Byline: Jon Whited, new contributor
What makes a champion? Like Coke, people have been after this secret formula for years. Tom Brady would have you believe that it abstaining from strawberries and magic water pills that cure concussions. If you’re the Yankees, you probably think you can throw money at the problem and it will eventually solve itself. Obviously, there’s no real right answer, but in basketball, a sport where the stars are easy to identify even to someone who has never watched the sport, the answer is simple: talent. Talent wins championships, more often than not, and if you have 2 of the top three players on the floor at any given time, objectively, your odds are pretty good. But the real question when it comes to the NBA and talent acquisition: how much is too much?
In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he theorizes that you build championship teams around one great player, surrounding him with one or two elite sidekicks. Bolstering his point, this has rung true for every champion since 1980 (think Kareem/Magic, Bird/McHale/Parish, Pippen/Jordan, Kobe/Shaq, LeBron/Wade/Bosh) with exception of the 2004 Pistons. However, ever since LeBron decided he was taking his talents to South Beach, every organization has been trying to construct a superteam with 3 or more all-stars. The Warriors have been the most successful – and mostly homegrown – iteration, constructing a juggernaut built around 4 of the 15 best players in the league with a large assist to the largest historical jump in the salary cap precipitated due to the league’s new TV contract. This is a large reason why the Warriors are favored to win another championship in 2018 – their third in four years. The rest of the league has been trying to keep up by forming their own superteams (see: 2018 Rockets, 2018 Thunder). The Cavaliers have been the only team to dethrone the Warriors since 2015 and their Big 3 of LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love needed 7 games and a last second three to upend their Warrior counterparts (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green).
As he continues to delve deeper into discovering the proverbial “Secret” to winning basketball, Simmons goes on to discuss Pat Riley’s theory on the “Disease of More.” Riley – a championship coach 5 times over – theorized that if a team wins a championship one year, the next year every player on the team wants more – more minutes, more shots, more fame, more women, and more money. The Disease of More can, and has, derailed championship caliber teams with its underlying selfish streak. While Riley speaks of championships when discussing his theory, your team doesn’t have to win a championship to suffer from the Disease of More. Any time a franchise forms a super-team through free agency or trade, they have to fight this Disease of More to reach their aspirations of winning a title. The stars need to check their egos at the door and make sacrifices for the team to overcome their more self-centered goals and reach the pinnacle of team success.
As mentioned above, the Warriors were able to take advantage of the salary cap jump to form their current big 4, adding perennial MVP candidate Kevin Durant before the 2016 season. Meaning now, even the Warriors are really a big 2 (Durant and Curry) with two of the most overqualified role players in the league (Green and Thompson). Without the TV contract loophole, it is generally only possible to pay 3 players near max salary and still have enough cap room to build a full roster. However, one could make the argument that it makes more sense to build around 2 max players and use the extra money from the 3rd star rather than construct a Big 3 as the Thunder have done this year. The Disease of More normally becomes a bigger problem the more stars you have on your team, but the Warriors have clearly overcome that hurdle. The real question is how?
Throughout this article, we’ll dive into each significant Big 3 formed via trade or free agency – current and historical. Looking at the advanced stats – particularly usage rates (the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) and PER (player efficiency rating) – of each Big 3 member can help contextualize why a team ultimately succeeded – or failed – at overcoming the Disease of More. Using the Warriors as our control, or test, case, I have compiled below a list of the 10 most significant “Big 3s” created since the 1995-1996 season (when the league expanded from 27 teams to 29). You will notice that these 10 trios achieved different levels of success with varying levels of sacrifice. For the most part, at least one member of each had to make a big sacrifice, if not 2 or all 3 members.
