At this point, the notion of the NBA being ruled by 'Big Three' teams seems almost antiquated, a call back to the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen trinity that last won a title more than a decade ago. But what became the blueprint for countless other franchises (most notably, the Miami Heat) doesn't necessarily ring true today. After all, the Golden State Warriors have built more of a 'Big Five' than a 'Big Three' and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the only other team to etch their name on the Larry O'Brien trophy in recent years, were basically comprised of LeBron James and his merry men.
So does that mean that the 'Big Three' is dead in the NBA? Well, not so fast. LeBron is believed to be planning to recruit other stars to join his new Lakers squad this summer and the team would have space to add two max salary players. Likewise, their fellow Staples Center tenants could carve out three max salary slots, with the Clippers said to be pursuing the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. In examining the current landscape, you can see the Conferences currently headed up by the Toronto Raptors, who have Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka reigning as a high-paid star trio, and the Denver Nuggets, anchored by the young core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
So while the 'Big Three' concept may not be as prevalent as it was when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were lighting up South Beach, it remains a pretty darn good foundation to build from. In reality, any team can label their top three players as such, even when it's questionable how 'big' they actually are. Given that the past four years have produced just two different championship franchises, it's safe to say that some 'Big Three' plans have fallen by the wayside. Here are 10 groups of starry triplets that have already fizzled out and 10 that are poised to soon follow suit:
20 Flopped: New Orleans Pelicans - Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday
Technically speaking, the only full season that Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins spent sharing a frontcourt saw the New Orleans Pelicans stand as one of the last remaining eight teams. By then, however, Cousins had long since been waylaid by a torn Achilles, opening the door for a Davis takeover and leaving Boogie as an unwanted free agent.
Fact is, the ambitious twin towers pairing, coupled with the playmaking of Jrue Holiday, never quite gelled in the Big Easy. It's telling how little effort the Pels put into retaining the four-time All-Star Cousins. In fact, it's unknown whether GM Dell Demps even offered the current Golden State Warrior a contract.
19 Will Flop: New York Knicks - Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox
It's not even fun to dump on the Knicks anymore. Even so, it's also hard to get particularly excited for their future, even as they make an honest go of building through the draft around Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis remains a special player, but has been out with a torn ACL since last February and still doesn't have a timetable for his return.
As for New York's more recent lottery picks, Frank Ntilikina has struggled with consistency in his young career and has already heard his name bandied about in trade rumours, while Kevin Knox has actually been outshone by fellow Knicks rookie Allonzo Trier. That trio is, by no means, a final product for a franchise that could still be picking in the lottery for the next few years, and good thing too - they won't be getting very far while anchored by three question marks.
18 Flopped: Sacramento Kings - DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Darren Collison
Poor DeMarcus Cousins. Even for his all-word talent and status as one of the game's best big men, he has been mostly condemned to putting up numbers on some truly bad teams. Perhaps it's Boogie's 535 career games played without a single minute of postseason action that convinced him to join the Golden State Warriors on a one-year pact at a steep discount from what he could have earned on the open market.
Regardless, what we do know is that a Kings core built on Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison was never going to get it done in the competitive West. Ironically, all three have since gone on to far better situations - Cousins is ring-chasing in Golden State, Gay is enjoying a renaissance in San Antonio and Collison is a key part of the surprising Indiana Pacers.
17 Will Flop: Chicago Bulls - Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr.
If you happen to be a 'glass half full' kind of Bulls fan, then you no doubt see a club fronted by a 23-year-old scoring whiz who is averaging nearly 24 points per game, a 21-year-old coming off of a breakout rookie campaign and a promising 19-year-old rookie big man. For many among the Windy City faithful, however, it's hard to get too excited over a young foundation of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
It's not that the trio doesn't have potential, but any optimism surrounding the group has been hindered by their involvement in this tumultuous 2018-19 season. LaVine hasn't eased concerns over his porous defense or his ball dominance, while Markkanen has struggled to stay healthy and Carter Jr. has been bullied inside by bigger opposing centers. All three men may well go into good pros, but the Bulls likely need more help than that.
16 Flopped: Indiana Pacers - Paul George, Jeff Teague, Myles Turner
Paul George is currently in the midst of an MVP-caliber season in OKC, but that doesn't mean that his old team regrets giving up on him. When faced with the prospect of losing your franchise star, few teams emerge as well as the Indiana Pacers did. Trading George for a package centered around Victor Oladipo and Domanatas Sabonis not only resulted in a six-game improvement and playoff berth, but it brought into the fold a budding star in Oladipo, who won Most Improved Player honors in his first year in Indy. In retrospect, that means that the Pacers' previous 'Big Three' of George, Jeff Teague and Myles Turner was something of a flop. Teague signed in Minnesota the same summer that George was traded, leaving behind Turner, Oladipo and Darren Collison to form a younger, cheaper and more effective trio.
15 Will Flop: Portland Trail Blazers - Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic
The cracks are beginning to show in the veneer of the Trail Blazers, a franchise that has managed to keep their head above water in the loaded West in regular season play, but has failed to figure it out in the playoffs. Any and all discussions of a tear down start and end with the starry backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Though they would be missed by the Tip City faithful, they account for nearly $120 million in future salary commitments and would bring about a considerable return which could have the Blazers' rebuild on a fast track.
