All NBA fanbases love to fantasize about landing a landscape-changing franchise superstar to their team, be it by free agency or trade. It is the prospect of such a seismic move that drives the ever-churning rumour mill and makes the offseason nearly as must-see as the actual season. But really, how often do we see the balance of power shift through one big move? Yes, the Golden State Warriors reeled in a big fish when they signed Kevin Durant, but they had also just won a title without him. Furthermore, the acquisitions of neither James Harden nor Paul George has pushed the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder, respectively, past the Conference Finals to date. In fact, apart from LeBron James’s jersey changes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single transaction that altered the fate of NBA titles since Shaquille O’Neal went to L.A. and then Miami.
Why is this important in an article highlighting each team’s all-drafted ‘Big Three’? It goes to show the importance of the draft, which has consistently proven to be the clearest and most effective path to building a title contender. There’s simply no way the Warriors win three of the past four titles without the homegrown trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, just as the Spurs don’t dominate the 2000s without drafting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. NBA rules have made it consistently easier for even small market teams to hold onto their own draftees. You still do, however, need the proper mix of savvy scouting and lottery luck to land that franchise changer.
Which brings us to each team’s best drafted ‘Big Three’, the top homegrown trio that every NBA club can offer up based on whose names they called out on draft night. Keep in mind this is a best three, with only minimal attention paid to positional fit. Instead, we’re measuring each group of active players by how good they would be now. That’s why Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t quite make the cut for the Milwaukee Bucks (yes, they technically drafted him). Without further ado, let’s see which team’s draft picks have blossomed into stars and which aren’t quite up to par.
You can really see the affect that 10 straight playoff appearances had on the Atlanta Hawks’ core group of draftees, with their trio being represented by first rounders from the 2007, 2009 and 2018 drafts. Fortunately, the age gap between Luka Doncic and veterans Al Horford and Jeff Teague is lessened by Doncic’s incredibly savvy play in his rookie season (for the Dallas Mavericks, but that’s impartial to this exercise). The actual gap could have been even greater had we decided on 2001 first rounder Pau Gasol for Atlanta, but the big Spaniard is now hobbled and showing his age in San Antonio.
Unlike the late 2000s trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, there is no clearly defined big three to be had from the active draft choices of the Boston Celtics. Based on their success during that time, there aren't many attractive lottery picks to be found prior to 2014, so the Celts' trio essentially boils down to which of their young players they most value. Jayson Tatum is the easy choice, and Jaylen Brown, in spite of his struggles this season, probably deserves inclusion as well. The question then becomes who should take the third spot.
Among the club's backup ball handlers, Marcus Smart has taken on a bigger current role than Terry Rozier, so we'll follow the lead of head coach Brad Stevens and give Smart the nod here. Of course, there are also arguments to be made for the likes of Avery Bradley and Jeff Green.
If this were the core of a real NBA roster, you'd probably want to make sure you surrounded these three big men with some guards. But looking at the draft history of the Brooklyn Nets, one that has unquestionably been adversely affected by three first rounders and one pick swap shipped to Boston in the 2013 Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade, it's hard to justify inserting anyone else in that 'Big Three'.
While you could theoretically make an argument for fellow bigs Ryan Anderson, Mason Plumlee or Jarret Allen in this group, Pat Connaughton and rookie Hamidou Diallo are remarkably the only Nets-drafted guards currently playing in the NBA - and neither one belong anywhere near a big three. So, three big men it is for Brooklyn!
The saving grace of some bad draft day decisions under the ownership of Robert Johnson and then Michael Jordan came when the Hornets took Kemba Walker with the ninth pick and then Tobias Harris at 19th overall. Putting aside the fact that Harris was dealt on draft night for Corey Maggette and Bismack Biyombo and that the pending free agent Walker may not be long for Charlotte, the two members of the 2011 class still comprise two-thirds of the club’s drafted big three. As for the third, yikes.
Take your pick between draft disappointments (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller), the journeyman point guards (D.J. Augustin and Raymond Felton) or the unproven youngsters (Malik Monk and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). We’ll go with MKG here, who hasn’t lived up to his No. 2 draft slot but remains a serviceable seven-year vet and remains just 25.
