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NBA Championship Big Threes - Not all built the same, not all dominant in the same way either

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How did teams win over the last few decades? Can the Jazz replicate that?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is a fantastic league, and every NBA Playoffs is more than just a competition between the best teams - but a spectacle. It's where heroes are made, and storylines are written into the big book of basketball history. Strategy goes up against defensive breakdowns. Star players go up against systems meant to thwart them. Road teams look to quiet the crowd, and the home team game operations staff want the busywork of having to stay after the game and clean up balloons and confetti hours after the final buzzer. Through all the excitement there's sadly only one winner. That, perhaps, is the only static thing about this league which has persisted and evolved for decades. Today, with the assistance of mass global marketing, the league is a player recognition device. The best players today have a reach players from previous generations couldn't even dream of. Furthermore, if we believe what we are being sold, the players today benefit from rules and system changes that favor their dominance. In the 80s you could "get away with" guarding Magic Johnson with Bob Hansen. Today's mortal players have nowhere to hide from the titans of this era.

Perhaps another remnant of multiple eras would be the need for at least a "Big Three" to help get your team over the edge of also-rans into the land of eternal champions. So let's look at the "Big Threes" of each championship team from the modern era till today (1980 NBA Playoffs, to last season). That's 36 Big Threes, and while not every team is just three players, for the most part there were three clear-cut leaders on most of these clubs. Exceptions did pop up (Jamaal Wilkes or Norm Nixon in '82? Dennis Rodman or Toni Kukoc in '98?), but I resolved that issue by going with either star power, or actual playoff production for that year. This is a numbers based exercise, and there's a bias to the players who eventually put up the larger playoff numbers. (Ray Allen over Rajon Rondo in '08, Jason Terry over Tyson Chandler in '11) I didn't penalize bench players, and recognize that production and rate of production both matter. (And for the record, I summed all the stats of the top seven minute getters for each championship team to find out which guys truly were worthy of being called a part of the "Big Three".)

This exercise looks at all the minutes played by these players, their combined minutes per game, and more interesting to me -- an estimation of how many of the team's total possible minutes went to them. (Estimated on total number of playoff games played by that team in that championship season, omitting overtimes.) Some teams really leaned on their Big Three, other teams had much more depth and didn't need to. Surprisingly, in some cases a big three wouldn't play a huge percentage of the total possible minutes while still producing MORE than other big threes out there who did. Ultimately, the quality of the players matter the most. And that's what divides champions from footnotes.

So here are the big threes from each champion for the last 36 seasons. I've added the simple stats (I didn't hand calculate a Big Three PER, or anything). One of the simple stats I've included is BARPS, which is just BPG+APG+RPG+PPG+SPG; and also, that value divided by minutes played. It's simple, it's fun, and it's educational.

