What the Suns’ new ‘Big 3’ can learn from former NBA super teams

PHOENIX — NBA super teams can form quickly, suddenly. When LeBron James announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, Heat center Joel Anthony didn’t see it coming.

Anthony was in his apartment in Miami, a few blocks from what was then the American Airlines Arena, just off Biscayne Boulevard. The Heat had already had a strong offseason, re-signing franchise star Dwyane Wade and working on a trade for All-Star forward Chris Bosh. Anthony didn’t think there was a chance LeBron would join them.

And then, when he made the announcement on national television, he did.

Anthony went to his apartment window. He always kept his blinds open so he could see the water in the distance. This time he saw fireworks exploding over downtown Miami. His phone started blowing up with text messages. “Congratulations! You’re going to be a champion!”

“It was crazy,” Anthony said recently.

NBA “super teams” have been around since the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. Some have grown organically, but most have been formed through trade or free agency. Once seen as a shortcut to a championship, it is now common practice. Stars want to play together. Stars want to win. The Phoenix Suns have joined the championship or bust discussion.

The recent trade of Bradley Beal gives new head coach Frank Vogel three of the league’s most lethal scorers. Kevin Durant has won four league scoring titles. Beal has twice averaged more than 30 points per game. match over a season. Devin Booker has put up 25 plus for most of his eight year career. The Suns could be an offensive machine.

“Nobody can blame Phoenix for doing this,” said former NBA coach Randy Wittman, who coached Beal for four years with the Washington Wizards. “It’s an opportunity that doesn’t always come up when you can add someone like Bradley Beal, who’s still in the prime of his career, to try to win it all.”

But the super team fireworks are only the opening chapter. A “Big 3” provides excitement and attention, but does not guarantee much else. Winning a title requires more. Athletics spoke with players and coaches from former super teams to get a better understanding of what the Suns need to do to make this work.

Strong management

In 2007, the Boston Celtics were terrible. They lost a franchise record 18 games in a row at one point. They were among the league’s worst offensive teams. They finished with 24 wins. Over the summer, Boston reversed course, the first step in capturing the organization’s 17th title.

First, the Celtics traded for Seattle’s Ray Allen, among the best shooters in league history, to pair with All-Star forward Paul Pierce. A month later, Boston traded for Kevin Garnett, a perennial All-Star and former MVP, to give the Celtics a formidable Big 3.

Although Pierce had been in Boston for nine seasons, Boston became Garnett’s team. It was his voice, teammates heard on the field, in the locker room and on the bus. He set the tone.

“There’s not necessarily a hierarchy, but an understanding among the players that they know who’s the leader,” said Armond Hill, an assistant coach on that Celtics team. “And if the manager is your hardest worker, and if the manager allows everyone to eat, then you have a chance. KG wasn’t just the manager, he was the silverback.”

“Don’t get caught up in ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless,'” said Brian Scalabrine, then a backup forward with the Celtics. “It doesn’t mean shooting the basketball. It’s leadership, and KG was so empowering to people around him. He wanted so much for other people to succeed. It was almost like a parent looking at his child. So much wanted KG that his teammates should succeed.”

Phoenix’s situation: The Suns lost Chris Paul in the Beal trade and will miss his experience and voice. (Paul has since been dealt to Golden State). While it may be difficult to replace, Booker is the face of the franchise and Durant is among the league’s hardest workers. Phoenix should be okay here.


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Full buy-in

The day LeBron made his announcement, as friends blew up his phone with congratulatory texts, Anthony felt a little uneasy. Not many people knew that he had recently opted out of his contract. “Will there be enough room for me?” Anthony thought. “I have to call my agent.”

The anxiety didn’t last. A week later, Anthony signed a five-year, $18 million contract. Over the next three seasons, which resulted in two titles, he became a valuable rim protector for the Heat. Even on super teams, everyone has to play a role. Even those who don’t play that much.

LeBron and Wade shared leadership responsibilities, but veterans Juwan Howard and James Jones (the future Phoenix GM) had strong voices in the locker room. Jones, who averaged 13.1 and 5.8 minutes in the championship seasons, was a sounding board for several players.

“Would guys have liked more minutes and more shots? For sure,” Anthony said. “Especially our team with guys competing at such a high level in the league. Being able to step back and say, ‘Look, I’m going to do this for this purpose’ – that was one of the biggest things. We understood the role, and regardless of the individual things you might have wanted, it wasn’t about that. It was about winning.”

