Metrics 101: Ranking NBA's Best Big 3s
Every NBA team strives to cobble together a Big Three. Putting together a trio of stars requires picture-perfect team-building and a little bit of luck.
The New Orleans Pelicans backed their way into forming their threesome when the Sacramento Kings decided to sell off DeMarcus Cousins for a relatively paltry return. The Golden State Warriors took advantage of a changing cap climate that coincided perfectly with their free-agency timetable and unearthing Draymond Green in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft. The examples go on and on, both in the present and throughout league history.
But which squads have compiled the deadliest triumvirates? To determine the answers to those inquiries in an objective fashion, keeping the scope of our analysis solely on what's already come to pass during the 2017-18 campaign, we're turning to some numbers.
We looked at all 334 players who have logged at least 250 minutes during the 2017 portion of the Association's calendar, then pulled their scores in three different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added (TPA), ESPN.com's real plus/minus wins (RPM Wins) and player efficiency rating (PER). The first two are different looks at volume/efficiency combinations, while the latter focuses on per-possession effectiveness and favors offensive production—something the world typically thinks of as necessary in a Big Three. Volume and time on the court matter more here than they might in other evaluations.
To standardize between three metrics that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total Big Three mark. That's the number you'll see parenthetically included for contributors throughout this article, and it's all that matters for this particular countdown.
Denver Nuggets: Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic (10.6)
The Denver Nuggets are tantalizingly close to working their way into one of the featured spots, but Nikola Jokic's ankle injury proved too much to overcome. His seven-game absence prevented him from racking up the necessary numbers, especially while spearheading a troika that doesn't feature another true star.
Gary Harris is becoming one of the league's best 2-guards, but he's far more Robin than Batman. Dependent on others to set up his shooting attempts and willing to sacrifice his individual numbers by consistently assuming tough defensive assignments, he's not the prototypical No. 2 in a Big Three. Ditto for Will Barton. Though his high-scoring hijinks have been valuable off the bench, his usage rate still barely creeps above 20 percent.
Philadelphia 76ers: Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons (11.25)
Considering Joel Embiid is only 23 years old and Ben Simmons is a 21-year-old rookie, the Philadelphia 76ers can't be too disappointed about "only" registering as top dogs among the honorable-mention candidates. They'll eventually earn featured placement, whether by continuing to improve throughout the 2017-18 season or making strides for future campaigns.
Plus, this three-man core—aided immensely by the quick growth of Robert Covington into a premier three-and-D forward—is constructed in a complementary fashion. It boasts the floor-spacing option and defensive ace, the ball-handling stud who forces defenses to pay him extra attention, and the dominant big who can function like the game's best center when healthy.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., John Wall (10.46)
Otto Porter Jr. has done his part, justifying his maximum contract extension by continuing to fill an amorphous role for the Washington Wizards and again serving as one of the league's deadliest spot-up shooters (76th percentile in points per possession with plentiful volume). Bradley Beal has also kept his end of the bargain, becoming a strong contender to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game with his fearsome offense.
But John Wall, who checks in with the team's third-best score in this analysis—the gap between him and No. 4 Marcin Gortat is similarly sized to the one between him and No. 2 Beal—is holding Washington back. Not only has he missed time with a knee injury, but he hasn't looked like himself when on the floor, struggling to impact the game defensively and missing one field-goal attempt after another.
10. Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Thaddeus Young
Member 1: Victor Oladipo (6.9)
Member 2: Darren Collison (2.69)
Member 3: Thaddeus Young (2.21)
Total Score: 11.8
How good has Victor Oladipo been during his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers? He's averaging an eye-popping 24.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists while holding his own defensively and shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 42.3 percent from downtown and 79.0 percent from the stripe.
Oladipo deserves to be in the conversation about backcourt starters in the Eastern Conference. After all, he's been the best player on a team in the East's playoff picture, throwing up ridiculous numbers and making countless big plays in clutch situations. With him on the floor, Indiana is outscoring the opposition by five points per 100 possessions—seven better than without him to earn a mark just above the Boston Celtics' season-long efforts.
