Charles Barkley played in an era in which most superstars spent their careers playing for a single team. Free agency was still a relatively new phenomenon, and players largely played with whoever their front offices could acquire. The concept of player empowerment was still decades away.
The modern game has gone in a very different direction. Superstars now routinely change teams specifically to partner up with other stars, and Kevin Durant is at the center of that trend. He left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors to play alongside Stephen Curry, won two championships there, and then left to build a new superteam with the Brooklyn Nets. Now, those Nets are championship favorites, and Barkley is no fan of theirs. In a conference call to promote the American Century Championship golf tournament, he explained that he roots against superteams on principle alone (h/t Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated).
“K.D. is a great player, and I think he’s a great kid,” Barkley said. “I don’t know him that well, but I’m not a fan of superteams. So listen, if they win it, they win it, but to be perfectly clear, I’m rooting against those guys. I root against all superteams.”
Barkley’s concern is rooted in the overall health of the league. He wants as many teams to be watchable and to have a chance to win the title as possible.
“When Kawhi [Leonard] left Toronto—other than Chicago, that’s my favorite city in the world, [but] I’m never going there again,” Barkley said, noting that the Raptors are no longer a contender since Leonard left in free agency. “When LeBron left Cleveland, I’m never going there again. When James [Harden] left Houston, I’m never going to Houston again. Same thing when LeBron left Miami. Oklahoma City, once K.D. left, we’re never going back there again. And I don’t think that’s good for the game.
“To go back to my day, even though we didn’t win the championship, the Sixers were worth watching. The Knicks were worth watching. The Pacers were worth watching when Reggie was there, same thing with Atlanta and Dominique. I just don’t think it’s good for business, but these young kids, they all fold to peer pressure and feel like they’ve got to win a championship or their life sucks. I don’t believe that. Listen, there’s not many people I’d trade my life with.”
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Ironically, Barkley admitted that if he’d have joined a superteam if he’d “known you guys were going to make fun of me for not winning a championship.” At the time, doing so through free agency largely wasn’t feasible because of the way that the cap was structured. However, later in his career, Barkley was traded to a Houston Rockets group that could be considered a superteam.
When Barkley got to Houston in 1996, the Rockets already had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. All three were in their 30s by that point, though, and they ultimately lost the Western Conference finals to the Utah Jazz. Ahead of the 1998-99 season, the Rockets signed Scottie Pippen to replace Drexler. Barkley even took a payout down to the minimum in order to create the cap space necessary to pull that move off. But that group didn’t win the title either, and Pippen forced a trade to Portland after the season.
Barkley, at that point in his career, was desperate to win a championship. But that desperation didn’t manifest until his 30s. If he had played in the modern NBA, he likely would have found a way to team up with one of the other ringless stars of his era much earlier. Perhaps he could have won a championship with Reggie Miller or Patrick Ewing. That just wasn’t how basketball worked at the time.
There’s a hint of envy in Barkley’s words as a result, but it’s refreshingly honest of him to admit that he might have made the same decision Durant made if he’d had the chance. This isn’t an older player calling the modern league soft or puffing out his chest and saying he had too much pride to join a superteam. It’s a former player expressing genuine concern at the state of the league. Those concerns have been echoed by fans as well, particularly those in smaller markets. There’s no right or wrong position here. Just as players are free to dictate the direction of their careers, fans are free to dislike the decisions they make in the process.