Ranking NBA's Best Big 3s Post-Free Agency

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2019

Ranking NBA's Best Big 3s Post-Free Agency

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    In the reshuffled NBA, duos seem to have taken precedence over Big Threes.

    James Harden and Russell Westbrook; LeBron James and Anthony Davis; Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    But with so many stacked top twos, the No. 3 guys may be the difference-makers.

    To determine the best Big Threes for 2019-20, the wins-above-replacement projections from FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO system were added up for all 30 teams' top three players.

    Some of the results may be surprising, both in terms of where the teams rank and which three players are projected to lead their squads. The top 10 will be in the slides that follow. In the meantime, check out Nos. 30-11:

    • 30. Cleveland Cavaliers (4.8): Larry Nance Jr. (2.9), Kevin Love (1.5), John Henson (0.4)
    • 29. Charlotte Hornets (5.4): Terry Rozier (2.0), Nicolas Batum (1.7), Cody Zeller (1.7)
    • 28. Atlanta Hawks (6.6): John Collins (3.4), Trae Young (1.8), Kevin Huerter (1.4)
    • 27. New York Knicks (6.8): Mitchell Robinson (3.3), Julius Randle (2.3), Elfrid Payton (1.2)
    • 26. Memphis Grizzlies (8.0): Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.1), Tyus Jones (2.6), Kyle Anderson (2.3)
    • 25. Sacramento Kings (8.4): De'Aaron Fox (3.4), Buddy Hield (2.9), Nemanja Bjelica (2.1)
    • 24. San Antonio Spurs (8.5): Derrick White (3.7), LaMarcus Aldridge (2.7), Jakob Poeltl (2.1)
    • 23. Chicago Bulls (8.8): Otto Porter Jr. (4.3), Thaddeus Young (2.4), Tomas Satoransky (2.1)
    • 22. Phoenix Suns (9.0): Devin Booker (4.0), Ricky Rubio (2.7), Deandre Ayton (2.3)
    • 21. Detroit Pistons (9.2): Blake Griffin (4.8), Andre Drummond (3.4), Luke Kennard (1.0)
    • 20. Orlando Magic (10.1): Nikola Vucevic (4.8), Aaron Gordon (3.5), Al-Farouq Aminu (1.8)
    • 19. Indiana Pacers (11.0): Victor Oladipo (5.1), Myles Turner (3.1), Jeremy Lamb (2.8)
    • 18. Washington Wizards (11.6): Bradley Beal (6.4), Davis Bertans (2.7), John Wall (2.5)
    • 17. Oklahoma City Thunder (12.4): Chris Paul (6.6), Danilo Gallinari (3.0), Steven Adams (2.8)
    • 16. Minnesota Timberwolves (13.0): Karl-Anthony Towns (7.6), Robert Covington (3.9), Andrew Wiggins (1.5)
    • 15. Miami Heat (13.1): Jimmy Butler (7.7), Justise Winslow (3.1), Kelly Olynyk (2.3)
    • 14. Toronto Raptors (13.2): Kyle Lowry (6.7), Pascal Siakam (3.9), Marc Gasol (2.6)
    • 13. Dallas Mavericks (14.1): Luka Doncic (7.6), Kristaps Porzingis (3.6), Delon Wright (2.9)
    • 12. New Orleans Pelicans (15.1): Jrue Holiday (7.1), Lonzo Ball (4.6), Derrick Favors (3.4)
    • 11. Brooklyn Nets (15.4): Kevin Durant (6.7), Kyrie Irving (6.5), Spencer Dinwiddie (2.2)

    A few notes: Kevin Durant is likely to miss most, if not all, of 2019-20. If we take him out and add Brooklyn's fourth guy, DeAndre Jordan, the Nets would drop to a tie with the Orlando Magic for 20th.

    Victor Oladipo (knee) and John Wall (Achilles) will also miss the start of the season because of injuries. Their recovery times aren't factored into the projection system.

    The most surprising omission may be San Antonio's DeMar DeRozan. He came in just behind Jakob Poeltl, at 2.0. That may seem odd for a 30-year-old four-time All-Star, but DeRozan's net rating swing (difference in the team's net points per 100 possessions when the player is on or off the floor) has only been positive in one of his 10 NBA seasons.