Year TM Championship "Big Threes" G Min Min% MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG BARPS /min
1 1980 LAL Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 16 1928 50.2% 120.5 68.5 29.8 15.3 5.6 4.3 123.56 1.03
2 1981 BOS Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird, Robert Parish 17 1840 45.1% 108.2 53.1 29.9 9.9 4.2 4.2 101.35 0.94
3 1982 LAL Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 14 1604 47.7% 114.6 58.1 22.9 21.1 5.5 3.6 111.14 0.97
4 1983 PHI Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Moses Malone 13 1500 48.1% 115.4 60.7 26.5 11.9 4.6 4.2 107.85 0.93
5 1984 BOS Dennis Johnson , Larry Bird, Robert Parish 23 2638 47.8% 114.7 58.2 25.2 11.3 4.4 3.3 102.39 0.89
6 1985 LAL Magic Johnson, James Worthy , Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 19 1923 42.2% 101.2 60.9 20.2 21.4 3.8 2.8 109.05 1.08
7 1986 BOS Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale 18 2200 50.9% 122.2 65.8 22.2 16.8 4.7 3.3 112.78 0.92
8 1987 LAL Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 18 1906 44.1% 105.9 64.6 20.2 17.7 3.7 3.6 109.67 1.04
9 1988 LAL Magic Johnson, Byron Scott , James Worthy 24 2758 47.9% 114.9 60.5 15.4 19.5 4.2 1.2 100.83 0.88
10 1989 DET Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer 17 1750 42.9% 102.9 45.9 15.1 15.8 2.7 0.8 80.24 0.78
Year TM Championship "Big Threes" G Min Min% MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG BARPS /min
11 1990 DET Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer 20 2179 45.4% 109.0 49.8 18.2 14.3 4.4 1.3 87.90 0.81
12 1991 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant 17 2059 50.5% 121.1 66.1 23.4 16.4 5.7 2.8 114.35 0.94
13 1992 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant 22 2675 50.7% 121.6 65.3 23.8 15.5 5.0 3.6 113.14 0.93
14 1993 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant 19 2223 48.8% 117.0 65.8 21.9 14.0 5.4 2.8 109.84 0.94
15 1994 HOU Vernon Maxwell, Otis Thorpe, Hakeem Olajuwon 23 2723 49.3% 118.4 54.0 24.5 10.8 3.2 4.5 97.00 0.82
16 1995 HOU Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry , Hakeem Olajuwon 22 2619 49.6% 119.1 66.5 24.4 13.0 4.1 4.7 112.64 0.95
17 1996 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman 18 2095 48.5% 116.4 55.1 27.2 12.1 5.2 1.7 101.28 0.87
18 1997 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman 19 2092 45.9% 110.1 54.4 23.1 10.0 3.6 2.1 93.16 0.85
19 1998 CHI Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc 21 2345 46.5% 111.7 62.3 16.1 11.6 4.9 2.0 96.90 0.87
20 1999 SAS Avery Johnson, Tim Duncan, David Robinson 17 1986 48.7% 116.8 51.5 23.8 12.8 3.6 5.1 96.71 0.83
Year TM Championship "Big Threes" G Min Min% MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG BARPS /min
21 2000 LAL Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Shaquille O'Neal 23 2623 47.5% 114.0 63.4 23.7 9.4 2.6 4.0 103.00 0.90
22 2001 LAL Derek Fisher , Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal 16 1926 50.2% 120.4 73.3 26.5 12.3 3.3 3.2 118.56 0.98
23 2002 LAL Kobe Bryant, Robert Horry, Shaquille O'Neal 19 2312 50.7% 121.7 64.4 26.5 10.6 3.7 4.3 109.47 0.90
24 2003 SAS Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson , Tim Duncan 24 2646 45.9% 110.3 52.2 22.2 11.5 2.9 3.8 92.63 0.84
25 2004 DET Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace 23 2729 49.4% 118.7 48.2 21.9 12.0 4.4 2.6 89.13 0.75
26 2005 SAS Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili , Tim Duncan 23 2499 45.3% 108.7 61.6 21.1 11.3 2.3 2.6 98.91 0.91
27 2006 MIA Dwyane Wade, Antoine Walker , Shaquille O'Neal 23 2580 46.7% 112.2 60.2 21.3 9.9 2.7 3.0 98.00 0.87
28 2007 SAS Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan 20 2089 43.5% 104.5 59.6 20.3 12.7 3.4 3.3 99.25 0.95
29 2008 BOS Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett 26 2964 47.5% 114.0 55.6 19.3 10.7 3.4 1.7 90.62 0.79
30 2009 LAL Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol 23 2606 47.2% 113.3 60.8 25.3 9.8 3.2 4.2 103.30 0.91
Year TM Championship "Big Threes" G Min Min% MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG BARPS /min
31 2010 LAL Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace , Pau Gasol 23 2675 48.5% 116.3 60.0 21.0 11.1 3.3 3.3 98.70 0.85
32 2011 DAL Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki 21 2254 44.7% 107.3 54.5 14.6 13.0 3.7 1.2 87.05 0.81
33 2012 MIA Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh 23 2329 42.2% 101.3 61.7 19.7 10.3 3.8 2.6 98.09 0.97
34 2013 MIA Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh 23 2493 45.2% 108.4 53.2 20.1 12.7 4.4 3.4 93.74 0.86
35 2014 SAS Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard , Tim Duncan 23 2207 40.0% 96.0 47.9 17.9 8.4 2.7 2.0 78.83 0.82
36 2015 GSW Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green 21 2371 47.0% 112.9 60.6 19.0 14.1 4.4 2.2 100.38 0.89

On first blush, Gregg Popovich doesn't lean on his Big Three for heavy minutes. You didn't need to read this article to find that out. And I didn't need to spend hours hand calculating the top seven players from every championship team over the last 36 years to do so either. There are some teams that did lean heavily on them, where the Big Three amassed more than 50% of the total available minutes for that club in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers ('80, '01, '02), Boston Celtics ('86), and Chicago Bulls ('91, '92). That only makes sense when you have obvious Hall of Famers on that squad and poor depth.

