Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs Are Tearing Down the Big 3 Concept

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 25: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs posts against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors on January 25, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

In an era dominated not only by NBA superstars but also the process of collecting as many of them as reason allows, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are reinventing the superteam mold.

Indeed, both squads—two of the best in league history, no less—employ more than their fair share of superstars. The Spurs are enjoying the primes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, in addition to the twilights of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Warriors deploy three All-Stars, one of whom may be an alien life form, in Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

But neither Golden State nor San Antonio is exclusively dependent on high-profile names, and they most certainly don't subscribe to the conventional Big Three model that seduced many a team.

Takes Talent to Get Talent

Would the Spurs have landed Aldridge without having laid the groundwork to be successful without him?
Would the Spurs have landed Aldridge without having laid the groundwork to be successful without him?Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
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It was the 2007-08 Boston Celtics that reignited interest in the Big Three model. The Spurs' dynastic tricycle of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker was in its heyday but flew under the radar as always, and the immediacy of Beantown's transformation translated into envious curb appeal.

The acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett didn't just turn the Paul Pierce-led Celts into instant title contenders; it morphed them into overnight champions. They won the championdship in 2008, made it back to the NBA Finals in 2010 and secured a third Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2012.

LeBron James' decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat in 2010 proved again that cap space and trade assets could be swiftly parlayed into championship rings. Those Heatles grabbed two titles, made four straight NBA Finals and would still be building upon that success had James never bolted back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014.

A long line of copycats has since followed—most of them unsuccessful.

The Los Angeles Clippers landed Chris Paul in 2011 to partner with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. That nucleus has the third-highest winning percentage in the NBA during its time together but has yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers rolled the dice on a quartet of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012. They failed. The Brooklyn Nets' Joe Johnson-Brook Lopez-Deron Williams experiment that same year never worked out—not even when they welcomed Garnett and Pierce into the fold. The Houston Rockets and New York Knicks are still trying to piece together a successful trio of superstars.

The Rockets, who could miss the playoffs this season, are in a more favorable position than most with a 26-year-old James Harden. Just about every other team is finding it impossible to fashion a rebuild around the concept of a Big Three.

Market size doesn't sway. Cap space isn't the foundation of attraction. Team executives dressed in rings (Hi, Phil Jackson) are not captious hypnotics.

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 25: Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors on January 25, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Winning sells. Drafting well sells. Incumbent talent sells.

That's why the Spurs landed Aldridge. They're in no way as alluring as they were without the home-brew Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Leonard.

And that's also why the Warriors, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, are "significant frontrunners" to whisk Kevin Durant off his feet in free agency. The impending cap explosion helps, but they don't tempt a future Hall of Famer in his prime without the development of another in Curry and a core so deep it's unfair.

A Different Style of Play

Would Durant be linked to the Warriors if they didn't have a firm track record already in place?
Would Durant be linked to the Warriors if they didn't have a firm track record already in place?J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Enticing outside players, to be clear, isn't the end goal of either the Spurs or Warriors. Their identities are so team-centric and well-oiled that accounting for the addition of even an all-time great ranks as a potentially unnecessary risk.

Consider what Zach Lowe wrote for ESPN.com on the subject of Durant and the Dubs:

Most of the two-dozen or so team executives I polled over the past two weeks on the Durant-Warriors possibility described it as a no-brainer ("Bench smench," texted one GM), but there is some division within the Warriors, and you can understand why. They might have the best basketball team ever assembled! How can you shake that up? They are obliterating victims by about 13 points per 100 possessions. Unless the league adds a 4-point shot or lengthens the game, it is almost literally impossible to get any better. And the Warriors have already been proven right choosing continuity over a sweet-shooting shiny object in Kevin Love.

These versions of the Spurs and Warriors have never once showed an inclination to sacrifice depth for star power. Big names are a part of what they do, but so too is the surrounding talent.

Both benches rank in the top nine in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to HoopsStats.com. Together, of their 10 preferred starters, only three rank inside the top 150 in fourth-quarter minutes (Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Danny Green).

Neither team places much stake in isolation sets either. Golden State and San Antonio fall inside the bottom 10 in such possessions, a far cry from their most immediate competition:

Curry (89th percentile) and Leonard (85th percentile) are among the most efficient one-on-one players in the game, yet neither is inside the top 20 in isolation possessions. And given the extent to which other teams lean on shot-creators, this matters.

James Harden has more isolations under his belt than 11 teams, including the Spurs and Warriors. The Cavaliers, who house two of the game's best playmakers in James and Kyrie Irving, dwell in the bottom half of the NBA in ball movement. The Clippers, who are led by one of the league's craftiest passers in Paul, sit in the bottom seven. The Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of a homegrown Big Three themselves, are dead last.

The Warriors, meanwhile, lead the league in assist percentage. More than 68 percent of their made buckets come off helping hands—the highest mark of any team since the 2003-04 New Jersey Nets (71.4) and Sacramento Kings (69.4). The Spurs are not far behind. They assist on just over 61 percent of their baskets—the Association's sixth-best rate.

Not surprisingly, Golden State and San Antonio rank in the top five in passes per game. They are also first and second, respectively, in secondary assists—passes made by a player to a player who earned an assist.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

The Warriors and Spurs are different in this way. Their similar styles not only rely on depth but create it as well.

New Breed of Juggernauts

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 15:  Klay Thompson #11 and Tim Duncan #21 of the Western Conference greet each other before the 64th NBA All-Star Game presented by KIA as part of the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 15, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New Y
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Playing any brand of basketball is much easier with great players, and, broken-record style, great players are assets the Warriors and Spurs have in ample supply. But they don't wilt when those great players step off the floor—at least not to the degree others do.

San Antonio, for example, outscores opponents by at least 11.3 points per 100 possessions with any one of its top players in the game. But the same is true when the Spurs play without them. (Their lowest off-floor net rating comes when Leonard sits, and they are still plus-9.9 in that situation.)

"The fact that we have such a deep team helps," Ginobili said in February after suffering a testicular injury, per KENS5.com's David Flores. "Even if Kawhi goes down, we have a lot of players. Of course, nobody is going to give us what Kawhi gives us. But with all that, we have a lot of players that can play multiple positions or a lot of players [at] some positions, so that gives us a lot of flexibility."

Golden State is hardly struggling to survive when there are gaps in its rotation either. The Warriors have a negative net rating only when one of two players—Curry and Green—sits, and that's how it's supposed to be.

Teams should suffer when their best players ride the pine. That the absence of superstars or starting fives isn't crippling their team's performance only further validates what Golden State and San Antonio are doing:

If the era of superstar squads is coming to an end, it means even the most prominent Big Threes aren't carrying their teams as much as expected.

And they aren't. The Warriors' performance without Curry and Green and Cleveland's performance sans LeBron are exceptions—ones that only strengthen those individuals' MVP cases.

None of which cheapens what Golden State and San Antonio are doing or what their top players are worth. Both are on pace to flirt with 70 or more victories. They own two of the five best net ratings since 1983-84.

They have multiple stars.

Those stars, unlike the members of superteams in years past, are just no longer expected to go it alone.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and accurate leading into games on March 5.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.


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