The ‘Big Three’ format here favors star power moreso than depth, and so the Chicago Bulls don’t come out looking as good as they probably deserve to. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a central trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, who boast 13 All-Star appearances and one MVP award between them. Still, the remarkable draft record for the club stems more from the quantity of top flight talent that Chicago has brought into the league. Rose, an above average point guard who is still pretty far removed from his peak 2011 MVP form, narrowly edges a hard-charging group that also includes Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Taj Gibson, James Johnson, Tony Snell and Bobby Portis.
None remain with the organization and one never even suited up, but let the record show that the Cavaliers made four first overall selections from 2003 through 2013. Even though one of them was used on historic bust Anthony Bennett, the Cavs made out pretty nicely with a clear-cut big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. Of course, a big three comprised of LeBron and anyone probably projects out pretty well. Cleveland would also benefit from a pretty good supporting cast around them, highlighted by Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Danny Green, Jamal Crawford, Jae Crowder and Allen Crabbe. But unless you really have a problem with the talented but polarizing Wiggins, their top trio is pretty well cemented.
Way back on draft night in 1998, the Mavericks sent the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor to Milwaukee for a tall, skinny prospect by the name of Dirk Nowitzki (and Pat Garrity). Twenty years later, another draft night deal saw the Mavs part ways with Trae Young so they they could add another European prospect in Luka Doncic. One deal landed Dallas a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the league’s greatest scorers, while the other has now brought the presumptive Rookie of the Year and a potential franchise star. Unfortunately, neither one counts towards the all-drafted big three. As such, the Mavs can only muster up an underwhelming group of Dennis Smith Jr., Kelly Olynyk and Young.
With no disrespect to solid depth pieces Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles, you’d have to figure that the Nuggets would like a do-over on the 2017 draft night trade that brought the two young forwards to the Mile High City for Donovan Mitchell. The Nuggets are one of the best stories in basketball this year, hanging with the Warriors atop the West. Still, they probably wouldn’t mind having the Utah Jazz superstar lining up alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. In fact, that’s the franchise’s all-drafted big three.
There’s an argument to be made for fitting Rudy Gobert or maybe even Evan Fournier in there somewhere, but it would be hard to fathom trading any of Mitchell, Murray or Jokic for either man straight up.
Look, you don’t miss the playoffs eight times in nine years and go through an 11 year (and counting) drought without a postseason win if your organization is executing effective talent identification and roster management. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that more than a decade of underperformance in Motown stems directly from a rather unfortunate draft haul.
The club’s six lottery picks since 2010 have produced exactly one All-Star (Andre Drummond) and lots of NBA-caliber players who simply aren’t stars, including Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard. The Pistons' big three is rounded out by Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie, two second rounders who have transformed into pretty valuable players, albeit outside of Detroit.
For many of these 'big three' groups, we are left to speculate on whether they have the potential to form the core of an NBA champion. With the Golden State Warriors' trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, there's no need to speculate. Before Kevin Durant joined in the fun for the past two titles, it was these three men who led the Warriors to their first Larry O'Brien trophy of this era in 2015.
In fact, you could argue that it is because of Curry, Thompson and Green, who have been teammates since 2012, and their success prior to KD that there has been so little hand-wringing in Oakland over Durant's pending free agency. Green even supposedly said as much during his widely-publicized blow-up at the two-time Finals MVP earlier this season.
For an analytically-inclined guy, Rockets GM Daryl Morey sure doesn't seem to care much for the NBA Draft. Perhaps it's because Morey has never picked higher than 12th or because he and the organization were burned when three first rounders in 2012 became Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. Regardless, Morey's draft record remains less impressive than his trade record, even if he did land Clint Capela with the 25th pick in 2014.
You can probably fill out that trio with Rudy Gay and Nicolas Batum, two Rockets draftees who played a total of zero games for the club, although arguments could be made for the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris, all part of one quietly incredible 2011 draft class for Houston.
The only group that might be as wistful in seeing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard paired together here as the Pacers would be the Clippers. While the Pacers drafted these two superstar forwards in back-t0-back drafts, the Clips have been aggressive in pursuing the L.A. natives as free agents in consecutive summers. But just as Los Angeles struck out on George as he re-signed in OKC (the jury remains out on Leonard, a pending free agent), Indiana lost out on the Klaw when he was dealt for point guard George Hill on draft night in 2011.
