Love them or hate them, Miami’s "Big 3" of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have been in the headlines all season long. They joined forces for one common goal: to win NBA championships. Hopefully, fingers filled with rings.
It is considered one of the most unique moves in NBA history, mostly because most superstars’ egos outweigh the simple answer to their ultimate goal: team up with another top 5 NBA player to own the league–perhaps for an indefinite period of time. Miami’s "Big 3" pushed their egos aside to build a dynasty as yet to be determined.
That begs the question: What would have happened if the “Big 3” trend happened earlier in the game’s history? What if three great, ringless players from each decade had the power to demand trades like the superstars of today’s era do and decided to join forces to team up against the great dynasties of each era?
One thing is for certain: The history of the game would be forever changed. With those scenarios in mind, I came up with a "Big 3" for every decade, including the possible matchups to go along with/against them, starting with the 60s.
The Criteria is simple:
Each player must be ringless. Some of those non-champs might surprise you.
Each player must have never played on the same team. If they didn’t get it done together, we’ll hypothesize the “What ifs?” of teaming up with others.
Each player must have been in their prime or reached their prime in their chosen decade. If we’d taken them near their decline, it would have diminished the true opportunity to win.
Here we go. Feel free to disagree. (But why in the world would you?)
C Walt ”Big Bell” Bellamy - Stats from 1961 to 1970: 22 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 50% FG
HOF class of 1993, 4-time All-Star, No. 9 on NBA all-time rebound list, ’61-’62 ROY
F Elgin Baylor - Stats from 1960-1970: 27.7 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 4.5 APG
HOF class of 1977, 11-time All-Star, 10 time 1st Team All-NBA, ’58-’59 ROY
G Lenny Wilkins - Stats from 1960-1970: 16.5 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.2 RPG
HOF class of 1989 (Player), HOF Class of 1998 (Coach), nine-time All-Star, ’70-‘71 All-Star game MVP
After losing to the Celtics in the finals in consecutive years (’62 and ’63), Lakers Forward Elgin Baylor decides he needs to recruit a big man to help contain Celtics monster center Bill Russell. Enter Walt Bellamy, the tenacious rebounder from Indiana who most certainly shares Baylor’s hunger for a championship.
After one season, Baylor and Bellamy see that they need a facilitator to get Elgin the ball in his favorite spots and to serve as a threat to shoot from outside if teams decided to double Bellamy. Point guard Lenny Wilkins fits the bill. A natural leader with an unbelievable basketball IQ, Wilkins leads the team to another matchup with the hated Boston Celtics. This time, they rise to the occasion and effectively cut short the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s. Red Auerbach snuffs out his cigar for at least a little while.
G-F George “Iceman” Gervin - ABA-NBA stats from 1972-1980: 24.4 PPG (33.1 PPG in ’79-’80), 6 RPG, 2.5 APG
HOF class of 1996, three-time ABA All-Star, nine-time NBA All-Star, 14th on NBA/ABA all-time points list, ’79-’80 NBA All-Star game MVP, four-time NBA scoring champion, five-time All-NBA 1st Team, two-time All-NBA 2nd Team
G “Pistol” Pete Maravich - Stats from 1970-1980: 23.8 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4 RPG
HOF class of 1987, five-time All-Star, one-time NBA scoring champion, two-time 1st Team All-NBA, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
C Bob Lanier - Stats from 1970-1980: 22.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.25 APG
HOF class of 1992, eight-time All-Star, ’73-’74 All-Star game MVP
The year is 1974, and the NBA is searching for its next great dynasty. For the first time, true parity is shaping a new league. Shooting guard Pete Maravich, one of the best shooters in the history of the game and a man in love with putting up points, knows he has the talent to win the championship with the right pieces around him. Eschewing stats for team results, he decides he needs to get back to his roots by joining the New Orleans Jazz.
Pistol values scoring above all other stats, so he dips into the ABA talent pool to find the man he’s looking for: Guard-forward George “Iceman” Gervin, the matchup nightmare who invented the finger roll and the best slasher in basketball; from baseline to baseline, he can penetrate the lane and score or kick out to the quick-shooting Pistol.
After their first year together, however, they realize teams have already figured out a way to lessen their impact: load up on perimeter defense and make the post players beat them. They need a low-post threat; an intimidator to protect the rim, provide a scoring punch and rule the offensive glass. It’s their favorite kind of math. More rebounds equals more shot opportunities.
