“The Big Three,” “a core group to build around,” “a young nucleus,” etc.
There are countless ways to describe the foundation of a franchise with new go-to phrases being thought up every day. What never changes, however, is the need for a Big Three, or a core group or a young nucleus.
The majority of successful teams have a few quality players with a lot of potential and high ceilings. Their franchises build the rest of the team around them, mixing and matching to find just the right pieces.
That core is the essential cog of success, the nucleus that gives a team their identity and in all likelihood, the majority of their wins.
Every team needs building blocks. Here’s a look at some of the best team nuclei in the NBA.
This young trio has shown considerable growth and improvement through these past three seasons. The Oklahoma City Thunder were the fourth overall seed in these playoffs with a regular season record of 55-27. The Thunder came within a few games of reaching the NBA Finals, a big improvement over their impressive first round exit last year.
This core certainly has a bright future, as they are all 22 or younger.
Kevin Durant is the reigning two-time NBA scoring champion. The Durantilla has proved to be a prolific offensive force that is nearly impossible to stop.
The Thunder’s leader has incredible range with a killer step-back jumper. His lanky frame allows him to consistently draw fouls and finish over defenders.
Russell Westbrook is another rare talent. He has the valuable combination of strength, explosiveness and speed. His stats this season (21.9 points, 1.9 steals, 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds) were comparable to MVP Derrick Rose.
The biggest knock against Westbrook is his slow development as a true point guard. As we saw this postseason, his decision-making in crunch time is questionable. Too often Westbrook wastes possessions with early shot attempts and not enough ball movement. Improvement in these areas will undoubtedly come with time.
A player with Westbrook’s talent will continue to develop. Don’t be surprised to see this 22-year-old come back next season with better skills in facilitating and an improved understanding of game management.
James Harden emerged as a budding star this postseason. He was arguably the Thunder’s most creative offensive threat. Harden is a playmaker who can create shots for himself and his teammates. He also is a solid shooter whose range continues to improve.
Rudy Gay would absolutely be on this list if not for his shortened season. After returning from the FIBA tournament, Gay seemed motivated and determined like never before. Through 54 games, Gay showed a visible effort on the defensive end and put up the best shooting numbers of his career (47% FG, 40% 3P, 81% FT).
But this season, and more importantly this postseason, were all about the Memphis Grizzlies’ big men and their improving point guard. All three contributed greatly to their first-round upset of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and their impressive second round.
Zach Randolph is a beast. Channeling my inner Andy Samberg, the once troubled power forward played “Like a boss!” in these playoffs. Although his defense hovers around average, Randolph is a dominant low-post scorer with some decent range. He is a superb rebounder and has averaged double-digit boards six times in his 11-year career.
After losing more than 50 lbs before the start of the 2009 season, Marc Gasol finally showed up as a legitimate NBA player. Currently, the league now views him as a good NBA player.
With less of a load to carry around (and I think half of the weight was in his beard alone), Gasol is an agile and quick center who can cover a lot of ground. Although his rebounding and scoring took a step back this season, his blocks went up and his shooting range improved. When Gasol is on top of his game, the Grizzlies are a hard team to beat.
Memphis likes to pound the ball inside with their two big men, eventually wearing down the opposing team. In fact, their offensive strategy reminds me of sitting in between two fat people on an airplane. Eventually, their girth exhausts you. You stop fighting and resign to your uncomfortable fate. And, their just might be some elbows thrown.
Mike Conley proved he was worth that generous contract he received before the season. Conley set career highs in points, assists and steals this past season, as he emerged as a quality game manager.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say they have become the “Big Four.” Rondo’s passing abilities are unparalleled. His anticipation and court vision will keep him in the upper echelon of point guards for years to come.
KG’s knees are about as sturdy as Lil Wayne’s ability to stay away from drugs. Or auto-tune. Or tattoo parlors.
Still, when healthy Garnett is capable of great defense, efficient scoring and solid rebounding. In 71 games this season, KG averaged 15 points on 53 percent shooting from the field, 65 percent from the line and nine rebounds per game. He is still the emotional leader of this squad.
This core probably has only one more season left; that’s The Truth. (See what I did there?) Paul Pierce is an enigma of a basketball player. He’s not overly athletic, quick or explosive, yet he has been productive throughout his entire career. Pierce is a versatile player with a lot of capabilities.
His herky-jerky motions enable him to get enough space to hit that crazy fade away he’s been shooting for years. Late in his career, Pierce has become a very good three-point shooter. When Rondo went down with an injury early in the year, Pierce assumed a lot of ball handling and facilitating responsibilities and performed well. He is also, at times, a quality defender.