    Now, with that out of the way, here's the top 10.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 16.3

    • Kemba Walker: 7.4
    • Jayson Tatum: 5.0
    • Marcus Smart: 3.9

    That Kyrie Irving's former team is ahead of his Nets may not be the most surprising part of the Boston Celtics' placement. The fact that Kemba Walker, individually, is forecast for more than Irving (6.5) might take that cake.

    The explanation is probably the fact that we're dealing with a cumulative stat (such as total points), rather than a rate number (like points per game).

    Last season, Irving was 20th in real plus-minus (rate), while Walker was 35th. In real plus-minus wins (cumulative), Kemba was 20th, while Kyrie was 22nd.

    As the adage goes, availability is the best ability. And though Irving's peaks may be slightly higher than Walker's, the latter's reliability and distraction-free approach may help the Celtics be better in the long run.

    A bounceback from Jayson Tatum would help too. In his first season, he finished 33rd in the NBA (and first among rookies) in real plus-minus. Last season, he was 82nd.

    Will Kyrie's exit get Tatum back on track? Without the specter of Irving and his impending departure hanging over the organization, perhaps the younger guys can play loose, the way they did in 2017-18.

    Finally, there's Marcus Smart. Over the first four years of his career, he was a historically bad shooter.

    Among the 91 players with at least 1,000 three-point attempts in their first four seasons, Smart was 89th in true shooting percentage. Cut the qualifier in half to 500 attempts and Smart is 337th out of 347.

    And yet, his combined box plus/minus over those four years, 0.2, was a bit above average. Everything else he did—the defense, passing, rebounding and general toughness—made him a plus player.

    In 2018-19, his true shooting percentage skyrocketed to an above-average 56.8. His three-point percentage went from 29.3 in the first four years, to 36.4 in 2018-19.

    With his one weakness gone, Smart was a comfortable plus last season. And if he takes another step forward (he's still just 25 years old), Boston might be fine after it lost Irving and Al Horford.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 16.4

    • Nikola Jokic 9.5
    • Jamal Murray 3.9
    • Gary Harris 3.0

    James Harden (15.4) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.3) are the only individual players forecast to post more wins above replacement than Nikola Jokic.

    And that makes sense. Jokic is coming off a fourth-place finish in MVP voting, is third in NBA history in career box plus/minus and just posted the 16th-best single-postseason box plus/minus ever.

    In that debut playoff run, Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks over 14 games.

    If he maintains that level into 2019-20—and he wasn't far off that in the regular season—the Denver Nuggets' rise should continue.

    Jokic is 24. His backcourt teammates, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, are 22 and 24, respectively. There are still a few years left for development. So, expecting all three to be better than they were last season is natural.

    And one obvious area for improvement is outside shooting. After combining to hit 38.9 percent of its threes in 2017-18, this Big Three only shot 34.2 percent last season.

    Bouncing back to those previous levels, along with incremental improvements elsewhere, could lead to title contention.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 16.5

    The Portland Trail Blazers would almost certainly be lower if CARMELO knew and accounted for how much time Jusuf Nurkic will miss while he recovers from a broken leg.

    "[Portland president] Neil Olshey said Jusuf Nurkic could be out until February," NBC's Michael Gallagher wrote.

    Still, top-10 placement feels right for these three when healthy.

    Last season, when Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic were all on the floor, Portland put up plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Offensively, this trio can dish out plenty of punishment, and from all three levels.

    Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the only players in NBA history to hit more threes than Lillard in their first seven seasons.

    McCollum's 50.5 percent shooting on two-pointers attempted from beyond 10 feet trailed only Rudy Gay, Al Horford and Kevin Durant last season (among those with at least 100 attempts).

    Nurkic and Lillard were 23rd and 31st, respectively, in field goals made within three feet of the rim.

    There are concerns on the other end, though, especially while Nurkic recovers. The big man was 14th in defensive real plus-minus last season. And Lillard and McCollum aren't likely to ever be seen as stoppers.

    Fortunately, the interim center Portland just acquired, Hassan Whiteside, is coming off a season in which he was seventh in the same category.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 16.7

    • Rudy Gobert 6.7
    • Donovan Mitchell 5.4
    • Mike Conley 4.6

    Two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and rising star Donovan Mitchell are joined this season by Mike Conley, giving the Utah Jazz one of the NBA's best Big Threes.

