Real teams are better than superteams of stars

From the 1992 US Men’s Olympic Basketball team, aka the Dream Team, famously the greatest team ever assembled in the history of sports, to the annual NBA All-Star teams it seems that we love seeing superteams.

But are superteams really Super Teams? Does putting together extraordinary talented individuals translate into great teamwork, collaboration, and team outcomes. Is the sum of the parts greater than the whole?

Superteams in Basketball

There is so much we can learn from Basketball about teams and how they organise, interact, collaborate and bring results.

There are three main reasons I have chosen to focus on Basketball over other team sports.

First of all, I have personal experience in playing and can appreciate the level of teamwork and collaboration required. Second, basketball teams have an almost “ideal” team size of 5 team members. As teams increase in size, their communication, complexity and coherence are negatively affected. Third, the collaboration triangles that are dynamically formed between the 5 players create the right circumstances for high performance.

Of course, not all basketball teams are high-performing, but this is not a reflection of their size or structure but rather their failure to take advantage of them.

Superteams make us dream but it is all about the team

A common mistake team owners, sport journalists, managers and coaches do is to think that bringing one or more superstars will solve all of their problems. No need to think about coaching and identifying the right playing system or strategy when one or two superstars can make it all happen.

But this is a myth. The reality is that although there are players that have higher basketball “IQ”, experience, and talent than others, they cannot beat a great team on their own. Even superstars need good teammates and a well-functioning team, where everyone has room to contribute and shine in their own way.

Michael Jordan, probably the biggest superstar in basketball history, joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984. He was unbelievably good, breaking all personal records. Although the team was having fantastic regular seasons, they were struggling in the playoffs. The reason was their over-reliance on Michael Jordan. He just couldn’t do it all alone.

When Phil Jackson became the Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989 he implemented a team-focused offence, famously known as the triangle offence. This type of offence takes a lot of effort and time but it teaches the team how to act as a complex adaptive system and continuously adapt through continuous flow and movement. It teaches players how to act as one whole and move without the ball forming different patterns.

Initial Michael Jordan didn’t like it as he had to sacrifice his personal statistics, pass the ball more often, and trust his teammates more. But he agreed to do it.

As a result, the Chicago Bulls dominated the sport, winning 6 NBA championships in 8 years throughout the 90’s. In the end, they became so good at it that it seemed as if they were dancing on the court (Last Dance).

Brooklyn Nets – One of the biggest superteams ever assembled

In the 2020/21 season the Brooklyn Nets decided to go big and form a superteam with 3 NBA All-star players, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. The possibilities seemed endless. The pundits started talking about the making of a super team, which would dominate the game of Basketball for years to come.

In the first games of the season their offence was incredible, outscoring almost all of their opponents. However, their defence on the other hand was pretty average. In addition, the rest of the players did not seem able to create plays and contribute significantly. It seemed like the whole team was completely imbalanced between offence and defence and then between its superstars and their supporting cast. It was obvious that the team would live and die with its stars. After all this is how superteams are made of.

Suddenly though, things started taking a different direction as Kyrie Irving decided to stop playing for personal reasons, staying out for more than 10 consecutive games. This created tension within the team. Then, their second superstar James Harden, who had only joined half-way through the season, suffered a number of injuries. As a result he was on and off throughout the season and during playoffs.

With one star remaining, Kevin Durant, they seemed unable to make up for these injuries. They ended up losing many games and finishing 2nd in the Eastern Conference. Yet the sports analysts were still predicting total domination of the Nets in the Playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks – We are all a big family

From the other side, the Milwaukee Bucks have been building a team for years. It all started when they picked a relatively unknown young Greek basketball player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, at the NBA draft in 2013. Giannis turned out to be a once in a generation talent, becoming one of the biggest NBA stars and winning the NBA Most Valuable Player Award for 2 years in a row in 2019 and 2020. The Americans gave him the nickname the Greek Freak due to his incredible dimensions. Due to his size and versatility, he is considered position-less with the ability to play any role required within the team.

But despite his talent, the Bucks soon realised that he would never be able to carry the whole team to the NBA finals and win a championship on his own. This is why they started investing in young talent and good experienced players. The goal was to build a good team with Giannis as its leader. Despite being a small franchise they invested year after year in both people and a new sports arena, building a solid team from the ground up.

