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In fact, powerful trios were seemingly in control more often than not throughout the history of the league.
From Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn in the 1950s and ’60s to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the 2000s and 2010s, the Big Three structure is one from which plenty of championship rosters were built.
To determine the best ever, we’ll use a methodology that includes fan votes, combined win shares and “championship points.” The step-by-step process went as follows:
- Compile a list of all-time great trios solicited from readers.
- Pit those trios against each other in randomly generated matchups, with each vote driving the duo further up the list.
- Find the combined win shares (regular season and playoffs) of each member of the trio during the time they played together.
- Find combined win shares per year together.
- Find the “championship points” of each trio. If a trio won a championship during a year in which the NBA had 30 teams, they get 29 championship points (for being better than 29 teams).
- Find championship points per year together.
- Rank the trios in each of the five categories listed above, then sort them by the average of their ranks from those categories (with a little extra weight given to the fan vote).
There was a handful of ties after all of the numbers came in (including a three-way deadlock at Nos. 2-4). Championship points served as the tiebreaker in those situations.
The full exercise can be found here, while the analysis for individual trios is below.
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Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics controlled the NBA for more than a decade of its formative years. Russell’s defense was one of the driving forces behind that run, but teammates Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn deserve credit themselves.
During their eight seasons together, Russell, Jones and Heinsohn were second, eighth and 14th, respectively, in win shares. They won seven straight titles from 1958-59 to 1964-65. Those came against an NBA that generally featured fewer than 10 total teams, but seven straight is seven straight.
Sports Illustrated‘s Frank Deford, with an assist from Russell, explained why those Celtics were able to find so much success:
“Russell’s simple key to a successful team was to encourage each player to do what he did best. ‘Remember,’ he says, ‘each of us has a finite amount of energy, and things you do well don’t require as much. Things you don’t do well take more concentration. And if you’re fatigued by that, then the things you do best are going to be affected.’ The selfishness of successful team play—‘I was very selfish,’ he declares—sounds paradoxical, but a team profits if each player revels in his strength. Still, Russell points out, there is a fine line between idealistic shared greed and typical self-gratification. ‘You must let your energy flow to the team,’ he says.”
That philosophy was magnified in Russell, Jones and Heinsohn. The big man dominated on defense and the boards. And for much of his time with Jones and Heinsohn, he deferred to them as scorers.
Through their eight seasons as a trio, they put up the following numbers:
- Russell: 16.6 points, 23.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists
- Jones: 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists
- Heinsohn: 19.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists
Head coach Red Auerbach and plenty of other Celtics contributed to Russell’s 11 total championships, but this particular trio was perhaps the league’s original Big Three.
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John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek make up the only trio in this top 10 that wasn’t able to win a championship. Their ability to make the cut despite a third of the criteria being tied to titles is a testament to consistent greatness.
Over the course of the six-and-a-half seasons these three played together, Malone led the league in win shares, while Stockton and Hornacek were fourth and 14th, respectively. Their per-game numbers in that stretch show not only their individual brilliance, but the balance that existed between the three:
- Malone: 26.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks, 58.2 true shooting percentage
- Stockton: 13.6 points, 10.4 assists, 1.9 steals, 62.5 true shooting percentage
- Hornacek: 14.6 points, 4.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 59.4 true shooting percentage
The Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll, flanked by Hornacek’s ability to space the floor and create for himself, made the Jazz one of the most dominant teams of the 1990s. Utah posted a .712 winning percentage (58-win pace) during those seasons, a mark that led the NBA.
The consistency was a hallmark of Stockton- and Malone-led teams, as former teammate Mark Eaton explained to Bleacher Report.
“You know, John used to always get called a dirty player,” Eaton said. “Well, no, he wasn’t a dirty player. He was willing to do the little things most point guards wouldn’t do, which is go and set a pick on a 4-man or a 5-man. And then he was just ready to go every single night. And then Mailman was the same way. Both those guys just got themselves in exceptional condition.
“And it wasn’t the coach telling people anymore, ‘Hey, you guys gotta get in shape every year in training camp.’ It was, ‘If you want to make the team, you better be able to hang with John and Karl.’ And they were always the fastest ones on the drills, the fastest ones in the layup lines. You know, they just were relentless in terms of getting themselves ready to play every season and every night.”
