When Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen joined the Boston Celtics, they changed the way that modern NBA teams are formed. While they weren’t the first big three in NBA history, they were one of the most high-profile examples of three stars coming together for the specific purposes of winning an NBA Championship above all else. In doing so, they alerted the world to the fact that many of the best teams in NBA history have relied on a big three to get the job done. There are, of course, other ways to win an NBA Championship, but historically speaking, getting three guys of particular talent on the same team has been the recipe for winning it all. It’s just a magic number that transcends any era or strategy.
That’s why most teams have had a big three of some historical significance throughout the history of the NBA. Of course, just because every team in NBA history has a big three that they can point to, that doesn’t mean that all big threes are created equally. Some big threes just never got it done before one of the member left for better opportunities, while others went on to win multiple championships. Yet, the relative status of a big three isn’t always tied to how many titles they one. Sometimes, a combination of players is just impressive enough on its own to transcend any means of conventional success in the NBA. At the end of the day, this is the ranking of every NBA team’s best big three ever.
30 Minnesota Timberwolves - Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell & Latrell Sprewell
These first few spots are honestly somewhat interchangeable, but a breakdown of every NBA team’s best big three should start with this Minnesota trio.
Yes, these three were the highest scoring trio in the league once upon a time, but it’s hard to overlook what an incredible role Kevin Garnett played in the success of this team.
Cassell was aging and Sprewell was the ultimate glory hog with an ego.
Were it not for Garnett in his prime, we guarantee you that this team wouldn’t have made it as far as they did.
29 New Orleans Pelicans - Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins & Jrue Holiday
It’s very tempting to rank this big three higher based on talent and potential, but if we’re taking into account how successful said trios are, then it’s hard to rank this big three higher than this. Anthony Davis remains a dominant NBA player in need of a better team, DeMarcus Cousins will almost certainly win an NBA Championship with the Warriors this season, and Jrue Holiday is the kind of overall role-player that most big threes need to succeed. Still, this trio never made it far.
28 Memphis Grizzlies - Mike Conley, Marc Gasol & Zach Randolph
Part of what made this big three special is also part of the reason why it’s hard to rank them higher. See, there was no standout scoring star on this big three. Instead, they made their name through blue-collar kind of play and their ability to grind other teams down. That’s impressive, but the fact remains that these three were never seen as the most dominant trio in the league and they achieved less than many of the other big threes on this list.
27 Toronto Raptors - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan & Serge Ibaka
First off, this comes down to whether this is the Raptors' best big three or if that honor goes to Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Antonio Davis. The slight nod goes to this trio due to their overall success and perceived talent, but they’re a deep playoff run away from removing any doubt regarding their historic status.
Sadly, DeMar DeRozan is now a San Antonio Spur, which means that they won’t be able to take advantage of the LeBron-free Eastern Conference.
Even still, this was an impressive trio of players.
26 Washington Wizards - Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes & Bob Dandridge
This is the lowest ranked big three that actually managed to win an NBA Championship, and it was honestly tough to not rank them even lower than this despite that accomplishment. Generally considered to be part of one of the worst teams to ever win an NBA Championship, this Wizards (then known as the Bullets) squad rode a mediocre regular season into a playoff run against some teams that also don’t rank among the best to ever play the game. Still, they’ve got a Championship to their name, and that’s certainly worth something.
25 Atlanta Hawks - Al Horford, Paul Millsap & Kyle Korver
Here’s yet another squad that’s hard to rank due to how you should measure raw talent vs. practical success. The truth of the matter is that the Hawks haven’t had many great big threes in their franchise’s history (despite having quite a few great players wear the uniform over the years). That means that this squad is arguably the team’s best big three even though their practical success over the years was spotty. Still, they certainly had the talent, and they came this close to making an NBA Finals appearance.
24 Denver Nuggets - Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups & Kenyon Martin
Some would argue that the real Denver big three is Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt. Those three were absolutely dominant on offense, but their defense was weak, and they kind of fell apart when the competition got tougher. This more recent big three, though, was a pretty ideal all-around trio.
Anthony handled the scoring, Billups locked down teams, and Kenyon Martin asserted himself to control the paint.
This team made it to the Western Conference Championship and also boasted some fairly impressive playoff runs across a few seasons.
23 Los Angeles Clippers - Chris Paul, Blake Griffin & DeAndre Jordan
This is definitely the part of the list where we have to start separating the great big threes from the very good big threes. So far as that goes, the biggest knock against this trio is that they never won the big one and honestly had some largely limited playoff success. Having said that, it’s hard not to be impressed with this big three based on the name value alone. Griffin and Jordan absolutely dominated the paint while Paul ran the floor like a point guard maestro. Sadly, injuries derailed this trio.
22 Charlotte Hornets - Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson & Alonzo Mourning
Truth be told, this big three would be much higher on this list if they’d just stuck together for a bit longer. Such as it is, this trio’s best year came in 1995 when they won 50 games and lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round. That might not sound like much of a resume, but the fact remains that this was a “big three” before the era of the big three. That means that they were three guys who were stars in their own rights but also all played a role on this squad.