    "Utah was a legit 50-win team before adding Conley and has given itself a chance to be something more," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote in the wake of the Conley trade in June.

    The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reacted similarly, writing, "Welcome to the championship chase, Utah."

    In the suddenly wide-open West, this squad is dangerous with a steady floor general.

    Gobert's defensive impact has been well established, even without the accolades. On the other end, he's 10th in offensive win shares over the last three seasons, ahead of names like Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul.

    He's also first in true shooting percentage among the 139 players with at least as many shot attempts in the same span.

    Oh, and he set the single-season dunks record in 2018-19.

    Now, with a point guard who will command attention on the perimeter, Gobert will have even more freedom to throw down in the paint.

    The addition helps Mitchell too. Among those with at least 1,000 minutes, Mitchell is fourth in usage percentage through a player's first two seasons.

    And of the three ahead of him—Joel Embiid, Michael Jordan and Luka Doncic—Jordan's the only one to make the playoffs in both seasons. There were only 23 teams back then, meaning nearly three quarters of the league got in.

    Mitchell's status as the leading scorer for two playoff teams in today's Western Conference is a heck of a responsibility. And it's perhaps the reason for the biggest knock on the young guard: efficiency.

    His 53.9 true shooting percentage is 2.1 points below league average and 29th among the 32 players averaging at least 20 points over the last two seasons.

    Now, he has a backcourt mate who can score a little too. Conley will take a lot of pressure off Mitchell, getting him more open looks and making it difficult for defenses to load up on his drives.

    If that leads to even league-average efficiency for Mitchell, Utah, with its typically stout defense, will cause problems on the other end. That's a potentially devastating team. 

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 18.0

    • Paul George 9.0
    • Kawhi Leonard 6.2
    • Landry Shamet 2.8

    CARMELO may not factor in the time injured players will miss at the start of 2019-20, but the system is affected by injury history.

    After posting 13.2 wins above replacement in 2016-17, Leonard dropped to 0.4 in 2017-18, the season in which he only played nine games.

    His being forecast for only 6.2, 23rd leaguewide, seems to be a product of that. And maybe that's fair. Even if the system doesn't foresee it, Kawhi's likely to go through another season of load management like the one he just had with the Raptors.

    It was the right call to limit him to 60 regular-season games. By the end of the Finals, he was pretty much playing on one leg. The Los Angeles Clippers would be wise to do all they can to keep him fresh for the 2020 postseason.

    Paul George, meanwhile, is also projected to dip, but his 9.0 puts him in seventh, trailing only James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.

    In 2018-19, George posted career highs in points per game (28.0) and box plus/minus (5.5). That scoring average trailed only Harden's 36.1. That, in combination with his defense, made him one of the NBA's most impactful players last season.

    OKC's net points per 100 possessions was 17.4 points better when PG was on the floor. Among players with at least 1,000 minutes, that trailed only Stephen Curry's 17.5.

    When he and Kawhi are healthy, few teams will be able to match this squad's top two.

    Now, the No. 3 player is a bit of a surprise. Instead of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell, the system sees Shamet as the third wheel in this Big Three.

    And honestly, he might be the team's best offensive complement to Leonard and George. Both can shoot, but having Shamet space the floor on their drives should give them more room to operate.

    Among the 44 players who took at least as many threes last season, Shamet was fourth in effective field-goal percentage (58.1) and fifth in three-point percentage (42.2).

    And he did that as a rookie.

    A step forward in Year 2, and perhaps fully assuming the role Doc Rivers has given to JJ Redick in the past, could make Shamet one of the game's most dangerous floor spacers.

5. Golden State Warriors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 18.6

    • Stephen Curry 8.6
    • Draymond Green 5.7
    • D'Angelo Russell 4.3

    Don't count out the Golden State Warriors just yet.

    The last time Stephen Curry had an entire regular season without Kevin Durant, he had arguably the best offensive campaign in NBA history.

    In 2015-16, on the way to the only unanimous MVP award the league's ever seen, Curry averaged 30.1 points and 6.7 assists per game, while posting an absurd 66.9 true shooting percentage (12.8 points above average).

    "He's going to put up cartoon numbers next year; on a winning team, a playoff team," ESPN's Max Kellerman opined in June. "He's gonna be the MVP."

