Ranking the Best Big 3's of 2014-15 NBA Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2015

Ranking the Best Big 3's of 2014-15 NBA Season

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Nothing says "The NBA playoffs are almost here!" like a comprehensive ranking of the season's best Big Threes.

    And as it turns out, the NBA postseason is, in fact, almost here. That means it's time to rank.

    We still live in a Golden Age of Big Threes. Not every formation consists of in-your-face star power, but there are enough terrific trios to keep the concept prevalent.

    Our run-through will only include the most relevant unions. The ensuing rankings are largely subjective, yet there is a method to the madness.

    Big Threes will hereby be defined as a squad's three most important players, all of whom must hold star-level clout throughout the league. Combinations that haven't seen at least 750 minutes of court time need not apply—hence why the Oklahoma City Thunder's threesome of Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant is not here.

    Candidates, then, are being pulled straight from this list and judged according to player status and team performance. Once the top 10 have been plucked from this pool, they're ranked by taking their net rating and multiplying it by the number of minutes spent on the floor. This attempts to adequately weigh sample sizes and point differentials. 

    Hold all complaints and totally inappropriate overreactions until the end. These Big Threes deserve your undivided attention.

10. Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,034

    Net Rating: Plus-3.5

    If this is what underachieving looks like, the Chicago Bulls have it pretty good. 

    Injuries have admittedly limited the exposure of their Big Three. Derrick Rose is still on the sidelines after tearing his right meniscus, and both he and Jimmy Butler have missed extensive time this season.

    Rose, when he plays, is also still rounding into form. He's not attacking the rim as often and opting to shoot more threes, despite putting in just 28.7 percent of his long balls, a mark that falls below his already unimpressive 30.6 percent career clip.

    Still, this troika is having success when on the floor. They're Chicago's most used three-man combination and they post a net rating higher than that of the team's overall differential (3.2).

    Pau Gasol really boosts the stock of this basketball triplet. Pushing 35 and working off two disappointing seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, he's now one of the Bulls' two most important players. He's second on the team in win shares and scoring, first in player efficiency rating and, most impressively, first in total minutes played.

    Toss in Butler's max-contract-demanding campaign, and this three-man unit is teeming with serious star power when healthy. And while it's not quite there yet, Rose previously told reporters he doesn't "have any" swelling in his right knee, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell.

    Once he finally returns, and Chicago's Big Three is back intact, the Bulls become a legitimately scary playoff opponent for any conference rival—including the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers.

9. Dallas Mavericks: Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,028

    Net Rating: Plus-6.7

    Something of a second-half tailspin continues to overshadow the work Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons are doing together.

    When they share the floor, the Dallas Mavericks are pumping in 111.5 points per 100 possessions. That would rank as the league's best offense, and it wouldn't even be kind-of-sort-of close.

    If not for Dallas adding Rajon Rondo in late December, this triumvirate would rank much higher—despite what the Mavericks themselves maintain.

    "There's no problem (with Rondo)," Ellis told SI.com's Josh Planos. "Rondo is a great asset on both ends of the floor."

    That may be true in theory, but the Mavericks—and specifically this threesome—are statistically suffering in practice. Ellis, Nowitzki and Parsons have spent 477 minutes alongside Rondo thus far, during which time their offensive potency from above plunges to 105.4.

    In the 412 minutes they saw together before Rondo's arrival, they notched a 116.4 offensive rating and 12.4 net rating. The latter mark would rank as the second highest on this list.

    These three are the ideal amalgam of floor spacing, self-sufficiency and unselfishness, and they're able to function as fast-paced dynamos or methodically dangerous half-court terriers. What they're doing on the offensive end is incredible and, for the most part, belies the chemistry hang-ups that Dallas' midseason roster-futzing is causing.

8. Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,133

    Net Rating: Plus-6.3

    Yes, the Hawks have a Big Three.

    Certain in-house trios are spending more time together, some of which own better net ratings. But Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague are the engines that keep Atlanta running.

    They're also stars—stars who are buying into a system and culture that doesn't pad the stat lines of any one player.

    Teague improves every season like clockwork and is one of just seven players averaging at least 16 points, seven assists and 1.5 steals per game, putting him in the company of megastars James Harden, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, John WallChris Paul and Westbrook.

    Millsap leads the Hawks in win shares, is their most consistent scorer and remains one of the NBA's deadliest stretch forwards. He's on pace to average at least 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, three assists, 1.5 steals and one block for the second time of his career. Only one other player has done the same over the last 10 seasons: LeBron.

    Horford, meanwhile, is the Eastern Conference's most indispensable big man. You name it, he does it. Pass, defend, post up, mid-range jumpers—he does it all. His offensive range is so expansive, the Hawks are able to have him orbit the three-point line when looking to stretch defenses beyond function.