So over the summer of ‘75, Gervin and Maravich make several trips to Detroit and convince center Bob Lanier to demand a trade to New Orleans. Lanier eagerly agrees, and the tandem goes on to rule the remainder of the decade, breaking NBA scoring records along the way and turning the New Orleans Jazz into the dynasty of the 70s–thereby rendering the Saints’ Super Bowl win a second city championship instead.
G-F Adrian Dantley - Stats from 1980-1990: 25.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.2 APG
HOF class of 2008, six-time All-Star, ’76-’77 ROY, two-time 2nd team All NBA, seventh all time in FTs, two-time NBA scoring champion
F Alex English - Stats from 1980-1990: 25.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.4 APG
HOF class of 1997, eight-time All-Star, three-time 2nd Team All-NBA, 13th on NBA all-time points list, one-time NBA scoring champion, 2,000 points in eight straight seasons
C Patrick Ewing - Stats from 1985-1990: 22.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.98 BPG
HOF class of 2008, 11-time NBA All-Star, ’85-’86 ROY, three-time 2nd Team All-NBA Defense, six-time 2nd team All-NBA, one-time 1st Team All-NBA
After age catches up with Pistol Pete in New Orleans, the dynasty of the mid to late-70s begins to fade. The new decade looks ready to be owned by two of the best players the NBA has ever seen: Lakers guard-forward Magic Johnson and Celtics forward Larry Bird.
From 1980-1985 the Lakers grab three championships (one without Magic in 1980), and the Celtics grab two of their own. It looks to be a neck-and-neck race to own the decade before everything changes in 1985.
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks had a star of their own. A forward named Bernard King, who was an effective scorer and beloved figure in Manhattan. But, he left the Big Apple feeling blue at the end of the ’84-’85 season as he suffered a career-altering knee injury that would leave him forever changed. He’d wear more knee braces than rings.
But the Knicks, under seemingly impossible odds, won the 1985 NBA draft lottery and happily took college star center Patrick Ewing, the prototypical big man of the ilk every NBA team needed to win a championship at the time.
The Knicks still lacked pieces to their championship puzzle, but they at least had their centerpiece.
At this same point in history, two prolific scorers were lighting up scoreboards for their respective teams. Wing players Alex English and Adrian Dantley were dazzling the NBA. Dantley was a true slasher, great at getting to the free-throw line and breaking down the defense. English was a pure scorer with a beautiful textbook jump shot, who could also finish around the rim.
But neither player could quite make it over the championship hump, especially not with the vaunted Celtics and Lakers standing in their way.
So both players saw opportunity in the City That Never Sleeps. They saw a true center–and a younger one–who could contain aging Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; a shot-swatting defender certain to wreak havoc in the paint. One look at Ewing’s wingspan, and Dantley and English secretly made a plan to jump ship and swim their way to the Apple. For them, it was an easy “Decision.”
After forcing their ways out of Denver and Utah, they joined the young center and proceeded to put on a show the likes of which Madison Square Garden had never seen. They had prolific scoring on both wings and a beast on the boards who could also score and slap shots. They had just enough to challenge the Celtics and Pistons in the east and the Lakers in the west, winning three straight championships from ’86-’88.
Just like that, the New York Knicks dynasty was born, leaving local pundits very little whining room.
G John Stockton - Stats from 1990-2000: 14.2 PPG, 11.1 APG, 2.15 SPG
HOF class of 2009, 10-time All-Star, six-time 2nd Team All-NBA, two-time 1st Team All-NBA, five-time 2nd team All-NBA defense, led the league in assists nine straight seasons, all-time NBA assists leader, all-time NBA steals leader
G-F Reggie Miller - Stats from 1990-2000: 20.6 PPG, 40% 3PT
Five-time All-Star, three-time 3rd Team All-NBA, 2nd all-time in three pointers made, 14th on NBA all-time scoring list
C Patrick Ewing - Stats from 1990-2000: 22.2 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.39 BPG
Awards: See Above
The Knicks dynasty starts to wind down around the early 90s as Dantley and English fade from the scene, rings firmly on-hand. A new superstar has emerged, and with him a new group ready to assume the throne.
Michael Jordan, who many see at that time with the potential to be the greatest player ever to play the game, has led his Bulls to three NBA championships before deciding to take his talents to the MLB for a couple of years. This brings opportunity for a new dynasty to emerge.
Meanwhile, in Utah, John Stockton is shaping up to be the best true point guard that the world has ever seen. He runs the pick-and-roll to perfection, and has a sweet shooter’s touch. His ability to find open teammates is phenomenal, yet he can’t quite reach the top with the team he has, despite super-talented power forward Karl Malone.
