I’m sure the term “Big 3” was used in the NBA before the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team up with Paul Pierce, but that was the deal that really started everyone using this phrase. Since, everyone has tried to put together the right three players, peaking with the super team put together by the Miami Heat. Do you have to have a “Big 3” to win it all? To be determined, but what we do know is that the Celtics weren’t the first and the Heat won’t be the last to assemble three superstars in search of a championship.
The trick is to find three players that can put egos aside and complement each other. This doesn’t mean there can’t be one alpha dog, there usually is, but the third guy can’t just be a third option, he needs to bring something unique that is needed to compete for a championship.
We have a lot of great “Big 3’s” listed here, but who didn’t make the list? The Washington Wizards tried hard, recruiting Gilbert Arenes, Caron Butler and Antawn Jameson. Problem was, these three never stayed healthy enough to find out if they could be special together. The Lakers won a title with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest – but let’s face facts. Gasol and Artest didn’t have nearly as much of an impact as O’Neal and Bryant. More Lakers? Remember when Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined Bryant and O’Neal? Again, injuries played a role in addition to bad chemistry (too many egos) ending in defeat to the Detroit Pistons in the finals.
We are starting in the eighties and carrying through to present day with all the great “Big 3’s.” Ray Allen makes the list twice (and almost a third time) and Sam Cassell is here as well? Say what? You need to check out our list of greatest “Big 3’s” ever assembled.
15 LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)
14 Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell (Milwaukee Bucks)
NBA fans in Milwaukee don’t have much, but at the turn of the century they had Robinson, Allen and Cassell leading them deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Led by Coach George Karl, Robinson brought consistent scoring; Allen was a superstar just entering his prime and capable of taking over games late while Cassell was their fiery floor general. The Bucks were a Robinson fade away from advancing to the NBA Finals, instead losing to the 76ers. The team fell apart shortly after that, but it was a nice time for a franchise that has had very little to brag about.
13 Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets)
It’s harder to find three bigger names to play in the NBA; unfortunately, it was too little too late for these three Hall of Fame players. Joining the Rockets was Barkley’s last shot at winning a title after having success, but no title luck in Phoenix. Drexler, spending his entire career up to that point with Portland, was also looking for the elusive title. All three were still All-Star level performers, but none of them were in their prime and never able to reach the promised land. Let’s face it, putting these three players together and not winning a championship is the only goal on the board.
12 Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin (Golden State Warriors)
If you are looking for the “most fun” big three it may be Golden State and their Run TMC group of Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin. All three were entering their prime as offensive assassins that loved to push the ball and score fast. The group found playoff success before getting split up and finding success on their own. A great “what if” for this group is whether or not having a big man in the post could have pushed them from fun to great. Until recently, Golden State have only flirted with success, unable to put together any combination that could produce at the level of Run TMC.
11 Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Jason Williams (Sacramento Kings)
You can debate whether this is a big three based on the facts that neither Divac or Williams were really superstars, but there was a lot more to this threesome than star power. Each player brought unique attributes and made basketball fun for the Kings (something that had never happened in franchise history). Webber, in his prime was the jack of all trades, able to score, rebound and pass with ease. Divac held down the middle, but was also one of the greatest passing centers of his era. Williams was the flashy point guard that made his living with cross-over dribbling and no look passing. Given their recent struggles with the franchise you could make the case that this three (and the history they built) is one of the reasons the Kings remain in Sacramento.
10 Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson (New Jersey Nets)
9 Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Nick Anderson (Orlando Magic)
Okay, I know what I said, but they are my rules and I’m making an exception here. Of course O’Neal and Hardaway were the superstars of the young Magic franchise, but if you look back at the team that went to the NBA Finals you will see how important Nick Anderson was. Without Anderson this team doesn’t make the Finals (coincidentally, without Anderson’s missed free throws they probably win the finals). The only argument I will accept is that maybe instead of Anderson you plug in Dennis Scott. At times these two were interchangeable, providing a wing for O’Neal and Hardaway to kick to and make three pointers.
