Ranking the NBA's Best 'Big Three' Combinations

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2012

Ranking the NBA's Best 'Big Three' Combinations

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    The summer of 2010 changed everything.

    Believe it or not, the NBA was once a place where Big Threes were considered a luxury, borderline rarity.

    Not anymore, though.

    Now, such formations are considered more of a necessity than anything else, especially after watching the Miami Heat household-name their way to a championship.

    Yes, times are certainly a-changing, and the Association's franchises are steadily straying away from the depth-laden, supporting cast-driven blueprints that won the Dallas Mavericks a title in 2011.

    And yet, just because the Big Three concept has become a ritual, that doesn't mean it guarantees success. Not always, anyway.

    Sometimes, star-studded trios aren't as prolific on the court as they are on paper. Sometimes, the impulsive need to perpetuate relevancy doesn't prove fruitful. Sometimes, such assemblies pale in comparison to those of a similar magnitude.

    Simply put, not even the densest of star-powered dockets can feign cohesion, an aspect of the game that piles up the wins, brings home championships and distinguishes the league's current Big Threes from one another.

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Big Three: Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams

    Honorable Mention: Gerald Wallace

    The Nets had themselves quite the offseason, yet that doesn't prove anything.

    Not only is this Big Three yet to be tested, its members provoke an array of questions.

    Can Lopez remain healthy for the entire season? Will this be the year Johnson's production drops off completely? Is Williams officially injury-prone?

    And once we move past those questions, there's still an array of cohesion-related issues to ponder.

    Johnson's presence should allow Williams to play off the ball more, which he loves doing, yet Brooklyn's newest wing is not prone to passing. If Williams relies on him too much, it will take opportunities away from him and the rest of the team.

    Then there's Lopez's suspect defense to consider. He's not known as a defensive stalwart who can block shots or make stops that create opportunities in transition—where both Williams and Johnson thrive, by the way.

    Factor in his inability to efficiently pass out of double-teams or kick the ball out in general, and you have a triumvirate that is built to score, but also to implode.

    Until further notice, the Nets' stars remain an untested, unproven trio, which pits them at the bottom of the league's Big Three Barrel.

8. New York Knicks

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    The Big Three: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire

    Together, this thrice-as-nice lineup should have formed the most formidable front line in the NBA, yet it didn't.

    We can blame injuries to some degree, but even at full strength—most notably against the Heat in the playoffs—the Knicks' prolific trio didn't seem to match up against big-time players all that well.

    Though Anthony and Stoudemire are offensive powerhouses, and Chandler a defensive guru, each member of New York's Big Three is one-dimensional.

    Anthony and Stoudemire are valuable on the offensive end, but nearly devoid of defensive consciences or awareness, while Chandler locks down the paint defensively but struggles to make an impact outside of slashes on offense.

    The Knicks are one of those teams that looks good on paper, but are seemingly sloppy when thrust into action. They deserve an extra year (a healthy year) to get it all together, but there have been little, if any encouraging signs to move forward with.

    So, while the Knicks meet the household-name quota to satisfy the requirements of a legitimate Big Three, their performance thus far has been underwhelming.

    And will continue to be questioned until they prove otherwise.

7. Chicago Bulls

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    The Big Three: Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose

    Honorable Mention: Carlos Boozer

    You rarely hear the Bulls and the phrase "Big Three" mentioned in the same sentence, yet they have three—arguably four—star-caliber players on the docket.

    Chicago's Big Three are more fundamentally sound than any other assembly in the league, yet they're also underwhelming in a sense.

    Aside from the fact that the Bulls have the league's most fragile triumvirate, for two consecutive years, the team has dominated in the regular season only to fall flat in the postseason. Only one of those seasons can be chalked up to injuries.

    It's quite mind-boggling, really. Though Noah is hardly a factor on offense—except on the glass—Rose's perpetual penetration makes for nice drive-and-kick opportunities with Deng.

    Essentially, in these three, you have two who can create their own offense while devastating off the ball and a board-stalker who hoards rebounds.

    And defensively, you have two premier stoppers in Deng and Noah, and a point guard in Rose with the quickness to, at the very least, feign exceptional execution.

    But why haven't they gone farther? Why hasn't this group ever hit its stride and never looked back?

    Those are the unanswered questions that have pitted the Bulls' trio in the bottom half of the NBA's best Big Three combos.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Big Three: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul

    "Lob City" is prolific, yet not all that amazing at the same time. There's very little method to Los Angeles' stepchild franchise.

    Paul—the injury-prone All-Star—is expected to make plays and create opportunities for his teammates on both ends of the floor. He directs the pick-and-rolls and tosses up the trademark pass that leads to a finish above the rim on offense, and he leads the perimeter charge on defense.

    Simply put, without Paul, this Big Three hardly runs like a well-oiled machine. Jordan is a shot-blocking guru, but he fails to impress in other areas of defense (protecting the passing lanes, footwork, general coordination, etc).

    He also forces the Clippers to play a man down on offense—unless Paul directs him down an open lane, that is.

    Then we have Griffin, who like Jordan, is at his best when he's catching lobs thrown by Paul. He's hardly adept at creating his own opportunities, and quite frankly, he's offensively underwhelming when his feet are planted firmly on the ground.