    No, the Hawks do not have an MVP candidate. But they have a Big Three, and a pretty flipping fantastic Big Three at that—just look at their irreversible hold on the Eastern Conference for proof.

7. Houston Rockets: Trevor Ariza, James Harden and Dwight Howard

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    Minutes Played: 771

    Net Rating: Plus-10.9

    Talk about your close calls.

    Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Harden barely qualify, but they do qualify. And more importantly, they belong.

    The Houston Rockets rival the league's best defensive team when these three share the floor. In fact, only one other included triangle allows fewer points per 100 possessions. This, by the way, is on top of the Rockets scoring like a top-three offense with all three in action.

    It's Howard's absences that hold this three-headed monster back. He has missed more games this season (38) than his previous 10 combined (36). But his injury woes—along with Ariza's ghastly field-goal percentages—are part of this ensemble's charm.

    Harden is playing like a Transformer. He can still be a distracted toddler on the defensive end, but he's proved serviceable on one of the Association's stingiest outfits. He's also averaging a sanity-shattering 27.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, seven assists and 1.8 steals—statistical benchmarks only three other players maintained before this season: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and James.

    Few could have predicted the Rockets would be here, inside 10 games to play, with the Western Conference's second-best record. Yet here they are, in large part because of Harden's MVP detonation, and in equally large part thanks to the collective dominance of a formidable Big Three.

6. San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Minutes Played: 1,096

    Net Rating: Plus-8.7

    Manu Ginobili who?

    There's a new Big Three in town for the San Antonio Spurs, and it's headlined by the 23-year-old Kawhi Leonard, the consummate needle for all things dynasty-related these days.

    Though Duncan is still ageless (and potentially an alien), and Parker is back to being Parker, it's Leonard who continues to set the tone for San Antonio's championship hopes. The Spurs are a .500 squad when he doesn't play, and their net rating is that of a lottery-bound faction without him on the floor.

    Nevertheless, this troupe isn't a one-man show. Parker is still slippery on the offensive end, and he's finding nylon on 43.5 percent of his three-balls, almost as if he's found the means to channel his inner Curry.

    Because Father Time is Duncan's butler, the 38-year-old is on track to clear 13 points, nine rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks for the second time since turning 35. That, for the record, has never happened before.

    Here's the cherry, though: The Spurs are 35-14 when the aforesaid three see time together. That ranks as the West's second-best record when extrapolated—better than the Memphis Grizzlies, better than the Rockets, better than everyone except the Golden State Warriors.

    Think about this the next time you're wondering whether the Spurs still have it.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,343

    Net Rating: Plus-7.1

    Bright spots are few and far between for the Grizzlies these days. They rank in the bottom half of net rating since Feb. 1 and are no longer in possession of the West's No. 2 seed as a result.

    But panic is not taking precedence amid this weeks-long rut, mostly because Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph still call Memphis home.

    The Grizzlies are a force to be feared with all three of them in the lineup. Their collective net rating would be the league's second best overall, and they've remained a net plus through Memphis' decline.

    Conley, Gasol and Randolph are all strongest where the Grizzlies are weakest: offense. They score 106.5 points per 100 possessions alongside one another, noticeably exceeding the team average of 103.

    Credit Gasol with carrying an underrated core into top-five territory. He's having a career season ahead of his foray into free agency. His numbers are up across the board, and if they hold, he'll be just the seventh player to average at least 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks after his 30th birthday. The other six: Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett and Duncan.

    So, all Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. 

    After him, it's just one of the league's leading double-double mutants (Randolph) and a star floor general (Conley) who clears 15 points, five assists and one steal every night while somehow flying under the radar.

4. Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,243

    Net Rating: Plus-9.6

    Even though Wesley Matthews hasn't played since March 5, he, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard still rank as one of the more harrowing Big Threes.

    Prior to Matthews' Achilles injury, they were an absolute force on both ends of the floor. They executed with the efficiency of a top-five offense and defense, establishing themselves as one of the NBA's most balanced trios.

    Their value has become more evident in Matthews' absence. These three are the Blazers' leading scorers and win-share accumulators, and the team is predictably struggling without being able to lean on this combination—especially on defense.

    Since Matthews last played, the Blazers rank 28th in defensive efficiency and have seen their claim to one of the West's top-four records disappear. With a firm chokehold on the Northwest Division, they're in no danger of losing that No. 4 spot; their hopes for home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs are just wearing thin.

    All of which only accentuates the importance of playing Matthews, Lillard and Aldridge together.

    Portland remains a shallow squad that depends on its foremost contributors to not only get by, but contend. And for most of this season, the combination of Matthews, Lillard and Aldridge kept this team in the championship conversation—a discussion it's now on the verge of leaving. 

3. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,386

    Net Rating: Plus-13.7

    Star power and individual reputations carried Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and James for so long. The Cavaliers spent the first part of the season struggling to stay above .500, drawing the ire of those demanding instant results.

    Interestingly enough, this entire team continues to reinvent itself, right down to the superstars. Irving is blossoming as a No. 2 option, and James is still James—an MVP candidate and superstar demigod. Assuming his numbers hold (they will), this will be the seventh time he hits 25.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals for an entire season.

    No one in NBA history has ever done this more than once.

    Love is the sore thumb here. His commitment to the Cavaliers routinely comes under siege, he's sometimes found on the bench in fourth quarters, and his production is nowhere near what it was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Kirk Goldsberry has more on this for Grantland:

    Now, don’t get me wrong: The 3-point line has undoubtedly facilitated the rises of aesthetically grand performers like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Klay Thompson — all perimeter geniuses and among the most valuable assets in the league. But while the line has elevated the value of backcourt snipers, it’s slowly squeezed out a certain type of player who made his living close to the hoop with patience, power, and all kinds of tight-space footwork. Today’s power forwards have been forced to play the position in a way that only barely resembles their ancestors. In fact, as we’re seeing with Love, they’re playing in a way that barely resembles earlier incarnations of themselves.

    Head coach David Blatt predominantly uses Love as a circling spot-up shooter. Nearly 45 percent of his field-goal attempts are catch-and-shoot opportunities, up from 34.6 percent last season. That, coupled with the natural decline in shot totals that comes with being relegated to third fiddle, has Love struggling to find his way in Cleveland.

    On the flip side, what team wouldn't take 16.5 points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 assists from its third-best player? Love may be a shell of his Minnesota self, but when he plays with Irving and James, the Cavaliers are scoring an "Um, what?!?!?" 113.3 points per 100 possessions.

    Rather than harp on imperfections and unflattering body language, let's acknowledge what should be obvious at this point: The Cavaliers' Big Three, for all it has yet to do, is still doing a whole lot.

2. Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,685

    Net Rating: Plus-15.2

    Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Paul are tough to handle on their own. Put them together, and they're unguardable, liable to run rival defenses off the floor.

    When all three are in the game, the Los Angeles Clippers score 117.7 points per 100 possessions. That would rank as the highest offensive rating in NBA history with room to spare. Their 15.2 net rating is equally, if not more, unfathomable.

    All three rank in the top 25 of win shares. The Warriors, Cavaliers and, shockingly, Utah Jazz are the only other teams that have three players who fall within that same range

    Paul, Griffin and Jordan actually represent nearly 67 percent of the Clippers' total wins (32.5). By comparison, the Cavaliers' Big Three represents 57.5 percent of the team's victories (27.6).

    As per usual, Griffin and Paul serve as the foundation for this standing. They are two established superstars, still doing superstar things. But Jordan is evolving into a superstar himself. He's tied for third in double-doubles, and his rebounding prowess is approaching historic significance.

    Name recognition alone now vaults the Clippers' Big Three up this ladder. Rare is the team with three superstars all in their prime. There are the Cavaliers and maybe the Thunder. That's it. 

    And so long as the Clippers have these three superstars, they'll remain championship contenders, no matter how brutal the Western Conference landscape ends up.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Minutes Played: 1,590

    Net Rating: Plus-19.6

    Much like the Warriors themselves are beyond compare, their Big Three has no rival. While seeing the second-most minutes together of any threesome on this list, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Curry are also maintaining the highest net rating by a 4.4-point margin. That's crazy.

    Curry is no stranger to such dominance. This is his third season dwelling among the megastar ranks. That doesn't make his 23.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game any less impressive. Nor does it diminish the significance of his MVP candidacy. But at this point, with all these feats in mind, we're just watching Curry be Curry.

    Thompson isn't especially new to this club, either. His performance—as in his 21.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.1 steals, and first career All-Star selection—is an extension of last season's breakout.

    Green's rise is what has put the Warriors on a different, inimitable level. He continues to build up his three-point stroke, his passing is a boon for Golden State's offense, and as someone who can guard all five positions, he's a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year honors, as Fred Katz underscores for Fox Sports:

    Day Day is the most versatile defender in the league, able to man the post and then the perimeter, sometimes even on the same possessions. His talent comes out most when he plays teams with dominant point guard-power forward combinations, like what you'll find with the Los Angeles Clippers or Trail Blazers. When the Warriors do all that switching and Green doesn't miss a beat, you know he's a special player, especially when you see him guard Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on back-to-back possessions.

    Add a player of Green's versatility to an already powerful Curry-Thompson dyad, and this is the only possible end result.

    Between the three of them, they account for 30.6 of Golden State's victories. That's more wins than the New York Knicks and Timberwolves have. Combined.

    As if we needed another reminder that the Warriors aren't fair.

    *Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, and are accurate heading into games on March 30.