nights drinking rotgut whiskey in a roadside motel in the old American west. He’ll probably rent the most aggressively modern apartment he can find in downtown Oklahoma City and he looks more like a vodka man. But there is something sad and beat-up about Melo at the moment. The six-and-a-half years with the Knicks played out pretty sourly, even if he seemed mostly content with his decision to make a bunch of money and live in Manhattan. He has never shown a particularly strong interest in being known as an all-time great, but these last couple of years in New York, you could see that Melo was at least annoyed to be wasting the end of his athletic peak on Kyle O’Quinn and Lance Thomas. Perhaps he knows now that he’s a little bit of a punchline among his peers. LeBron and Wade won titles together and apart. Chris Paul played up to his potential and fought like hell with the Clippers. Melo just coasted: played defense and (more often) didn’t; had a genius coach and ran him out of town; occasionally reminded us, for kicks, that he’s an absurdly gifted scorer. How did it take him this long to get on a good team? Well, here is his stunning mea culpa or the point where we realize he got out of New York too late.
Two or possibly even all three of these guys could run this back in Los Angeles next year if they want to. This might be a preview of something else entirely. But more than that, it is a unique moment in each of their respective careers and whichever way this short-term project breaks, we’ll learn a great deal about each of them in the process. If we can’t get a legitimate title run out of a bootleg superteam like this, clarity would be a decent consolation prize.
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