The truth is that many teams do not demonstrate this level of patience and usually prefer to invest on a few superstars that will make things happen fast.

In 2020/21 Milwaukee with a few successful additions in the team had a really good season finishing only just behind the Nets in the regular season. Yet only a few journalists believed in them.

Compared to the Bucks, it is superteams, such as the Nets, that draw all the attention and confidence.

2021 East Conference Semi-finals: Nets vs Bucks – A team of stars vs a real team

When the Nets met the Bucks in the 2021 NBA East Conference semi-finals, most thought that the Nets would win it all.

Despite losing one of their biggest stars, James Harden, early with an injury, the Nets managed to beat the Bucks easily twice in a row. In fact, in Game 2 the Bucks ended up losing by almost 40 points.

Some of the journalists called it a national humiliation, blaming the Bucks team for leaving Giannis without any help.

Others said that the Nets were going to sweep the Bucks in 4 games and win the championship.

Only a handful of experts thought that there was still life in this series of semi-finals.

The tide is turning

In Game 3 the series went to Milwaukee and things suddenly seemed to change as the Bucks won. Still most of the experts insisted that this was just an exception.

But then in Game 4 the Bucks won again, while the Nets suffered another devastating injury, losing another one of their stars, Kyrie Irving. The momentum this time was with the Bucks.

In Game 5 though in Brooklyn, Kevin Durant delivered the most explosive performance of his career, scoring 50 points, and taking the win for the Nets. Strangely enough, this fed further the discussion on how a lonely superstar could beat a good team all on his own.

The experts said that this was Kevin Durant’s big chance to prove he can do it all along. However, how can even the most talented superstar beat a strong team all on his own?

In Game 6 the Bucks dominated from start to finish despite Kevin Durant giving one of his best performances, tying up the series 3-3.

It all came down to a Game 7 thriller in Brooklyn.

No matter how much the Nets tried, it was the collective effort of the Bucks that made all the difference and brought them the victory. The Nets were eliminated.

How could all the experts, who love supporting superteams, end up being so wrong?

Of course, injuries played a role but there will always be injuries.

The truth is that teams that rely on 1-2 superstars are doomed to live and die with them. While teams that are truly working as a whole do not overload their best players and can find solutions from everyone and everywhere in the team.

All the small things

When I was a student at Warwick University, I used to play basketball. I wasn’t very good at it but I really loved the game. Together with some other guys we formed a team in order to compete in the internal student championship. Although there was a lot of individual talent in the team, we just a group of individual with no real connection.

Somehow though we managed to reach to the final of the playoffs. Perhaps this is how far individual talent will get you. In the final we played pretty well and near the last minute we were ahead by 2 points.

In the last offence of the game and as the other team was trying to score an equaliser, I managed to steal the ball and ran to the other side of the court to score. And somehow I missed it. As a result, the other team took back the ball and managed to tie the game. In overtime, we lost both the game and the championship.

I felt devastated after our defeat. I just couldn’t believe how I could have missed such an “easy” shot. It would have given us the championship. But then one of my teammates told me that my actual mistake was thinking that the loss was due that one last shot. He told me that basketball is a game of cumulative team actions. Every little action from every single player throughout the game counts. It all adds up in the end.

The fact that the game had been so tight in the first place was because of everything that has happened throughout the game. Had the team played better, there might not have been a reason to need a lucky shot.

This helped me put things into perspective.

It takes 10 hands to score a basket

As the legendary Coach Wooden said it takes 10 hands to score a basket.

The team that wins a game of basketball is the one that is able to do collectively hundreds of small actions both offensively and defensively every minute of the game. Every basket, every pass, every block, every possession, every rebound, they all add up to the outcome of the team. In fact, it takes hundreds of small actions that start long before the game and during training.

Yet most of these small things never get the attention they deserve from the fans or the media, which are obsessed with superteams and superstars. But heroics and lonely warriors don’t win championships. Great teams with good and hard-working players do!

This is why I like Milwaukee. Because despite having a superstar, Giannis, they all played brilliantly both offensively and defensively giving a real hard time to the opponents and making them earn every single point. In the end, Giannis said that “We were built for this”, which I think shows the hard work, dedication, and effort that they have put into building this team.

Lucky shots are for superteams.

Real teams don’t rely on lucky shots. They rely on each other.

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