Some words in the English lexicon get tossed around like loose change on a rollercoaster. Professional sports take it to another level when players, coaches, and pundits feel the need to hand out compliments. The word “superstar” has become as commonly attached to guys as the word “player.” Yes, they are all players, but they can’t all be superstars.
Or can they?
Will the Real Superstars Please Stand Up?
The answer to that would be no. An emphatic NO, at that! There just simply can’t be that many superstars in the league. Making a couple of highlights doesn’t make a player a superstar. When Shaquille O’Neal was recently asked for his list of superstars playing in the NBA today, Shaq came up with four names. Well, two names, then he was reminded of the other two. Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.
You won’t find many people that disagree with the Hall of Famers’ statement. I might add one or two names to that list, but it certainly isn’t as long as some folks would have you believe. Luka Dončić was crowned by some two years ago as a superstar. I needed to see him lead the Mavs past the first round of the playoffs before I could even consider it. Luka went a step further and carried Dallas to the western conference finals. So, I’m okay with adding Dončić to the list.
Borderline (Madonna voice)
It feels like I’m going to lose my mind over all these supposed superstars. After about four or five players, we get into murky water in this debate. Can we still consider Kawhi Leonard a superstar? How about Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić? Embiid and Jokic were the frontrunners for league MVP most of the season, with the latter winning. That made Jokić a back-to-back MVP.
For most people, that’s enough. Winning two MVP awards in a row is one hell of an accomplishment. Including Jokić, only 14 players in the history of the NBA have won consecutive MVP awards. Three of those guys did it a third time. So, it’s hard not to include Jokić on the superstar list, but when you follow up a great season by getting bounced in the first round of the postseason, that decision becomes much easier.
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Before you denounce everything I’ve said, think about this. Go back a decade-plus and think about current Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash. He won back-to-back MVP awards in the mid-2000s. Nash was a great player but never considered a superstar. That’s how I see Jokić right now. He’s a darling among the analytics community, but what did all those pretty numbers accomplish when it was “show me” time? Nikola and the Nuggets went home early.
Embiid is another one that I think many of us want to be included in the superstar conversation. Joel had his best year in ‘21-22, winning a scoring title, averaging over 30 ppg, and he played in 68 games. That’s the most games Embiid has played in a season since he entered the league. Ultimately, two things are keeping Embiid on the borderline of the superstar/star discussion: 1.) Availability 2.) He’s yet to lead the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals.
With the level of talent in the NBA today, just about everyone is capable of posting gaudy statistics based on their role with a team. DeMar DeRozan averaged nearly 28ppg for Chicago this year after falling off the map in San Antonio the previous two seasons. No one is mistaking DeRozan for a superstar despite the fantastic season he just finished. Most people felt Embiid should’ve won MVP anyway.
I think it’s close for Embiid and Jokić, but I’ve got both big men on the outside looking in. Yes, in the Orlando bubble a couple of years ago, Jokić got the Nuggets to the conference finals. But since that WCF appearance, the Nuggets haven’t gone past the semi-finals, and Jokić won his MVPs in those two campaigns. It’s splitting hairs, but I’ve got Embiid and Jokić on the cusp of superstardom.
Then we’ve got a player like Leonard, who was viewed as a bonafide superstar at one point. But if availability is part of the formula that keeps Embidd out of the club, then we’ve got to show some consistency. When healthy, Kawhi is one of the five best players in the NBA because of what he brings offensively and defensively. Although he’s no longer the defender he was a few years ago, he was still considered a top two-way player before his ACL injury in the 2021 playoffs. Until Kawhi proves he’s still one of the top five players in the league, he’s coming off the list.
James Harden is another player that was included in this conversation for years, and now he’s more of an afterthought. Anthony Davis has been called a top-five talent since he entered the NBA but hasn’t been able to creep into that superstar category.
Davis played great in 2020 when the Lakers won it all in the bubble, but LeBron was the main driving force on that team like he’s always been. The following year when James was ready to hand over the keys to Davis, he wasn’t prepared for the transition. The most significant issues with Davis have been health and not stepping up and leading when it’s been his time.
Jayson Tatum flirted with the superstar label this year but ultimately was too inconsistent during their playoff run to plant his flag on that mountain. Trae Young is another young star who could be next in line to become a superstar, but he’s not there yet. I’ve heard Donovan Mitchell’s name mentioned as a superstar over the last couple of years, and I just can’t agree. He’s an outstanding player. Not a superstar.
Damian Lillard is another one who’s right there, and just when it looked like he might have made that crossover into superstar status, he gets hurt and misses more than half the season. Lillard played in about as many games as Kyrie Irving did this season. Lillard was injured, and Irving lives in outer space. But Lillard is much closer to superstar status than Irving will ever be. But due to the rough start last season, then only playing 29 games, Dame is just outside the superstar tier.
So What Defines a Superstar?
All the players mentioned can be deemed exceptional, but I don’t think a few great moments make one a superstar. Doing it as the lead player on a team, year after year, is what does it. Winning awards and accolades are a factor, without a doubt, but team success means just as much, and probably more.
The four players that Shaq mentioned have all won rings, regular-season MVP, and Finals MVP awards. LeBron, Giannis, Steph, and KD are bonafide NBA superstars. There’s no debating that. I added Luka to the group, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for leaving him off. Right now, he doesn’t have any of the accolades mentioned above. But I think he’ll get there in time.
Superstar should be reserved for the best of the best; in the same way, the term “great team” should also be preserved. Since 2010 there have only been two truly great teams in the NBA. The Miami Heat of the early 00s with James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. Then the Golden State Warriors later in the same decade.
That’s it. Those were the only teams to win more than one championship that decade. And both teams had superstars leading their squads. The same rule applies to the term superstar. If so many superstars exist in the league, then the word’s meaning no longer carries the same effect.