Ranking the Best Big 3s in the NBA Over the Last 20 Years
“I'm feeling good now! We're in the Finals, so who cares? No one is going to remember I missed 20 games during the regular season."
Um, yeah. So, about that. We remembered.
The Spurs are tied in an NBA Finals battle with the Heatles, no thanks to their Argentinean godsend. Since Game 1, the perennial Sixth Man candidate has hoisted up more bricks than buckets, showing us his age on the big stage. (To be fair, his growing launch pad up top is proof enough).
Either way, Manu’s shooting woes (less than 20 percent from three-point range in the Finals!) got my mental sprockets churning on the concept of the “Big Three.” In short, who are the greatest “Big Threes” over the past 20 years? And could Manu’s stink fest in the 2013 NBA Finals recalibrate the rank for him, Timmy Duncan and Tony Parker?
The rubric for “Big Three” measurement was predicated on three factors: longevity, marketability, and hardware.
Longevity helps to give perspective on the durability and sustainability of a talented trio. Look at this category in the same way you would two great boy bands: Would you rather have New Edition for five years or Boys II Men for 20?
Marketability is all about style points. The Derrick Rose–Luol Deng–Joakim Noah triumvirate might grind out a few more W’s, but wouldn’t you rather watch Jason Kidd throw alley-oops to Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter?
Hardware is pretty straightforward: either put up or shut up. The Gary Payton–Detlef Schrempf–Shawn Kemp trio gets serious burn on the NBA Live ‘96 sticks but is smoked by the Kobe Bryant–Pau Gasol–Lamar Odom Lakers crew in stats and awards. Simple as that.
Let’s get to it.
Stats compiled using Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats.
10. Washington Wizards: Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison
5 seasons (2005-2010)…0 titles…0 runner-ups…deepest run: 1st Round (3 times)…7 All-Star Games…one All-NBA 2nd team (Arenas), two All-NBA 3rd team selections (Arenas)…era celebrity fan: Soulja Boy.
Our first NBA czar of social media makes the cut here along with his All-Star crooners.
Gilbert Arenas was a two-way terror and a crowd-pleasing savant during the NBA’s dark days. Arenas was sentenced to Golden State purgatory for a while as a second-rounder from Arizona but proved the haters wrong, stealing the limelight and becoming a great spokesman for the NBA.
In Washington, Arenas was flanked by two All-Star caliber players in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. This squad made us believers in Hollywood/NBA dopplegangers, self-appointed nicknames, Ivy League offenses pre-Jeremy Lin, and the power of calling your shot.
It’s a shame Gilbert’s best remembered now for the time he challenged Javaris Crittenton to a duel. Can’t a man get his Alexander Hamilton on in peace?
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson
4 seasons (1998-2002)…0 titles...0 runner-ups…deepest run: Conference Finals (lost to 76ers)…5 All-Star Games…one All-NBA 3rd team selection (Allen).
Do you remember Ray Allen’s first triple tag team?
Well, it was a short-lived experience for Ray and brief renaissance for the Milwaukee metropolis.
They had the experienced coach (George Karl), feisty floor general (Sam Cassell), true shooting guard (Ray Allen) and low post bully (Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson).
They got their licks in twice against a better Indiana Pacers team, but felt the sting of defeat ever strong. Now, finally, in 2001…Milwaukee would have their shot at the big time.
Exit Milwaukee Bucks.
8. New Jersey Nets: Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson
3 seasons (2002-2004)…0 titles…2 runner-ups…deepest run: NBA Finals (twice; lost to Los Angeles, San Antonio)…1 MVP runner-up (Kidd)…4 All-Star Games…one 1st team All-Defense (Kidd), two 2nd team All-Defense (Kidd)…two 1st team All-NBA selections (Kidd), one 2nd team All-NBA selection (Kidd).
Even though they gave us one of the more putrid NBA Finals close out games in history (34 percent shooting, 6-21 from three-point land) this Nets team was a tantalizing threesome, led by All-NBA point guard Jason Kidd.
