The Origin and Rise of the “Big Three” in the NBA

By Justin Efebera

In the history of the NBA, there have been a countless amount of great individual players and duos that have revolutionized the game.  However, the dimension of having a “big three”, has now proved most effective and most revolutionary, especially in today’s game. In an NBA today filled with unprecedented talent on all teams, it has become more common for players to move to different teams to form so called “superteams”, a direct result of the “big three” method.  Despite the varying opinions about it, the aspect of the “big three” has forever changed the NBA and its historical landscape.

Although there have many legendary “big threes” in the history of the game, the actual term was not coined until Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston in the 2007 offseason.  The trio went on to win a championship that next year and have a great amount of post season success, but the game would show that there were many before them and would be more after them. We can date back the earliest legitimate great big three to Boston again with the trio of Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, and Bill Russell, (with Sam Jones).  Together these teammates won 8 championships, winning seven in a row from the 1957-65 seasons. The trio of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain was formed in 1968. This trio would go on to reach back to back finals and finally win it all in 1972 despite the retirement of Baylor earlier that year. Despite the individual greatness of each player, they sorely underachieved when you consider their talent.   

It is quite evident that no other trio would be able to rival the  success of Bill Russell and the crew, but clear that the talent landscape and competition at that time didn’t compare to that of the modern era.  In my opinion the first truly great and sustained “big three” of the modern era occured in Boston once again with the trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish (1981-1992).  Not only are all three hall of famers individually, but together they appeared in the finals five times, about half of the finals that occured during their tenure together, winning three of them.  At about the same time, their cross-country rivals were building a fast, athletic, and exciting big three for themselves. The nucleus of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson, made up the “showtime era” of the Lakers.  Together this trio, formed unarguably the greatest rivalry in the history of the game with the big three in Boston. This specific Lakers trio, similar to the Boston trio, would win three chips out of five, doing this all in the span of six years (1983-1989).  

Next up would be none other than the Chicago Bulls dynasty.  This three headed monster of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and the G.O.A.T himself  Michael Jordan, although only together for three years (1996-1998) would win the Larry O’Brien trophy all three of those seasons.  This made up one three peat of Jordan’s career. He earlier in his career had won three in a row with him, Pippen, and center Horace Grant being considered the big three during those championship seasons (1991-93).  I believe this nucleus containing Horace Grant is one of the most underrated big threes in the NBA. Rodman’s career was similar to Jordan’s path as he went from one great big three to another as well. Prior to his tenure with the Bulls, Rodman would win two championships in 1989 and 1990 in a span of three years (1988-1990) with fellow teammates Bill Laimbeer and Isaiah Thomas while on the Detroit Pistons.  Lambier, like Horace Grant, was not a hall of fame level player, likely undermining the greatness of their respective trios.

With all these previous “big threes” being named, this will then lead us to the two greatest big threes of the 20th century.  Many NBA fans can remember the day Lebron James professed on national television “I am going to be taking my talents to South Beach” and the ripple effect it had on the NBA when it came to the ethics of free agency.  Lebron would join two other perennial All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Together these three in Miami had unquestioned dominance of the Eastern Conference for the four years they were together (2011-2015).  Together they won two championships in 2012 and 2013 and reached the finals all four years. Despite this Miami trio being one of the most talented big threes ever assembled in the history of the game, the greatest I believe ever built in the game’s history doesn’t exactly ring talent when you think of them.  The trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan for the San Antonio Spurs, playing together from 2003-2015, have won the most championships of any trio together with four out of five finals appearances. It certainly did not hurt to have Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest if not the greatest head coaches, on the sideline either.  Now compared to the other previous trios named, the individual talent for each player is not what really stands out for this big three, but how well they played together, especially with decent to strong supporting casts around them. Their consistency in basketball was and still is unrivaled, and due to a large part of their success, the Spurs have the highest winning percentage in the 20th century of all teams in the four major American sports winning roughly about 75% of all their games.  Together they made the playoffs each year and never failed to win under 50 games each season. What is even more impressive about the success of this trio is that they were all drafted and developed by the Spurs, and not just assembled in free agency; a statement to the greatness of the franchise as well.

So why is having a “big three” been so effective and so successful in the NBA?  The game has been evolving, and as the talent level in the league becomes more and more developed, not any one player can win a championship for his team without a some type of help.  If you don’t agree, ask 2007 Lebron James. It is known that he was the lifeblood of that 2007 Cavaliers team to the finals, only to be swept by the Spurs big three mentioned before. James is not the only one though.  There have been so many great players individual that have not won a championship because of their lack of an adequate supporting cast. As great as Dominique Wilkins was, he kept losing to the Michael Jordan and the Bulls.  Why? Because Jordan had Pippen and Rodman. You look at the premier teams in the league today and they all have a “big three”, not just three good players, but three players at All-Star level or better. We have the Thunder with Westbrook, Anthony, and George; The Warriors with Curry, Durant, Green, and Thompson; the Timberwolves with Butler, Wiggins, and Anthony-Towns.    If a team does not have a decisive big three, it usually has two great players with a strong supporting cast such as the Celtics, Raptors, and Rockets. The method of forming a “big three” is taking over the NBA, as it has now led to superteams with several future hall-of-fame players on each. This reason exactly is why many oppose this formula for assembling teams as it leaves franchises with smaller markets the inability to form such teams.  Yet, one cannot dispute that this method has and forever will change the NBA.

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