The National Basketball Association (NBA) is superstar-driven league. Think Mikan, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe. The team with the best player usually wins the championship, or so the theory goes.
In recent years, some teams have decided that having the best trio of players was the ticket to success. Hence, the momentum to build instant contenders by assembling three (3) star players who are all in their prime. Be it through the NBA Draft, trades, or free agency, franchises are increasingly following the so-called ‘Big Three’ model to excite their fan base and win titles.
However, a quick look at NBA history reveals that having three All-Stars on the team does not always lead to the desired outcome:
- The 1969-71 Los Angeles Lakers, with Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor lost two championship finals to teams with less talent but arguably more grit and determination (N.B. L.A. did win in 1972 with West and Chamberlain alone).
- If the NBA ever had a prototypical ‘Big Three’, it was the Boston Celtics 1980s front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Three championships and five Finals appearances between 1981 and 1987 are a tremendous feat. However, they were denied dynasty status by the Los Angeles Lakers of Kareem and Magic, who triumphed over Boston in two of three classic battles.
- The ‘New Big Three’, a.k.a. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce revived a fading Celtics’ franchise prior to the 2007-08 season. With one championship (2008), another Finals appearance (2010), and a seven-game Eastern Conference loss (2012) to show over a five-year span, Boston’s experiment has been mostly successful. Still, advanced age, critical injuries and a weak supporting cast conspire to keep it from the upper echelons of basketball greatness.
The NBA’s true dynasties (1950s and 1960s Boston Celtics; 1980s ‘ShowTime’ Lakers; 1990s Chicago Bulls; 2000-2002 Los Angeles Lakers) usually had one or two Hall of Fame players in the line-up, supported by role players who adjusted their game to suit their team’s needs. Sometimes, it would take bitter defeats over several years before finally getting to the top. Yet no matter how difficult the struggle, nobody was ever bigger than the team.
Basketball is indeed a team game. While strong individual performances can influence the final outcome, winning a best-of-seven series demands steady contributions from all players and coaches, up to and including the so-called twelfth man.
The San Antonio Spurs, with four championships between 1999 and 2007, are perhaps the best example of balanced ‘Big Three’ leadership (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and complementary players working within a winning system. The ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons of 1989-90 also fit the bill.
Today, the NBA’s best known ‘Big Three’ – league MVP Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – has once again propelled the Miami Heat into the NBA Finals. Yet, after a crushing defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the jury is still out on its ability to close the deal with a mediocre supporting cast.
Arguably, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s power threesome of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden can match or surpass whatever Miami’s trio can offer. Given OKC’s deeper bench and veteran championship experience (Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins), it remains to be seen whether Lebron and company can win the big prize… one year later than scheduled.