One of the best shooters in the game, guard Reggie Miller, is in the midst of writing his own legendary tale. By the end of his career, many predict he will be the all-time leader in three-point field goals made. He uses an unorthodox shooting form that would make any textbook shooter cringe, but the ball finds the bottom of the basket time and time again.
Then there’s Patrick Ewing. He’s in the prime of his career and already has three rings on his finger. But now without Dantley and English, Ewing is having trouble finding that postseason success that came so easy in the mid-late 80s. He’s had a taste of the NBA championship, and it’s what keeps him up at night and gets him up in the morning. Even better, with Jordan now out of the picture, it’s the perfect time to get some new bling for his fingers. But, he knows he can’t do it alone. He knows it’s his turn to play the recruiter, and he’s got his eyes set on two particular players he knows will propel the Knicks to championship level once again.
Ewing successfully recruits Reggie Miller, and together they manage to pry John Stockton from Karl Malone. Teams have no idea how to defend the Knicks. Stockton and Ewing run the pick and roll as if tall-and-short twins separated at birth, and are scoring points at a catastrophic rate. When Ewing has his back to the basket, teams cannot double him because of the constant threat of Reggie Miller on the wing.
They’re not too shabby on the defensive end of the floor either.
By the time Jordan returns, it’s too late. The Knicks have owned the mid to late 90s, claiming three more titles from '94-'99 before the Spurs and David Robinson take over.
With six rings on his fingers, critics hail Patrick Ewing as the greatest basketball player to ever play the game, prompting an entire line of “Ground Ewing” sports apparel.
G Allen “The Answer” Iverson - Stats from 2000-2010: 26.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 1.89 SPG
’00-’01 NBA MVP, 11-time All-Star, two-time All-Star Game MVP, ’96-’97 ROY, four-time 1st Team All-NBA, three-time All-NBA 2nd Team, one-time All-NBA 3rd Team, 4-time NBA scoring champion
G Steve Nash - Stats from 2000-2010: 16.7 PPG, 9.6 APG, 43% 3PT, 49% FG
Seven-time All-Star, two-time NBA MVP, three-time 1st Team All-NBA, two-time All-NBA 2nd Team, NBA all-time leader in FT percentage
F-C Zach Randolph - Stats from 2003-2010: 19.9 PPG, 10 RPG
One-time All-Star, ’03-’04 Most Improved Player
As the book closes on the Knicks dynasty, the Spurs and Lakers quickly take reign. They account for all of the championships won between 1999-2003, and it looks like they’ll battle neck-and-neck for the rest of the decade to become the next true juggernaut.
But trouble brews in LA. Kobe Bryant basically forces the Lakers to trade Shaquille O’Neal, and they struggle after the trade is made. But the Spurs still hold strong, and Gregg Popovich and crew are licking their chops for another championship.
Right up Interstate 35 in Dallas, Steve Nash is expected to sign a new deal with the Dallas Mavericks, but is surprised at midnight with an impressive courtship by the Phoenix Suns. He signs with the Suns, and teamed with rising star Amare Stoudemire and creative new coach Mike D’Antoni, they have a successful season. But, they know in order to beat the Spurs, they need more–as in points, rather than height.
Enter Allen Iverson, the most prolific scorer the league has ever seen. He looks to be a perfect fit for D’Antoni’s run and gun system, and they trade away Stoudemire to get him, figuring losing a scorer/defensive liability like Stoudemire wouldn’t hurt as much as some might think. Part two of D’Antoni’s plan for a contender is complete. There’s just one more player he has his eye on.
Zach Randolph–no, his 2011 run with the Grizzlies isn’t his rookie season–is evolving into a 20 and 10 machine with Portland, yet they’re looking to get rid of him because of so-called character issues, despite the fact that most of his teammates seem to like him. The Suns pounce on this opportunity, and Nash finds a replacement pick-and-roll buddy for the offense–not to mention a guy completely unafraid to bang bodies with bigger guys in the middle.
With Nash dishing out assists left and right and Iverson reaching legendary heights in the scoring column, the Suns look like a viable opponent to take down the Spurs. Their opportunity comes in ’07, and they eliminate Tim Duncan and crew in six games in the Western Conference finals.
They go on to win the ’07 title, but that’s the best they can do. As Iverson fades, Nash and Randolph keep the team at a competitive level. In the end, Iverson, Nash, and Randolph have catapulted themselves into true Hall of Fame status by being able to point to their rings. Champions once are champions forever.
Now, with all of this in mind, would these “Big 3s” really have been able to take down the great dynasties of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s? Even better, which “Big 3” would reign supreme in a head-to-head tournament?
That, friends, is a whole different argument for another column.