Ranking the NBA's Best Big 3s Right Now

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVJuly 19, 2022

Ranking the NBA's Best Big 3s Right Now

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    After Bleacher Report ranked the top superstar duos in the NBA today, it's time to find out who the best trios are after a few key offseason trades.

    By shifting from two- to three-person rankings, this will surely hurt some teams (looking at you, Los Angeles Lakers) while boosting others with better third options.

    To judge a Big Three is to not only study how they perform together (something we haven't seen from some of these newly formed trios yet), but also what each individual member brings to the floor.

    For this exercise, Estimated Plus-Minus will once again play a major role, as it's arguably the best catch-all metric available today. It measures both offensive and defensive contributions and can be used individually, which helps with new Big Threes.

    We'll also be adding in lineup data from last season as well as a splash of subjectivity with the eye test, rewarding the trios who have already accomplished great things together.

    As NBA rosters currently stand, these are the Best Big Threes heading into the 2022-23 season.

    Note: To narrow this list down, we took the top eight three-man lineups in combined EPM. From there, we ranked the eight three-man lineups just against themselves (and not the rest of the NBA) in net rating and eye test. We averaged their rankings in combined EPM, net rating and eye test to form the final order.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 7th (11.7)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: 2nd (plus-14.3 in 1,029 minutes)

    Eye Test Rank: 3rd

    Average Rank: 4.0

    The depth of the Celtics actually makes it possible to have a number of "Big Threes" here, as lineups with Robert Williams III, Al Horford, Derrick White or Grant Williams joining Tatum and Brown all had net ratings of plus-14.3 or better last season.

    Boston's depth is its true strength, especially after adding Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari this summer. Tatum was the only Celtic to have an estimated plus-minus score above 3.7, which ultimately hurt Boston in these rankings.

    Still, the wonderful chemistry this group exhibits combined with its run to the NBA Finals this past season deserves a high eye test ranking, as only trios who have actually won a title (or four) finished above it in that category. The Celtics' average rank actually ties them with the fifth team on this list, a tie ultimately broken by EPM score.

    Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert

    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 6th (11.9)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: N/A

    Eye Test Rank: 7th

    Average Rank: 6.5

    One of the newly formed Big Threes, the Timberwolves added Gobert from the Utah Jazz for a monster haul of draft picks and players.

    Forgetting the financial implications and future trade restrictions for a second, this could easily be a top-five Big Threes by the time the playoffs begin. Gobert is the best rim protector and rebounder in the NBA, and Towns is perhaps the most versatile offensive force and should be refreshed given his far easier defensive responsibilities now. The wild card is Edwards, who should make the leap to All-Star status this season and could enter the conversation as the league's best shooting guard soon.

    The Wolves can't trade a first-round pick for nearly a decade now (2031), so they have to hope this partnership works out.

    Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and John Wall

    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 8th (11.6*)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: N/A

    Eye Test Rank: 8th

    Average Rank: 8.0

    There's too much unknown with two of the three members of the Clippers' Big Three to move them up any higher, although history tells us the potential certainly exists.

    Leonard (ACL) and Wall (shut down by the rebuilding Houston Rockets) played a total of zero games last season and both are now 31. They could look refreshed this season, although there's bound to be some rust as well.

    George has had his own durability issues lately as well, but he and Leonard are two of the best forwards in all of basketball when healthy. If Wall is even 75 percent of his Washington Wizards prime, he'll quickly help them form a devastating Big Three.

    *Leonard's and Wall's EPM scores were taken from the 2020-21 season when they last played.

    Just missing the cut: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.; Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum; Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley; Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane; Trae Young, Dejounte Murray and John Collins.

5. Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton

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    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 4th (12.5)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: 4th (plus-8.0 in 835 minutes)

    Eye Test Rank: 4

    Average Rank: 4.0

    With the Suns matching the four-year, $133 million offer sheet signed by Ayton with the Indiana Pacers, their core will at least be intact to start the regular season.

    Booker tied Jimmy Butler for the second-highest EPM score (4.7) among all shooting guards last year while making his third All-Star Game, reaching career highs in points per game (26.8) and rebounds (5.0). His three-point efficiency (38.3 percent) tied a career-best mark as well.

    Despite turning 37 in May, Paul led the NBA in assists per game (10.8), the first time he'd done so since the 2014-15 season as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. He should still be playing at an All-Star level this year.

    While the future of Ayton in Phoenix is uncertain, the Suns were two wins short of an NBA title in 2020-21 and finished 64-18 in 2021-22 with him as the starting center alongside Paul and Booker. This trio still works really well, at least on the court.

    If Phoenix can somehow turn a package of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and first-round picks and swaps into Kevin Durant, the Suns will easily have the best Big Four in the NBA.

4. Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey

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    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 5th (12.4)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: 1st (plus-15.1 in 511 minutes)

    Eye Test Rank: 5th

    Average Rank: 3.7

    Despite limited time together after Harden came over from the Brooklyn Nets in a deadline deal, the Sixers had the best net rating of any Big Three on this list in their 21 games.

