With the Brooklyn Nets trading for James Harden, they have assembled one of the most imposing trios in the history of the NBA. While others may have been more organic or more complementary, on the basis of pure individual talent, this is perhaps the best gathering of star players in over half a century. The last team to boast such a glut of star power may be the Los Angeles Lakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s who added Wilt Chamberlain to a core that already featured Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. All three were already surefire Hall of Famers, but only one of them had won a championship at that point. Yet in spite of their outlandish ability, the three stars never won a title together and their brief tenure as teammates may provide a cautionary tale to this Nets team.
Entering the 1968 offseason, the Lakers were at a crossroads. In Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, they had two of the best players in the NBA, but they had yet to win a title together. Year after year, they were stymied by the Celtics who had defeated them in the Finals six of the last ten seasons. A few thousand miles away, Wilt Chamberlain wanted out of Philadelphia. After winning his first championship in 1967, the team collapsed in the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead. He had a strained relationship with the team’s management and was eager to start fresh elsewhere. The Lakers pounced and made what is on paper, one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history: Archie Clark, Darrall Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers in exchange for Chamberlain.
The Lakers immediately became title favorites. While there were questions about if there could possibly be enough available shots for each of them, there were also, in theory, clearly defined roles. West was an ace perimeter defender and Chamberlain, when he wanted to be, was a phenomenal rim protector. West could shoot while Chamberlain was always able to score in the post with ease. Baylor was always a great slasher and also an underrated rebounder. However, there were some issues with Chamberlain’s tendency to hang out in the paint, which cut down on the opportunity for Baylor to get to the basket unimpeded as often as he had in the past. Nevertheless, the team had one of the best offenses in the league. Each player averaged over 20 points per game, though only one other Laker averaged double figures.
Despite their success in their three years together, Baylor, West, and Chamberlain never won a title. However, it was only in their first year together that all three were consistently healthy. The following year, Chamberlain only played twelve regular season games (though he did return in time for the playoffs) and the year after that, Baylor only suited up twice. In spite of these injury troubles, this incarnation of the Lakers still managed to make the Finals twice, losing in 1969 to the Celtics and to the Knicks the following year. At the start of the 1971-72 season, Baylor retired and the team went on a run, winning 33 consecutive games on their way to a then-record 69-13 season and a Finals victory over the Knicks. West and Chamberlain played one more season together after that, where they again faced the Knicks in the Finals, losing in this rematch.
What can the Nets learn from the Lakers’ of Wilt, West and Elgin Baylor?
The Brooklyn Nets have put together perhaps the most imposing trio, at least on paper, since those Lakers teams of a half century ago. Though the Nets are not in the same position the Lakers were all those years ago. Rather than being a consistently good team that just couldn’t reach the mountaintop, the Nets have not made the Finals in nearly two decades while the Lakers had already established themselves as long-time contenders. Also, while the Lakers were introducing a new player to an already established core, all three of the Nets’ stars are functionally new acquisitions. While entering the 1968-69 season, West and Baylor had played several hundred games together as teammates, prior to this season none of the Nets’ trio had played together since Durant and Harden were teammates in Oklahoma City, back when Harden was still coming off the bench.
Also, while none of the Nets stars have yet shown signs of an imminent drop-off in ability, Irving is the youngest at 28 and even he has struggled with injuries throughout the course of his career. He has only played 70 games three times in his career. In spite of his 2019 achilles injury, Durant looks like his old self, but he still entered the league 14 years ago and one would assume that the end of his prime is near. While Harden has played over 70 games every year of his career, apart from in seasons shortened by a strike or a pandemic, he is 31 and has carried a massive offensive load for the last eight seasons. All three are great players, and project to be for at least a few more seasons, but there is little margin for error if they wish to capitalize on their teaming up. Injuries and age played a large role in undoing the Lakers fifty years ago; will it do the same to these Nets?
The big question for the Nets, as it was for the Lakers, is not whether or not they have enough talent to win a title, but if they can find a way to utilize that talent in a way that makes the most of their stars. While Irving, Harden, and Durant each employ vastly different styles, they are all, at their core, volume scorers. Harden and Irving are great playmakers and Durant is, at his best, one of the more versatile defenders in the league, but there is still such overlap in their offensive skillsets that, until we’ve seen them find ways to address these concerns in-game, such questions are bound to remain.
This is especially true since none of these three are especially skilled at maneuvering off-ball. Part of what made the Warriors so dominant during Durant’s time in Oakland was the ability of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to create open looks for themselves without the ball in their hands. Can the Nets do the same, or will the other two be reduced to bystanders when one of the others is initiating the offense? What’s most ironic and tragic about the Lakers saga is that the team did not truly take off until Baylor was forced to retire. Would the Nets have been better off just standing pat with a duo of Irving and Durant? Possibly, but the team never took the chance to figure out just how great that pairing could be.
In many ways, those past Lakers squads function as a cautionary tale for the Nets. They show just how rare it is to assemble a collection of stars as luminous while also showing that doing so does not promise a championship. They are also a testament to how quickly bad luck, age, and injuries can derail a team’s title hopes. History is not bound to repeat itself — Irving, Harden, and Durant may figure everything out and become a juggernaut — but the story of West, Baylor, and Chamberlain attests to how easily things can go awry, that winning a title is never guaranteed no matter how much top-tier talent you accumulate.