Devin Booker and Chris Paul rediscovering their mojo was key in the Phoenix Suns taking a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals, and with the Los Angeles Clippers on the verge of elimination on Monday evening, it would signify a victory for scouting and coaching in the NBA.
In the era of super teams, kicked off by the Los Angeles Lakers running to three successive championships with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox, it’s rare that so many of them should fall before the NBA Finals.
That is exactly what has happened in 2021 though, with the Lakers, Nets and 76ers having all fallen in the playoffs, although whether it’s fair to categorise the Sixers as a super team is up for debate, with most of their talent actually being recruited through drafting.
At a time when the Nets have been able to finance moves for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, it leaves teams that are building the holistic way with next to no chance of success.
Yet, with three of the four teams left standing this term all being bastions of doing things the ‘right way’, the 2021 season could yet prove to be a shining beacon of hope to teams near the top of the Draft Lottery for this off-season.
The Clippers have been disappointing given their talent
Kawhi Leonard‘s protracted departure from the Toronto Raptors was one of the storylines of the NBA two years ago.
He had carried the Canadian franchise to a title almost single-handedly and was now ready to take his talents to a new market.
Initially, it was anticipated that he would join up with LeBron James at the Staples Center, forming a fearsome trio with King James and Anthony Davis.
Instead he penned a deal with the other tenants of the Staples Center, the Clippers, a franchise that had been through years of misery as well as an ownership controversy that threatened the continuity of the Clippers in Los Angeles.
With Donald Sterling banned from the league in disgrace, a new ownership model headed by Steve Ballmer was set to take the franchise in an exciting direction, and Leonard’s arrival was the first step on that road.
As with any modern-day free agent signing, Leonard arrived with a list of demands for teammates and Paul George was soon recruited, giving the Clippers as good a one-two punch as anyone in the NBA at that time.
Since then it has been nothing but disappointment for the Clippers, with Kawhi unable to carry the team as he did in Toronto. A dismal playoff exit in the bubble in 2020 was bad, yet reaching the Western Conference Finals this season has been a bright spot, despite finishing the regular season as the fourth seed behind the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets.
Milwaukee, Phoenix and Atlanta have grown their own stars
One of the benefits of the North American sporting system is how the draft is supposed to benefit the worst teams.
Of course, trading of picks and the randomness of the Draft Lottery can sometimes make that not the case, but more often than not the worst teams are given the best chance to turn their fortunes around.
There are three players who define these aforementioned teams, three players that, on the free-agent market, would be the target of franchises looking to construct a super team. Giannis Antetokounmpo at Milwaukee, Devin Booker with the Suns and Trae Young in Atlanta.
Antetokounmpo and Booker were drafted by their current organisations in 15th and 13th spot respectively in their differing draft classes, whilst Young wasn’t actually selected by the Atlanta Hawks, but was swapped for their pick on draft night.
What has followed since is a period of development where all three have grown into all-star level players, ably supported by smart coaching in each of the three teams.
Phoenix was one of the worst teams in the NBA a couple of years ago, but are now in line for a spot in the NBA Finals, whilst neither Milwaukee nor the Hawks have been championship contenders for years.
Watching super teams can be entertaining, but there is always a feeling that it’ unfair, especially in a sport where individual talent is the main thing. In football you could have a team with Lionel Messi in it alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and there might be problems losing to a better coached team. In the NBA, star talent is the real difference maker.
These players have been on a gradual journey with their teams over periods of years, exactly how the draft process is supposed to work. It keeps a rotation of teams having a chance at success and the fact the three have been able to beat out the richer teams is a real testament to old-fashioned coaching, scouting and player development, which can only be a good thing for the league.