Ranking the Best Big 3's of 2013-14 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

Ranking the Best Big 3's of 2013-14 NBA Season

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    The Miami Heat have won a pair of titles behind the collective work of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but plenty of other high-powered trios put their own stamp on the 2013-14 NBA season.

    And some of them even statistically outperformed Miami's vaunted Big Three.

    As we run through the most impressive three-man units in the NBA this year, the analysis will focus mostly on raw statistics. That's the only fair way to measure these groups against one another, and things like net rating and total minutes played will be critical.

    As a matter of fact, it'll take at least 1,000 total minutes played in order for a unit to qualify for these rankings. Don't worry, though; we'll also rely on qualities like chemistry, value to the overall team identity and general star power.

    Oh, and one other thing: It should go without saying that we're focusing on what these Big Threes have done this year. So while a combo of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams looks nice on paper (especially if it's 2007), those three guys are past their primes and haven't actually done much on the floor this season.

    As such, don't expect to see them crack the top 10.

    Forget the buddy system—let's check out the best trifectas of the 2013-14 season.


    *Stats accurate through games played March 31.

    **All net ratings and minutes stats via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.

Honorable Mention

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    Chicago Bulls: Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler

    Not a starry group by any stretch, the Chicago Bulls' most effective threesome earns honorable mention on the strength of its defensive prowess alone. In typical Bulls fashion, Noah, Butler and Hinrich struggle to score but make sure opposing offenses can barely breathe.

    On the year, these guys hold opposing teams to an offensive rating of 92.2 when they're on the floor, a figure that would easily lead the NBA. Unfortunately, they haven't played the requisite 1,000 minutes necessary to qualify for these rankings. Their net rating of 9.1 is excellent, but they fall just shy of the cutoff in the volume department.

    Of course, if we were compiling a list of three-man units opponents definitely don't want to see in the playoffs, these guys would probably deserve a spot in the top 10. Going up against the Bulls—and this trio of defensive stalwarts in particular—is no fun at all.


    Washington Wizards: John Wall, Marcin Gortat and Nene

    Also falling short of the 1,000-minute requirement is the top trio from the Washington Wizards. This is an intriguing group because of its lack of wing players—something we'll rarely see as we count down the rankings.

    As much as anything, the 10.1 net rating posted by Wall, Gortat and Nene speaks to the quality of the Wizards' excellent starting unit. Plus, it highlights how critical Nene's recovery from a knee injury will be to Washington's playoff ceiling.

10. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph

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    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Net Rating: Plus-8.6

    Minutes Played: 968


    Well, it only took one entry to break the 1,000-minute rule.

    Look, I promise this is the only time it'll happen. This group warranted a special exception because it's been so utterly dominant since Marc Gasol came back from a knee injury in January. The net rating is strong, there's more than enough defensive firepower between Mike Conley and Gasol to make up for Zach Randolph's shortcomings, and the chemistry between these guys is something to behold.

    It might sound strange to say the Grizzlies offense—which ranks in the league's bottom half—can be a beautiful thing. But watch Gasol hold the ball aloft in one hand while Conley darts around him and Randolph digs in for position on the block.

    If you can't appreciate the way a lumbering center keeps an entire offense afloat while hardly moving, I'm not sure if you should keep watching basketball.

9. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Net Rating: Plus-6.7

    Minutes Played: 1,043


    I'll admit it: There was more than a little "reputation power" swaying me on this one.

    Russell Westbrook hasn't been himself all year, and he's missed huge chunks of the season while recovering from knee surgery and resting his legs on back-to-back nights. Still, the recent history of what he's done alongside Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka was enough to overlook the relatively pedestrian net rating and low minute total.

    It's not that this group has been disappointing. It's just that the one featuring Reggie Jackson instead of Westbrook has been a bit better.

    The trio involving Westbrook's frequent replacement has posted a net rating of 9.2 in over 1,200 minutes this season. Objectively, OKC has performed better with a Durant-Ibaka-Jackson group than it has with Westbrook.

    We made it clear from the outset that statistics wouldn't determine everything. This is a clear example.

    Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka are still a premier unit, more offensively potent than the No. 10 group from Memphis and still stout enough on D to cause serious problems for opponents. In the postseason, you can bet the rest of the West will be a lot more frightened of this particular bunch than the one featuring Jackson.

8. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Net Rating: Plus-7.9

    Minutes Played: 1,088


    My sincerest apologies go out to Manu Ginobili, who's been having a terrific season after fizzling out in last year's playoffs. Unfortunately for the Argentine veteran, Kawhi Leonard has surpassed him on the Spurs' hierarchy.

    That's no surprise this year, as head coach Gregg Popovich has cut all three of his key veterans' minutes as San Antonio looks to preserve its health for one more run. Based on their current No. 1 spot in the West, the Spurs' strategy is working nicely.

    Pop's liberal use of rest actually makes it difficult to find a three-man group that plays enough to qualify for our rankings. This one's the best of a sparse lot, and it's darn good.

    Leonard is the key, as he's capable of guarding three positions effectively while chasing down all of the loose balls Duncan can no longer reach. Parker makes the offense go, and Duncan continues to be the heartbeat of the Spurs, but Leonard's ascent into a major "glue guy" role has been integral in keeping San Antonio atop the West for yet another year.

7. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Net Rating: Plus-8.8

    Minutes Played: 1,208


    Spoiler alert: This is the only group from a non-playoff team to crack the top 10. If you check out its raw production, it's easy to see why it belongs among the rest of these postseason-bound bunches.

    Kevin Love's credentials can't be questioned. He's among the game's greatest all-around offensive players, ranks third in the league in player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference.com, and produces drool-worthy fantasy stats on a nightly basis.

    Nikola Pekovic provides the bulk and offensive rebounding, while Ricky Rubio runs the show. These three play extremely well off each other, and they're the biggest reason for Minnesota's tough-to-stop offensive attack.

    Unfortunately, as Grantland's Zach Lowe points out, their success during the first 45 minutes of the game hasn't translated to crunch time. And a lot of the blame falls to Rubio:

    Rubio's lack of scoring punch indisputably hurts Minnesota late, which is why [Rick] Adelman has overplayed [J.J.] Barea in fourth quarters to the frustration of every breathing basketball fan. But with Rubio neutered as a scoring threat, Minnesota has almost no off-the-dribble creator. It has no one who can take the ball from the perimeter into the paint and get buckets.

    That's a problem the Wolves must address, especially if they'd like Love to be part of any three-man units in the future.

    Still, it's hard to ignore the shiny net rating and high-octane attack these three produce—for most of the game.

6. Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Net Rating: Plus 7.3

    Minutes Played: 1,511


    It's interesting to note that we can replace Chandler Parsons with Patrick Beverley to get a three-man unit whose net rating is actually plus-7.9 over a total of 1,011 minutes this year. If all we cared about was the per-minute value of these groups, that one would actually be Houston's best.

    But those extra 500 minutes played by the threesome of Parsons, James Harden and Dwight Howard are a significant amount. We can't just ignore volume in our calculations.

    Besides, if star power matters at all, Parsons has more of it than Beverley. Plus, this unit complements each other perfectly. Harden handles the ball, Howard defends and rebounds, and Parsons attacks via well-timed slashes and deadly spot-up shooting.

    The Rockets are constantly angling for a third star to package with D12 and The Beard, but if fit counts for anything, they may not be able to do much better than Parsons.

    Of course, with Parsons dropping chemistry-crippling nuggets like the one he offered back in January, per The Associated Press' Schuyler Dixon (via Yahoo Sports), it's always possible this group could break up: "When (Harden) is out, we have a more balanced attack. We run our sets and get the best shot available. When he's not there, we don't go one-on-one as much."

    Nothing came of those comments, and Houston is positioned nicely for home-court advantage in the first round. Clearly, these three have squashed beef and opponents in equal measure this year.

5. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Net Rating: Plus-8.1

    Minutes Played: 1,022


    Though far from the most productive trinity this year, the league's highest-profile Big Three has been dominant in a relatively small sample of minutes this season. In fact, if I'm being honest, the 1,000-minute requirement for these rankings came about specifically because this group had to make the cut.

    I mean, are we even talking about "big threes" in the same fashion if James, Wade and Bosh hadn't gotten together back in 2010?

    I doubt it.

    By the time the regular season wraps up, Wade will have missed a quarter of it—thanks to his knees and, more recently, a hamstring issue. Still, when he's been himself, the Heat's top three players have been excellent.