    Embiid will be an MVP candidate for the foreseeable future and Harden has transitioned into an excellent sidekick, one that seems perfectly happy leaning on his still incredible playmaking skills. This was the most efficient pick-and-roll duo in the NBA last year, one that should only improve with more reps together.

    Maxey has always been a terror to stop in transition, but it's his evolution as an outside threat that couldn't have been more perfect next to Embiid and Harden.

    After making just 32.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers as a rookie, Maxey increased his efficiency to a whopping 45.1 percent on no-dribbles threes last season. His 42.7 percent mark from three ranked third overall in the NBA and was even better off passes from Harden (55.6 percent).

    It's hard to push this team further up the eye test rankings without more time together, although what we've seen in limited minutes should be scary for the rest of the league.

3. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons

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    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 1st (15.0*)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: N/A

    Eye Test Rank: 6th

    Average Rank: 3.5

    The Nets are a combusting train heading off the side of a cliff and also talented enough to win an NBA title. Both can be, and are, true.

    There's a real chance we may never even see this Big Three in action thanks to Durant's trade request, although ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said Monday on Get Up that, "As each day goes by, it does [get likelier Durant returns to the Nets next season]."

    Durant had the fifth-highest EPM score of any player last year (plus-6.4), ranking second among all power forwards only behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kyrie Irving, who logged most of his minutes at shooting guard, finished first at his position (plus-5.8) and made the Nets the only team to have two players in the top seven overall.

    Lineups that featured both Durant and Irving registered a sparkling net rating of plus-13.1, although this came in just 17 total games. Still, that's a fantastic start to a Big Three, especially one that should no longer be affected by vaccine mandates this season.

    Simmons is the wild card, but assuming he's healthy, adding a three-time All-Star who is one of the best passers and defenders in the NBA would make for an incredible on-court product.

    Individually this is the best Big Three (per EPM stats) the NBA has. The lack of availability from Irving and Simmons hurts the eye test, as does the fact that the trio has not played together yet.

    *Simmons' EPM score was taken from the 2020-21 season when he last played.

2. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green

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    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 3rd (13.5)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: 5th (plus-7.1 in 11 minutes and plus-6.8 in 455 playoff minutes)

    Eye Test Rank: 2nd

    Average Rank: 3.3

    Winning a fourth championship together does wonders for the Warriors' eye test rank here, even if they had plenty of help from Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and others.

    Still, Golden State revolves around its OG Big Three, even if all are now between 32 and 34.

    Lineup data for Curry, Thompson and Green is a bit skewed from last season given the injuries to both Thompson and Green, who spent minimal on-court time together in the regular season. Their playoff net rating gives us a little bit bigger sample (455 total minutes) and is nearly identical to the limited regular-season figure (plus-6.8 net rating).

    Thompson's return to being an All-Star-caliber two-way player following ACL and Achilles injuries will be a big factor to this group's success moving forward. After finishing as high as the 99th percentile (plus-13.5) in swing rating earlier in his career, Thompson ranked in the 37th percentile this season (minus-2.8). Simply returning to the court and playing at the level he did after two major injuries was a huge accomplishment, of course, although he should be even better next year after getting to do more than just rehab this summer.

    Curry reminded those who had forgotten that he remains one of the greatest players in the NBA today, and Green has always been at his best when games mean the most.

    Age and playoff mileage may eventually catch up, but this Warriors Big Three is still one of the league's elite.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday

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    Estimated Plus-Minus Rank: 2nd (14.9)

    Lineup Net Rating Rank: 3rd (plus-11.1 in 783 minutes)

    Eye Test Rank: 1st

    Average Rank: 2

    An MCL sprain suffered by Middleton may have been the only thing stopping the Bucks from a second straight title, as Milwaukee still pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the East semifinals without its All-Star forward.

    Antetokounmpo is somehow still only 27 years old and arguably the best player in the NBA. He's ranked in the 92nd percentile or higher in swing rating for the past five seasons. He's a yearly threat to lead the league in scoring, rebounding and win Defensive Player of the Year all while dishing out nearly six assists per game.

    Middleton, 30, is a three-time All-Star who was only one of four players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and shoot 37.0 percent or better from three last year (Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and LaMelo Ball). He'll be entering his 10th season in Milwaukee and has quietly become one of the franchise's greatest players.

    Of course, Middleton may not even be the second-best player on this current Bucks team with Holiday around.

    The 32-year-old point guard is arguably the NBA's best defender at his position and ranked ninth overall in EPM this past season (plus-5.3), ahead of Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Chris Paul. He also shot a career-high 41.1 percent from three. Few players make more of an impact on both sides of the ball, even if his contributions still go widely unrecognized.

    The Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday is the best in the NBA and could very well take home its second championship in three years.


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