Kidd was at the pinnacle of his powers (minus that three-point shot he found in his late Dallas days), scoring and passing his team to the NBA Finals twice. Kidd was MVP runner-up to Tim Duncan in 2002 in one of the tightest MVP races in history (954 points to 897 points).
Although Kidd was courted by rival San Antonio in the summer of 2003 to command that team for the next decade, Kidd chose to stay in the Meadowlands to help ex-wife Joumana’s fledging TV career.
Bad choice. With that, Kidd’s championships dreams were dashed for almost a decade, as Kenyon Martin’s chase for the cash folded this team faster than a poker prodigy at the World Series. Fortunately for Kidd, Dallas called New Jersey with the Devin Harris swap and got him that elusive Finals ring.
7. Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire
3.5 seasons (2004-08)…two 60+ win seasons…0 titles…0 runner-ups…deepest run: Conference Finals (twice; lost to San Antonio, Dallas)…2 MVPs (Nash)…10 All-Star Games…four 1st team All-NBA selections (3 Nash, 1 Amar’e), three 2nd-team All-NBA selections (2 Amar’e, 1 Nash), two 3rd-team All-NBA selections (Marion).
This record-breaking, fashion forward "Seven Seconds or Less" offense makes the list at No. 7. The Phoenix Suns electrocuted the NBA with their small-ball attack, offense-first point guard and head coach and their signature defensive stopper who could guard anyone from Allen Iverson to Dirk Nowitzki.
It was fast-break basketball on steroids: Nash sniffing out corner threes and alley-oops, Nash whirling through the paint with zero intent to score, the creation of life forms named Quentin Richardson and Raja Bell, and the Nash/Amar’e high pick-and-roll putting plodding big men everywhere on life support.
6. Orlando Magic: Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Nick Anderson
3 seasons (1993-1996)…one 60+ win season…0 titles…1 runner-up…deepest run: NBA Finals (once; lost to Houston)…6 All-Star Games…two 1st team All-NBA selections (Penny), one 2nd team All-NBA selection (Shaq), two 3rd team All-NBA selections (Shaq).
Step One: Win lottery, draft Shaquille O’Neal.
Step Two: Win lottery, draft Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
Step Three: Profit.
This team was so freaking fun to watch.
On the other hand, there’s Penny, the first of the lanky point guard breed, begging the comparison to Magic Johnson with his savvy passing and high basketball IQ.
And, on the third, alien hand, there’s Nick Anderson who averaged 16 points per game during the 1995 campaign and would be talked about today in more than hushed tones if not for those four free throw bricks to seal Game 1’s defeat.
Marketability looms large when considering this trio, with Penny’s famous “Lil’ Penny” commercials starring Chris Rock as Penny’s little twin friend, movie forays like Blue Chips and Kazaam!, and of course…SHAQ.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden
3 seasons (2009-2012)…one 60+ win season…0 titles…1 runner-up…deepest run: NBA Finals ( lost to Miami)…2 MVP runner-up (Durant)…5 All-Star Games…one All-Star Game MVP (Durant)… three 1st team All-NBA selections (Durant), two 2nd-team All-NBA selection (Westbrook).
Someday, when my preteen son rambles on during a long family road trip about the greatness of James Harden for the Houston Rockets and the ruthless of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant for Oklahoma City, I’ll pull our station wagon over to the side of I-95 and give my son “the talk”.
Me: “Son, I’m sorry to say this…but did you know that these three actually played together?”
Son: “WOW! They must have won like 3 championships!”
(I remain eerily silent)
Son: “Dad, they DID win a championship, right?”
Me: “No…Oklahoma City didn’t want to pay all 3 of them, so they traded James Harden for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb."
Me: “I know…I know…I know…” (buries head in steering wheel, cries for an hour)
4. Boston Celtics: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett
5 seasons (2007-2012)…two 60+ win seasons…1 title (2008)…1 runner-up (2010)…deepest run: NBA Finals (beat Los Angeles, lost to Los Angeles)…12 All-Star Games… three 1st team All-Defense (KG), one 2nd team All-Defense (KG)… one 1st team All-NBA selection (KG), one 2nd team All-NBA selection (Pierce), one 3rd team All-NBA selection (Pierce).
