By: Kenny Doyle
The big 3. It’s become a staple of NBA team building. If you want to win a championship, you need to have at least 3 All-Star caliber players. This offseason has had more superstars changing teams than quite possibly any other time in NBA history. With all this player movement, the era of the NBA big 3 is more prevalent than ever. It feels like a new big 3 was formed every week for the past 4 months. Every NBA team is doing all they can to get 3 stars on their team, but which team has the best big 3?
There’s only about a handful on big 3’s that really matter, but ranking 5 teams is no fun. Ranking 30 and deciding whether the Detroit Pistons have a better big 3 than the Phoenix Suns is far more entertaining. With that said, you just can’t call every team’s top 3 a “big 3”, so here are the 5 categories:
DNQ - Did Not Qualify:
I tried as hard as I could, but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with a big 3 for every team. Unfortunately, there were 4 teams that are so awful that they don’t even belong in the bottom dwelling categories. It’s hard to come up with anymore than 2 combined good prospects and slightly above average players on these rosters. These 4 teams should be ashamed of themselves and I’m guessing they probably are.
(and yes, they’re all in the East)
Not Big Enough:
Only slightly less embarrassing than the DNQ category, these teams are made up of three players that at least aren’t completely horrible. Don’t be mistaken though, these are still all likely non-playoff teams. It won’t be pretty. The 12 players in his category have combined for a total of 1 All-Star selection.
In this category, we get into serious prospects that have franchise player ceilings and players that are fringe All-Stars. This is the first category with teams that may actually be building something. These teams have a true franchise centerpiece AND something competent around them (this is a direct shot at the Knicks). You may actually hear the diehard fans of these teams call these threesomes “serious big 3’s” in public! (Feel free to laugh at them)
The Big 2’s:
Self explanatory, these teams have 2 players that are franchise cornerstones and/or All-Stars, but not 3. They’re one player away from being real contenders. With only 1 exception, the third part of the big 2 teams hasn’t made an All-Star team at any point in their career. (and the 1 exception absolutely never will again)
True Big 3’s:
This is the big category. If you’re not a diehard NBA fan and don’t care about hearing what the Orlando Magic’s big 3 is, then you should probably skip to this category. These are the heavy hitters. These are the ones that really matter and the teams that are actually ‘super’.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
DNQ - Did Not Qualify:
The Atlanta Hawks were the easiest team to right off. You don’t deserve to be any higher than 30 when Dennis Schroder is your best player and your second best is either Kent Bazemore or Taurean Prince. The Hawks have virtually no talent, but they’ll probably win more games than they should thanks to Mike Budenholzer, who probably would’ve been in this team's big 3 if they had qualified.
Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo could have been part of a big 3, but the Pacers talent is really embarrassing. Indiana might try to compete and make the playoffs, but they really shouldn’t. Indiana needs to tank and get Myles Turner a young running mate. If they don’t, they may be doomed to an Orlando Magic like limbo for the next 10 years.
I considered putting Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen as a big 3, but putting down the entire return that the Bulls netted for Jimmy Butler may have been too cruel to Chicago fans. If Zach LaVine can comeback and be the same player post-ACL injury that he was, he will not only electrify Bulls fans with his high hops and Vince Carter like jams, but he may be in line for a mini James Harden-like takeover now that he has his own team. Chicago fans deserve a good Zach LaVine and every NBA fan should be praying that they get one. The torn ACL has already taken away too much from Chicago, don’t take Zach LaVine from them too.
It just isn’t right to have Allen Crabbe in a big 3. I love the move to go out and pick up D’Angelo Russell for the Nets. They needed trade Brook Lopez and they did better than they ever could have imagined. The Nets were in no man's land with Brook Lopez. If they didn’t trade away their picks they could have Jaylen Brown and Markelle Fultz right now and have one of the NBA’s most exciting young cores. They lost that chance, but at least they now have a young player they can build around. Netting the #2 pick from 2015 is an amazing get for the Nets and Russell is more than likely to rejuvenate his career in Brooklyn. Lin would have worked as part of a “Not Big Enough” big 3, but the Nets just don’t have that third player that could have snagged them a qualifying spot.
Not Big Enough
26. Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac - Orlando Magic
Does Elfrid Payton deserve to be part of the Magic’s big 3? Certainly not over Evan Fournier, who averaged over 17 a game last year and is probably the team's best player. And not over Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac who’s defensive versatility at the 3-4 spots is perfect for the modern NBA. Payton is the antithesis of what the modern NBA point guard should be and this if the Magic give him another chance to change that beyond this season it will be the most Magic-y thing they could do. Maybe Isaac and Gordon could turn into something, but the Magic have still yet to figure out what they’re doing post-Dwight Howard.
25. Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter, and Frank Ntilikina - New York Knicks
Ah, the Knicks. They somehow weren’t a DNQ. They can thank Kristaps Porzingis for that. The Knicks fell backwards into a 7’3” player who can shoot 3’s and is a special athlete. Porzingis is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen before in a big man, and the Knicks are probably going to screw it up. Assuming they don’t, hopefully they are bad enough that they can add Michael Porter Jr or Luke Doncic to their team and move up in these rankings, but until then this is where they belong. Enes Kanter can average over 17 a game and Frank Ntilikina would have been a lottery pick even if Phil Jackson and the Knicks didn’t have a strange obsession with him. He deserves the benefit of the doubt before his rookie season. Who knows? Maybe Frank will surprise some people just like his running mate Porzingis did.
24. De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Bogdan Bogdanovic - Sacramento Kings
Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter will take some minutes away from the young guys, but Fox, Hield, and Bogdanovic certainly make for an intriguing young core in Sacramento. There’s little chance that it will turn into anything special, but Sacremento fans can dream. Bogdanovic showed flashes in the 2016 Olympics against the US and along with Hield they could provide a lot of driving lanes and kick out opportunities for Fox. They might struggle to find playing time this season, but these 3 players look like the foundation for Sacramento's rebuild moving forward.
23. Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, and Reggie Jackson - Detroit Pistons
The Pistons. In the East they could make the playoffs, but those 3 players are the epitome of average. Is Drummond really an NBA star? He’s not the defender a player with his size and athleticism should be, he’s unplayable once any team goes to the Hack-a- strategy, and he’s yet to average over 16 points in the NBA. Avery and Reggie are good players, but they will never be All-Stars. At best they’re role players on a title team. Detroit has some tough decisions to make and a disappointing season may end up benefitting them in the long run.
22. Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, and Ricky Rubio - Utah Jazz
The Jazz are a hot pick in some NBA circles to be a surprise team this season despite losing Gordon Hayward this offseason. It’s certainly possible. If Rodney Hood can embrace taking over Hayward’s role and the Jazz can magically make Ricky Rubio an above average point guard, Utah could get one of the last playoff spots in the West. Gobert is coming into the season motivated and seems excited to be ‘the man’ on the Jazz. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Gobert takes the next step as a player, wins Defensive Player of the Year, and leads Utah to the postseason.
21. Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, and Dennis Smith Jr. - Dallas Mavericks
This is one of the stranger big 3’s. The ages are all over the map. Dirk, 39, is at the tail end of his hall of fame career. Then you have Barnes, 25, entering his prime and Smith, 19, just starting out in the NBA. The locker room for this team will be strange considering the age discrepancy between the players. Nonetheless, Dennis Smith Jr. has the chance to be special and while Dirk isn’t exactly the perfect mentor, Smith Jr will still be able to learn a thing or two from one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. Smith, Barnes, and Dirk give the makes 3 legit NBA scorers and at least a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot.
20. Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and Josh Jackson - Phoenix Suns
All 3 of these players have star potential, but it’s not enough in the West. Booker is still very young, Jackson will need time to grow as a rookie, and Bledsoe doesn’t fit the timeline of either of those 2. If the Suns can find a way to pry the Brooklyn pick from the Cavs cold, dead hands in exchange for Bledsoe, they should do whatever they have to do to make it happen. Until then, the Suns have a chance to be the most fun 60 loss team in NBA history.
19. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle - Los Angeles Lakers
It was tempting to join Kuzmania and put Kyle Kuzma in over Julius Randle, but it’s probably a bit to early for that. Until Kuzma officially takes over as the Lakers starting power forward, Randle provides the Lakers with one of the best young playmaking bigs in the NBA and a great touch around the basket. Despite the wide range of expectations for Lonzo, he is a special playmaker. Only time will tell if Lonzo’s style translates to winning basketball for LA and if he can help Ingram have a bounce back sophomore season, but the Lakers have the foundation in place for their team moving forward. Now they just have to win games.
18. Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard, and Nicolas Batum - Charlotte Hornets
The Nicolas Batum injury hurts the Hornets to start the season, but they’re a team with a lot of depth and versatility and they should make the playoffs this season. Losing Al Jefferson before the 2016-17 season hurt the team, but Dwight Howard is reunited with former Orlando Magic assistant coach Steve Clifford this season and it could spark a Dwight resurgence in Charlotte. Dwight’s problem since leaving Orlando has been his reluctance to run pick and roll and desire for post touches. Charlotte missed Al Jefferson’s easy offense in the post last season, so it may be a match made in heaven. Charlotte was a team that won 48 games in 2015-16 and there’s no reason they shouldn’t get back to being that team in 2017-18.
17. Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, and Dion Waiters - Miami Heat
The Miami Heat’s 30-11 run to end last season was led by this rag tag team of misfits and they’ll hope to make a playoff push this season. All castoffs at one point or another in their career, Dragic, Whiteside, and Waiters provide unique pick and roll options for Miami and make them tough to play. Miami’s gritty play style is fueled by these 3 and if they can duplicate the effort that they put forth to end last season, the Heat are going to be one of the toughest teams to play for everybody this season.
16. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz - Philadelphia 76ers
I was so tempted to put the 76ers in the ‘True Big 3’s’ category. The 76ers have 3 players that should all be All-Stars one day, but the health is a huge variable that keeps them down with the ‘Small 3’s’. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both becoming players that don’t have their career’s ruined by injuries almost seems UNLIKELY at this point. On top of that, Markelle Fultz debuted in the preseason with a 2-13 performance and was picked by exactly 0 NBA GM’s to win Rookie of the Year. If everything goes right, these 3 have NBA dynasty written all over them, but they need to show that they can play first. Philadelphia should be great, but with 31 combined games played between all of the members of their big 3 we just don’t know they’ll be great.
The Big 2’s
15. Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Chandler Parsons - Memphis Grizzlies
Are we sure that Tyreke Evans shouldn’t be in here over Chandler Parsons? Just checking. It can be argued that Chandler Parsons was the biggest disappointment in the entire NBA last season and he is on pace to be the worst free agent signing in Memphis Grizzlies history unless he turns it around. It speaks to how bad the Grizzlies supporting cast is that it was between Parsons and Evans for the third spot. With that said, Conley and Gasol are incredible. Conley showed in last year’s postseason how dominant he is at the point guard position when he got into a shootout with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and the NBA, and Kanye West, took notice. Marc Gasol and Conley can only take the Grizzlies so far, and if the Grizz don’t want to waste the primes of the two best players they’ve ever had, they need to find a way to acquire more talent and hit on some draft steals. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol deserve better. Better than 2016-17 Chandler Parsons.
14. Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Milos Teodosic - Los Angeles Clippers
With Chris Paul gone, auditions to be the 3rd member of the Clippers big 3 were held this summer and Milos Teodosic stole the show. Although Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari have compelling cases, Teodosic winning the hearts of NBA Twitter earns him the spot. This underhand pass he made, ruined only by a needless up and under move from Patrick Beverley, is just a thing of beauty:
The Clippers are another team trying to make a run at one of the West’s final playoff spots. It all comes down to Blake Griffin’s health. If we get 2014 Blake back, LA will be fun to watch. Does Blake still have those monster jams left in him? Let’s all hope so.
13. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Malcolm Brogdon - Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari’s torn ACL hurts, but Giannis is just too good to leave too far down the list. Before getting injured late last season, Parker was having a career year. He was averaging over 20 a game for the Bucks and was looking like the perfect running mate for the Greek Freak. Whether or not Parker can comeback from his second ACL tear in 2 years is a huge unknown and could be the thing that defines this era of the Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon is a great point guard for this new age Bucks team that wants Giannis to have the ball as much as possible and the Bucks could easily vault ahead of Washington or Toronto in the East this season if Giannis continues on his upward trajectory to NBA stardom. The Greek Freak could take his game to a whole other level yet again this season, but with Parker out he lacks the surefire superstar running mate needed to put him any higher on this list.
12. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic - Portland Trail Blazers
Late last season these 3 put on a late push to get Portland into the playoffs. Lillard and McCollum’s combination of playmaking and 3 point shooting is a nightmare for opposing defenses and the dynamic Nurkic adds in the pick and roll makes them even more impossible to stop. It’d be nice to get more shooting at the 3 and 4 spots for the Trail Blazers, but until they can sure up those spots Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic will have to carry the load for another season.
11. Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Gary Harris - Denver Nuggets
If you haven’t heard, Nikola Jokic is an insane offensive talent. He is a true franchise player for the Nuggets and adding Paul Millsap, an All-Star last season and almost as underrated as Mike Conley, makes them a dangerous threat to teams out West and quite possibly the best passing big men combo in NBA history. They missed the playoffs by just 1 game last season and internal player growth along with the Millsap addition should vault the Nuggets easily into the playoffs. To some, Gary Harris has star potential. He averaged nearly 15 points per game last season and shot 52% from the field and 40 percent from 3. If Harris was a better free throw shooter he would have become part of the 50-40-90 club. He’s quickly becoming a huge part of what the Nuggets are building. Harris and Jokic have amazing chemistry on the basketball court and it should be no surprise if Harris ups his scoring average to close to 20 this season. It’s hard to call Denver a ‘True Big 3’ before seeing Harris become the player he is projected to become, but if Harris and backcourt mate Jamal Murray take the next step in their evolution as players this season, watch out for Denver.
10. Demar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka - Toronto Raptors
It’s easy to argue that Toronto should be higher on this list, but the one thing that the Raptors don’t have that every other team going forward on this list does is a player with MVP potential. Lowry and DeRozan are undoubtedly All-Star talents and make up one of the best backcourts in the NBA on top of being possibly the best pair of best friends in the NBA, but an MVP trophy isn’t in the cards for either moving forward. Adding Serge as the third piece would be amazing if it was the 2011 version of Serge Ibaka, but until we see that version again he’s just slightly better than serviceable at the power forward spot. Ibaka hasn’t averaged over 2 blocks per game since 2014 and he’s a far cry away from the player who averaged 3.7 swats a game way back when. If Ibaka can get back to over 2 blocks per, the Raptors could have something, but right now it just looks like they overpaid for a player whose glory days are far behind him.
9. Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay - San Antonio Spurs
Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge aren’t the typical San Antonio Spurs type players that were used to seeing, but they are still incredible offensive players. Aldridge reportedly sat down and had a heart to heart with head coach Gregg Popovich this offseason in hops of finding a way to better mesh into the Spurs system and although adding a 31 year old Rudy Gay coming off an achilles injury doesn’t sound great, but the Spurs have earned the benefit of the doubt. If LaMarcus and Rudy can be the players they were elsewhere in the NBA with the Spurs, then that gives San Antonio enough offensive firepower to be a serious title contender. The Spurs were one Kawhi Leonard injury away from being up 1-0 on the Golden State Warriors in last years Western Conference Finals, so writing them off as a threat would be foolish. San Antonio will always be a contender as long as Gregg Popovich is around. Maybe he should have been the third member of the big 3 over Rudy Gay...
8. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter - Washington Wizards
John Wall is entering his prime and it looks like he’s figured out how to dominate the NBA with his speed and vision. After years of struggling to win games, Wall has perfected his ability to run the Wizards offense and is quite possibly the best playmaker in the NBA right now. Wall has averaged over 10 assists for 3 straight seasons, the only player in the NBA to do that over that span. This season Washington has more continuity than they’ve ever had in the Wall-Beal era and their combination of shooting and options off the Gortat pick and roll makes the game even easier for John Wall. At 6’4” and 209 lbs, Wall is impossible to stay in front of and he could be ready to put his name in the MVP conversation in his age 27 season. Beal’s become one of the best second options in the NBA and can shoot from just about anywhere. He’s often overlooked as one of the best #2’s in the NBA, but after putting up 38 in game 7 in Boston last year Beal put the NBA on notice proving that he is a superstar. Otto Porter falls short of being a #3 on a championship team, but if Washington can find a way to add DeMarcus Cousins next offseason, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
7. Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday - New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are the most interesting team on this list. Cousins and Davis are arguably the 2 best big men in the NBA in an era where the NBA big man is going extinct. The dominance of a bruising center has been lost in this era of NBA basketball and if Davis and Cousins can’t bring it back, maybe no one can. In any other era in NBA history a combination of 2 of the league's most dominant big men would form a dynasty, but the Pelicans aren’t even a lock to make the playoffs. With Cousins being a free agent after this season, New Orleans has to figure out how to win games fast if they want to keep Boogie around long term. With not much talent around Boogie and Davis, New Orleans could have a disastrous season. Jrue Holiday is the one exception to the rule that no All-Stars are the third member of the “Big 2” teams 3 man group, but judging by the fact that he just signed a 5 year deal to play out the rest of his prime in the Western Conference with Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Damian Lillard and many other dominant guards, I think it’s safe to say that 2013 will be Jrue’s one and only trip to the All-Star Game.
6. James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon - Houston Rockets
If the Rockets had found a way to pry Carmelo Anthony away from New York for Ryan Anderson they would have been the ones people were arguing could beat the Warriors. Without him, the Rockets have the best ‘Big 2’ in the NBA, but fall well short of being a ‘True Big 3’. Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon is certainly a good 3rd piece, but it doesn’t get the Rockets over the top. It’s possible if injury luck goes their way the Rockets could find a way to make an NBA Finals run, but the Thunder just have a better third star for this list. Maybe they should have done more to get Carmelo. Nonetheless, the “48 minutes of hall of fame point guard play” Mike D’Antoni is talking about is for real and with James Harden and Chris Paul sharing the load, teams will have a hard time outscoring the ultimate pace and space team in Houston.