Let’s first take a look at the teams that did not win a championship. For reference, the league average usage rate is 20 and PER is 15.
|Previous Year||During Big 3 (avg)||Total Change||Previous Year||During Big 3 (avg)||Total Change|
|Usage Rate||Usage Rate||Change||PER||PER||Change|
|** – used 97-98 season for Cassell’s previous year due to shortened injury riddled season|
- The Clippers (2011 – 2016; Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan)
We start our journey in the abandoned township of Lob City. You will notice this is the team that sacrificed the least with a total 6.2 increase in usage rate between the 3 players, by far the highest total and an easy explainer as to why they weren’t able to win a championship. Each of their PERs increased and they had the highest collective increase in PER. This is more indicative of each player entering their primes during their Big 3 era whereas the majority of the other players’ were winding down their careers. We included DeAndre Jordan as part of the Big 3 but he was really a glorified role player who rebounded above the league average, protected the rim, and finished pick and rolls with devastating efficiency (led the league in FG% three straight years). It was really a big 2 with the offense running through Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Blake’s usage remained roughly the same as previous years and Paul’s and Jordan’s rose primarily because how successful their pick and roll was. There was always drama surrounding this team and it is partly because they suffered from the Disease of More, but a big reason they didn’t win a championship is because the Western Conference was completely loaded during their Big 3 era, and other trios were simply better.
- The Bucks (1999-2003; Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson)
This might come as a surprise to some, but this iteration of the Bucks was the only other team that had a net positive usage rate and PER change – albeit just barely – for their Big 3. There was almost no change in usage rate for this era partly because the pieces meshed well together so there was no need to make significant sacrifices. The increase in PER was all attributable to a young, still sharpshooting, Ray Allen having entered the league three years earlier, and just beginning his “prime”. From that basis, an argument could be made that Cassell and Robinson should have sacrificed even more of their usage to give the young, athletic, and upcoming shooting guard more looks, especially considering he was their most efficient scorer. At the end of the day, the Bucks were not able to put it all together and failed to make a NBA finals during their run and how much of that one might attribute to officiating depends entirely on whether you were born inside or outside of Milwaukee. They lost in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals in seven games to a Philadelphia 76ers team that featured Allen Iverson and not much else. The Bucks had ample opportunity to make the Finals from 2000-2002 with a weak Eastern Conference but were ultimately unable to put it all together to challenge the defending champion Lakers.
- The Rockets (1996 – 1998, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler)
After their two title runs, the Rockets constructed their own Big 3 in the 96-97 season, trading four players to the Phoenix Suns for forward Charles Barkley. They wanted to add the Round Mound of Rebound to the aging championship duo of Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon (If we judged teams on nicknames alone, this squad probably would have won in at least one of their years together.). Looking at their usage rates, Barkley and Hakeem saw significant drops in order to mesh with the rest of the team – and also to accommodate for their aging bodies – while Drexler’s usage, surprisingly, ticked up slightly in what would be his penultimate season. The overall drop in usage suggests these Rockets teams did not suffer from the Disease of More; however, they were still unable to capture a championship, losing to the Utah Jazz on a back-breaking three point game winner by John Stockton. We also have to remember that all three players were past their primes, Hakeem caught the injury bug, and they existed in an absolutely stacked Western Conference with the likes of the aforementioned Stockton/Malone Jazz, the Spurs with dominating twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and the – at the time – young, up-and-coming Shaq/Kobe Lakers squads.
- The Thunder v 2.0 (2017 – ?; Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony)
We are going to include the Thunder in our non-champion group even though the season has not ended. I can hear the cows in Oklahoma mooing their displeasure at all the haste. But it seems pretty safe to assume – given their track record – they will not come out of the Western Conference and win a championship. The Thunder formed their Big 3 with three ball centric, ball dominant players, who last year had a combined usage rate of 99.7. For context, that means no other starters in OKC would have even the dream of a chance to touch the ball if they did not adjust their games. They were naturally going to have to sacrifice the most, not just to mesh together, but to win at all. Between George, Westbrook and Anthony, each of their PERs has dropped as part of their adjustments. The Thunder got off to a slow start as Melo was unable to accept his role as a 3rd option and let the team run through Russ. Through the first two months of the season, the two had been involved in zero screen-and-roll plays together – indicative of their me-first, egocentric play style. Their season turned around when Melo was able to accept a less offensive input similar to his role on the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams. Now, he is a deadly spot shooter and his game doesn’t revolve around isolations, but working off the ball. Melo willingness to take a backseat – and an uptick in defensive effort – has turned their season around, making them a legitimate threat to make at least the Western Conference Finals and compete against the Warriors, but I still don’t think any team, including the Thunder, has a chance to dethrone the champs.