The addition of Hornacek to the culture established by Eaton, Stockton and Malone couldn’t have worked out much better. Many remember him as the third option for those Jazz teams that met Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Finals in back-to-back seasons, but Hornacek had been an alpha a few years prior to his joining Utah.
In 1991-92, he became the 30th player in league history (to that point) to register a 20-5-5 season. Add one three per game and you cut the list down to only five players: Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, MJ and Hornacek.
This trio had three bona fide stars, and it is almost certainly the best without a championship.
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This is more of a Big Two than a Big Three. And you’ll find the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant higher up that particular list. But even without a third superstar, the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers made the top 10 under this criteria.
That isn’t meant as a shot at Robert Horry, by the way. He was still within the top 75 in win shares during the years in which these three were teammates (third among Lakers). His “Big Shot Bob” moniker gained plenty of traction during his time in L.A. And his versatile defense was an underrated complement to the all-timers.
But the bulk of the regular-season production undoubtedly came from Shaq and Kobe, who were second and ninth, respectively, in win shares over this span:
- O’Neal: 27.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.5 blocks, 58.2 true shooting percentage
- Bryant: 21.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals
- Horry: 6.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks
Shaq was clearly the No. 1 when he and Kobe were together. But the young wing showed plenty in those early years to suggest he’d reach greater heights himself.
“I find it quite disrespectful that they don’t bring Kobe’s name up,” Shaq told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck of GOAT debates. “That kind of pisses me off how they just skip over him and say, ‘LeBron.’ I don’t understand that. Because I was there with him, and he was a bad motherf–ker, too.”
You might not have Kobe above MJ or LeBron, but there’s little doubt that he finished his career as one of the greatest wings in league history. You can say the same thing about Shaq and centers.
Having both on the same team, and surrounded by solid role players like Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox, gave the Lakers one of the best rosters ever assembled.
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There was some consternation over which Golden State Warriors trio would be included in this exercise. In the end, it was too difficult leave off one of Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. And it isn’t that difficult to mentally bifurcate the pre- and post-Durant Warriors.
Despite their relatively brief time together (compared to some of the others that made the top 10), both trios here did enough to make the cut.
7. Stephen Curry, Thompson and Durant
During the three seasons in which KD was in Golden State, the Warriors’ offensive rating was no worse than 5.0 points better than the league average. The top three effective field-goal percentages of all time belong to those three Golden State teams.
Individually, the Warriors’ top three scorers in that stretch were ridiculously efficient.
- Durant: 25.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.1 threes, 1.5 blocks, 64.0 true shooting percentage
- Curry: 26.3 points, 6.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 threes, 1.6 steals, 64.3 true shooting percentage
- Thompson: 21.3 points, 3.2 threes, 58.6 true shooting percentage
In those three seasons, the Warriors went to the Finals three times and won twice. The No. 1 overall team in this exercise is the only one that averaged more championship points per year.
6. Curry, Thompson and Green
KD made the Warriors a juggernaut the likes of which the NBA perhaps had never seen. The 73-win team that preceded him was no pushover, though.
In 2015-16, when Golden State broke the Chicago Bulls’ record for regular-season wins, its offensive rating was a whopping 8.1 points better than the league average.
Thompson’s shooting and off-ball movement had defenses scrambling on an almost nightly basis. Green’s positionless defense and point-forward ability made him one of the game’s most versatile players. But Curry’s incomparable performance is what made this a season for the ages.
His 10.4 offensive box plus/minus is the highest ever recorded. Among the 29 seasons in which a player averaged at least 30 points per 75 possessions, Curry’s 66.9 true shooting percentage is easily the high (and it was 12.8 percentage points better than the average in 2015-16).
Overall, all three players in this trio have been plenty productive during their years together.
- Curry: 25.6 points, 6.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 4.1 threes, 63.4 true shooting percentage
- Thompson: 20.3 points, 3.1 threes, 57.7 true shooting percentage
- Green: 9.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
This trio’s run together will continue in 2020-21. There’s still time to rise higher up the list.
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Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale played together from 1980-81 to 1991-92. Over the course of those 12 seasons, they ranked second, fifth and sixth, respectively in total regular-season win shares. In the playoffs, Bird was second, McHale was fourth and Parish was seventh.
This is arguably the greatest frontcourt ever assembled. All three are Hall of Famers. McHale has the fewest All-Star appearances of the bunch with seven. Bird and McHale each made multiple All-Defensive teams. All three made All-NBA teams. McHale won Sixth Man of the Year twice. Bird secured three MVPs and two Finals MVPs. Most importantly, they won three titles together.