In this particular analysis, despite his missing time with a sore right knee, just eight players have submitted superior scores. Not eight Pacers. Not eight guards. Not eight members of the Eastern Conference. Eight players period.
Thaddeus Young has quietly served as a solid two-way asset for the surging Pacers. Darren Collison continues to play an underrated brand of basketball, peppering the opposition with triples and assists while rarely turning the ball over in unforced (or forced) fashion. But they're clearly the second and third fiddles to a certain strong contender for the Most Improved Player award.
Most men would be this season, including Myles Turner (1.33), who keeps creeping closer toward overtaking Young for the final spot in Indiana's Big Three after a slow start to his junior campaign.
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton
Member 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo (9.66)
Member 2: Khris Middleton (1.86)
Member 3: Eric Bledsoe (0.91)
Total Score: 12.43
The Milwaukee Bucks' Big Three has been more of a one-man wrecking crew.
Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are both providing plenty of value with their two-way abilities, but it's Giannis Antetokounmpo who carries them into a featured spot. His score of 9.66 leaves him behind only LeBron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, which makes sense while he's serving as a second-tier MVP candidate.
According to Basketball Reference's MVP award tracker, which looks at historical correlations between voting results and various stats, Antetokounmpo has a 4.4 percent chance of earning the pre-eminent individual award. And while that might seem like a paltry percentage, it checks in behind only those of Harden (67.6 percent) and James (18.7 percent). For the time being, this is just a top-heavy race.
Here's the truly amazing part, though.
Replace Antetokounmpo with another dominant forward like Kevin Durant (6.46), and the Bucks' Big Three wouldn't just fall out of the No. 10 spot. It would plunge all the way to No. 16 and fail to even make the honorable mentions. Substitute in Paul George (4.17), and Milwaukee would rank No. 20.
His all-around excellence carries this team and, by extension, the squad's leading triumvirate.
8. Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jakob Poeltl
Member 1: Kyle Lowry (6.29)
Member 2: DeMar DeRozan (4.5)
Member 3: Jakob Poeltl (1.73)
Total Score: 12.52
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both near-locks to gain inclusion in the Eastern Conference All-Star field, are obvious selections. Of course they're members of the Toronto Raptors' Big Three, even during a year in which they're utilizing fewer isolation plays and leading the charge in more egalitarian fashion.
That unselfish feel to the 2017-18 campaign has also allowed several contenders to emerge for the third spot in the Canadian troika. Six Raptors other than Jakob Poeltl finished with positive scores in our analysis, even if none of them could beat out the backup center: Serge Ibaka (0.89), OG Anunoby (0.6), Jonas Valanciunas (0.53), Pascal Siakam (0.27), Delon Wright (0.1) and CJ Miles (0.03).
Had Miles been the selection, the Raptors still would've featured a Big Three that ranked among the honorable mentions. That's how much of a by-committee approach they've taken to in 2017-18, milking production out of so many different contributors and lineup combinations.
But Poeltl stands supreme, beating out three-and-D Ibaka and rookie sensation Anunoby because he's been so efficient shooting the basketball, blocks plenty of shots and rarely overextends himself on either end of the floor. The second-year big has served as a fantastic pick-and-roll partner alongside the two starting guards (or backup backcourt members), scoring 1.33 points per rolling possession to sit in the 87.4 percentile.
He's not a household name yet. But that doesn't mean the Utah product, even while playing only 17.5 minutes per game, hasn't been one of the league's most valuable second-string players.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns
Member 1: Jimmy Butler (6.8)
Member 2: Karl-Anthony Towns (6.03)
Member 3: Taj Gibson (1.72)
Total Score: 14.55
No Andrew Wiggins? No Andrew Wiggins.
In fact, the 22-year-old swingman wasn't even close to gaining inclusion alongside Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. He's shooting just 43.1 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from downtown and 61.5 percent at the stripe, leading to a career-worst 50.4 true shooting percentage that's far below the league average (55.5 percent)—a terrible number for a volume shooter. He's regressed as a rebounder and facilitator, and he continues to serve as one of the NBA's biggest defensive liabilities.