21 Oklahoma City Thunder - Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook & James Harden
Boy, this one hurts.
Again, if we’re talking about pure talent, then we’re talking about a trio that reads more like an all-star team.
However, this squad just never won a championship. More importantly, they weren’t able to keep the band together long enough to really make the impact they perhaps could have. Still, you’re talking about three incredible players who shared the court either during their career primes or near their career primes. This squad was dominant at times, but just never won it all.
20 Phoenix Suns - Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire & Shawn Marion
This is certainly one of the most difficult big threes to rank. The temptation is to place them higher than this due to the way that they absolutely changed the nature of the game. This Suns’ squad’s high-tempo play forced teams to completely change the build of their rosters in order to keep up. They paved the way for the modern dominate run of the Golden State Warriors. Despite all of those accomplishments, they never won the big one. More importantly, their prime run was far too short.
19 Philadelphia 76ers - Julius Erving, Moses Malone & Charles Barkley
Speaking of big threes that would have been ranked higher had they stayed together...WOW! You almost have to triple check to make sure that these three actually played together.
In 1985, the already fearsome twosome of Julius Erving and Moses Malone welcomed a rookie Charles Barkley onto the team.
Together, they made it to the Eastern Conference Championship where they lost to those famous Boston Celtics. Sadly, we only saw these three play together for a full season before Malone was traded away. We can’t imagine what they could have done together with a few more years.
18 Portland Trail Blazers - Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter & Jerome Kersey
The thing that makes this one so difficult is that you’re talking about a trio that wasn’t really the best team that the Portland Trail Blazers ever fielded. Bill Walton’s one-man show remains the highlight of Portland’s franchise history. However, this trio did manage to be a thorn in the side of the legendary Bulls trio we’ll certainly talk about later, which is no small feat. They never won a title, but they pushed the best to their absolute limits and often broke some all-time great teams.
17 Brooklyn Nets - Jason Kidd, Vince Carter & Richard Jefferson
We’ve seen some trios on this list that were arguably more talented than they were successful, but this squad is the opposite. We’re not going to argue that there was talent in this big three, but more impressive than their individual contributions is what they managed to do together. Here was a team that appeared in back-to-back NBA Finals and managed to dominate some squads that arguably looked far superior on paper. You can’t argue with the results this trio posted, and we have a feeling they’d still fare well in the modern NBA.
16 Sacramento Kings - Chris Webber, Vlade Divac & Mike Bibby
The story of the Kings is pretty much the same story of the Nets best big three. That is to say that they don’t look like the absolute best squad on paper, but you absolutely can’t argue with how much success this trio had.
For a few years in a row, the Kings were a real threat to win the NBA Championship.
In fact, they won an astonishing 61 games in 2001 and would have made a much deeper playoff run in 2002 were it not for some very controversial calls.
15 Orlando Magic - Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway & Horace Grant
For a time, the Orlando Magic ruled the NBA world. Fellow first-round picks Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were already poised to lead a dominating squad before the Bulls’ Horace Grant signed a stunning contract with Orlando. The Magic formed a true big three at a time before that was even a phrase that was constantly tossed about. They were a great team who were certainly led by the dominant play of Shaq but all contributed to their NBA Finals appearance. Sadly, this full trio at their best just wasn’t together for long.
14 Indiana Pacers - Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson & Jalen Rose
This ranking might strike some as being too low, but the fact remains that we’re getting to that point on the list when we have to start accounting for championship wins. So far as that goes, the Pacers don’t have a win to their name and only appeared in one Finals during the Miller era. However, the trio that led that Pacers team to their only Finals appearance was truly great. You had Reggie Miller dropping daggers from behind the arc, Jalen Rose scoring everywhere else, and Mark Jackson running the floor.
13 Utah Jazz - Karl Malone, John Stockton & Jeff Hornacek
Since every trio from this point on has a championship to their name, it’s time to decide whether the Jazz deserve to be ranked higher than championship squads. Ultimately, we’re drawing the line here.
Still, you should make no mistake that this is just about as good as a big three gets in terms of finding pieces of talent that complement each other.
This is the Jazz squad whose blend of perfect strategy and dominant play gave the Bulls all they could handle at a time when they boasted arguably the best squad in NBA history.
12 Dallas Mavericks - Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd & Tyson Chandler
This one is odd simply because you could make the argument that this Mavericks squad was really just the Dirk Nowitzki show.
We can’t deny that Nowitzki carried a great deal of the weight, but you’d be foolish to overlook the contributions of Jason Kidd as well as the stabilizing play of Tyson Chandler.
Regardless, we’re talking about a team who took on a very capable (if not yet quite loaded) Miami Heat squad in the Finals and walked away with a Championship that left few with any doubt they were the best in the league.