    In 2018-19, Curry only played 271 minutes without both Durant (gone) and Klay Thompson (rehabbing from a torn ACL), but his numbers in that limited sample were wild.

    He put up a whopping 42.7 points per 36 minutes, while shooting 43.0 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three, according to NBA.com.

    When you combine those with what he did in the postseason, when he played another 163 minutes without those two, the numbers drop to 40.0 points per 36 minutes, with a 41.7 field-goal percentage and a 40.1 three-point percentage.

    If you're worried about that dip in efficiency, defensive intensity ratchets up in the playoffs, and Curry's effective field-goal percentage in those minutes (playoffs and regular season combined) was still 54.3. The league average last year was 52.4.

    Forty points per 36 on above-average shooting? Kellerman may be on to something.

    Curry isn't likely to use that many possessions, though. Durant may be gone, but his 2018-19 usage percentage (29.0) was slightly lower than D'Angelo Russell's (31.9).

    D-Lo's going to need his shots, but there's potential for symbiosis between him and Curry. Russell has never played with an offensive weapon this dangerous. He'll face significantly less defensive attention, which could lead to an uptick in efficiency.

    And his presence gives the Warriors more options than they had as they limped to the finish line in the playoffs. Curry's percentages should look more like his career norms when he shares the floor with Russell.

    And the engine behind all of it will still be Draymond Green. After Durant went down in Game 5 of the team's second-round series against the Rockets, Green averaged 13.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 8.9 assists over 11 playoff contests.

    If Curry, Draymond and the Warriors are motivated by the naysayers—as they were prior to the 73-win 2015-16 campaign—those dynasty obituaries may have to be shelved.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 20.0

    • Giannis Antetokounmpo 12.3
    • Eric Bledsoe 4.8
    • Khris Middleton 2.9

    The numbers from Giannis Antetokounmpo's MVP campaign are mind-boggling enough in their per-game form: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals.

    But that doesn't do him justice.

    Antetokounmpo only played 32.8 minutes per game. And, believe it or not, the average pace of play was slower in 2018-19 than it was in previous eras.

    When we adjust to the average MVP's pace and playing time since 1974 (when the league started tracking blocks and steals), those numbers creep up to 29.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.

    With Giannis only being 24 years old, there's reason to think he still has a few years to get better.

    That's a scary proposition.

    If he ever adds a reliable jumper or improves as a free-throw shooter, he'll be about as close to unguardable as it gets.

    As for the Milwaukee Bucks' No. 2, Eric Bledsoe may have fallen apart in his last two playoff runs, but his 2018-19 regular season was arguably his best. He posted a career high in box plus/minus, a career low in turnover percentage and his third-best true shooting percentage.

    In addition, his defense at the point of attack was a big part of why Milwaukee finished first in points allowed per 100 possessions last season.

    Finally, there's Khris Middleton, a steady second option on offense whose above-average shooting on good volume serves as a nice complement to Giannis' slashing.

    Over his last four seasons, Middleton has averaged 18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 threes, while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 21.1

    • Ben Simmons 8.4
    • Joel Embiid 8.1
    • Al Horford 4.6

    In 2018-19, the Philadelphia 76ers were plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions (94th percentile) when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid shared the floor. The year before, they were plus-16.2 (99th percentile) with those two in the game.

    This team already has one of the sport's best top twos. Al Horford isn't a perfect fit—he has been a center most of his career, after all—but he should be nimble and smart enough to handle most 4s. And the overall talent of this jumbo Big Three is immense and versatile.

    Over the last three seasons, only 16 players logged at least 3,000 minutes, posted an above-average true shooting percentage, grabbed at least 10 percent of available rebounds and had a 15-plus assist percentage.

    Simmons, Embiid and Horford were all in that group.

    And if you limit the sample even further by only including 6'10"-plus players, the list dwindles to 10. And, of course, Simmons, Embiid and Horford are all still there.

    Thirty percent of an elite group is now on the same team.

    Head coach Brett Brown has options for integrating everyone. Will Embiid and Horford play a lot together? Will the bulk of Horford's minutes come as a backup 5? How much playmaking will Simmons cede to Horford?

