Ranking the NBA's Top Big 3s Ahead of 2021-22 Season
The NBA's obsession with threes goes beyond its increasing push past the perimeter.
There's also the leaguewide race to build bona fide Big Threes, star-laden trios like the ones responsible for so many previous trips to title town.
Give a superstar a sidekick, and opposing defenses will struggle to find a counterpunch. But add a third star to the mix, and it can render the opposition powerless.
Of course, not all clubs can go three stars deep, and those that do have had varying degrees of success. It makes sense, then, to hold basketball's battle royale here and crown the 10 best Big Threes the Association has going.
We'll weigh everything from collective talent, on-court chemistry and ceilings, to ages, injury risks and floors to set and rank the field.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart
This placement feels wrong—and maybe it is—when Tatum and Brown both have credible claims to top-20 status. And given their respective ages (23 and 24), each is presumably still ascending.
But the Shamrocks don't deserve the benefit of the doubt after taking a big step backward last season, free-falling from a .667 winning percentage to a .500 mark. Plus, the trio loses some luster (and a lot of scoring punch) with Marcus Smart sliding into Kemba Walker's old spot.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.
You could make the case Doncic's star power is so overwhelming that it moves the Mavericks into the top-10 by himself. I won't, but you could if you really wanted.
Obviously, the issue isn't with Doncic, who should earn every last cent of his new $207 million supermax deal. Rather, it's the hard-to-shake images of Porzingis disappearing in the postseason and the fact that Hardaway only holds Big Three status because of a lack of viable alternatives in Dallas.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
Yes, the Nuggets have the reigning MVP in Jokic, who hardly seems to have topped out with last season's absurd (and seldom-seen) average stat line of 26 points, 10 boards and eight dimes. But can you say for certain what else is included?
Murray is an offensive rock star, but he's not healthy, having suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in April. And while Porter has flashed the scoring punch of a No. 1 option, the 23-year-old fights bouts of inconsistency and has a worrisome history of back problems.
Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr.
When the Leonard-George tandem is at full strength, it ranks among the best in basketball. But Leonard is facing a potentially lengthy recovery after suffering a partially torn right ACL during the playoffs and could miss most (or even all) of next season.
Not to mention, Morris is only listed by default. He's solid but will never be confused for a star. Truth be told, if I were more bullish about the sustainability of Reggie Jackson's torrid playoff run, he'd get the nod over Morris.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic
Portland perhaps did itself a major disservice by not pushing harder for a significant upgrade this summer. Overlooking Lillard's plea for "urgency" from the front office could prove catastrophic if it pushes him out the door.
It's worth noting, though, the Blazers still have a top-half trio with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, which posted a plus-9.7 net rating across 678 minutes last season. But between Nurkic's recent injury woes (45 appearances the last two seasons combined) and the defensive deficiencies of a Lillard-McCollum backcourt, there's not enough here to get Portland into the top 10.
10. Chicago Bulls
Big Three: Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan
The Chicago Bulls have two things to thank for sneaking into the 10th spot: injury issues with other talented trios, and my optimism that the collective firepower here offsets some significant defensive concerns.
It's possible the latter proves unwarranted. LaVine has one All-Star appearance and hasn't steered a playoff ship through four years with the team. Vucevic must sustain his substantial shooting growth—he shot 40 percent from three last season but only 33.9 the year prior—and has never been a defensive anchor.
The 32-year-old DeRozan's margin for error isn't great because of his inside-the-arc shooting range and the NBA mileage adding up.
And yet, the offensive fireworks these three produce could be spectacular, especially with newcomer Lonzo Ball scratching a serious itch for playmaking. The Bulls might squeeze something like 70 points and 15 assists per night out of LaVine, Vucevic and DeRozan. There aren't a ton of trios who can match that offensive punch.
9. Atlanta Hawks
Big Three: Trae Young, John Collins and Clint Capela
The Atlanta Hawks successfully moved the goalposts last season, as they grew from an intriguing curiosity in the Eastern Conference to one of its finalists. Young took a superstar turn in the postseason, Collins produced enough to warrant a $125 million payday and Capela helped the Hawks climb 10 spots in defensive efficiency (from 28th to 18th).