11 New York Knicks - Walt Frazier, Willis Reed & Dave DeBusschere
The New York Knicks’ only championship team remains the home of their best big three. Sure, you could argue that some of the Ewing-era teams are worthy of consideration, but we’re ultimately talking about three Hall of Fame players who brought two championships to the Garden in the most dramatic ways possible. Willis Reed’s grit became the glue that ensured this team of personalities believed in each other above all. Of course, it was often seven-time all-star Walt Frazier who stole the show with this electric offense.
10 Milwaukee Bucks - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson & Bob Dandridge
Honestly, part of the reason why this team isn’t higher on this list than this is that Kareem was part of an even better trio and because this squad didn’t get to play together for long enough. Having said all that, you’re talking about a Championship team that won their title through a combination of exciting young lay and veteran leadership. This was an era when dominant defenses required teams to run perfect plays, and that’s exactly what this Bucks squad did. Had Robertson not retired early and had Kareem not left, you can bet they’d have accomplished even more.
9 Cleveland Cavaliers - LeBron James, Kyrie Irving & Kevin Love
At the end of the day, winning is winning. It doesn’t really matter how you get there. As such, it doesn’t really matter that who did most of the legwork on a winning team. However, as we are looking at big threes, then we do have to take into account the relative contributions of all three members. That’s how we arrive at this Cavs squad.
We can’t fairly call this nothing more than the LeBron show, but Love never really panned out and we’d seen how far Irving could go without LeBron.
That isn’t to say this trio wasn’t great. They certainly were.
8 Detroit Pistons - Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars & Bill Laimbeer
It’s easy enough to forget about the Pistons of this era. After all, they were sandwiched between the Lakers/Celtics era and the rise of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. However, the bad boy Pistons managed to win back-to-back championships through the kind of defensive play that we may never see again. The Pistons used every dirty trick and player skill in the book to wear down opposing teams and assert their authority. The rest of the NBA eventually caught up with their style of play, but the fact remains that they were a special squad.
7 Miami Heat - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh
How high the Miami Heat should have gone is a fascinating question. You can’t deny the dominant run of the Heat just as you can’t deny the way that this big three helped to change the way that dominant NBA teams are formed. If you’re going to knock them for anything, it’s that Chris Bosh was the definitive third man of the big three. Still, that’s a minor knock against a trio whose astonishing play quite literally changed the game and made them look like an unbeatable squad.
6 Houston Rockets - Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler & Vernon Maxwell
Let’s get two possible sticking points out of the way early. Yes, the Rockets won their titles while Michael Jordan was playing baseball, and yes, having Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime makes any team better.
All of that aside, we’re talking about a trio that seized an opportunity that some of the other trios on this list couldn’t take advantage of.
It’s impossible to deny the skills of guys like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, but what really separates the Rockets is their famous “heart of a champion.”
5 Golden State Warriors - Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry & Kevin Durant
Recency bias? Maybe, but there are times when you know greatness when you see it. Watching this Golden State Warriors team play is most certainly one of those times. Truth be told, you could argue that some version of this squad is worthy of inclusion on this list even before Durant joined the team. However, it wasn’t until one of the best players of the modern era joined this team that we saw how great the Warriors can be. We’d bet on this Warriors team against any other big three on this list.
4 Boston Celtics - Larry Bird, Kevin McHale & Robert Parish
Deciding the order of these last four teams is a tricky proposition. If you’re wondering why it starts with the Celtics, the answer is “no particular reason.” However, we suppose factors like star power, dominance, and longevity knock them ever so slightly down this list. Nevertheless, we’re talking about a team of absolute legends. The Celtics played a pure style of complete basketball that harkened back to a simpler time but was executed so well that you could only stop it by being better than some of the best ever to play the game.
3 Los Angeles Lakers - Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & James Worthy
The Celtics constant rivals find themselves slightly ahead on this list of the great big threes.
The reason that this Lakers squad gets the nod above that Celtics team - and other great Lakers trios - is that every player in this trio was a pure star who so happened to make the other stars even better.
Magic and Kareem gave opposing defenses nightmares while Worthy’s all-around contributions and unwavering ability to hit the big shot ensured that the Lakers never had a reason to sweat a deficit.
2 Chicago Bulls - Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen & Dennis Rodman
If you’re at all surprised to see this team, it’s because you were expecting them to be a spot higher. Before we get to that, let’s talk about just how great this big three was. All due respect to Horace Grant, but it wasn’t until Dennis Rodman decided to play alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did we get the Bulls team that most fondly remember as being arguably the most dominant NBA squad of all time. It was stunning to see this team lose, and that’s because these three were just that good.
1 San Antonio Spurs - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker & Manu Ginobili
Four NBA Championships, 15 playoff appearances, and over a decade of being the team that was considered to be one of the top five contenders for a championship at the very least. See, most big threes (especially modern big threes) operate on a timer. You can only keep great players together for so long. This big three is unique in that all of these players were drafted by the Spurs, remained committed to the Spurs, and decided to grow together as Spurs. They weren’t the flashiest or always the most dominant, but these three were the foundation of a true NBA dynasty.