Ranking the NBA's Best Big 3s This SeasonApril 9, 2021
Ranking the NBA's Best Big 3s This Season
Remember when Big Threes seemed to be all the rage in the NBA? Wild times.
Things have since changed. The Big Three concept feels less prevalent. Stars don't appear as likely to congregate to that extreme.
Teams with big-time duos already in place tend to lack the asset equity and financial flexibility to nab that third marquee name, and the sheer breadth of star power around the league lends itself to more aggressive searches for that second star. That, in turn, creates a more expansive field of headlining twosomes. It also, in theory, heightens the risk of Big Three pipe dreams. Successfully forging them feels much harder and, therefore, less likely.
Worry not, though: The league still has some Big Threes for us to rank.
This process will be identical to the one we used when sorting through star duos. This is to say, cobbling together a pecking order remains an inexact process.
Exclusivity if part of the calculus. Identifying the best three-man lineups or merely the top third wheel attached to two stars isn't the point. Only teams that have assembled deliberate Big Threes and are playing like it will see their trios featured.
This particular hierarchy is based on the current season only. We don't care about last year, the 2021 playoffs or future campaigns.
Sample size and team performance with every threesome on the floor will be taken into account, but the individual talent of each player will also be weighted. The reps logged by every trio, though, will invariably matter more than anything else.
Finally, a spoiler that isn't: Just about every Big Three includes a duo that ranked among our top 10 star couplings this season. Rather than repeating so much about players already talked about there, the third star and the overarching fit of all three stars together will usually be the primary focus here.
6. Boston Celtics
Big Three: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker
Possessions Played: 989
Net Rating: 3.9
Finishing in last place among enviable star partnerships is apropos of the Boston Celtics season. They look so much better on paper than they actually are, and their Big Three of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker is no different.
The latter's topsy-turvy year is at the crux of their struggles. Walker missed the first 11 games of the season with a left knee injury and has been both on a maintenance program and roller coaster ever since. His splits are, truly, all over the place.
There isn't much to dislike beyond Walker's iffiness. Brown has re-explored solid ground after a molten-hot start, but he has still found a new offensive zenith. Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic and Zach LaVine are the only other players averaging more than 24 points and three assists while shooting better than 53 percent on twos and 39 percent on threes. Brown seems to have more of a feel for playmaking and has shown he can manufacture his own jumpers.
Tatum has made a table-setting leap himself—a bigger one. He's not just finding unattended teammates; he's making more complicated reads. He can toss one-handed dimes on the move and is, for the most part, delivering difficult passes in the right, less-obvious spots.
Settling for tough jumpers is still in Tatum's DNA. Just over 25 percent of his attempts are coming at the rim, the lowest share of his career. This isn't damning when you can nail escape-dribble threes, but his 40 percent clip from mid-range isn't nearly high enough to justify the concession.
On the bright side, Boston's Big Three has a reasonable path to scaling up this ladder. Walker can still cook off the dribble, Tatum has shown he can put more pressure on the rim for spurts, and the Brown-Tatum dyad is an ideal defensive combo in postseason settings. The Celtics overall may still fall short of premier contention if Kemba's performance normalizes over the longer term, but this star troika has a much higher ceiling than its "basement" finish.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Big Three: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving
Possessions Played: 383
Net Rating: 13.1
Sample size is all that keeps the Brooklyn Nets from running roughshod over just about every other combination on this list. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have appeared in only seven games together—and it was really more like six-and-change given that KD didn't start and was then pulled midstream.
Envisioning a swift climb once all three superstars are playing at the same time takes virtually no imagination. All the "There's only one ball!" concerns were always overblown, and they've devolved into non-issues during the few reps these three have logged together.
Harden complements his drives and step-back threes with all-time passing and has embraced piloting the offense as a floor general first next to each of his star sidekicks. Irving's voodoo handles and abracadabra finishing implies ball-dominance, but he has always maintained an air of plug-and-playness.
