How NBA Teams Can Turn Star Duos into Big 3s

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 31, 2020

How NBA Teams Can Turn Star Duos into Big 3s

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    In the NBA, a third wheel is actually a good thing.

    For years, franchises have strived to pull a trio of stars together. Teams with title aspirations have long sought a "big three," and the dynastic Golden State Warriors did the league one better by building out a four-star quartet a few seasons ago.

    Look around at today's contenders, though, and it's evident how tough a task it is to get three stars in alignment. Most of today's top squads have just two stars.

    There's the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Houston Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are also short a tertiary star, as are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Ditto for Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The list goes on.

    Cap constraints and a weak crop of 2020 free agents mean we can't find ways to get a third star onto all of the aforementioned rosters. But in some situations, there are workable options. Whether through internal growth, trades or free agency, a few teams with stellar duos are in position to add that coveted third piece to their constellations. Here's how.

Denver Nuggets: Explore Some Options

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The payoff for taking a risk on Michael Porter Jr. in the 2018 draft is that the Denver Nuggets now have two realistic paths to adding a third star alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

    The first: Just wait as MPJ—a 6'10" scoring machine with Kevin Durant's high release and an inborn knack for hunting down rebounds that lead to cheap points—develops into an All-Star. Though Porter's defensive ineptitude means stardom is far from guaranteed, his offensive game, which already features get-your-own shot creation and valuable spot-up accuracy, is undeniable.

    Is it really so hard to imagine MPJ becoming passable on defense in a year? That's a low bar, and if Porter clears it, Denver has its third star without surrendering anything.

    The Nuggets' second option also involves Porter, but as the centerpiece in a trade for outside help.

    You'd better believe there are organizations that see Porter as a No. 1 option. Remember, if he'd been healthy at draft time, he easily could have come off the board in the top three. He almost did anyway. He was the second-ranked player in his graduating high school class and stood out strongly in various pre-college tournaments.

    Package him with some unwanted salary (Gary Harris and/or Will Barton), and the Nuggets have the goods to make a competitive offer for another star.

    Top targets should include Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons (draft-pick sweeteners would be necessary here). Simmons would be the most exciting potential addition to Denver's roster, as his defensive versatility could fill the plethora of holes that opened up during the second half of the season and grew into yawning chasms in the bubble.

Miami Heat: Go Get Gallo

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    Mike Erhmann/Associated Press

    Chris Paul would be the splashier get, but the Miami Heat would have to surrender assets to snag him from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul's teammate, Danilo Gallinari, is a free agent this offseason. That means all it'd cost to add him to next year's roster is, well … money.

    If the Heat were willing to trade for him at the 2020 deadline, it stands to reason they'll be even more interested in free agency.

    The Heat have long been present-focused, and though they're not short on young talent: Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson. But any squad built around the maniacally competitive soon-to-be 31-year-old Jimmy Butler is officially in win-now mode. Gallinari, 32, proved this year that he's still got plenty to offer a team in pursuit of short-term gains.

    The 6'10" forward averaged 18.7 points per game and shot 40.5 percent from the three-point line while remaining one of the game's craftiest foul-baiters. Between his long-range shooting and 89.3 percent hit rate from the stripe (career 87.3 percent), Gallo's offensive efficiency is all but guaranteed for as long as he's in the league.

    He'd fit right in with a Miami team that ranked second in three-point percentage and fourth in free-throw tries per game this past season. Whatever defensive issues his suspect mobility might create could easily be covered up by Adebayo and Butler, a pair of premier stoppers capable of handling multiple positions.

    The hangup? Miami tends to dream big, and the cash it'd have to spend on Gallo may be earmarked for Giannis Antetokounmpo, a free agent in 2021 if he doesn't re-up with the Milwaukee Bucks. To preserve flexibility, the Heat could offer Gallinari a balloon payment on a one-year deal or partially guarantee subsequent seasons if he's amenable. Considering Miami is one of the only teams with cap space projected not to be awful next year, he may not find better options on the market.

Dallas Mavericks: Practice Patience

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic's abrupt arrival as a superstar is actually a problem for the Dallas Mavericks.

