The concept of “The Big Three” is a major one in the NBA. Something about the name just lends itself well to branding and merchandising and many a team has used that well. Some Big 3s are more famous than others such as the Miami Heat’s combo of LeBron, Wade and Bosh. However, the concept has been around for decades, although the phrase wasn't always used. Putting three major stars together is a must for any team and some can just click into a great force to carry a team along. True, you need supporting players but most will agree that having a Big 3 is a great step for a team to shine wonderfully in terms of being a championship group.
However, not every Big 3 can work out that well. After all, the NBA is filled with egos that can clash and mess things up and bad chemistry has undone many a promising team. There’s also how, for reasons no one can explain, three great players just can’t get along well and become winners either due to coaching or other issues. For every Big 3 that’s earned numerous titles, there is another that flops badly and shows that not every group of stars leads to major success.
Here are 10 times a Big 3 in the NBA dominated amazingly well and 10 that flopped to show how tricky pulling it off really is. It really does require chemistry and a cohesive effort, on top of just throwing three superstars together.
20 Dominated: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal & Derek Fisher (Los Angeles Lakers)
When Magic Johnson was forced to retire in 1991, the Lakers suffered badly and spent the next several years in mediocrity. That ended up working out, as they were able to draft a young sensation named Kobe Bryant. Even then, it took until 1999 for them to turn it around, first by hiring Phil Jackson. Jackson managed to sway Shaq to leave Orlando for L.A. and then put Derek Fisher with them.
The trio managed to work brilliantly with Jackson’s famed “triangle offense” and the Lakers had a new dynasty on their hands.
They won three straight championships, dominating opponents which is all the more remarkable given how Kobe and Shaq didn’t get along well..
19 Flopped: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash & Dwight Howard (Los Angeles Lakers)
In 2012, the Lakers tried to put a new dominant trio together for Kobe. They traded for Dwight Howard and signed Steve Nash. In one of the greatest cases ever of their “Cover Jinx,” Sports Illustrated had a photo of the trio with the line “Now this is going to be fun.” It was, all right…for Lakers opponents. After losing the entire preseason and four of the first five games, coach Mike Brown was fired. Nash and Howard could never get on the same page, openly arguing on court in the middle of games. They both also struggled playing second fiddle to Kobe. When Kobe went out due to injury, the two were unable to carry on and the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs.
18 Dominated: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen & Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics)
For over a decade, the once great Celtics had been mired with bad seasons and major letdowns. They finally did something about it in 2007 with a pair of massive trades to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Instantly, the Celtics were back in form as the two joined with Paul Pierce. Their 66-16 record is the third best in Boston history with all three putting up great numbers.
Allen had the three-pointers, Garnett the rebounds and Pierce had the most points per game. Together, they led Boston to a long-overdue championship and continued to lead the Celtics in the playoffs every year. It may not have been as long-lasting as others, but this Celtics Big Three lived up to the hype.
17 Flopped: Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins & Rudy Gay (Sacramento Kings)
Let’s look at this closely. DeMarcus Cousins is one of the best centers in the NBA, averaging 27 points and 11 rebounds per game. Rajon Rondo once led the league in assists. Rudy Gay could pull off an average of 17 points a game.
You put those three together and logically, something good should have happened. Yet somehow, when the Kings did that in 2015, it was a total mess.
They just couldn’t gel at all, exhibiting poor communication on the court, clashes in the locker room and each seeming more interested in their own interests than the team. The Kings ended up 33-49 and the trio were soon split.
16 Dominated: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy & Tom Heinsohn (Boston Celtics)
Long before the idea of a “Big Three” was a must for any NBA team, these Celtics legends were providing it. Bob Cousy had been a great player for Boston since 1950 but couldn’t quite get them over the hump. In 1956, in a stroke of fortune any team would give an arm for, the Celtics got both Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn. Heinsohn just barely beat out Russell for Rookie of the Year honors to boost Boston up and they gelled perfectly with Cousy. In 1957, they won the title. But then they went on to lead Boston to five straight championships, a fantastic record for one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the trio helped forge the Celtics legacy and truly showcased the concept of a Big Three.
15 Flopped: Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison (Washington Wizards)
Sadly, Gilbert Arenas is best known today for off-court antics. It’s too bad as he was a talented player and in 2004, joined with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. For a time, it looked good with the Wizards on their way to the playoffs and over the next four seasons, they would win at least 40 games. However, given all the talent the trio possessed, the fact they couldn’t do better has to stand out.