Their basic numbers during the decade-plus they spent together further illustrate their dominance:
- Bird: 24.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
- Parish: 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks
- McHale:18.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 60.9 true shooting percentage
All of these players could score inside, defend and dominate the boards. Bird was the floor spacer and preternatural passer (just imagine his skill level in today’s game). A supercut of McHale’s post moves could be neatly packaged into an instructional video on playing inside (if anyone still played in the post). Parish did all of the little things.
The best description of this trio comes courtesy of their teammate Bill Walton (h/t MassLive’s Jay King):
“[McHale] torched Ewing. He torched Olajuwon. He torched Sampson. He torched David Robinson. He just lit them all up. And he was relentless. He wanted that ball. …
“And then Larry. Larry was so wonderful as a basketball player. He was Mozart. He was Michelangelo. He was Steve Jobs. And he did things that I never saw anybody do. And he played at such a high level mentally. Larry loves to portray himself as the Hick from French Lick. Nothing could be further from the truth. The guy is an absolute genius on top of everything. …
“Robert Parish was the anchor, he was the pillar. Without him Larry and Kevin couldn’t do their thing because Chief did all the dirty work inside.”
In an era where size, skill and an ability to leverage those attributes inside mattered most, this trio was about as close to perfect as it got.
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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh spent only four seasons together. Compared to some of the other trios detailed here, that’s a relatively short run. But the league revolved around them for those four years.
They went to the Finals in all four seasons, won it all twice and totaled 12 of a possible 12 All-Star appearances. LeBron also won two of his four MVPs during this run with the Miami Heat.
His numbers through this stretch were absurd, but Wade and Bosh were likewise impressive:
- James: 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.2 threes, 62.2 true shooting percentage
- Wade: 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks
- Bosh: 17.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
All three of these superstars had to make adjustments during their time together.
With Wade and LeBron both being ball-dominant slashers, Bosh sacrificed the most by essentially becoming a 6’11” shooting guard on offense. Meanwhile, Wade had to take a step back from the alpha dog role he established in Miami over the preceding years.
“I definitely changed [my game] more [than James did],” he told ESPN’s Nick Friedell in 2016. “It’s not even a conversation. There’s no conversation to have. I definitely had to change mine more.”
As for LeBron, his adjustment may have simply been learning what it takes to win it all. In the 2011 Finals, his first in Miami, LeBron’s 13.7 average game score trailed those of both Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. The Dallas Mavericks won that series while LeBron seemingly disappeared at times. He finished the 2011 Finals with an average of only 17.8 points and a 54.1 true shooting percentage.
But that series turned into a refiner’s fire for James. He made every single Finals from that point to 2018. And his average game score across those series was an absurd 25.2. He averaged 30.5 points and posted a 56.4 true shooting percentage over those 39 Finals games.
This trio didn’t win five, six or seven championships together, as LeBron infamously suggested it would, but it altered the course of all three Hall of Fame-worthy careers.
“We all knew the sacrifice that was going to be [made],” Wade told Friedell. “… But at the end of the day, we sacrificed points, article hits, but what we gained was championships, friendships and brotherhoods that last a lifetime. So I’m sure if we could do it all over again, we’d do it exactly the same way.”
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The Bird-McHale-Parish trio likely would have collected more titles if not for Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic and Kareem won five together. Worthy was around for three of those.
During the stretch when all three were together (1982-83 to 1988-89), the Lakers averaged a league-best 60 wins per season. Magic led the NBA in win shares, with Kareem coming in at 17th and Worthy rounding out the top 20.
Per-game averages further illustrated how good these three were when together:
- Johnson: 19.7 points, 12.2 assists, 6.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 61.1 true shooting percentage
- Abdul-Jabbar: 18.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 blocks, 59.8 true shooting percentage
- Worthy: 17.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, 58.9 true shooting percentage
As far as top-tier talent goes, few trios had more than this one. Some may push back, but there seems to be a wide-ranging consensus that Magic and Kareem are two of the top five players in NBA history. Worthy, meanwhile, is 135th all-time in career box plus/minus.
Having all three on the same roster made for some of the most exciting basketball in league history.