True Big 3’s
5. Karl Anthony-Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins - Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have a true big 3. Two #1 overall picks and Jimmy Butler? That is a special trio. Wiggins and Towns are not finished products, but putting 3 players together who all averaged over 20 points per game last season makes the Timberwolves a legit threat in the Western Conference. On the defensive end, Towns and Wiggins both need to get better. Coming out of college both were thought to be elite defenders at their positions and both have disappointed on that end so far in their careers. Wiggins has been especially disappointing considering his athleticism and length at the small forward position, but perhaps Jimmy Butler can help him develop his defensive skills and become better on that end. The Timberwolves have the talent. Now they just need to make the playoffs for the first since 2004.
4. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford - Boston Celtics
It’s been a crazy offseason for the Boston Celtics. Just when it looked like they were done with their offseason moves, they go and trade Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving. Irving was a #1 pick for a reason. He has a special handle up there with the best to ever dribble a basketball, he can hit contested shots from anywhere on the court, and he has a Kobe-like clutch gene. On top of that, Irving is probably the best finisher at the rim in the entire NBA. He’ll spend hours in the gym just standing underneath the basket trying to spin the ball off the backboard in as many different ways as he can think of. While Irving’s playmaking does leave something to be desired, Hayward and Horford’s above average playmaking abilities at their positions more than makes up for it. Hayward provides an ideal second scoring option for Boston when teams try to double Irving and Horford’s ability to do small things on the court besides putting the ball in the basket makes him an ideal 3rd piece alongside to scorers. The Celtics may struggle to get a rhythm early on in the season, but once they get going they will be a hard team to stop.
3. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony - Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly didn’t waive the white flag after losing Kevin Durant to the Warriors. After Durant left town, some thought the Thunder would deal Russell Westbrook and go into a full rebuild. The Thunder had other plans. Just 16 months after losing Durant, the Thunder already have a new big 3 that is ready to compete with the Warriors. Each one of these players can carry the offensive load at any point in the game and after a year of playing with defensives completely collapsing on him, Westbrook finally has elite scorers he can kick it out to instead of the likes of Andre Roberson who is quite possibly the worst volume shooter in the NBA:
George and Anthony will have to learn to play off the ball alongside Westbrook, but if this group meshes the way OKC hopes it can, the Warriors will have their hands full. If the Thunder play a lineup of Westbrook, George, Anthony, Patterson, and Adams, who does Steph Curry guard?
2. LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Isaiah Thomas - Cleveland Cavaliers
No matter which two stars you put around LeBron James, it’s hard to put his team lower than 2. Although Isaiah’s hip injury will keep him out for the foreseeable future, being the second or third option on the Cavaliers should make him as dangerous as ever if he remains the same player post-injury. Kevin Love will have to take on a bigger role this season, but he proved in Minnesota that he is capable of carrying an offense. If the Cavaliers give him his post touches and center the offense around him when LeBron is off the floor, Kevin Love can have a fantastic season. LeBron is LeBron. Whether he rests in the regular season or goes all out for MVP, he’s still going to be the most unstoppable force in NBA history once the postseason starts. The years of prime LeBron may be ending soon, so appreciate what you’re watching while you still can. Professional sports may never see anything like LeBron James again.
BONUS: True Big 4’s
1. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green - Golden State Warriors
They need their own category. The Warriors are on top of the world. Outside of LeBron, Durant and Curry are the 2 most dominant players in today’s game. Curry stretches defense’s to their breaking point. You can’t guard him, all you can do is hope he misses. Kevin Durant’s size, length, athleticism, and range makes him the ultimate scoring machine. He IS what Giannis Antetokounmpo with a jump shot looks like. On top of that, they have Klay Thompson who is probably the second best 3 point shooter in the NBA and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. The Warriors are far and away the best big 3 in the NBA, but it would have been disrespectful to leave either of Klay or Draymond out of the discussion, so they get their own category as a big 4. The Warriors may look impossible to beat, but when the teams 2-7 on this list could have decided to tank and build for a post-Warriors NBA, they instead decided to build a team to try and take them down. It only takes 1 of those teams to get the job done. Which one will do it?
Photo: (USA Today, NBC Sports, Clutch Sports, Slam Online)