Each had their personal issues and have since admitted to clashing a lot preventing them from truly being an effective trio. Overall, when you look at how talented they were, the fact they couldn’t get further than the first playoff round has to rank this trio as a flop.
14 Dominated: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker & Manu Ginobli (San Antonio Spurs)
In their prime, the duo of Parker and Duncan were very tight and with Manu Ginobli, became the most dominant team in the NBA. It started in 2003 when they brought a title to San Antonio and allowed long-time star David Robinson to retire as a champion. Some thought the Spurs would suffer but instead, the trio helped San Antonio dominate.
They would win titles in 2005, 2007 and 2014 and 2013 could have been another if not for a Ray Allen 3-pointer.
Duncan retired in 2016 while Parker is about to leave for the Hornets. But they leave behind a fantastic legacy of four titles for one of the best trios ever.
13 Flopped: Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen & Steve Smith (Portland Trail Blazers)
For a decade, Scottie Pippen had been one of the key players for the Chicago Bulls' dynasty. When the Bulls had their epic house-cleaning in 1998, Pippen had a stint with the Rockets that disappointed. He thus figured a move to Portland would be a good idea. With rookies Rasheed Wallace and Steve Smith on hand, the idea was for Pippen to be the veteran giving these youngsters the boost and helping the Trail Blazers out. They had a good run in their first season to the playoffs only to lose to the Lakers. Afterward, injuries took their toll and Wallace suffered injuries as well as poor play. Pippen made a return to Chicago, making this attempt at a Big 3 a waste for Portland.
12 Dominated: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh (Miami Heat)
Leave it to LeBron James to make a simple move into a worldwide deal. In 2010, he rocked Cleveland with the announcement he was heading to Miami, a move that was welcomed by many and hated by others. It was a huge deal as the Heat already had agreed to sign Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was already the leader of the franchise. True, it looked to be a letdown with the Heat losing the 2011 Finals. But the trio lived up to their potential by winning the next two Finals and finally silencing James’ critics of being a choker. James eventually returned to Cleveland to finally get them a title but his move to Miami was key to adding a pair of titles to his legacy.
11 Flopped: Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony & Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks)
Once more, it’s Derrick Rose, a man who just has never been able to hit the potential most predicted for him. In 2016, the Knicks added Rose to the lineup in a trade and had him hooking up with Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis, a guy who’d been showing signs of stardom since being drafted in 2015.
Rose bragged the Knicks would be instant contenders and has been eating his words ever since.
The Knicks finished 31-51 with the supposed high-powered trio unable to get on the same page and everyone knowing Anthony had a foot out the door. Indeed, he left for the Thunder following that season and thus made this another case of Rose part of a major trio that ended up flopping.
10 Dominated: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy (Los Angeles Lakers)
From 1980 to 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers were known as “Showtime.” It was a fantastic decade with the Lakers going to eight NBA Finals with five victories. The amazing coaching of Pat Riley helped but there was also how the Lakers boasted one of the best front courts imaginable. Kareem had already been a champion and one of the best players of his time for years when the Lakers drafted Magic in 1980 and Worthy in 1982. The result was a brilliant trio that worked well together, wiping the floor with opponents with games often decided by more than 20 points.
Even as Kareem’s skills wilted with age, they worked well on the court, crafting a powerhouse the likes of which the NBA has yet to see again.
9 Flopped: Josh Smith, Andre Drummond & Greg Monroe (Detroit Pistons)
The Pistons had been trying to get back some of that magic from their championship in 2004 squad for a decade afterward. In 2012, they drafted Andre Drummond and then signed on Monroe and Smith. This led to what some thought was one of the best front courts in the NBA, one that could dominate on offense and defense. Instead, the Pistons had a trio that didn’t gel nearly as well as they should have. Drummond averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds a game but Smith was a massive disappointment, only shooting 42% from the field. After so much ballyhoo, the Pistons ended up winning just 29 games that season. Afterward, Smith was waived, making this one of the biggest lemons from Detroit since the Edsel.
8 Dominated: Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars & Bill Laimbeer (Detroit Pistons)
They may have been one of the most universally hated teams of their time but the 1988-91 Detroit Pistons were also one of the most successful.
For two seasons, the “Bad Boys” dominated the NBA with back to back titles.
The leader was Isiah Thomas, a fantastic star with amazing play while Dumars backed him up, each MVP of one of the Finals victories. Then there was Laimbeer, probably the most detested player ever with his rampant fouls, harsh attitude and over the top “flopping.” However, their success was undeniable, changing the NBA culture in so many ways and paving the way for a lot of teams to realize attitude could win championships. Although few have done so with the flair the Bad Boys did.
