Ranking the Big Threes of All 30 NBA Teams

Do the Cavaliers really have the best Big Three in the NBA, or does another team take the title?

With LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving set to join forces in Cleveland next season, we'll have a new “Big Three” to scrutinize. Teams having multiple All-Stars has existed for decades, but never has having three stars seemed like the baseline for championship hopes as much as it does now.

When the Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team up with Paul Pierce in 2007, the move resulted in a championship that very same season. When LeBron and Chris Bosh took their talents to Miami to play with Dwyane Wade, multiple rings seemed like a foregone conclusion. The Spurs just won their fourth title in the last dozen years on the strength of their homegrown trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (now arguably a “Big Four” with Kawhi Leonard breaking out as well).

While evenly balanced teams filled with role players that play to their strengths still pull off the occasional title (2004 Pistons, 2011 Mavericks), the star-stacking model seems to be all the rage nowadays. The Thunder have been tirelessly lambasted and counted out for letting go of their third star in James Harden. The Rockets don’t seem like they can rest until they find a third piece to put next to Harden and Dwight Howard, having spent the summer chasing the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Even the Cavaliers, having just acquired the best basketball player on the planet, didn’t seem like legit title favorites until they made the proper handshakes to procure Kevin Love.

At the end of the day, obviously a lot more goes into winning a title than having the three best players on the court. Still, it’s an interesting exercise to debate which teams have the best “Big Threes” and if it correlates with the likelihood of them winning a title.

The List

Below you'll find all 30 NBA teams, ranked by the combined nERD of their top three players (arguably). If you’re not familiar with our nERD metric, it’s an all-encompassing stat that represents how many games over .500 a league-average team would finish with the player in question as one of its starters. In other words, it’s a way of ranking players based on overall contribution, instead of focusing on just one aspect of the game like scoring.

For the majority, I used their 2013-14 nERD, but for the few that were injured for the better part of last year (Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Kobe Bryant, etc.), I used the last campaign that they played at least 2,000 minutes.

Obviously, picking the “top three players” on some teams is up for heavy debate, so whenever the choice wasn’t obvious, I made the decision based on things like minutes played and usage percentage. Also, because no NBA data exists yet for the incoming rookies, I left them out of this exercise altogether. Don’t be surprised if guys like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker skew things a bit by the end of this season, but it’s not like they’ll help their teams emerge from the bottom of the rankings just yet anyway. This is a study for this coming season, not long term.

Enough talk, let’s get down to business. Feel free to argue about the results in the comment section (if you like yelling at statistics that were produced by an algorithm and my somewhat arbitrary selection system).

It is August, after all. We need something to talk about.

TeamOption #1nERDOption # 2nERDOption #3nERDTotal nERD

The Big Threes (Top 10)

As expected, the Cavaliers have the best Big Three in the league, according to nERD. It makes complete sense, considering LeBron and Love ranked first and third in the league respectively in our rankings last season. The Thunder, though, certainly give them a run for their money (especially if you consider that last year was a down year for Russell Westbrook, coming off multiple knee surgeries). The team catches a lot of flak for offloading Harden a few seasons ago, but Serge Ibaka is growing into their third star quite admirably. It’ll be interesting to see which trio between the Cavs and Thunder finishes ahead of the other after this season.

The Clippers have the most well-rounded Big Three, coming in as the only team in the league with three players with double-digit nERD scores (there are only 12 such players in the NBA). The Spurs seem to rank low, but that speaks more to the team’s overall depth than anything else (you’ll notice Kawhi Leonard now gets the nod over Ginobili as the third option, after finishing last season with the highest nERD of any Spur and as the NBA Finals MVP). The Bulls rank well, but that’s largely due to the fact that I had to take the last full seasons of Rose and Pau Gasol. Had I taken last year’s numbers, they would’ve finished 25th, so you can only imagine how much health will be a big factor in their success this year.

Other than that, the Raptors ranking so high is quite interesting, considering how young they are and how much room is left for growth, and the Suns are the only team on the list to have a Big Three made up entirely of guys who play the same position. We’ll see if that changes when Eric Bledsoe’s contract situation gets sorted out.

Overall, if you had to name the top 5 title contenders in the league right now, most people would come up with the four teams at the top of this list and the Spurs. Perhaps they're onto something with this star stacking thing.

The Medium Threes (Middle 10)

One would expect the Mavericks to be a little higher here, but our metrics ding Monta Ellis for having a high usage rate coupled with relatively low efficiency. Either way, they’re likely fringe contenders this year compared to the Spurs, Cavs, Thunder, Clippers, and Bulls, so their placement on this list might be telling of that fact. The Pacers are surprisingly high, given that they lost arguably their two best players in Paul George (to injury) and Lance Stephenson (who signed with the Hornets), but the team’s elite defense last year made Roy Hibbert, David West, and George Hill look really good by our metrics.

The most interesting thing to see here, of course, is where nERD ranked the Miami Heat – the team that has had the words “Big Three” associated with it more than any other since 2010. If LeBron had stuck it out in South Beach this year, their Big Three would’ve only finished fourth in these rankings (with the Cavs plummeting). Wade’s rapidly degrading knees and the rise of players on the Thunder and Clippers basically rendered what was once the biggest of Big Threes not so big anymore last season. Perhaps LeBron made the right decision by going home and regrouping with an arguably better trio (particularly long-term), if we continue to believe that this is the way to win rings these days.

The Small Threes (Bottom 10)

This is where things got gross. Picking which three players constituted a Big Three for these teams was like pulling teeth. What do you do with the Milwaukee Bucks? They didn’t have a single player that earned starter minutes on the season and had a positive nERD. The Sixers? I put Nerlens Noel there just on principle because not a single other player on the current Sixers roster outside of Michael Carter-Williams and the incoming Anthony Bennett deserved to be listed (and that’s saying something, considering how bad their nERDs were).

I wanted to put Andre Drummond in the Pistons’ trio, but the other three simply had more minutes and higher usage rates. That will probably change this season, but even if I had put him in place of Greg Monroe (who might be on his way out), they still would’ve finished 26th - in other words, who cares?

It is worth mentioning, though, that the Wizards and Pelicans are the most likely to climb up this list in the future. Anthony Davis is on the verge of megastardom and the players around him are a lot better on paper than they were last season, when the team was absolutely ravished by injuries. As for the Wizards, John Wall and Bradley Beal are inarguably on the rise as one of the best backcourts in the NBA and will likely have better nERDs to show for it next season.