Statistically, the teams that played a higher pace (not indicated on the table) obviously put up the larger numbers. Slower, defense first teams are penalized here, like the '04 Detroit Pistons. But if you had the possibility to ‘drill down' on each team you'd see that the distribution of stats is important to see. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers teams had amazing big threes, but in reality, it was because both of those guys were at their peaks and averaging something close to 28 ppg each during each of their runs. The third guy in their big threes was almost a bystander.

Very few "Big Threes" were shot blocking groups, in fact only 9 of 36 were. By contrast, most groups were high in points and steals. The best "Big Threes" were the 80s Celtics and Lakers, and 90s Bulls. If we were doing "Big Twos" the Kobe and Shaq teams would probably dominate. And for what it is worth, the average values were playing 20 playoff games on their way to the championship, with 2,287 minutes, as a 47.0% haul of all the total team minutes. The big three, on average, played 112.8 player minutes, and dropped 59.0 ppg, 22.1 rpg, 13.1 apg, 4.0 spg, and 3.0 bpg. The BARPS ended up being 101.15, with a BARPS/min value of 0.90.

If you look beyond the numbers you also find some fascinating things. Not all big threes are equals, and not all championship teams are built the same way.

  • Only 19 of 36 Big Threes included a point guard (52.78%)
  • While 26 of 36 had a shooting guard (72.22%, the largest)
  • Small forwards were found in 22 of 36 championship big threes (61.11%)
  • But the smallest group represented were power forwards, only 17 were found amongst the Big Threes (47.22%)
  • Still, for the most part teams elected to have one of their three best players be a bigman in the middle, centers same in second place with 24 of 36 Big Threes needing one (66.67%)

As a Utah Jazz fan it's educational for me to see that PG/PF cores don't usually win titles. The ones who do win it with a PF are PFs usually in that Dennis Rodman, Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, or Draymond Green role. The success of the group isn't on them, but on the top two guys. Contrasting that, there were lots of "actually useful" point guards in the big threes of these teams: Magic, Isiah, Tony, Chauncey, and Stephen last season.

Though, the overwhelming trend is to have great wings in order to get wins. In the last 6 years (2010 to 2015) there have been nine wing players in the Big Threes of those six teams. By contrast only three point guards, and six bigmen. So that's half. If you are a team building against this trend you are an outlier for sure.

The Utah Jazz are such a team with their proposed big three of Gordon Hayward (SF), Derrick Favors (PF), and Rudy Gobert ( C). Can that win? Has it before? Yes, the last time that happened was when Larry, Kevin, and Robert were champs. (It also happened five years earlier with Larry and Robert sharing the joy with Cedric Maxwell at the three.) So two out of 36 isn't so hot. Similarly weird, the ‘balanced' approach of a PG, SG, and C isn't that popular either, with only Lakers (Magic, Jamaal/James, Kareem) and Spurs (Tony, S-Jax/Kawhi, Timmy) doing it a combined five times total.

In a star league the star players are a) the best, and b) also get help to win along the way. If your big three are all stars (All-Stars, even) then you have a leg up on your opponents. If two of your guys are Hall of Famers to be, even better. Very few championship clubs have a lot of talent equality in the top of their rotation. If they do, then that's awesome. If they don't, it's usually because they don't have an outright, dominant star. Not all championship teams are built the same, and not all "Big Threes" are equal. But at the end of the day, it's difficult to win a ring without one.

You can (and probably will) debate if the isolation star power game is the right way to win. It probably isn't, but if you have the right stars your path to a championship is easier than if you are busting your butt out there with a bunch of Eddie Jones and Matt Harpring types out there. No disrespect to them, but it's hard to build your team around them. As for the Utah Jazz, GM Quin Snyder is trying to rebuild the Spurs in Utah. They did go guard / big / big back in the day. But perhaps the evidence suggests we should look for a more green build, like the massively talented front line they had in the 80s? Time will tell.

Are big threes still a big deal when the last two Championship winners were team first squads like the Spurs and Dubs? Or did they really only succeed because, at the end of the day, their teams also still had enough of the best players on the floor to tip the scales in their favor?