Durant might the be greatest pure score of all time, someone who needs no head start or assistance but can hang 25- to 30-plus points within the natural flow of an offense. His return to action on Wednesday after missing 23 games with a hamstring injury doubled as a nice reminder. He tallied 17 points on five shots.
Mix and match these stars however you'd like. The scoring potential will default to brain-bending. Just look at the offensive ratings of all their different combinations:
- Durant, Harden, Irving: 126.4
- Just Durant and Harden: 128.1
- Just Durant and Irving: 121.0
- Just Harden and Irving: 120.4
I mean, my god. You can understand why so many are ready to pencil in a championship for the Brooklyn Nets.
Other Big Threes are not without hope. Durant, Harden and Irving, collectively, will not make a defense. The Nets may have the personnel around them to get by, if not surprise, but this gaggle is at least a little bit vulnerable. Possibly.
4. Denver Nuggets
Big Three: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr.
Possessions Played: 1,496
Net Rating: 16.6
Including the Denver Nuggets is not meant as a rush to coronate Michael Porter Jr. He is, by far, the least proven of any trio's third wheel, but his play over the past few months warrants entry into Tobias Harris territory.
Nikola Jokic is the only other player clearing 15 points per game while downing more than 60 percent of his twos and 40 percent of his threes. The efficiency with which Porter scores is unprecedented for a player of his archetype. LeBron is the only non-big who has ever matched these splits for an entire season.
Porter does benefit from the prominence of Jokic and Jamal Murray—who ranked No. 1 among duos. Almost 80 percent of his buckets come off assists, and more than 81 percent come after using fewer than two dribbles. The Denver Nuggets are not tasking him with self-creation.
But MPJ's role is his sacrifice. He can do more—infinitely more. Shot-makers of his caliber aren't supposed to stand 6'10". That he has learned to thrive amid a more committee dynamic renders him completely unguardable.
Fitting so seamlessly within Jokic and Murray's functional kinship earns Porter consideration as a Big Three finishing touch. His defensive improvement sways his case further. As DNVR's Adam Mares explained on The Lowe Post podcast (56:21 mark):
"He's bouncy. His athleticism is weird. He's very low in certain aspects athletically, but very talented athletically, and one of those [aspects] is how quickly he gets off of his feet for blocked shots, for rebounds, for tip-ins and things like that. You're right that he still makes mistakes defensively. You're right that you're still not putting him on Kawhi Leonard or LeBron as your first option defensively. But I do think he's becoming a positive impact player in aggregate.
"And I think in the playoffs, that's where you really get tested, because teams start to say 'OK, here's where he's weak,' and I'm really curious to see how he does there. But over the four months of this season, or whatever it's been, he has gone from a guy that's making mistakes it felt like every other possession to a guy whose mistakes now are loud, but limited. But they're balanced out by the big plays as you mentioned: blocking shots as a trailer, blocking shots as a weak-side guy, grabbing a lot of rebounds and helping clean up glass."
Porter's stardom is new, and it's tailored specifically to the Nuggets. Neither is a good reason to term this a Big Three in progress. Denver is annihilating opponents with its trio on the floor and eradicating all hope whatsoever when those reps have Porter manning the 4. Leaving this group outside the top three—it's fair to question the overall defense—caters enough to Porter's lack of tenure.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Big Three: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris
Possessions Played: 1,640
Net Rating: 16.4
Ingrained offensive awkwardness kept Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in check during the duos discussion. That persists here but is to some extent ironed out by their third in command.
This season is Tobias Harris at his finest. The Philadelphia 76ers have given him more space to operate and streamlined his decision-making. The end result: a career-high 20.5 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting inside the arc (another career high) and 40.1 percent three-point clip. Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and Zach LaVine are the only other players hitting those statistical touchstones.
Working alongside two ball-dominant stars does afford Harris a certain level of luxury. It does not define him. Simmons is back to turning in uneven offensive performances, and Embiid has missed a bunch of time. Most of Harris' buckets are self-created, and his mid-range pull-ups ensure defenses don't have much time to react when he puts the ball on the floor.