While both the Pacers and the Clippers were in striking distance, neither club could find a way to pair Leonard with PG13. Add dynamic big man Myles Turner to that list and you have a rather exciting - and entirely theoretical - trio.
Speaking of those Clippers, they can actually form a fairly decent all-drafted 'big three' of their own, and bring back a good chunk of Lob City while they're at it. No, Chris Paul can't come along for the ride again, but their big three does return Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to the fold. The best CP3-like fit alongside the explosive big men who currently ply their trade for Detroit and Dallas, respectively, would probably be Shaun Livingston, who was drafted fourth overall in 2004 prior to his leg break.
However, Eric Gordon can also handle the ball and is a significantly superior scorer to Livingston, so he gets the nod here. For a franchise that hasn't even drafted an everyday starting since Al-Farooq Aminu in 2010 (the jury remains out on 2018 picks Miles Bridges and Jerome Robinson), Griffin, Jordan and Gordon don't make for a bad trio.
For a city and a franchise that loves their stars, those types of players certainly haven't come through the draft for the Lakers. The list of most recently drafted Laker All-Stars is a depressing one: there's Marc Gasol, Andrew Bynum and then you have to go all the way back to Eddie Jones in 1994. Gasol and his three All-Star appearances makes the group here, even if he has looked a little long in the tooth in Memphis this year.
He'd have his work to do as the token veteran amongst an L.A. group that includes Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, who would win out amidst a group that also features Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, Patrick Beverly and Larry Nance Jr. The fact that the list skews young here highlights the club's newfound commitment to building through the draft - until LeBron can help land prime free agents, that is.
Partially due to seven straight playoff appearances and partially on account of a checkered draft history, the well has run pretty dry in Memphis over the last decade or so when it comes to their annual selection of collegiate and international prospects. Amazingly, you could make a pretty sound argument that rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. is already the most accomplished Grizzlies draft pick of the decade, fending off the likes of Joffrey Lauvergne, Tony Wroten and Greivis Vasquez. And so we must span a little further back to unearth what remains a solid, albeit aging, drafted big three of Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love, all drafted more than a decade ago.
What admittedly looks like the most random collection of big three draft picks actually stands as a testament to the seasons being enjoyed by these three very different players. While Dwyane Wade looks inspired and productive off the bench in his last NBA season, both Bojan Bogdanovich and Justise Winslow are enjoying breakthrough campaigns which sees each player on track to set a new career high in both scoring average and field goal percentage.
It's entirely possible, that none of these three men would crack the Miami Heat's list had the club made drafting more of a priority. The real Heat and the hypothetical Heat are hoping that Bam Adebayo and Josh Richardson can continue to develop, but otherwise they'll accept having made just four first round picks since 2008, seeing as how it enabled Miami's real 'Big Three' era.
Just having Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Bucks' list says plenty. Giannis can make up for some deficiencies around him, as he would do for this imagined big three with Malcolm Brogdon and former Buck Jabari Parker and as he's doing for the real Bucks. This is good news for this version, too, which is a little light on top flight talent beyond Antetokounmpo. Sure, Brogdon is a former Rookie of the Year and Parker isn't far removed from being drafted No. 2 overall, but neither one stands as what anyone would call a complimentary star.
Unfortunately for Milwaukee, they haven't drafted a great alternate cast of NBA talent. For their flaws, Brogdon and Parker still probably hold an edge over any of Luc Mbah a Moute, Norman Powell, Thon Maker or John Henson.
Especially in this era of microscopic scrutiny and quick and easy criticism, each member of a group that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio unquestionably carries some warts. But aren’t they also kind of perfectly suited for each other? With this trio, you’d have a dripping-with-talent explosive big man, an uber-athletic scorer and a dynamic, creative point guard.
This Timberwolves entry would certainly comprise one of the most fun to watch big threes, if not one of the best. What they don’t have, however, is anyone who can really play a lick of defense. Of course, the real T-Wolves, who currently rank in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per game, aren’t much better. Fortunately for the hypothetical version, defensive help can be had with Andre Roberson and Trevor Booker, who didn’t quite make the top three cut, waiting in the wings.