7 Flopped: LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy And Greg Oden (Portland Trail Blazers)
What is it about Portland that keeps having big 3 flops? The latest version is in 2007 which started with Greg Oden, a very promising player. Placing him alongside Aldrige and Roy looked a nice combo. Each man had their own skills and varying sizes. Sadly, Oden is on the list of guys who might have been better if not for a major case of the injury bug. He had to miss an entire season due to knee problems along with slews of other issues and Roy wasn’t that far behind him.
Aldridge did well with his numbers but couldn’t overcome the constant absences of his partners. By 2011, the latter two were gone for yet another case of Portland unable to make a big trio work.
6 Dominated: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (Chicago)
In early 1995, Michael Jordan ended his brief retirement to return to the Bulls. Naturally, expectations were high although the Bulls missed the Finals, probably due to Jordan’s rust from so long away. It was also clear he and Scottie Pippen missed Horace Grant, a great forward who had left the team two years earlier. In the offseason, the Bulls pulled off a huge deal to land Dennis Rodman and that was the component needed. Despite his rather offbeat attitude, Rodman was a fantastic force on the court and managed to click with Jordan and Pippen.
The Bulls set a record the next season with 72 victories and another championship.
Two more would follow before a major management overhaul undid the team and sent them all in different directions. But there’s no denying that adding Rodman was the key to the second half of the Bulls dynasty.
5 Flopped: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce And Deron Williams (Nets)
You can’t blame the Nets for wanting to make a bigger splash in their second year in Brooklyn. After all, they had to justify building that massive billion dollar arena. They hired Jason Kidd as coach then made a huge trade with the Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With Deron Williams at their side, the Nets were expected to dominate in the short term. Instead, the Nets ended up 44-38, not exactly the dominant force most hoped for. The trio just didn’t seem to mesh on the court with several losing streaks, including a truly terrible December run along with a 14-game losing streak in March. They won their first playoff round but then lost to the Heat in five games.
Immediately after that, Pierce left and since then, Brooklyn has been one of the worst teams in the NBA to show a huge flop on several levels.
4 Dominated: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Boston Celtics)
Throughout the '80s, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had one of the best on-court rivalries the NBA has ever seen. Numerous opponents underestimated Bird as a gangly guy only to be completely overwhelmed by his intense style. It was only natural he would help the Celtics be major players but he was helped by a great team backing him up. Paired with the rough Kevin McHale and the skilled Robert Parish, Bird helped the Celtics soar with three championships.
Their high point was the fantastic 1986 season with Boston going 67-15 and only suffering one home loss en route to another title. They kept it up until Bird’s retirement in 1993 and all three are Hall of Famers to showcase one of the best teams in Boston’s storied history.
3 Flopped: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley And Clyde Drexler (Houston Rockets)
Thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon's great play, the Rockets won back to back titles in 1994 and ’95 and were a dominant force. When Michael Jordan returned, Houston decided they needed to load up on firepower.
They had already gotten Clyde Drexler in an early ’95 trade to help win their second title and figured having Charles Barkley on board would be better.
It got off to a bad start with Barkley suspended for an on-court altercation. While he bounced back with good play, he was also hampered by injuries and his attitude didn't win teammates over. The Rockets lost in the playoffs with Drexler retiring after that season and thus it was a rather short-lived Big Three.
2 Dominated: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant & Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors)
There can’t be any denying the success of this team. They have been to four straight finals with three championships. Ironically, the one year they lost (2016) was after they broke the record for the most wins in a single season. Steph Curry is the major force for them with his utterly astounding play and determination. But things really got going in 2016 when they signed Kevin Durant away from the Thunder. He, Curry and Klay Thompson clicked into a nearly unstoppable force that has won two more championships and remain the team to beat in the NBA. With Curry still so young and full of promise and the trio contracted for at least another year, this Big 3 could end up being the best in NBA history.
1 Flopped: Reggie Miller, Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal (Indiana Pacers)
Maybe if it hadn’t been for one incident, this team could have gone further and be better appreciated. The 2004-05 Pacers had a serious powerhouse on the court with Reggie Miller, Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal clicking together. They were strong on the court, hitting it hard on opponents and looking quite set for a playoff run. But then came “the Malice in the Palace,” that led to mass suspensions with Artest out for the entire season.
The Pacers fell hard without him and while they made another playoff appearance, it was a short one. Miller decided to retire following that year while Artest was naturally persona non grata.