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What Happened to Teamwork in the NBA?

A reader wants to return to the era of unselfishness instead of superstars. We examine.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard is the heart and soul of the Portland Trail Blazers. That fact is inarguable. If they plan to do anything significant in the near future, their fortunes ride on him. But should it be that way. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.


I keep hearing you say how much our future relies on Dame Lillard and I don’t disagree but should it be that way? What happened to team ball? When I was growing up I remember rooting for a whole team and everybody contributing. Isn’t it bad to be tied to a superstar even if it’s a wonderful one?

Hank in Beaverton

The NBA has become more star-centered over the last 50 years. There are a couple reasons why, but before we talk about that, let’s admit that our memories as Trail Blazers fans may be a little fuzzy on this subject, or at least influenced by good PR.

Normally when people reference teamwork and selflessness, they’re talking about the 1977 Championship Team. That squad was cast in the role of scrappy underdogs, overcoming the “stacked” Philadelphia 76’ers (with transcendent superstar Dr. J in tow) by virtue of a beautifully-coached Jack Ramsay system executed by chemistry-positive players.

That narrative isn’t false, entirely. It’s just not complete. The 1977 Trail Blazers sported one of the best two centers in all the game in Bill Walton, plus a Top 3 power forward in Maurice Lucas, plus Lionel Hollins would become an NBA All-Star as well.

Of those, Walton was the key. What happened to Portland after he got injured and left? They got mired in mediocrity for years...first-round playoffs exits galore. The team regarded as the epitome of working together unselfishly was undeniably bound to their superstar.

Portland’s fortunes rose again when Clyde Drexler got surrounded by a stellar cast of teammates, including Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, and Buck Williams. That was the most loaded roster the Blazers have ever fielded. Even so, the story turned out the same. They made the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, but when Drexler got injured and subsequently traded, they returned to mediocrity.

You can get to “decent” in the NBA with teamwork. Talent is a prerequisite for greatness. Talent means superstars, If you have one, you’re riding him as far as you can go, because superstar talent is, hands down, the rarest commodity in the league.

Having said that, we can affirm that this trend was accelerated by a couple of developments.

The shift from an in-arena economy to television-based upped the value of superstars considerably. Before 1980, teams lived by ticket revenue. Beginning in the 80’s, the balance shifted towards broadcast rights. Nowadays it’s not even close. The salary cap isn’t being inflated by the number of tickets the Bucks sell on a Wednesday night. ABC and ESPN offer multi-year, billion-dollar deals that keep everybody living the high life.

Ratings are the quid pro quo for those dollars. Ratings require an easily-marketable product. As Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan taught us, a transcendent superstar is far easier to market than a franchise. Highlight reels of LeBron James dunking are more noticeable than a five-pass play from your average bench. Creating and supporting stars has become the mission statement of the league, or a large part of it.

Rules changes in the 2000’s also made it easier for offensive players, particularly guards, to create spectacular plays and buckets of points. You began to see “star inflation”, where otherwise-good point guards looked great in the stats sheet. Plodding centers, meanwhile, got written off into part because offensive rebounds and footwork don’t translate well to video.

If you’re looking for the league to deemphasize high-scoring individuals in favor of old-school principles, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Even in old-school times, those principles didn’t hold as strongly as we’ve been led to believe. The NBA is going to look at gross revenues (and franchise values) then, compare them to today, and say, “We’re good.” And you know what? They’re probably right.

Thanks for the question! You can send yours in to blazersub@gmail,com and we’ll try to answer!