Of course, ideas of a rebuild wouldn't exist were it not for the fact that this iteration has probably run its course. The current group, fronted by Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, has gone 1-12 in their three most recent playoff series.
14 Flopped: Brooklyn Nets - Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson
It's been a number of years since the Nets tried unsuccessfully to find instant success by adding established stars, but the scars from those ambitious-but-flawed efforts remain. Even after Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce departed, leaving a trail of lost lottery picks and all of one playoff series win, acquisitions like Deron Williams and Joe Johnson kept the veteran trend going.
While it made sense for Brooklyn to avoid a rebuild without control over their own first round pick, the trio of Williams, Johnson and Brook Lopez could only help the Nets squeak into the East's eighth spot with 38 wins in 2014-15 despite carrying the league's highest payroll. Those men accounted for just under $60 million of the club's $87 million in salary commitments that year in what was mostly a lost season.
13 Will Flop: Memphis Grizzlies - Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Chandler Parsons
The scrappy Memphis Grizzlies have long been known as a tough team to beat, and so a hot start for the Grizz this season brought some excitement back to Beale street. But even if you put aside their slide back in the crowded West, there are legit questions to ask about just how far this group can go. Not only have all of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Chandler Parsons missed significant time due to injury in recent seasons, but they are 31, 33 and 30, respectively. The future of this club clearly rests with teenaged rookie standout Jaren Jackson Jr. Until then, it's tough to see how Memphis will set themselves apart from the rest of the pack.
12 Flopped: Los Angeles Clippers - Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan
With DeAndre Jordan's free agency departure to Dallas, the last vestiges of Lob City disappeared in LA. Clearly, this high point era in Clippers' franchise history was over long before that, with Chris Paul having already been dealt to Houston and Blake Griffin to Detroit. For all the excitement and relevance that the trio injected into the organization, winning never became part of the equation. Sure, there were six straight playoff appearances, a stretch that also included two Pacific division titles. But Paul, Griffin and Jordan, for all their talent, couldn't bring the Clips their first Conference Finals berth in franchise history.
Now, the three are all in three different cities amidst reports that they didn't necessarily get along at all times and the Clippers are seeking a fresh start and maybe some free agent luck this summer.
11 Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams
There's a bona fide MVP candidate playing in OKC right now - and it isn't who you might think. Paul George has emerged from the shadow of triple-double king Russell Westbrook and is making a strong MVP case for the upper echelon Thunder. George and OKC's superstar point guard have found a nice chemistry build on trust between the two and balanced out by Steven Adams taking care of much of the grunt work inside. But what if it still isn't enough?
Should they fall short in the playoffs, improvement won't be easy for GM Sam Presti, with the contracts of his star trio standing at more than $90 million this year and topping out at over $100 million two seasons from now. There's no questioning whether Westbrook, George and Adams are good, but being good enough is another matter, entirely.
10 Flopped: Miami Heat - Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson
Pat Riley is used to getting his way, and so it must hurt to see in front of him a Heat roster that is capped out and, well, just not good enough. As it stands now, the team will be in tough to make sure that the final season for franchise icon Dwyane Wade ends in a playoff berth. Once the home of the star-studded James/Wade/Bosh trinity, it's hard to know who Miami's three best players even are now.
The Heat now have a pretty good point guard in Goran Dragic who is being paid like a star ($37 million through next season), an enigmatic big man in Hassan Whiteside who they reportedly have tried to unload and a young wing (Josh Richardson) who is the de facto best player but is probably better suited to third-string status. South Beach could sure use some hope in the form of a high draft pick or marquee free agent.
9 Will Flop: Boston Celtics - Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford
There's an important distinction to be made here - this projection is less about the future potential of the Boston Celtics and more specifically focused on their current 'Big Three' iteration. You could argue about the importance of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford on the present day Celts, but it's hard to ignore the fact that those three veterans comprise $80 million of the club's $126 million roster.
That may change this summer, with decisions looming for Irving and Horford on player options for next season. If Irving, as expected, opts out, Boston could be content to roll with Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that the team rode a younger and cheaper trio of Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to the Eastern Conference Finals as Irving and Hayward nursed injuries and Horford took on a slightly lesser role to keep the Celtics smaller and quicker.
8 Flopped: San Antonio Spurs - LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili
When you think of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as part of a 'Big Three' in San Antonio, you certainly aren't thinking flop. It was their partnership with Tim Duncan, after all, that produced four NBA titles for the Spurs. But a three-year post-Duncan stretch with LaMarcus Aldridge as the key big man never bore the same fruit, resulting in just one Conference Finals appearance, a step down for a club that had won a championship and reached the Finals in the immediately preceding years.
Now, Parker is in Charlotte, Ginobili has called it a career and Aldridge is part of a retooled Spurs squad alongside DeMar DeRozan that bears no resemblance to their near-dynastic teams of old. By the impossibly high standards of the Spurs organization, the brief Parker/Ginobili/Aldridge era can be considered a flop.
