Not a Basketball Post
What makes a super team a super team
This is the 31st installment of 774: weekly articles about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
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Not a Basketball Post
In the NBA, a super team consists of at least three hall of fame players on a concurrent roster. The most recent successful example is the Golden State Warriors. Golden State won four championships from 2015 through 2018.
Sometimes when super teams are formed, they can’t quite string together a championship run in spite of the raw talent they have. Sometimes the teams completely fall apart in a shocking fashion. That’s what happened this past season to the Brooklyn Nets.
In 2021, the Brooklyn Nets, with former all-star Steve Nash as head coach, assembled Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden into an NBA juggernaut, but instead of running the league, this would-be super team fell apart almost as soon as it started. In one year:
Kyrie missed the first 35 games of the season because he wouldn’t get the COVID vaccine.
Durant injured his hamstring and was out for 7 weeks.
Harden tweaked his hamstring and was out for 5 weeks.
Harden returned and then heavily implied he wanted a trade, but didn’t ask for one officially to avoid the poor optics of doing that in back-to-back seasons.
Harden was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for a $170 million vase and Seth Curry (Steph’s younger brother).
Brooklyn never put the vase on the court.
Brooklyn got swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Durant has requested a trade which is still pending. Kyrie Irving’s trade is rumored to be imminent.
In a single season, the best-laid plans of the Brooklyn Nets were completely obliterated.
Some aspects of a team’s failure can’t be controlled. The Brooklyn Nets’ front office couldn’t have anticipated a pandemic, how quickly a vaccine would be produced, and Kyrie’s hesitation to take it. Also, leg injuries are sporadic and difficult to avoid when you’re 6’ 10” and a big part of your job is to jump up and down repeatedly. But what explains the speed with which the team went their separate ways? 2021-22 was a rough season, but the roster isn’t suddenly made up of bad players who couldn’t rally for the 2022-23 season when they’re in better health. Furthermore, the team that did win the 2021-22 championship was the Golden State Warriors, sans Kevin Durant, who managed to replace some missing pieces and convincingly win it all.
Why do two super teams with similar amounts of firepower deliver completely different results? What other factors are required for a team of hall of fame players to actually rise to what’s expected of them.
Successful super teams exist in many other places besides basketball. The founders of PayPal were a super team. The Manhattan Project was a super team. The Founding Fathers were a type of super team. The Wilson Brothers and Wes Anderson formed a kind of movie-making super team.
Each of these “super-teams” had three specific qualities that I theorize led to their prowess. The first is the pure talent that hall of fame level players bring to the organization. This is the most obvious and important of the three. But many more teams have this talent than become super teams. The other two, which allow the raw talent to shine are:
Originality: The super team in question is accomplishing a common goal in a novel way.
Strong Executive Direction: The team has a strong central leader who calls the shots.
Prior to 2009, when Curry was drafted, the number of mid-range shots coming from between the three-point line and the paint was relatively high compared to today’s standards. The issue with mid-range shots is that they are about as likely as a 3-point shot to get in the basket, but they count for one less point. From 2013-2018, the average 3-point attempt resulted in 1.02 points. Taking a shot from mere inches inside the three-point line had an expected value of fewer than .85 points for the same time period. It made sense to throttle down the number of mid-range shots in exchange for higher yield 3-point attempts or a charge for the basket which delivered an expected value of more than 1.2 points.
The shift from mid-range shooting to exclusive 3-pointers and shots within the paint was gradual prior to 2009 and was then all but codified by the Warriors’ offense. The Warriors built their offensive style around Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s ability to make 3-point shots at a much higher rate than other players. The Golden State forwards (eventually including one of the best in the history of Basketball, Kevin Durant) would feed the ball to Curry who would consistently make his shots from uncharacteristically deep positions and coverage. Viewing the graph below, 3-point attempts look like an afterthought in the 90s. By 2017, if a shot wasn’t a lay-up, it was a 3-pointer. This shift was guaranteed to happen once the Warriors enforced their style of play. If a team takes just as many shots as you, but their average shot has a much higher expected value than yours, it is very difficult to beat them 4 out of 7 times. The Warriors have some of the most elite talent of any roster in the NBA, but the unique deployment of that led to three championships in four seasons and their super team status.
The Golden State Warriors didn't have a different goal than the other 29 NBA teams, they just went about it in a new way.
The NBA has the highest head-coaching turnover rate of any of the four major sports leagues in the U.S., with an average of 2.4 seasons per coaching stint. Greg Popovich is a massive outlier with 26 years coaching the San Antonio Spurs. Another notable exception is Steve Kerr.
Former Golden State beat reporter Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote a book called The Victory Machineabout his time covering the rise of Warriors dynasty. He summarized the difficulty of being an NBA head coach:
Coaches rarely speak publicly about an obvious aspect of the job they perhaps dwell on most of all: how to communicate with the young millionaires in their midst. To speak about it openly might ruin the effect of what’s being attempted, like telling the patient he’s taking placebo. Also, it’s dangerously close to claiming public credit, which can fuel certain resentments.
Strauss credits much of Golden State’s (and thus Kerr’s) success to Kerr’s personal disposition. He’s known to be a kind person in a profession where kindness does not thrive.