    As they answer those questions during the season, this will be one of the NBA's most entertaining teams.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 21.8

    "LeBron thinks [we're] coming to his team but he's really coming to our team," Anthony Davis said on Spectrum SportsNet (h/t ShowtimeForum). "Me, DeMarcus [Cousins] and [Rajon] Rondo already had a thing…Adding another great player like LeBron to that mix, we think it could definitely spell championships."

    Well, that's one way to look at it.

    In 2017-18, when AD, Cousins and Rondo were all with New Orleans, the Pelicans were minus-1.6 points per 100 possessions (43rd percentile) when those three shared the floor.

    Let's assume, instead, that LeBron James more or less replaces Rondo in that equation. In 2018-19, Rondo's individual net-rating swing was a woeful minus-10.9 (ninth percentile) for the Los Angeles Lakers. And early reports say coach Frank Vogel will start LeBron at point guard in 2019-20.

    Now, LeBron with those two? There are concerns with Cousins' health after a ruptured Achilles and torn quad in the last two years, but that's a wildly intriguing Big Three.

    Back to those 2017-18 numbers, New Orleans was actually plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions (97th percentile) when Boogie and AD were on the floor without Rondo. Plug LeBron into those lineups, and they could be devastating.

    There's a layer of versatility with these three that's interesting, as well. It sounds like they'll start with a bigger traditional alignment that has Davis at the 4 and Cousins at the 5. But, of course, LeBron could log minutes at the 4 alongside either big at the 5.

    If the Lakers can supplement it with enough shooting, this Big Three could be devastating.

    Danny Green—who was just one tenth of a point away from taking Cousins' place on this slide—will help on that front. A return to 2017-18 form for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would go a long way too.

1. Houston Rockets

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Projected Wins Above Replacement: 27.1

    • James Harden 15.4
    • Russell Westbrook 8.5
    • Clint Capela 3.2

    James Harden's 15.4 mark by itself would've put him in a tie with the Nets for 11th on this list.

    As absurd as that sounds, he's on a nearly unprecedented three-year run. Russell Westbrook's 12.3 (2015 to 2017), LeBron James' 12.2 (2008 to 2010) and Michael Jordan's 11.8 (1988 to 1990) are the only three-year peak box plus/minuses that top the 10.9 Harden's put up since the start of the 2016-17 season.

    The 11.7 he posted in 2018-19 alone ranks seventh all-time.

    After Harden averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 4.8 threes and 2.0 steals in 2018-19, it's hard to imagine he'll push the envelope much further, but perhaps re-teaming with Russell Westbrook will unlock something in him.

    Much has been made of how difficult it will be for two of the highest-usage players of all time to jell. Those concerns are valid. But if Harden spends a few possessions off the ball, it might also boost his already stellar efficiency.

    Last season, Harden used 1.1 possessions per game as a spot-up shooter. He scored 1.19 points per spot-up possession, which put him in the 91st percentile.

    In isolation, he used 16.4 possessions per game and scored 1.11 points per possession (93rd percentile).

    Exchanging a few of those isos for some more catch-and-shoot opportunities wouldn't just offer the chance at a slight uptick in overall efficiency, it would also make the Rockets a little less predictable.

    "I'm not a believer that a predictable offense that basically runs the same thing, that lacks player movement, is really the way to win in basketball," ESPN's Tim Legler said. "I just don't believe that's the style."

    In 2018-19, the Houston Rockets used 1,840 possessions in isolation, nearly 1,000 more than second-place OKC.

    Now, the fact that Westbrook's old team is second is a little worrisome—as is Westbrook's No. 2 status individually—but this change in personnel should be an excuse for Mike D'Antoni to shake up the system.

    This level of iso-ball has probably run its course, and it won't be near as efficient if Westbrook's part of it. He was in the 31st percentile in points per isolation possession last season.

    But Russ can still get to the paint nearly at will. When he does that, Harden should move off the ball (an adjustment) and rack up catch-and-shoot buckets.

    In the middle of all of it, they'll still have Clint Capela's rim rolling, lob catching and defense. He should provide some inward gravity, but he and Westbrook on the same team means there will be at least two non-shooters on the floor in most lineups.

    If there are spacing issues, or Harden and Westbrook don't adapt, this could go poorly. But in terms of pure talent and raw numbers, this Big Three includes two of the most productive players ever and a still-improving big man.

    Houston has had its shots at the title over the last few years. The 2019-20 campaign feels like the all-in bet.


    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.