The cry of inevitability hurled at whatever a particular person constitutes a “super team” is almost always overstated -- championships are difficult to win and a “wanna play together?” group text from one future Hall of Famer to two other future Hall of Famers ultimately doesn’t change that fact. But that’s lost in the moment by most of us, because what’s nearly as difficult as winning a championship is imagining Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden losing a seven-game series or assuming that a team whose second-best player is Anthony Davis won’t be playing in June.
Top-heavy NBA teams do something to the way we look at the landscape of contenders that frustrates us more than the notion of great players joining forces; they seemingly render a tier of masterfully skillful players obsolete. We spend a lot of time talking about what makes these players a joy to watch in their own unique ways, but what does any of that matter if it adds up to less than what can contend with two or three famous guys who are famous first and foremost for being unbelievably good at basketball? Strip away Ben Simmons’ realistic chances of playing an integral role in taking down the Nets and all you have left are the memes.
But that, too, is a misnomer, and 36-year-old Chris Paul and 30-year-old Jrue Holiday are this year’s most likely candidates to prove why. Regardless of whether Paul and Holiday are at or past the peak of their playing careers, they finally have what they always needed to contribute to a championship cause. See, they’re both machines of their own right; consistent from quarter to quarter, unwilling to cede what they do in the face of someone who can do even more. Holiday will bolster a reigning two-time MVP, and Paul has convinced a young lottery team that it should be more afraid of letting him down than it should be of LeBron James.
The lazy not-so-fast warning against buying into a “super team” is that there’s only one basketball. The implication here is that the members of said super team are selfish or have such large egos that they don’t know how to let someone else play the bigger role on any given night. That assumption is wrong more often than it’s correct, but having only one ball does play a part in why Holiday and Paul can stare down a barrage of superstars and see a fair fight.
It might feel like Durant, Harden and Irving represent too much firepower to contain (and that could prove to be true), but only one of them gets to make the basket (maybe another can get the assist) in any given possession, and then they have to give the ball back to the other team. Holiday’s role as a sidekick to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton come playoff time is to expose the unlikeliness that the Nets’ trio will get to be an avalanche of baskets that adds up to 95 points from three players.
If it feels like the Bucks’ championship window closed, like winning a title had to happen in a season when Antetokounmpo won an MVP, then you’re discounting the fact that Holiday didn’t show up to training camp hoping he could live up to the extra efficient offensive flow that Mike Budenholzer coaxed out of Malcolm Brogdon and Jeff Teague. He’s not either of those players. He’s a guy who spends the season sharpening his defensive chops in preparation to force Harden or Irving to brick just enough possessions while pointing at the unstoppable force wearing the same jersey as him like “why aren’t you keeping up?” If Holiday chips in 33 points and 11 assists himself, then it doesn’t really matter where you rank him on your list of best NBA players.
Paul, meanwhile, looked like he would never find out how to pivot from being a maniacal jerk obsessed with winning into some actual semblance of leadership. He never really understood that DeAndre Jordan couldn’t actually become any better than he was, no matter how loudly you yell at him, and publicly demeaning him would probably make him a little worse. The leaders whom Paul always seemed so close to morphing into--LeBron, Duncan, Dirk, Dame---understood this enough to get the sharpest version of their teammates. Eventually, the first three just wanted teams full of veterans who more or less knew how to do their jobs, and Dame is searching for anyone outside of his backcourt mate who’s good enough to even matter.
Paul didn’t really learn this trait. He just found himself on a team young and talented to handle his barking with enthusiasm. DeAndre Ayton, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges can and will get better, and they might as well go stand exactly where Paul tells them to because he actually does know what he’s talking about. Devin Booker has always seemed to have a similar amount of jerk in him as Paul, and you’d suspect he doesn’t love the way Paul claps his hands to tell him to hurry up and inbound the ball, but it’s ultimately the guy defending Booker who has to pay the price for this, and Paul surely loves the whole dynamic.
Things that you can’t really count on have to go right for the Suns to stick with the Lakers or Jazz. Jae Crowder has to make three-pointers. Frank Kaminsky has to look like he plays the same sport as Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. But if the Suns happen to be up four points on anyone with 2:20 to play in the fourth quarter, then Booker and Paul are an absolute nightmare. Lebron, Luka, Kawhi. Jokic; there’s not a lot any of them can do when Paul knows he’s two floaters away from winning the game. Booker can ice a playoff series with a dagger shot from anywhere on the court, but it’s Paul, and perhaps only Paul, who can get away with slapping LeBron’s forearm on the way to a clutch steal.
In the face of a talent differential, they say you “still have to play the game.” You don’t have to tell that to Holiday or Paul. They have been playing the game for years, and even if you stopped thinking about them as realistic contenders, they might be the only ones who aren’t shocked if they’re playing each other in the NBA Finals.