His score of minus-1.99 isn't just the third-worst on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster, beating out only those of Jamal Crawford (minus-2.22) and Shabazz Muhammad (minus-3.23); it's the No. 262 mark among the 334 qualified candidates throughout the Association who have logged at least 250 minutes.
The inclusions of Butler and Towns, however, aren't worth belaboring. They're two of the league's best at their respective positions and are each in the midst of fantastic campaigns. Obviously, they're representing the Wolves in this particular analysis.
Gibson is the surprise selection, and his familiarity with head coach Tom Thibodeau has helped substantially. Though he'd shown signs of decline in previous campaigns, he's bounced back to function as one of the team's few consistent defensive presences while shooting a career-best 57.7 percent from the field.
6. Boston Celtics: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum
Member 1: Kyrie Irving (7.06)
Member 2: Al Horford (6.06)
Member 3: Jayson Tatum (3.23)
Total Score: 16.35
This might be the NBA's most unexpected Big Three after the Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward just moments into his Beantown debut, but Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum have all been effective while filling complementary roles. Perhaps even more impressively, they're all legitimate contenders for major awards.
Irving and Horford are both in the hunt for MVP-ballot appearances, though they trail Harden and James in the quest for the trophy by significant margins. Basketball Reference.com's MVP award tracker has both among the top 10 candidates for the marquee individual award—the former because of his unrelenting scoring excellence, and the latter because of the all-around efficiency that has him contributing on offense and serving as a Defensive Player of the Year threat.
Tatum, meanwhile, is questing toward Rookie of the Year. He has his work cut out for him in the competition with Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, but his unwillingness to do anything other than make the proper play on both ends has him serving as an unquestioned member of that top first-year tier.
The point guard provides the offense (and more effort defensively than we've seen in recent seasons). The center does everything. The rookie is an ideal glue guy, knocking down countless spot-up attempts (88.2 percentile) and switching seamlessly on the preventing side.
Everything works, even without a top-level MVP contender.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams, Paul George, Russell Westbrook
Member 1: Russell Westbrook (9.95)
Member 2: Paul George (4.17)
Member 3: Steven Adams (3.08)
Total Score: 17.2
Russell Westbrook might not be replicating his MVP campaign, but he started coming on strong at the end of 2017 and entered the new year averaging a whopping 24.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 10.0 assists and 2.1 steals while slashing 42.7/30.3/71.5 in shooting percentages. His defense is inconsistent. His shooting needs work. He's turning the ball over too frequently.
And yet, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still dependent on his heroics, as evidenced by his splits in wins and losses. He means everything to this team, and it's only against the unfair standard established by his 2016-17 efforts that his season is viewed as too disappointing for superstardom.
Paul George is having a similarly valuable/confusing season.
The marquee offseason addition has struggled to finish plays around the basket, but his 43 percent shooting from beyond the arc (on 7.3 attempts per game) has allowed him to remain a valuable scorer. He's just been even better on the defensive end, helping propel the Thunder up near the top of any leaderboards involving play on the less glamorous end.
Fortunately, the third inclusion is just as obvious as the first two: Steven Adams.
Nope, it's not Carmelo Anthony. His poor shooting and inability to contribute in any other areas has led to a score of minus-1.02 that ranks No. 6 in OKC and No. 203 overall. He hasn't been anywhere near as valuable as the defensive stopper and efficient interior finisher who's jetted up the center hierarchy during his age-24 season.
4. New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday
Member 1: DeMarcus Cousins (7.84)
Member 2: Anthony Davis (7.05)
Member 3: Jrue Holiday (2.91)
Total Score: 17.8
How good has the fire-and-ice combination been?
Well, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis have the Nos. 6 and 8 overall scores in this analysis. Their combined mark of 14.89 would beat out the three-man sums boasted by all but five teams, only dropping them behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics. That's what happens when you combine to average 52.0 points, 22.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.6 steals and 3.6 blocks while shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from three-point territory and 77.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Fortunately, they still get to include Jrue Holiday's efforts.
The shooting guard—yes, he's played 67 percent of his minutes at the 2, per Basketball Reference, and 68 percent, per Cleaning the Glass—got off to a slow start in 2017-18, forced to play an entirely different style that asked him to work more in off-ball situations. But he's adjusted nicely, especially when working alongside Rajon Rondo in recent weeks.