8 Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish (Boston Celtics)
The original big three, before they were called big threes would win three NBA Championships. Red Auerbach orchestrated the trade to bring in McHale and Parrish to partner with his prize fighter, Larry Bird. The three had perfect chemistry that would provide a blueprint of how to succeed for NBA teams over the next decade. All three could score, rebound and pass; however, they each also played tireless defense and team oriented basketball. McHale and Parrish were outstanding in their roles, but they also understood Bird was the alpha on the team and it was their job to support him. As Bird began having injuries it was apparent that without him Boston could not be successful. Without McHale and Parrish, Bird would not have been successful.
7 Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy (Los Angeles Lakers)
Seems fitting that the Lakers would be “one up” on the Celtics here. Los Angeles had more star power than Boston, but like the Celtics, it was chemistry that fueled their runs of success and NBA hardware. It helps to have arguably the greatest point guard and center to ever play the game and Worthy was no slouch on the wing. There was a reason for the nickname “Big Game James” and he didn’t disappoint, saving his best for the postseason. A true testament to how good this group was is looking at the role players brought in to support them. Rarely it was the same teammates except for the big three of Johnson, Jabbar and Worthy.
6 Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone (Philadelphia 76ers)
During the era of the Celtics and Lakers, the 76ers sneaked in and won a title with one of the greatest teams of all-time. The big name was Erving, the point-forward who could still score in bunches and dunk on anyone in the league, but it was Malone, complimenting Irving’s “driving game” that provided an unstoppable force inside. When the one-two punch of Irving and Malone wasn’t enough, Philadelphia relied on Cheeks, their sniper guard who played lock down defense and never missed from the corners. For all three, they got together right at the end of their prime, falling off shortly after their title. For Philadelphia, in 1983 it was a case of a big three and perfect timing coupled with a perfect chemistry.
5 Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics)
It was Danny Ainge’s stockpiling of draft picks and youth that led to the first official big three. With Pierce already part of the team, Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett, teaming up three superstars together in hopes of bringing another title to Boston. It worked. Boston would make it to the finals twice; winning once and starting a big three trend across the NBA. One interesting point was that there never really was one alpha player; at times all three stepped up and took over the reigns. Credit coach Doc Rivers for keeping this group in check; having a big three usually means having to manage three big egos as well.
4 Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs)
No one ever talks about the San Antonio Spurs as a big three, but they definitely fit the definition. The initial Spurs title was led by Duncan and David Robinson, but subsequent titles have been led by Parker, Ginobili and Duncan. Nothing flashy, nothing fancy, nothing to see here…except a lot of NBA Championships. Complementing each other is one thing, but really buying into team basketball is another and no team (arguably in the history of the NBA) has grasped this concept more than San Antonio. Eventually this team will be too old (I think), but as long as Duncan is in the post, Ginobili on the wing and Parker running the show, San Antonio will always be considered in the hunt for another title.
3 Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Most big threes are built with trades and free agency, but Oklahoma City put together a big three through the draft (and draft day trades). It was really only the one year, right before Harden was traded that this group were considered a big three. The sadness is that we will never know what might have been. No doubt the Executive brass of Oklahoma City has regrets letting Harden and his beard go to Houston. A team of Durant, Westbrook and Harden is a fantasy for hoop fans. Could they have averaged 125 points a game? How many titles could they have won? Would Durant and Westbrook eventually give in and grow out their beards?
2 Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman (Chicago Bulls)
1 LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh (Miami Heat)
I think it’s safe to say that the big three phenomenon probably peaked when James announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach” and soon after, that Bosh was joining him. Teaming these two superstars, with Wade put three of the top ten players in the NBA on one team. Prior to being teammates, each player was the alpha on their team and each had experienced success. Joining the Heat was upping the ante. Miami filled in the gaps with spare parts and made four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, winning two of them. You know you put together something special when this is looked on by some as a failure.