- The Thunder v 1.0 (2008 – 2013; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden)
There was one other big 3 I wanted to look at that didn’t fit the mold of the rest of the Big 3s, the earlier Thunder teams with the Big 3 of Harden, Westbrook, and Durant. Below I compiled the average usage rates and PERs during their Big 3 era and after.
|During Big 3 (avg)||After Big 3 (avg)||Total Change||During Big 3 (avg)||After Big 3 (avg)||Total Change|
|Usage Rate||Usage Rate||Change||PER||PER||Change|
The trade of James Harden has been long questioned, rightfully so, as those three players are by any measure all top 10 players and perennial MVP candidates. After making the 2012 Finals and losing to the Heat’s version of a Big 3, James Harden was traded for 25 cents on the dollar to keep Serge Ibaka, prevent the amnesty of Kendrick Perkins and avoid the luxury tax. During his time on the Thunder, Harden sacrificed the most, coming off the bench as a Super 6th man, running the second unit when Durant and Westbrook rested. You’ll notice Harden’s usage rate and PER skyrocketed once he was traded indicating that he needed a large role to reach his peak performance. Westbrook also saw large increases in usage and PER, entering his prime after the trade of Harden. Durant saw a matching decrease in usage rate both to accommodate Westbrook’s jump and when meshing with the Warriors superteam. His PER, however, has jumped as he entered his prime as well, winning an MVP in 2014. The Thunder seemingly had a great dynamic and balance during their 2012 Finals run but despite high hopes for the future they failed to capture a championship in their years together. It’s seems likely that Westbrook would have wanted a bigger role eventually especially given his current on-court disposition. Likewise, Harden would have had to be moved into the starting lineup if he displayed even one iota any of the offensive prowess we’re seeing now. And where would that have left Durant, possibly the most versatile, talented and well-rounded of the three? Would they have been able to overcome the Disease of More? We will never know but I think the talent wins out – but, it would have been a tough balancing act with those three talents.
And now we move from pretenders to contenders – let’s take a look at the teams that were able to overcome the Disease of More to win at least one championship:
|Previous Year||During Big 3 (avg)||Total Change||Previous Year||During Big 3 (avg)||Total Change|
|Usage Rate||Usage Rate||Change||PER||PER||Change|
|** – used 92-93 season for Jordan’s previous year due to shortened comeback season|
- The Bulls v2.0 (1996-1998; Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman)
Arguably the most successful team on our list, winning three straight championships from 96-98, this version of the Bulls has long been called one of the greatest teams of all time. They formed the Big 3 by trading for Rodman before the 95-96 season and the team came together immediately. This is mainly due to Rodman and Pippen not necessarily needing the ball to effective. Rodman provided elite post defense and rebounding on both ends while Pippen was unleashed as a destructive defensive force on the perimeter, and was perfectly at home being a playmaking second option to Michael Jordan. Out of each of the Big 3s formed, this trio made the most sense from a team standpoint as each of the players complimented each other, operated in different areas of the court, and played elite defense. Each of their usage rates and PER saw a small dip leading to a collective 4.3 decline in usage rate and a collective 7.2 decrease in PER with no significant decline in play by any of the three players. While their usage rates wouldn’t indicate much sacrifice, they each understood the Disease of More and played their roles perfectly, which led to a 72 win season, three consecutive NBA titles and the title of most successful Big 3 of this post-expansion era.