“The Forum was like the epicenter of where coolness was in the ’80s,” former Lakers director of promotions Lon Rosen told ESPN’s Arash Markazi. “It was just so exciting to be around that whole atmosphere…”
Kareem was already a legend by the time Magic and his otherworldly passing arrived for the 1979-80 campaign. They instantly formed one of the best guard-big duos of all-time and won their first title that season. Adding Worthy’s length and ability to score seemed unfair.
In a list like this, a trio could easily move up or down a spot or two. This group has an argument for No. 1 overall. At the peak of their powers, Magic, Kareem and Worthy could compete with anyone.
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Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker spent 14 seasons together. In today’s age of roster shuffling and player empowerment, that number seems untouchable going forward.
Over the course of their time together, the Spurs won 575 games (an NBA record for any trio) and four NBA championships. They had, by far, the best winning percentage in the league, simple rating system (point differential plus strength of schedule) and defensive rating. They were second in effective field-goal percentage and tied for third in offensive rating.
This level of dominance for well over a decade is staggering. And the basic numbers aren’t too shabby, either:
- Duncan: 32.1 minutes, 17.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.1 blocks
- Parker: 32.3 minutes, 17.1 points, 6.0 assists
- Ginobili: 26.3 minutes, 14.0 points, 4.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 threes, 1.4 steals, 58.6 true shooting percentage
Those per-game averages aren’t quite as gaudy as those from some of the other trios detailed here. Bear in mind that the Spurs played at a slower pace than most of the other associated teams. Plus, they played their stars fewer minutes given their emphasis on depth and long-term health.
When Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were on the floor together, though, they were dominant. In over 13,000 playoff and regular-season minutes, San Antonio was plus-10.9 points per 100 possessions with all three. The Spurs had a 56.5 true shooting percentage in those minutes while allowing a 51.0 true shooting percentage (the league average during these seasons was 53.5).
While the landscape of the NBA shifted drastically on multiple occasions throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili-led Spurs remained the one constant. Their third and fourth titles were separated by seven years. That’s longer than several of the trios here played together in total.
Longevity is likely this trio’s strongest argument in this exercise, but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili reached the mountaintop on more than enough occasions to earn their placement here.
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We could’ve gone a number of different directions with the No. 3 guy for the 1990s Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the no-brainers, but who do you pick to round out the trio?
They won three championships with Horace Grant in the early ’90s. He had more total win shares than Pippen during the years all three were together. Dennis Rodman is likely the name most would go with. He’s the greatest rebounder of all-time and won two Defensive Player of the Year awards before joining the Bulls.
But both of those players fell well shy of Toni Kukoc in both box plus/minus and win shares per 48 minutes for the years in which they played alongside MJ and Pippen.
Billed as the “Magic Johnson of Europe,” Kukoc came to the Bulls with multiple Euroleague and FIBA MVP trophies. But like many players who joined forces with established stars in these trios, he had to adjust.
“Maybe I was the Magic of Europe or the Larry of Europe, but here, I’m just another rookie,” Kukoc said at his introductory press conference. “… My biggest reason for coming is to prove to myself that I can play in the NBA.”
It didn’t take him long to do just that, as Kukoc won three straight titles with the Bulls from 1996 to 1998. He was their third-leading scorer through those playoff runs.
Of course, he wasn’t the best member of this trio. Again, Jordan and Pippen were the no-brainers. They were clearly the top two players here and made up arguably the greatest duo in NBA history. The combined numbers of all three over the time in which they played together are impressive:
- Jordan: 29.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals
- Pippen: 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.8 blocks
- Kukoc: 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals
This was the twilight of Jordan’s time with Chicago. He wasn’t quite as prolific as he was in the late 1980s or early ’90s, but he still brought that feeling of inevitability with him to playoff series. He led the NBA in playoff box plus/minus in two of these three postseasons.
Pippen, meanwhile, was nearing the end of his prime but was still one of the game’s premier playmaking forwards and a nightmarish defender. Plus, he had a newfound appreciation for being the No. 1 guy following Jordan’s brief baseball career.
“I think he has a better understanding in terms of the expectations that a player of his caliber, and certainly of my caliber, have to live up to day in and day out,” Jordan said in 1995. “I think that’s one thing that really has made him that much better as a player is the 18 months that I was away, he had to deal with some of the similarities that I had to deal with.”
With two bona fide superstars and one of the progenitors for Europeans in the NBA, Chicago had a trio that few, if any, across NBA history could go toe-to-toe with.