It’s hard to say for certain whether Darren Collison is really best-suited to be the third guy in the New Orleans Pelicans’ ‘big three’. The better question, however, is, does it even really matter. You could probably put any of Collison, Buddy Hield, J.R. Smith or Austin Rivers in there, and the pipe dream pairing of Anthony Davis and Chris Paul would still lead the way. Not only would New Orleans house two of the best current players at their position, but the Brow and CP3 just scream instant chemistry. Would you ideally like the Paul from a few years ago? Sure, but even still, add some shooting around them (that’s where a guy like Hield would come in handy) and you have the makings of a title contender.
Can we actually spare a nice word for the Knicks and acknowledge that the draft picks they have made haven’t actually been all that bad? With the exception of Frank Ntilikina (at this point, anyway) and 2009 No. 8 pick Jordan Hill, you could argue that the Knicks - yes, the Knicks - are on a pretty decent streak of getting value for their draft slot. All of Wilson Chandler, Danillo Gallinari, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and maybe even Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Knox have stood as good gets for where they were picked.
That still doesn’t, however, guarantee a starry big three, and so the injured Porzingis anchors a decidedly middling group here. Galinari and Hardaway are probably the best bets to join Porzingis, although arguments could be made for Chandler, Shumpert or Trevor Ariza. Whoever happens to get the nod here, there just doesn’t seem to be a recipe for much excitement surrounding New York’s big three. Kinda sounds like the real team, doesn’t it?
Seriously, what more needs to be said here? For as much as it might seem like NBA fans get beaten over the head by talk of what riches the OKC Thunder had before trading James Harden and losing Kevin Durant in free agency, it’s probably still not emphasized enough. The entire league looks different today if Harden, Durant and Russell Westbrook stick around together, with the NBA power structure turned on its head.
For those quick to suggest that the three high volume scorers would have trouble staying happy while sharing the ball, the ‘big three’ Miami Heat figured it out and won two championships - and this group might be better. Westbrook and Paul George are as good a star tandem as we have in this league outside of Golden State, but that still doesn’t entirely ease the pain of missing out on seeing Harden, Durant and Westbrook as teammates.
Inevitably, someone on this list was going to have the unenviable job of following up the Thunder’s loaded Beard / KD / Russ all-drafted trio, and the alphabet gods have appointed the Orlando Magic for the role. Even if a group of Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Domantas Sabonis may seem relatively underwhelming in comparison to who preceded them, they bring a nice dose of speed and athleticism featuring last season’s Most Improved Player, a former Slam Dunk champ and a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Sure, Gordon hasn't proven himself to be more than a good-stats-on-bad-teams guy yet and Sabonis is currently a bench player, but there's talent here, which might be more than can be said for the real Magic. We'll take a wait and see approach to determine if Mo Bamba or Jonathan Isaac can earn their way into Orlando's trio, while Dario Saric, J.J. Redick and Courtney Lee probably merit at least some consideration.
The Ringer head honcho Bill Simmons brought back his popular Trade Value Rankings back in December and just one team boasted two players in the top eight. No, it wasn't the Warriors (while Steph Curry ranked third, pending free agent Kevin Durant was 10th), but the 76ers. By "Trusting the Process", they now have two franchise cornerstones in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (No. 6 and No. 8, in case you were wondering) who aren't just elite NBA superstars but are both under 25.
They make for a strong enough foundation that even LeBron James admitted to seriously considering joining Philly last summer. Where the real Sixers currently have Jimmy Butler positioned as a third member of their core, a hypothetical, all-drafted version of the club would have a tough choice to make between the likes of Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and Nikola Vucevic. Of that group, Iguodala has the best championship pedigree and offers the best two-way play, even if the 35-year-old is getting a bit long in the tooth.
The future is now in Phoenix, and that can be good or bad news. On the bright side, Devin Booker's scoring exploits are elevating the 22-year-old into some pretty rarefied air (even as defense and a three-point shot remain works in progress) and Deandre Ayton is quietly living up to his first overall slot by averaging a double-double in year one. If you are more inclined to take the glass half empty approach, you'll no doubt recognize that the club remains the worst in the West by a wide margin.