    OK, maybe that's not quite right. Better to say it exposes them to a potential problem, in that it might trigger some hastiness in the roster-building department. Doncic is good enough to lead a team to a championship right now, and when a title window opens way ahead of schedule like this, it can be tempting for a team to go all in. And honestly, that's not the worst approach; nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, and sometimes you have to leap through that opening without looking.

    If Tim Hardaway Jr. declines his $19 million player option, the Mavs could mix it up in 2020 free agency, possibly adding a starter-level talent to the fold. That's small-time thinking.

    If Dallas stays patient for a year, it could position itself to give Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis a superstar running mate.

    Doncic will be due a max extension in the 2021 offseason, making that the last chance for Dallas to use its cap space before (probably) diving deep into the tax with Doncic's new deal alongside Porzingis' pricey contract. Fortunately, that year's free-agent class will be flush with Grade-A talent.

    Antetokounmpo heads a list of unrestricted options that, barring extensions signed between now and then, also includes Gordon Hayward, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Rudy Gobert, LaMarcus Aldridge and Victor Oladipo. That list could expand to include Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Spencer Dinwiddie, depending on what that group does with its respective player options for the 2021-22 season.

    Those are far bigger fish than Dallas can afford this offseason, particularly if Hardaway picks up his option.

    The idea of this exercise is to fixate on a specific star to give teams a Big 3, but in Dallas' case, the timing's all wrong. The best, smartest and only way for the Mavs to realistically create a dominant trio is to wait.

Brooklyn Nets: Complete the Process

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Everything changes for the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy and back on the floor. Gone will be the need for ball-handlers and shot creators. Spacing is always nice, but it won't exactly be at a premium with a pair of deadly-from-anywhere snipers dominating possessions.

    That's a roundabout way of saying Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert's value to Brooklyn is about to take a dive.

    Those two would, however, be useful to a Philadelphia 76ers team in desperate need of backcourt scoring and playmaking.

    That's the starting point for a deal centered around Dinwiddie and LeVert for Joel Embiid.

    Actually, the starting point for such a trade was the Boston Celtics' Process-ending four-game playoff sweep of the Sixers. In addition to firing head coach Brett Brown, it now seems clear Philadelphia will look to make significant changes, even if early indications are that those alterations won't include moving Embiid or Ben Simmons.

    To get something like this done, the Nets have to include plenty of sweeteners. Throw in Jarrett Allen and give Philly a second shot at appreciating the significantly improved Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Rodions Kurucs, Garrett Temple and anything else not nailed down should also be on the table, including draft compensation.

    Embiid's injury history and consistently underwhelming conditioning are concerns, but the Nets are in position to chase a title. If they want a third nuclear weapon in their arsenal, a paint-protecting, physically dominant center is the exact right fit.

    The Nets, with Embiid, would have a surplus of superstar talent. Good luck to whoever has to coach it.

Golden State Warriors: All in on Giannis

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Milwaukee Bucks would be justified in playing out the 2020-21 season with Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if the likely back-to-back MVP declines their supermax offer and hangs billboards all over Cream City proclaiming "I'm Out".

    Every second the Bucks can field a team with their megastar is precious; they have to savor them.

    But let's suppose Milwaukee doesn't cling to sentiment, or that Antetokounmpo goes full Anthony Davis and makes plain his intention to bench himself until he's on another team. In light of what we know about Antetokounmpo's professionalism and commitment to his team, that's almost impossible to imagine. But still: What then?

    How about a deal?

    The Golden State Warriors will have healthy versions of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson next season, but Draymond Green may no longer be worthy of the "third star" moniker. Andrew Wiggins never was.

    If the Dubs are really going to return to contention, they'll need a boost.

    Maybe Wiggins, the No. 2 pick in 2020 and the Minnesota Timberwolves' top-three protected first-rounder in 2021 won't be enough to extract Giannis—even from a Bucks organization facing the hypothetical possibility of losing him for nothing. That's fine. Golden State could make Green the centerpiece, include Eric Paschall and Governor Joe Lacob's dog or mortgage its entire draft future à la the Los Angeles Clippers' outlay for Paul George last offseason.

    Whatever it takes, it'll be worth it to land Antetokounmpo.

    This isn't a likely scenario, or even one you'd confidently bet on with 1,000-to-1 odds. But if the Warriors want a third star, this is the most ambitious way to get one. And if we know anything about the Warriors, it's that they're ambitious.

    Light years, baby.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.