While there's some overlap with Collins and Capela as screen-and-rollers, the former's growth as a shooter (40 percent from range since the start of 2019-20) lessens that concern. Plus, having a premier playmaker like Young—not to mention a secondary distributor like Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has an argument for one of these spots—gives the Hawks more leeway to figure things out.
You don't need to (and probably shouldn't) predict a return trip to the conference-championship round for the Hawks, but don't write them off as one-year wonders, either. The above trio logged 926 minutes together last season and thumped opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions.
8. Phoenix Suns
Big Three: Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton
Is this slighting the Western Conference champs? Perhaps, but a lot of Phoenix's deep playoff push was tied to its depth—big wink toward $19 million man Cameron Payne—as opposed to its top three.
Still, the credentials are strong with this core. Booker is a walking bucket, and his earlier exposure as an emergency point guard helped fuel his growth as a facilitator. Paul continues doing Point God things, which most recently meant averaging 16.4 points and 8.9 assists per game while nearly earning 50/40/90 enshrinement with a 49.9/39.5/93.4 shooting slash. When Ayton is on, he can control the interior with dunks, boards and blocks.
So, why can't the Suns rise higher? Two things. Paul's 36th birthday is already behind him, so the threat of age catching up to him grows. Second, Ayton isn't always on, as he still has a tendency to float at times and occasionally shies from the physicality that could help him conquer the paint.
7. Utah Jazz
Big Three: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley
With three .600-plus winning percentages in the previous four seasons, the Utah Jazz entered 2020-21 on the cusp of a breakthrough. A healthy and comfortable Conley completed the puzzle to send Salt Lake City soaring up the NBA ranks.
While Utah's top seven was perhaps stronger as a whole than the sum of its parts, those three individuals above are pretty stinkin' good. Mitchell keeps adding to his repertoire as a shot-maker and secondary distributor. Gobert might be running out of mantel room for all of the Defensive Player of the Year awards he'll collect (three and counting). Conley fills the cracks like a human adhesive.
With these three working in concert, Utah pulverized opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions. Then again, any Jazz trio that logged major minutes was a statistical steamroller, so maybe that number says more about the squad than it does the Big Three.
6. Miami Heat
Big Three: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry
While most Miami newcomers need an introduction to the franchise's famed #Culture, Lowry has long cultivated it from afar. All of its key tenets—defensive tenacity, incredible work ethic, selflessness, insatiable appetite for winning—are already part of the six-time All-Star's arsenal.
"He's a Miami Heat guy," as Butler put it, per Heat.com's Couper Moorhead.
Lowry, Butler and Adebayo all defend like mad, and the latter two rank among the Association's most versatile stoppers. The spacing could be tight—Lowry is the only consistent shooter of the three—but each can create shots, and they've all shown the improvisational skills needed to navigate through tight windows.
If this isn't the best defensive Big Three in basketball, it ranks up there with any of them. But there are a few question marks keeping it out of the top five. Lowry's age, 35, is one of the biggest, as he finally started to show some slippage last season. It's also fair to wonder about the scoring upside. Butler led the trio with 21.5 points per game in 2020-21, which put him outside the NBA's top 30.
5. Golden State Warriors
Big Three: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson
This ranking somehow simultaneously feels too high, too low and just about right. It all hinges on the health of Thompson, who had the last two seasons wiped out by a torn left ACL and a torn right Achilles, respectively.
The 31-year-old hasn't hit the hardwood since the 2019 Finals, so perhaps this is generous. But if he resembles the player seen back then, Golden State might have a loud argument for the No. 2 spot. The trio's list of accomplishments feels like it was plucked from basketball mythology: three championships in a four-year stretch and a record-setting 73 wins in the one season that didn't produce a title.
This Big Three posted a preposterous plus-15.0 net rating over 1,232 minutes during the 2018-19 campaign. While the roster has changed considerably since (most critically with the departure of Kevin Durant), the Splash Brothers and Green were always at the heart of coach Steve Kerr's system. With Curry finishing third in MVP voting, and Green taking bronze in the DPOY race, Thompson's return could vault this club right back into championship contention.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Big Three: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris
The expiration date on this trio could be coming quickly. The Sixers have been shopping Simmons since shortly after his playoff flop and "[would] like to get a deal done before training camp," per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (via NBC Sports Philadelphia).