Now, he's making the NOLA trifecta a legitimate Big Three, rather than more of a Large 2.5.
E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Rondo have all been valuable in their roles, but they're not doing nearly enough to surpass Jrue Holiday. And that's exactly what we should've expected heading into the season, since the stars-and-scrubs strategy was largely dependent on these three players filling the former designation.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love
Member 1: LeBron James (13.43)
Member 2: Kevin Love (4.11)
Member 3: Kyle Korver (1.08)
Total Score: 18.62
The Cleveland Cavaliers don't really have a Big Three.
Instead, they feature the best player in the world, who also happens to have the top individual score in this particular analysis. LeBron James is getting up there in age (he turned 33 on December 30), but his impact is unmatched. He still controls everything the Cavs do on both ends of the floor while playing massive minutes and refusing to slow down. And though the four-time MVP may not have separated himself from James Harden in the award race, he thrives in all three components of our methodology:
- James ranks No. 1 in TPA z-scores among all qualified players (5.85). Harden is closest to him at 5.51, then Russell Westbrook at 4.65.
- James ranks No. 2 in PER z-scores among all qualified players (3.18). Only Harden (3.26) is ahead, while Giannis Antetokounmpo (3.14) sits at No. 3.
- James ranks No. 2 in RPM Wins z-scores among all qualified players (4.4). Only Harden (4.6) is ahead, while Westbrook (3.28) sits at No. 3.
That type of dominance is unfair, to the point that James' score on its own would beat the cumulative marks of all Big Threes other than those boasted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and our top two finishers.
Kevin Love has quietly been having an excellent offensive season, and ditto for Kyle Korver.
But let's not kid ourselves. This is all about James.
2. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green
Member 1: Stephen Curry (8.06)
Member 2: Kevin Durant (6.46)
Member 3: Draymond Green (4.22)
Total Score: 18.74
You've heard plenty about this Big Three over the last few years, so let's instead focus on two fun statistical takeaways.
First, we can revel in the fact that the Golden State Warriors' three best players (sorry, but Klay Thompson doesn't quite stack up against the impact of Draymond Green) have a score that places them ahead of all but one team, even while missing so much time to injury. Stephen Curry has played in only 24 of the team's 37 games, while Kevin Durant and Green have missed five and six contests, respectively.
Those may seem like meaningless blips in the grand scheme of the season, but they're significant this early in the calendar, especially when two of the three components in our analysis reward volume. So what if we pretended each suited up in all 37 outings? Assuming all three stars kept playing at the exact same level, they'd surpass the next team in this countdown and finish atop the pile.
But even that's not as impressive as this next part.
The Warriors have so much useful depth that their Nos. 4-6 scores belong to David West (3.17), Jordan Bell (2.4) and Thompson (2.21). That would give the Little Three a cumulative mark of 7.78 that would actually beat the Big Three earnings of all but 16 other teams. And they still have Omri Casspi (0.93) and Zaza Pachulia (0.59) left in the positives.
As always, Golden State isn't fair.
1. Houston Rockets: Clint Capela, James Harden, Chris Paul
Member 1: James Harden (13.37)
Member 2: Clint Capela (4.79)
Member 3: Chris Paul (4.59)
Total Score: 22.75
The Rockets legitimately boast two more All-Star candidates in the deep Western Conference.
Chris Paul, when healthy, has fit in perfectly alongside James Harden and the rest of head coach Mike D'Antoni's uptempo attack. Paul's had to change up his style and shot profiles, but alterations have been for the better and have allowed him to remain near the top of the point guard totem pole as he moves further into his 30s.
And with either him or Harden running the show, Clint Capela has continued to serve as one of the league's deadliest roll men while excelling in so many other areas. He's become a better passer. His work on the boards is immaculate on both the offensive and defensive glass. His defense has grown leaps and bounds.
All the while, he's tossed in 1.36 points per possession when rolling to the hoop, good for the 92nd percentile.
Even though Harden is the obvious leader of the Western Conference's newest bona fide contender, this has truly become a Big Three.