Ray Ray is one of the best shooters the NBA has ever seen. Allen’s career average from beyond the arc is 40 percent and 89 percent from the charity stripe.
His shooting prowess and conditioning will keep him in the league for a few more years, despite his age. Not to mention, he’s Jesus Shuttlesworth. (Side note: Absolutely loved it when Allen hit a huge three-pointer late in a game during the 2008 Finals and Marv Albert screamed, “Jesus Shuttlesworth from the corner!”)
This team probably only has one more shot, but this “Big Three” had a great run.
When healthy, Bynum is the best center in the league not named “Dwight.” Bynum really came into his own this year as he accepted and understood his role. His biggest contributions were on the defensive end as he consistently contested shots and grabbed rebounds. The big man can also beat you on offense with dunks, putbacks and improving mobility on the low block.
Do I really need to explain Kobe Bryant (or as my brother sometimes calls him, “Bro-be Bryant”)? Kobe is the best player since Jordan, with a similar killer instinct and unflappable work ethic. This guy is so determined to win it’s almost like he doesn’t have a personality. He is the Terminator of the present day NBA.
Pau Gasol has certainly received his fair share of criticism after the Lakers stunning sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. But it’s quite apparent that when the Spanish seven-footer is on top of his game, he is extremely hard to guard.
Gasol is arguably the most skilled big man in the league. He is a very underrated passer, has enough range to hit the 15-18 footer and can play both the 4 and the 5. For his career, Gasol has averaged nearly 19 points, 1.7 blocks, 3.2 assists and just over nine rebounds a game.
If Bynum can continue his development and stay healthy, and Gasol can return to form, than the load will be significantly lessened on an aging Bryant. If all goes according to plan, this L.A. team can still compete for a championship.
This trio has a few rings to show for their hard work. But, with their stunning first-round exit, I think it’s safe to assume Gregg Popovich has elicited all he can from this nucleus.
Ginobili is one of the hardest players in the league to guard. It's not because of his solid dribble penetration or his big-time shot-making ability. It's due to the fact that he is always moving. This guy has insane cardio and is constantly running through defenses and off of screens.
The Euro is also capable of making circus shots. So many times Ginobili has made off-balance shots that shouldn’t go in. In that regard, he is a lot like a mini-Dirk Nowitzki.
Tim Duncan is the best power forward who’s ever lived. His consistency and team-first mentality have led to a Hall of Fame career and multiple championships. However, Duncan is at the end of his run at age 35 and is unable to carry a playoff team at this point.
A few years ago, though, this man was as dangerous as any with a basketball in his hand. His patented off-the-glass bank shots have become a staple in big men development. His defense and rebounding was top notch for much of his career.
Tony Parker is a solid score-first point guard. Yet he is a liability on the defensive end and never built upon his career year of ’08-’09 in which he averaged 22 points and just under seven assists.
For the most part, Parker has been an efficient scorer who has given the Spurs nine solid years of offense.
This San Antonio squad needs to retool and begin to form a new nucleus if it wants to contend again.
These guys are more the “Big Three” of the near future. DeAndre Jordan is an athletic center who can block shots and rebound. Yet, he still has a lot of room to grow as a player and at 22 years old, has plenty of time to do it. In a few seasons, however, I fully expect Jordan to be a fairly dynamic big man.
Eric Gordon was yet another player who came back to the NBA reinvigorated from their FIBA experience. Before getting injured (and seriously hurting my fantasy team in the process), Gordon was enjoying a career breakout year and was on the verge of stardom.
The former IU baller averaged 22 points and 4.4 assists in 56 injury-filled games. When Baron Davis went down with an injury, Gordon assumed a lot of the ball-handling duties and proved effective at initiating the offense.
Everyone knows by now about Blake Griffin. This high-flying, freakishly athletic Rookie of the Year did the impossible this season: He made the Clippers relevant. Griffin has a propensity for highlight dunks and is already on the verge of becoming a superstar.
The most impressive thing about Griffin is that he kept improving throughout the season. After the All-Star break, Griffin averaged 4.5 assists, one steal and cut down on his turnovers.
Miami’s Big Three is notorious by now. Love them or hate them, there is no doubt that this squad can play.
LBJ and Wade are two of the three best players in the NBA. Bosh is a top-15 guy. This team is more stacked than women on “Dr. 90210.”
James and Wade are unbelievable perimeter players. Wade is a prototypical slasher who has improved his shooting over the years. James’ size and strength make it nearly impossible to stop him when he drives to the rim. Both have the ability to finish and draw fouls.
Bosh is a quick-footed big man who can score down low or hit the 15-footer. Although his transition into this offense has been shaky, Bosh has proven himself to be a versatile offensive threat. If only he could learn to rebound again!