But a trade hasn't happened yet, so it doesn't make sense to hold those talks against this trio. While the fit can look clunky on paper, these players are a powerhouse together.
Among the 85 three-man lineups to log at least 800 minutes last season, the Embiid-Simmons-Harris triad posted the fourth-highest net rating at plus-14.5. And two of the lineups it trailed also came from this team, with Seth Curry swapped in for Harris (plus-17.5) or Simmons (plus-14.8).
A healthy Embiid makes the short list of the NBA's most dominating players at both ends. Simmons ranks among the elite of the elites on defense, while powering the offense with playmaking and transition attacks. Harris packs a three-level scoring punch and keeps getting more comfortable as a passer. The talent level is rich, and the trade winds swirling around Simmons don't change that.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Big Three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook
The Los Angeles Lakers needed more pep in their step after last season's 24th-place finish in offensive efficiency, the worst such mark among playoff (and even play-in) participants. While most figured they would focus on shooting—as they did with their supplemental moves—they made their biggest investment in Westbrook in an effort to fire up their fast breaks.
"I think we're going to be an extremely dynamic fast-breaking team, and one that can play off of all three guys, in many different ways," Lakers coach Frank Vogel told reporters. "I think with the speed, athleticism of those guys plus the complementary parts we put together, the shooters and the defenders, I think we got a real chance this year to do something special."
L.A. should be electric in the open court. Westbrook rarely, if ever, takes his foot off the gas pedal, James has long haunted defenders going full steam to the basket and Davis can deliver as both a rim-runner and a trailing shooter.
The questions surface in the half court, where spacing could come at a premium. It also isn't certain what Westbrook's arrival (and many of the other additions) will do to the team's league-best defense. Still, the collective talent level is through the roof, James' basketball genius will help work around the logistical issues and the coaching staff can get creative with two- and three-man actions to position each player for success.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Big Three: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday
The defending champs take the silver medal here after smartly swapping out Eric Bledsoe for Holiday to complete their Big Three. Holiday's glue-guy game proved the perfect complement in Milwaukee's hierarchy, where Antetokounmpo reigned supreme most of the game before he ceded offensive control to Middleton in crunch time.
It's a unique setup—how many teams don't give the ball to their best player with the game on the line?—but it obviously works. The championship banner set to rise into the Fiserv Forum's rafters proves as much, as does the trio's plus-12.7 net rating in 922 minutes last season.
Antetokounmpo wrapped the campaign wearing the title of Best Player on the Planet by punctuating Milwaukee's playoff run with a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece in the championship closeout game. Middleton doubles as a lockdown defender and wildly efficient scorer, pairing his 20.4 points per outing with a pristine 47.6/41.4/89.8 slash line. Holiday fits where needed as an elite defender, dangerous shooter and secondary scorer and table-setter.
The Bucks can't match the collective star power of the No. 1 trio, but the hand-in-glove fit of all three is about as good as it gets.
1. Brooklyn Nets
Big Three: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving
This exercise forced plenty of tough debates, but this was not one of them. Lots of fantastic trios populate this list, but Brooklyn's reaches a different level of greatness.
Sure, injury question marks linger after the Big Three was limited to eight regular-season appearances together last season, but the combined skill level is high enough to ignore the injuries. Not to mention, last season was Harden's first with substantial time missed, and Durant is another year removed from his 2019 right Achilles tear.
Give this group even moderate luck on the health front, and it might be head, shoulders and a torso above the rest. The "there's only one ball!" worries were miscalculated from the start and shortchanged each guy's playmaking and shooting prowess. Harden quieted many of those concerns himself by adapting a pass-first mentality in Brooklyn that pushed him all the way to second in assists (10.8 per game).
The Nets defense will never be great and may never be good, and even that doesn't really matter with their superior firepower. Brooklyn has wagered that no one will outscore it four times in a seven-game series, and as long as the injury bug stays away, it's probably right. These three posted a mind-melting 119.6 points per 100 possessions together and collectively contributed 78.4 points, 22.5 assists and 7.9 triples per contest.
When the Nets enter the 2021-22 campaign as the odds-on favorite to win the title, they'll have their league-best Big Three to thank.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.