It is tempting to drop the Sixers' Big Three behind the Nuggets' trio. Harris and Simmons have confines within which they must operate, and Philly's Embiid-less minutes are a caps-lock problem—even with both other stars on the court.
Still, the defense of the Sixers' Big Three is less dependent on the surrounding pieces. Harris has shown he can hold his own positionally while both Embiid and Simmons may secure top-five Defensive Player of the Year finishes. This threesome may not be as organic-fitting at the other end, but their two-way presence is more believable—though, Year 4 Michael Porter Jr. and, obviously, a healthy Nets squad do put them on notice.
2. Utah Jazz
Big Three: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert
Possessions Played: 1,295
Net Rating: 14.4
Putting the Utah Jazz's triumvirate at No. 2 somehow feels low. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell bagged second place in the duos exercise, and Mike Conley is in many ways the connective tissue between the two. They don't need him to coexist, but he bridges some of the offensive gaps while augmenting the defense.
Conley is more of a born floor general than Mitchell, as well as more selective about the shots he attempts off the dribble. Gobert is at his best on offense alongside a high-IQ pick-and-roll passer who can vary his gears going downhill. In other words: someone like Conley, who is now fully accustomed to throwing lobs. This is an ideal marriage of offensive skill sets.
Limited defensive range does muck up some of their appeal. Utah's Big Three doesn't include anyone who will routinely pester No. 1 options, and the scope of their assignments is inherently limited by the absence of a wing.
Getting lost in the functional makeup of this basketball triplex does disservice to it. Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner in large part because he can mold the identity of an entire system without traditional wing stoppers around him. He represents disruption through deterrence.
Mitchell's standing among stars will be more of a sticking point for some. His career-high 25.8 points per game come on a personal-best 56.7 true shooting percentage, but that's not especially efficient, and his offensive armory can stall out before the rim.
Much of that should be forgiven within the context of his role. Just over 70 percent of his made baskets go unassisted, the 14th-highest share among 176 players averaging 25 or more minutes per game. And he's putting down over 37 percent of his pull-up triples. He has room to grow—particularly when looking at his shot selection—but the player he is right now remains pretty darn good.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Big Three: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton
Possessions Played: 1,448
Net Rating: 12.0
Seeing the Milwaukee Bucks jump from No. 6 in the star-duo rankings to first place among Big Threes screams "inconsistent logic". Rest assured, that's not at play.
A shrinking field opened the door for a larger jump. Three of the duos that finished in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton don't house star trios, leaving plenty of room for a significant climb. Beyond that, when factoring in Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee has the league's only troika consisting of three top-25 to -30ish players aside from Brooklyn.
That collection of pure star power matters. It is also nearly inarguable. Antetokounmpo's megastar standing is just a fact. And while neither Holiday nor Middleton may qualify as conventional No. 2s (related: they should), their stock isn't merely inflated by playing beside the two-time reigning MVP. Their stardoms exist on their own.
Middleton is one of just seven players averaging more than 20 points, five assists and two made threes per game with a true shooting percentage of 60 better. His company is a who's who of superstars: Stephen Curry, Paul George, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Damian Lillard. This is not the trickle-down effect of a role simplified. Middleton is a bonafide creator. Nearly 58 percent of his made buckets continue to go unassisted.
Holiday's individual standing can be more subtle. He is, for now, the Bucks' No. 3 option and not saddled with the same overall scoring burden as Antetokounmpo and Middleton. But he still ferries a fairly heavy offensive workload; just 26 other players match his usage and assist rates.
More than that, Holiday is most responsible for neutralizing the other team's point of attack. Nobody on the Bucks has seen more time against No. 1 options, according to BBall-Index, a catalogue of assignments that includes some wings in addition to guards.
Lights-out shooting remains a shortcoming by virtue of Antetokounmpo's limitations. Holiday and Middleton aren't pinpalling around off the ball, either. But this wrinkle is about the only drawback they have on an aggregate level. And even if they seem somewhat solvable on offense, the combined defensive utility of this star trilogy measurably exceeds that from any other.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Thursday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.