The Big Threes

by on March 2nd, 2015
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Featuring a special feature contribution by Gary Ayd

Selecting the five greatest trios of teammates to ever play in the NBA is a lot like trying to select your five best girlfriends — all of them were good. They all did a lot of great things. But at the end of the day, there is always a pecking order of the best of that elite group. Below is just that a subjective list of the five greatest triumvirates In NBA history that meet the following criteria:

1. Played together for a minimum of four years.

2. Won at least one title together.

3. At least two of the three are or someday will be Hall of Famers.

5. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant: Chicago Bulls, 1988-’93

List Placement Reasoning:

Many may be surprised to see Jordan occupying the bottom spot on the list or to see the name of Horace Grant instead of Dennis Rodman. The facts do not lie however. Despite Jordan’s place as the games all-time greatest player in the eyes of so many, what he and his Bulls did in both of their three-peats pails in comparison to what the other great dynasties on this list have been done when you factor in things like all-pro teams, combined points scored, longevity and balance. Basketball is after all a team game and we are talking about trios, NOT one player. Jordan’s comrades were simply not good enough to allow Mike’s trinity to be any higher. Grant was selected in place of Rodman, due to the fact that he played with Jordan and Pippen longer (six years instead of three), and was overall a more complete player than Rodman.

Accomplishments and Accolades:

During their six year run together the three accumulated three world championships, (’91-93) three league MVP awards, nine All-Star game appearances. In addition they were honored with seven selections to the first or second all-NBA teams and scored a combined 29,303 points. The trio was also responsible for 56.5% of the total offensive output for the Bulls during that six-year stretch.

4. Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Bob Cousy: Boston Celtics, 1958-’63

List Placement Reasoning:

Cited by many NBA history buffs and grey-bearded sportswriters as the first great trio, it was not a question about if to include them on this list, but rather where. It was hard for me to put such a dynamic group near the bottom given what they accomplished. At the end of the day, however, when you factor in the supporting cast they had to work with, it seemed like the right thing to do. During the course of their six years together, Russell, Jones and Cousy, all Hall of Famers played with seven other future Hall of Fame teammates. Having this many great teammates does not diminish the magnitude of their accomplishments, but it does diminish their individual responsibility in achieving them. Thus dropping them to fourth on our list of NBA trios.

Accomplishments and Accolades:

History tells us that the magic formula for winning championships in the NBA in the late ’50s and early ’60s was to trot out this trio and let them do their thing. This formula resulted in an astounding five titles in six seasons together as well as four MVP’s for Russell. For decoration, the triumvirate also decided to throw in 14 All-Star appearances, 10 all-NBA selections and 22,245 points.

3. Bill Russell, Sam Jones and John Havlicek: Boston Celtics, 1963-’69

List Placement Reasoning:

It may seem redundant to have a second trio that is two-thirds the same as the previous one, but that is what happens when you win 11 titles in 13 years. Bill Russell, you and a few special guests (let’s call them VIPs), get extra attention on our list. The fact was when going through the numbers, I could not in good faith deem one Russell led big three better than the other. I rated this group slightly higher than the first, mainly because the numbers where slightly better. Another consideration of the ranking was the fact that excluding Russell, Havlicek was a better player than either Jones or Cousy were, thus putting his group one notch higher than Cousy’s.

Accomplishments and Accolades:

Much like the trio that preceded them both chronologically and on this list, Russell, Jones and “Hondo” won the NBA crown every year but one (1967, Philadelphia) during their seven years together. Russell also added two more MVP awards to the four he had won previously giving him a total of six for his Hall of Fame career. Collectively, this group would also tally 16 All-Star selections, 14 all-NBA selections and nearly 29,000 combined points.

2. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy: L.A. Lakers, 1983-’89

List Placement Reasoning:

The placement of this group on this list really needs no explanation. They are by any measure, statistical or otherwise one of truly great trios of all-time. The decision to include them in the top two was not hard, but choosing which spot to pencil them in for, was probably the most difficult decision that had to be made while compiling this list. I can tell you for certain that I flip-flopped on this one more than once. When push came to shove however, I choose to rank them second, simply because they had far more help than did the next team on this list.

Accomplishments and Accolades:

The group known as “Showtime” won three titles in seven years together, and the lead pairing of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar won five together during the decade of the 80’s. James Worthy, aka “Big Game James”, joined the team in the ’82-83 season as a first round pick out of North Carolina, and made an instant impact with the up-tempo Lakers, scoring 13.4PPG as a rookie. The trio’s most dominant year came in 1987, when they accounted for 52% of the offense en route to their second title as a unit. All-tolled Johnson, Jabbar and Worthy accumulated three MVPs, 18 All-Star appearances, 11 all-NBA selections and 29,197 points playing together. Still after accomplishing all that it was not enough to unseat their #1 rival, and most dominant NBA triumvirate of all-time…

1. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish: Boston Celtics, 1981-’92

List Placement Reasoning:

When I really sat down and analyzed the numbers, accomplishments and the rosters, I quickly realized just how great this trio was. It is not enough to say that they scored a bunch of points (which they did) or that they won multiple titles, (ditto), but you also must take into account the fact that they often did it while overcoming significant deficiencies in depth and athleticism. Compared with the Lakers, who sported players like Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper and Byron Scott, the Celtics managed to win with a supporting cast of often injured, faded stars like Bill Walton, Pete Maravich and Nate Archibald either starting or coming off the bench. The lone exception to this rule was Dennis Johnson, whom Bird later called the best teammate he ever played with. Coupled with the incredible length of time they were together, (12 years in all) and Boston’s “Big Three” of the ’80s gets the nod as the greatest trio of teammates in NBA history.

Accomplishments and Accolades:

During their decade-plus run together, Bird, McHale, and Parish accomplished far too many things to chronicle here (trust me you would get bored reading such a long list jammed with so many numbers). So I decided to just include the real important and impressive ones. The trio went to the NBA finals four times together, winning three times. They tallied three straight MVP awards (Larry Bird ’84-86), an astounding 26 All-Star appearances, 11 all-NBA nods and an otherworldly 53,004 points scored.

More impressive still is the fact that they played such a huge percentage of their respective careers together. Larry Bird played just one of his 13 NBA seasons without McHale and Parish, likewise McHale played just one year without Bird. Parish is a bit of an exception, having played for four teams in his 22-year career. However, the bulk of that time was spent with Bird, McHale and the Celtics and he is no doubt much more known for what he did in those 12 seasons in Boston than what he did in his other seven years with Golden State (’76-80), Charlotte (’94-96) and Chicago (’96-97).

This incredible trio hit its apex in the ’85-86 season during which they accounted for an impressive 56.7% of the Celtic offense on the way to their final title together. The next season, despite losing four games to two to the Lakers in the NBA finals, the Big Three would score an unfathomable 5487 points which translated to an equally, if not more impressive 63.4% of the team’s total offense. Any team would be considered lucky to be headlined by any of the above-mentioned threesomes.

Picking one over the other to make an analogy was like trying to pick Beyonce over Jessica Alba, or a Ferrari over a Porsche; you can’t go wrong with any of them. Now as a wise man once said…let the debating begin.

Gary Ayd of ESPN Radio Southside heavily contributed to this column.


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