7 Will Flop: Detroit Pistons - Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson
Dwane Casey seems to be a steady presence as the new head coach of the Pistons, but there's only so much he can do to help a flawed roster with big money tied up into a questionable trio of central stars. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are still owed a collective $183 million on their current contracts, and that's after the $72 million they'll rake in this year.
Griffin is a bona fide star who continues to find new dimensions to his game, but Drummond still fails to take full advantage of his considerable physical gifts on account of a passive attitude and Jackson continues to shoot poorly even as he remains a ball-dominant, shoot-first point guard. Casey has a proven track record for turning teams around, but he'll almost certainly need a better cast on the floor than the one he currently has.
6 Flopped: Houston Rockets - James Harden, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony
Realistically, Carmelo Anthony was never perceived as one of the three core pieces of the Houston Rockets by anyone but maybe himself. Signing Melo was a risk both inexpensive and reasonable in nature, but it was one that ultimately wouldn't pay off. 'Melo lasted all of 10 games in Houston, turning off many in the organization through his stubborn refusal to adapt his game and by initially scoffing at the idea of being a bench player.
Anthony's brief but disappointing Rockets tenure cost the club little in actual money but may have disrupted the flow of a 65-win team from a year ago and contributed to their slow start this year. Harden, Paul and Clint Capela have the talent to turn things around in a hurry, but the Harden/Paul/Anthony triumvirate was most definitely a flop.
5 Will Flop: Toronto Raptors - Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka
Everything is rosy on Raptors land right now, where the club sits atop the Eastern Conference and Kawhi Leonard is drawing "M-V-P!" chants from the home faithful. The success to date has helped fans ignore the inconvenient reality of how tenuous and pressure-filled this season actually is. Without any clear sense of whether Leonard will re-sign after this season, this is a win-or-bust season in Toronto, possibly the end of a window of contention that has stood as the high point of the franchise's history.
The Raptors' record has, however, at least partially disguised some inherent problems, including a lack of chemistry between Leonard and Lowry. They've still got a lot of work to do to survive a tougher East that includes Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston. And if they don't, they could find themselves paying Lowry and Serge Ibaka $57 million to head up an also-ran next year.
4 Flopped: Washington Wizards - John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr.
Washington Wizards management will surely say all the right things about believing in their roster and touting their talent level. But does anyone actually believe that this team will ever be a winner as it's currently constructed? John Wall looks like a shell of himself at a time when his lucrative contract extension is just about to kick in.
Bradley Beal can still score, but seems worn down by the struggles of his team and the constant trade speculation he faces. Otto Porter Jr., meanwhile, remains a secondary scorer being paid like a star thanks to the four-year, $106 million offer sheet that Brooklyn threw at him and the Wiz matched.
None of those contracts expire until the summer of 2021, making them tough to move. Still, something has to give amidst a losing atmosphere, which means there could be some one-sided sell-offs coming just to help Washington out from under these deals.
3 Will Flop: Los Angeles Lakers - LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram
Regardless of what LaVar Ball wants to believe, the real 'Big Three' around the Lakers these days is LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Aside from maybe Jeannie Buss, those three men will serve as the central force in shaping the next generation of the Lake Show as they hope to reemerge as a Western power around James. Currently surrounded by a young supporting cast, the aging King probably has plans that extend beyond playing with Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
From openly flouting league tampering rules by recruiting the likes of Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis to the club's much-speculated pursuit of stars from the 2019 free agent class, LA probably won't even give the James/Ball/Ingram trio the chance to thrive.
2 Flopped: Minnesota Timberwolves - Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler
Other big three's have ended badly, but few have fizzled out in as public, strange and spectacular a fashion as the Minnesota Timberwolves' short-lived trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler. Back in the summer of 2017, Butler's arrival in Minny seemed a fortuitous fit, reuniting the former Chicago Bull with coach Tom Thibodeau and adding a heady, defensive-minded two guard to a core anchored by a pair of young talents.
Unfortunately, those young talents, Towns and Wiggins, didn't have the type of attitude and competitive fire that Butler was looking for and, as a result, heads were butted. In fact, the 29-year-old called out the Wolves during a contentious practice earlier this season before appearing on ESPN immediately thereafter. Following endless trade talk and a problematic environment created, Butler was on his way to Philly and all sides were ready to move on.
1 Will Flop: Philadelphia 76ers - Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler
Seventeen months and about 1,300 miles apart, it was hard not to notice the parallels in the superlative coverage of Jimmy Butler's arrival in Minnesota and then in Philadelphia. In both cases, he seemed an ideal fit for a team on the rise who were hoping that he would catapult them into contention. It sure didn't work in Minnesota and there are reasons to question how effective it will be in Philly, as well. We still don't yet fully know whether Butler will be more in synch with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons than he was with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
What we do know, however, is that the Sixers face some degree of pressure to get things clicking immediately, with Butler's free agency looming and a lingering opportunity to seize the wide open East this year. If Simmons gets tired of giving up the ball or if Embiid starts to fall in love with the three-ball, this could wind up being a short-lived trio.