Although there have been “Big 3s” before this squad, the postmodern Big Three era starts with this triad.
Built from trades and home growth, these men annihilated the NBA in their advent season with a truly balanced attack, winning the title with a shrug and ushering in one of the most famous yells in NBA Finals history:
“ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” – Kevin Garnett.
After their 2008 title, Boston continued to terrorize teams in their halcyon days. Boston pushed the 2010 Los Angeles to seven games (thanks in part to Rajon Rondo) and gave the 2012 Heat fits in an iconic seven game battle royale.
3. Miami Heat: Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
3 seasons (2010-present)…one 60+ win season…1 title (2012)…1 runner-up (2011)…at least 1 runner-up/title pending (2013)…deepest run: NBA Finals (beat Oklahoma City, lost to Dallas)…2 MVPs (LeBron)…1 MVP runner-up (LeBron)…9 All-Star Games…one All-Star Game MVP (Wade)…three 1st team All-Defense (LeBron)…three 1st team All-NBA selections (LeBron), one 2nd team All-NBA selection (Wade), two 3rd team All-NBA selections (Wade).
Hallowed honors are given to those NBA teams capable of making the NBA Finals in back-to-back-to-back seasons. Even with the mixed reviews, this Miami Heat alliance stands among the greatest teams of all-time solely because of this designation.
You can’t argue with the facts: LeBron James is still the greatest player alive, seemingly incapable of injury or exhaustion. Dwayne Wade will go down as one of the greatest two-guards in league history. And Chris Bosh…well, as long as he keeps screaming after And-1’s, he’s got a place in the history books.
2. Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
3 seasons (1995-1998)…one 70+ win season…two 60+ win seasons…3 titles…deepest run: NBA Finals (won thrice)…2 MVPs (Jordan)…1 MVP runner-up (Jordan)…5 All-Star Games…two All-Star Game MVPs (Jordan)…seven 1st team All-Defense (3 Jordan, 3 Pippen, 1 Rodman)…four 1st team All-NBA selections (3 Jordan, 1 Pippen), one 2nd team All-NBA selection (Pippen), one 3rd team All-NBA selection (Pippen).
Ahhh! Stop throwing things! I can’t feel my face!
It’s Michael Jeffrey Jordan. I get it. He’s stupendous.
There’s no argument to make against this team, except one: time.
They did it right and kept it tight for three magical seasons. But by the end of Year Three, the aged Jordan carried this squad over the finish line with the guile and determination befitting the Greatest Player Of All Time (1998 Finals, Game 6: 45 points, 15-35 shooting, 12-15 free throws.)
What an amazing squad. What an amazing player.
1. San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili
11 seasons (2002-present)…three 60+ win seasons…3 titles…deepest run: NBA Finals (won three times)…1 MVP (Duncan)…1 MVP runner-up (Duncan)…one Sixth Man of the Year (Ginobili)…17 All-Star Games… four 1st team All-Defense (Duncan), five 2nd team All-Defense (Duncan)…five 1st team All-NBA selections (Duncan), five 2nd team All-NBA selections (3 Duncan, 2 Parker), four 3rd team All-NBA selections (1 Duncan, 1 Parker, 2 Ginobili).
The man has two nicknames: The Big Fundamental and Tim.
The man has had one coach and has played for one team.
What are Tim Duncan’s Basketball-Reference.com similarity comparisons you ask? Julius Erving. Kevin Garnett. Charles Barkley. Dirk Nowitzki.
Tim Duncan has a puncher’s chance of tying the NBA Finals record for distance between Finals MVPs (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 1971 & 1985, 14 years). The man is an arctic assassin.
For the last 11 seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career, Tim’s been flanked by the Argentinean draft steal and a pesky, squirrelly Frenchman. Together, these three titans have won over 50 games each season (including the 2011 NBA lockout year), made six conference finals, won three NBA titles, and own the best winning percentage over the 11 season span.
In one of the only times you'll see Duncan over MJ, Timmy’s Spurs take the Big Three title.