In the NBA, coaches meetings often spend large amounts of time on how to motivate an otherwise demoralized athlete. “How do we tell him he’s coming off the bench?” is a standard problem. If the news is communicated poorly, you could “lose” the player to resentment, obstinacy, or diffidence, depending on personality…
“You’ve got to be honest, but if you just say it bluntly it might not get across,” Kerr explained. “It might be offensive. One of the reasons players listen to me when I criticize them is because I tend to criticize myself first…”
Popovich has that quality we might call “smart-mean,” a crotchety expression of intellect that connotes certain intimidating gravitas. Kerr has to go another way. Or, to quote The Onion headline, “NBA Commentators Confirm Steve Kerr Not Enough of an Insufferable Prick to Be Considered All-Time Great Coach.”
Before starting as head coach, Kerr spent time during NFL training camp with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll to get a feel for his coaching style, one that Kerr wanted to emulate. Carroll encouraged Kerr to write down the philosophy he wanted his locker room to operate under.
While Kerr had the intuition that he wanted to play like USC (Carroll’s former head coaching gig), the actual emulation was another thing. At the very least, writing down that goal and formalizing the process made it seem more attainable.
“So I knew that that’s kind of how I wanted to operate but what I had never really thought about was putting that down on paper… How do you achieve culture on paper? You don’t do it on paper but you can describe it on paper and then work to achieve it based on the principles that you have thought about and formulated in your mind and gut…”
Carroll then had Kerr write down the values that mattered to him as a coach and a person. They narrowed that list of values down to four and began planning how he would operate his team in accordance with those values.
Maybe it sounded too simple to be true, but here Kerr was at Seahawks practice, seeing slogans come to life. “Always compete” was a central slogan of Carroll’s, but more than a slogan, it was a constant at Seahawks practices.
“I witnessed it for three days,” Kerr said. “It was so genuine and the players were having so much fun and they were just competing like crazy. I flew back to the Bay just on fire thinking ‘All right! This makes sense now,’ Your values have to come alive in the way you operate… you can’t just say ‘Hey guys, let’s be really competitive and let’s have a lot of joy.’ Every day had to reflect that.
That is the culture that Kerr built at Golden State. A culture of fun-loving, high competitiveness. They became known as the team that played with joy, all while executing a deadly passing game.
In that year, the Warriors exploded onto the basketball scene, going from low-tier playoff threat to dominant force… it was like watching men who’d previously been walking on their hands finally start using their feet. The offense went from plodding to high movement, with the ball whipping around all over the floor. Between Steph Curry’s effervescent dominance and the free wheeling teamwork on display, one did not sound all that corny calling this joy incarnate.
Kerr’s coaching philosophy allowed the Warriors to level up their style of play, but Kerr’s ability to control his team was not simply a product of being kind or joyful. Part of the reason Kerr commands his team’s respect without being domineering is that Kerr himself was a part of a super team. Kerr was drafted into the league in 1988. In 1993 he signed with the Chicago Bulls and won three championships with Michael Jordan, et al. He was also the 1997 NBA Three-Point Contest champion. He set the league record for a single season three-point shooting percentage of .524 in the 1994-95 season and a career three-point shooting percentage of .454.During his 15 seasons in the NBA, Steve Kerr received an education in effectively dealing with highly skilled, arrogant players and how to utilize record-setting point guards to their full effect. His particular background allowed him to call plays, or not call plays, in a way that maximized his weapons on the floor.
Kerr entered the Golden State organization with a uniquely talented locker room, a unique career and disposition that commanded that locker room’s respect, and the knowledge of how to unleash those players on their competitors. While Kerr resists taking credit for the rise of the Golden State super team, the Golden State dynasty could not have come to full fruition without his leadership and basketball IQ.
Steve Kerr came from a very interesting family who had some very unusual and tragic incidents occur to them:
Kerr was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Malcolm H. Kerr, an American academic who specialized in the Middle East, and his wife, Ann (Zwicker). He has three siblings. His grandfather, Stanley Kerr, volunteered with the Near East Relief after the Armenian genocide and rescued women and orphans in Aleppo and Marash before eventually settling in Beirut. Kerr spent much of his childhood in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. While in Beirut in the summer of 1983, he met a number of US Marines who were later killed in the Beirut barracks bombings. Kerr attended Cairo American College in Egypt, the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon, and Palisades High School (now Palisades Charter High School) in Los Angeles, graduating in 1983.
Malcolm Kerr was killed by members of the Shia Lebanese militia called Islamic Jihad on the morning of January 18, 1984, at the age of 52 while he was serving as president of the American University of Beirut. He was shot twice in the back of his head, by gunmen using suppressed handguns, in the hallway outside his office. Kerr was 18 years old at the time, and a college freshman; regarding his father's death, he has said: "Before my father was killed, my life was impenetrable. Bad things happened to other people." The Kerr family sued the Iranian government under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Iran's government did not contest the suit, which resulted in a monetary judgement in favor of the Kerr family, though Iran never paid.
The New Kids — Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, Texas Monthly (1998)