    There's no denying that Los Angeles' Big Three are playoff worthy, but they aren't much else. They don't instill the sense of fear that other teams' trios do.

    But I guess that's what happens when the success of said trio depends upon the selfless accolades of one member.

5. Boston Celtics

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    The Big Three: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo

    If Rondo actually was the best point guard in the league, the Celtics' triple-threat would be, well, more threatening.

    It's impossible to belittle what this group has done and is still capable of doing, even without Ray Allen. That said, with the exception of Rondo, age is too much of a factor in two-thirds of this group.

    Though Garnett has defied Father Time thus far, he's 36 and can't defy the laws of deteriorating athleticism already. And for those who think he can, the 34-year-old Pierce serves as a nice reminder of why they're wrong.

    But yet there's no denying how well this trio meshes. You have one of the best floor generals in Rondo, who can exploit defenders off the dribble and off the ball, an inside-out big man in Garnett and a player in Pierce who can score from anywhere on the court, within any offensive scheme and at any time during the game.

    And while Pierce is hardly a contributor on defense, Rondo more than locks down the perimeter while Garnett patrols the paint like a starved attack dog.

    This particular formation is all about versatile cohesion. Each player can do a wide variety of things on either end of the floor, which has allowed Boston to remain in the championship hunt despite a revolving roster and aging core.

    But again, Rondo or not, how much further can this complementary star power carry the Celtics? 

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    The Big Three: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker

    San Antonio's Big Three is both old and effective.

    What's most interesting about the Spurs' dynamic is the Denver Nuggets-like selflessness each of its members boast.

    On offense, Parker does the feeding, while Duncan and Ginobili do the feasting. Defensively, Ginobili and Parker keep their heads up and their feet moving and let Duncan do the rest. It all just works.

    This is a Big Three that prides itself not on highlight reels, but efficiency. They're so calculated in everything they do that their consistency often trumps opponents much more athletic than they.

    Whether it's that extra pass out of a double-team, a shrewd switch when defending the pick-and-roll or a willingness to put the team's needs above their own, this trio has almost every nook and cranny of the game covered.

    Except for that of Father Time, who appeared to catch up with them against a younger, faster and more exuberant Thunder team this past postseason.

    And that begs the question: How much longer can this aging core remain near the top of the league's best Big Threes?

    Taking into account what we saw last season, I'm inclined to believe there's at least one more championship cog inside this NBA machine.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Big Three: Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash

    Honorable Mention: Pau Gasol

    The Lakers have one of the most fearsome Big Threes in the NBA, as well as the most unproven.

    Though Los Angeles' newest combination remains untested, the complementary pieces are there to warrant the formation being held in higher esteem than, say, the Nets.

    While the Nash and Bryant pairing is of some concern, Kobe has become almost strictly a jump shooter at this point in his career. He may thrive when given the opportunity to create his own offense, but last time I checked, wide-open spot-up looks weren't a bad thing for a habitual jump shooter.

    And the Bryant and Shaq feud aside, the athletic Howard fits in perfectly with the Lakers' retooled blueprint. Not only can he run the low post and lane-cutting pick-and-rolls to perfection, but he spreads the floor wafer thin, which will give both Bryant and Nash additional opportunities.

    Case in point: Nash fits in with anyone, Howard's presence opens the floor for everyone, and Bryant operates best when receiving high-percentage opportunities courtesy of anyone.

    So, while this trio's lack of familiarity hinders their ability to claim the NBA's Big Three throne, the talent level of the individuals that make up the collective suggests they'll challenge for it.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Big Three: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook

    Honorable Mention: Serge Ibaka

    And here we have our salute to youthful exuberance.

    The Thunder's Big Three is the highest octane of them all. They are constantly pushing the ball and aren't hesitant to jack up shots, and their claim to fame has been fueled by an exorbitant amount of athleticism and explosiveness.

    And while no member of this trio is considered a stout defender, that's why guys like Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha are present. This combination was built to score in any way imaginable, and that's what makes it so effective.

    All three of these kids can beat you off the dribble, plunge the knife deeper with a pull-up jumper and finish strong at the rim. It's this very offensive versatility that makes them so dangerous. After all, how do you guard the seemingly unguardable?

    Sure, there's still plenty of growing pains Oklahoma City's Big Three will endure, but they've already reached championship caliber in spite of that reality.

    And that's a scary notion, even to the most star-laden of powerhouses.

1. Miami Heat

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    The Big Three: Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

    Miami's Big Three is the NBA's most talented combination until it's proven otherwise.

    It's not just about James and Wade's dominant versatility. And it's not just about Bosh's ability to excel as the team's third offensive option. 

    It's about execution under pressure.

    The Heat haven't been together all that long; two seasons is barely a notch under the chemistry belt—just ask the Spurs. And yet, in spite of all the pressure, the lack of a capable center and a slew of untimely injuries, this team has prevailed.

    Miami small-balled their way to a championship, a journey that often dictated they persevere through stretches as a Big Two, and not a Big Three. The Heat are nearly unstoppable at full strength, yet they remained viable championship contenders when one of their soldiers fell victim to injury.

    It's a true testament to greatness when nothing—not even separation from one another—can slow you down.