- The Celtics (2007 – 2011; Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce)
When this version of the Celtics came together, precipitated by two gargantuan trades in the summer of 2007, they coined the term “Big 3” and immediately led to teams trying to mimic the Celtics and their success throughout the following season (Notable trades that year: Rashard Lewis to the Magic, Ben Wallace to the Cavaliers, Jason Kidd to the Mavs, Shaq to the Suns, Pau to the Lakers). The Celtics had immediate success, winning the 2008 title in their first season together, taking down the rival Lakers in six games. You’ll notice that out of all the teams we looked at it, this Big 3 sacrificed the most in terms of usage and PER across the board. Ray Allen made the biggest sacrifice as he didn’t need the ball all the time to be effective given his otherworldly shooting ability. Pierce led the team in usage rate during the Big 3 era and was the go-to scorer at the end of the game but still made sacrifices was made to accommodate Garnett and Allen. Defense was really the identity of this team and Garnett brought a defensive mindset that was contagious across the board. Pierce all but ceded the team to Garnett as their de-facto alpha, but in reality, it didn’t matter who was running the show. The team’s motto that season was “UBUNTU”, a Swahili term for “together” they coined during a slate of pre-season games overseas. These three superstars realized that defense and sacrifice -not just for each other, but the whole team was the only way to reach their ultimate goal. It’s why players like Tony Allen, James Posey and Eddie House were able to have the confidence to perform at a high level during the regular season, playoffs and finals. And as the Celtics would find out, that was the perfect recipe to take down the next team we are going to talk about, the 2008 Lakers.
- The Lakers (2008 – 2013; Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum)
Created in direct response to the Celtics formation – and Kobe’s offseason trade demand – the Lakers formed their Big 3 with a midseason blockbuster trade to acquire Pau Gasol at the deadline for Kwame Brown, a picture of fat Marc Gasol and a Trapper Keeper full of used band-aids. A young Andrew Bynum was still yet to enter his prime – if such a thing ever existed – and Kobe Bryant was an unquestioned alpha dog, but approaching the end of his prime. Bynum’s usage rate and PER both saw significant increases as he enjoyed his best years during the Big 3 era and benefited from playing with fellow postmate Pau Gasol. Gasol, a consummate teammate, saw the largest decrease in both usage and PER which allowed Bynum to flourish in the low post as Gasol operated from the free throw line, extended. Kobe, a notorious ball hog with a reputation for being difficult to play with, would not – and did not – sacrifice for this team. Though his usage remained essentially unchanged, his PER dipped slightly. This was still Kobe’s team, but the towering pillars of Gasol and Bynum were the reason they were able to win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Ultimately, Gasol had to make a sacrifice to allow Bynum to reach his potential and without his sacrifice this team would not have been able to reach their peak.
- The Heat (2010 – 2014; LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh)
In the summer of 2010, the Heat formed the most infamous Big 3 of all time as LeBron James – the consensus best player in the world at the time – and perennial all-pro Chris Bosh opted to take less money to team with Dwayne Wade in Miami. And they promised not one, not two, but 7 championships. By all measures, each of these three players was in their primes when they formed this Big 3. At the time, LeBron and Wade were 2 of the top 3 players in the NBA on both ends of the floor. Similar to the Thunder, prior to teaming together, they had a combined usage rate of 97.1, unsustainable by any measure. Success would require each to take a significant sacrifice in usage rate with Bosh and Wade – the latter perhaps a little begrudgingly – taking the biggest hit. Each player saw their PER decline, but Bosh’s fell the most by far. Bosh had to sacrifice the most for this team to be successful, eschewing his previous role as a low-post dominant player in a move to the perimeter, necessary to unclog the lane for LeBron and Wade drives into the paint. This makes sense in retrospect because this was clearly LeBron and Wade’s team through sheer force of personality alone. And to his credit, Chris Bosh became his version of an ultimate role player, committing himself on the defensive end and greatly improving his spot-up and three point shooting. The most telling stat is that in the biggest game of the Heat Big 3 era, game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Bosh scored 0 points and the Heat were still able to beat the Spurs to capture their 2nd and final championship. While by all accounts, the Heat’s big 3 was a successful experiment – reaching four Finals and winning two championships of their predicted seven – but by all intents and purposes, this really a dynamic duo with Bosh playing the role of overqualified glue guy.