They need more help and are likely to get some at the 2019 draft. For now, in reality and through this exercise, Booker, Ayton and T.J. Warren make for an exciting and promising trio, just not one likely to pay dividends now.
The Blazers are back in their familiar position of overachieving and somehow finding themselves firmly in the mix among the giants of the West. Another year of answering their critics has served to muffle - at least for now - much of the speculation over the futures of the starting back court duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Although both men have been essential to their team's past five consecutive playoff berths, they've also had observers openly wonder if they've taken Portland as far as they can following two straight exits via first round sweep.
Even if their NBA futures move them away from Rip City, they will remain 'big three' Blazers here. As for who joins them, underrated wing Will Barton probably wins out over the likes of Patty Mills, Dante Cunningham, Meyers Leonard and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
How poorly mismanaged have the Sacramento Kings been in recent years? They’ve somehow been bad enough to ‘earn’ 11 top 10 picks over the past 10 drafts from 2009 onwards, all the while making the playoffs zero times. Of all of those lofty picks, exactly one - DeMarcus Cousins - became an All-Star while playing for the Kings. Most have, instead, become fully certified busts, such as Marquese Chriss, Nik Stauskas and Thomas Robinson.
So while we wish the best to reigning No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley, he’s got a lot of unfortunate franchise draft history to overcome. On the plus side, the Kings’ ineptitude with lottery picks means that Bagley might find a spot among a big three that would include Cousins, De’Aaron Fox and Tyreke Evans earlier than he probably should.
As you might expect from a winning franchise that has sustained a two-decade run of late first rounders, the recent draft track record of the San Antonio Spurs runs a little thin. How thin? Well, the best active Spurs draftee that isn’t a point guard is probably Ian Mahinmi. Not only does that offer a sign of how slim the draft pickings have been in San Antonio since they used a first overall pick on some big guy named Tim Duncan, but it also creates an awkward positional balance by essentially forcing a big three comprised entirely of point guards.
Until guys like Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White emerge, San Antonio will have to settle for a Goran Dragic, Tony Parker and George Hill, which hardly tells the story of how well-managed the Spurs have been over the years.
Last summer's Kawhi Leonard blockbuster trade might have been the right move to push the Toronto Raptors to a new level, but it didn't do much for the homegrown nature of their roster. Leonard and Danny Green arrived at the expense of Raptor draftees DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, removing at least a bit of charm from a franchise that had largely achieved success through players that came up through the organization (like DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas) or were long-standing members of the club (like Kyle Lowry).
Even in parting with some homegrown talent, other players who arrived in the NBA via Toronto have been allowed to flourish. Pascal Siakam's breakout season has generated All-Star buzz and prompted talk of a Most Improved Player award, not to mention moved him into the all-drafted big three with DeRozan and Valancuinas.
It seems Gordon Hayward has become something of a forgotten man. Now healthy and finally playing alongside his new Celtics teammates, the talented scorer has... underwhelmed. Hayward's not entirely to blame for the Celts' disappointing campaign to date, but he's clearly struggled to establish himself within the flow of the offense. There isn't exactly much pining going on in Utah, either, with the Jazz having quickly moved on thanks to the play of young replacement Donovan Mitchell.
Still, half a season won't negate the Butler standout's status as Utah's best active draftee (remember, Mitchell was acquired in a draft-night trade), with Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter still narrowly edging out a field that includes Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Dante Exum, Josh Hart and Taurean Prince to join him.
Amidst all the current hand-wringing over the un-tradeable contract extension of the currently injured John Wall and the rampant trade rumors centered on Bradley Beal, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that they are still pretty good players. In fact, prior to this disaster of a season, they would've been on the best back court shortlist alongside Golden State and Portland. Without paying any mind to contracts or the state of the team, they certainly belong here as part of the all-drafted big three. The question is, who belongs with them?
While hardly a stellar cast of options, Washington would be able to choose from the likes of Jordan Clarkson, Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Devin Harris, JaVale McGee, Jerian Grant and Tomas Satoransky. With apologies to Porter, another highly-paid current Wizard, we'll accept the redundancy here and go with the defense and athleticism of Clarkson.