Phoenix’s situation: Boston’s Scalabrine has a formula for this: Phoenix’s role players, he said, must be able to contribute 40 minutes each night. The final eight will belong to Durant, Booker and Beal. It is sound logic. Only problem: The Suns have so much money tied up in the Big 3 and big man Deandre Ayton that they don’t have much left to build their supporting cast. It was a problem last season. It could be again this season.

A solid point guard

In Boston, Hill noticed something right away. KG, Pierce and Allen respected each other. And they respected each other’s place on the pitch. If one got going, the others gave him space. The key: 21-year-old Rajon Rondo.

“Rondo was better than people thought,” Scalabrine said. “He was one of the smartest guys to ever play this game. He was going into his second year, but he was able to handle all of that.”

Hill said Boston coach Doc Rivers could give Rondo five plays in the first half, and Rondo would know when to call each player and for which player.

“If one of (the Big 3) didn’t have the ball down a couple of times — boom — he’d call a play for that guy,” Hill said. “Or if one of them was hot, like really hot, boom, he’d feed them. Doc had a phrase — ‘Feed the pig’ — and if the player was hot, if Paul was hot, if Ray was hot, if KG was cooking, (Rondo) would call the play two, three, four times in a row. And every single one of the players respected that.”

Phoenix’s situation: With Beal in the lineup, Booker could take Paul’s place as the lead guard. Since he has driven the point well in the past, this idea has taken off. Booker could easily average 20 plus and eight assists in this role. But that may not be what is best for him or the Sun. Needs to be clarified.


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Stay healthy

In the summer of 2017, Oklahoma City traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, forming a Big 3 with star guard Russell Westbrook. The moves were made to help the Thunder match superpower Golden State, which had won two of the previous three titles. In the end it didn’t work.

Looking back, Vin Bhavnani, an assistant coach on that team, said the Thunder encountered several obstacles. Anthony, at 33, was still a talented scorer, but not the star he had once been. Perhaps just as important: Oklahoma City had shifted to a win-at-any-cost mode, which could have hampered what it did best, developing young players.

Still, the Thunder improved after a slow start. In January, they were coming off their seventh straight win when defensive ace Andre Roberson injured his knee while lifting to catch a lob off a backdoor cut against Detroit. Oklahoma City’s defense, anchored by Roberson, was never the same.

“It was huge,” Bhavnani said. “I mean, it was our defense. Because Dre and (big man) Steven (Adams), when they were on the field together, they kind of reinforced each other. They fed off each other. When you take one of those guys off, it’s really hard because now you’re asking people to step up and do things they don’t normally do.”

The Thunder were 29-20 when Roberson suffered his season-ending injury. They went 19–14 the rest of the way and lost to Utah in the first round of the playoffs.

Phoenix’s situation: That is perhaps the team’s biggest concern. Over the past two seasons, Beal has missed 45.1 percent of the regular season schedule. Durant has missed 37.8 and Booker has missed 26.2. It’s not a big trend.

Ignore the hype (and the hate)

As the Big 3 era unfolded in Miami, Joel Anthony noticed a change. On his Facebook page, fans still left messages, but many took a different tone. “Good luck this year, but I hate your team.”

In their home arenas, super teams feel the love. Along the way, they become the NBA’s biggest villains. Anthony felt this with the Heat. He knew LeBron would attract attention. He knew Wade was a fan favorite. But both in the same uniform along with Bosh? Wow.

“You had fans who loved the fact that they were all together, but a good portion of them hated and despised our team and you could feel it,” Anthony said. “The attention that it brought was something that I don’t think anyone has ever seen be at that level and be that intense.”

The positive: It brought the Heat closer.

“Without a doubt,” said Anthony. “On the road it was just us. Fifteen players and the coaching staff. It was big for us.”

Phoenix’s situation: This will be a new experience for the Suns. Interest grew after last season’s Durant trade, but next season should be on another level. Durant, who won two titles with Golden State, has experienced that. He’ll be fine. Booker, as he often does, will use any poison as fuel. But ultimately this will be the head coach’s responsibility. Vogel’s biggest task may simply be keeping the Suns focused.

(Photo of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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