SPECIAL ENTRY: The Spurs (2002 – 2016; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili)
The Spurs don’t fit the mold of the other triumvirates included in our analysis – being as “homegrown” as your Grandma’s spice garden – so they’re exempted from our statistical analysis, as sort of an exception that proves the rule. But writing about successful Big 3’s without mentioning the Spurs would amount to near heresy, especially the closer you get to the Riverwalk. This group had by far the longest tenure of any other Big 3, topping out at 14 years and easily dwarfing the others on this list. Over that time, these Spurs had a winning percentage of .689, won 50 games for 17 straight seasons (and counting) and won 4 titles. As much as there can be a star in the Spurs factory style system, Tim, Tony and Manu stood out just as much for their sacrifices as their talent. Out of any superstar, Tim Duncan understood the Disease of More better than anyone making him into the ultimate teammate. A value instilled by his grizzled coach – the inimitable Gregg Popovich – Duncan went as far as turning down larger contracts to make sure the team wouldn’t suffer. This stands in stark contrast to players like Kobe, LeBron, Shaq, Garnett and others who made sure to “get while the getting was good”, as they say. Manu Ginobili, perhaps the most accomplished player in the history of Argentinian basketball, has served as a prototypical sixth man through the back half of his career. Later in his career, Parker – a former Finals MVP – took a lesser role to make room for an emerging Kawhi Leonard, a sacrifice that produced a title in 2014 and a Finals MVP for Leonard. These three were able to win with some strikingly different teams around them through two decades, a shining testament to their understanding of the Disease of More. We were going to avoid stats, but here’s one worth mentioning: on their 2013-2014 championship team, no player had a usage rate above 24% and the only rotation player with usage rate below 17% was Matt Bonner, a sharpshooter and not much else. This is symmetry likely never-before-seen from a 55-win team. There are more dominant teams, more impressive seasons, more impactful players from year to year but an NBA fan could set his watch to the Spurs – an accomplishment they proudly hang their hat on, with a ring for each finger.
10. The Cavaliers (2014 – 2017; LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love)
After taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron decided it was time to return home to Cleveland and helped manage the construction of another Big 3 joining Kyrie Irving and later, through trade, Kevin Love. LeBron and Kyrie’s usage rates both ticked up slightly indicating, their roles did not change from their prior teams. Kyrie put up good stats on a bad team to this point, and LeBron was LeBron. Their offensive prowess was unquestioned. The odd man out here was clearly Kevin Love. Love’s usage rate plummeted 5 points from his final season on Minnesota while his PER dropped an equally precipitous seven points. To anyone who watched this team play, especially during the postseason, this should not be a surprise. During the playoffs, it was LeBron’s team and Kyrie was the ultimate sidekick, the Robin to his Batman. Any time LeBron was fatigued, he would defer to Kyrie as the number one scoring options and let him run the show as he saw fit. During those same playoffs, Love was a glorified spot up shooter and rebounder who constantly did not play in crunch time due to his underwhelming defense. Whether the team itself belonged to Kyrie or LeBron is debatable but they both were clearly invaluable to the team’s success, best evidenced by the 2016 Finals, where LeBron won MVP and Kyrie hit possibly the most momentous game winning shot in NBA history. Kevin Love sacrificed for this team to reach the pinnacle, but was able to make the final stop on Steph Curry to lock up the championship. But you have to ask yourself would they have been better served to use the money spent on Kevin Love on role players that would have better complimented Kyrie and LeBron, or even just keeping the player they traded for Love – rookie Andrew Wiggins.
As we saw, each of the teams had varying levels of success. On paper, each of these Big 3s looked unbeatable, but even when you team up three superstars, there is still only one ball and only so many shots to go around. The successful teams on this list were able to recognize that fact as immutable, adapt their games to it and Big 3s morphed into dynamic duos (both all pros generally) with a studly third link subjugating one area of their game for another (or in the Lakers case a Big 1 with two seven-foot, All-Star role players running the high-low). The teams that were able to overcome the Disease of More and capture championships understood that sacrifice was the only way for them to win. Should teams seek to emulate this strategy? Steve Kerr – former Bulls guard and current Warriors coach – probably understands the Disease of More better than anybody, with six championship rings to his name (four as a player, two as a coach). He’s found ways to empower his players while still convincing them to do what’s best for the team, not themselves. Their reward: three straight trips to the Finals with reservations for a fourth. Yes, there is a disease of more, but the Dubs have found a treatment plan that works – and the league has never been healthier.