    And really, there's not a more intimidating group out there. If it had managed to play another 200 minutes, this group would have ranked substantially higher. But it's just not fair to the trios ahead of them—each of which has either played more or played better—to slot James and co. any further up the standings.

4. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Net Rating: Plus-8.4

    Minutes Played: 1,630


    No threesome in our rankings has logged more high-efficiency minutes than Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge.

    Knowledgeable Blazers fans will surely view that fact as both a testament to this trio's skill and a condemnation of a brutal bench that requires head coach Terry Stotts to lean so heavily on his best players.

    As the season has worn on, Portland has lost some steam. And when Aldridge was out with a bad back, things looked positively disastrous.

    These guys embody everything that makes the Blazers dangerous. They create tons of space with their shared perimeter accuracy and are capable of twisting defenses into knots with quick ball rotations. There might be better three-man units out there (we'll see three in just a moment), but none are more fun to watch than the freewheeling, sharpshooting group in Portland.

    As long as these three remain healthy, the Blazers have enough firepower to scare any Western Conference foe.

3. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Net Rating: Plus-12.0

    Minutes Played: 1,528


    We've entered big-boy territory now. From this point on, we're dealing with three-man units with elite net ratings, humongous minute totals—or both.

    Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan could very easily be the top group on this list. They've been exceptionally good over a huge swath of playing time and have the Clips positioned as legitimate title contenders for the first time, well...ever.

    On defense, Jordan has made enough strides to affect the game without blocking shots. Thanks largely to his improvement, this bunch holds opponents to 99.4 points per 100 possessions. That's a solid mark, but one that looks even better when you see how Griffin and Paul's offensive attack propels L.A.'s rating on the other end to a whopping 111.4.

    So far, no other trio measures up to what Paul and his running mates have done statistically. And when you toss in the ridiculous chemistry between these three—as evidenced by their breathtaking transition smoothness and loads of lobs—the gap looks even wider.

2. Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Net Rating: Plus-11.5

    Minutes Played: 1,685


    It was tough to put Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West above the Clippers group we just left behind. In terms of net rating, CP3 and his pals have been marginally better this year. On the other hand, the Pacers' trio has played more minutes.

    Most of all, L.A. has flourished lately, while Indiana has completely fallen apart. If recent performance mattered most, there's no doubt the Clippers would be in the No. 2 position on our rankings.

    It's just too hard to ignore the 94.0 defensive rating the Pacers' best three players have amassed this season. Sure, they're worn down, unable to score and rapidly losing their grip on the East's No. 1 seed right now. But these guys came within a game of the Finals last season, and their leadership has been immensely valuable over the past two years.

    And they just fit together so perfectly. George is the two-way wing with a superstar's skill. West is the elder statesman, mid-range assassin and resident tough guy. Hibbert is the interior force (or he was for most of the season, anyway). Other than high-efficiency offense, these guys have everything covered.

    Realistically, it's a complete tossup between these three and the representatives from the Clips. I guess I just prefer the larger minute sample and proven playoff credentials to the alley-oops.

1. Stephen Curry, David Lee and Andre Iguodala

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Net Rating: Plus-16.5

    Minutes Played: 1,199


    You can make the argument that the Warriors' trifecta of Stephen Curry, David Lee and Andre Iguodala haven't played enough minutes to rate ahead of the previous two or three units we've covered. That's fair; volume has been a key part of these rankings throughout, and without a completely ridiculous per-minute advantage, it's hard to justify placing the Dubs in the No. 1 spot.

    But look at that net rating!

    Golden State absolutely annihilates the competition when these three guys are on the floor. No three-man unit comes close to matching what Curry, Lee and Iggy have done this year. These three score the ball at a rate of 112 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would easily lead the league. And they limit opponents to 95.5 points per 100 possessions, which would also lead the league.

    You can't ignore a unit that posts ratings that match the NBA's best on both ends.

    Incredibly, the Warriors have the league's five best three-man units in terms of net rating. Toss out Curry and Iguodala with Klay Thompson, and you get a net rating of plus-15.0 over 1,357 minutes. Trot out Andrew Bogut alongside Iguodala and Thompson, and you'll get a net rating of plus-13.3 over 1,030 minutes.

    This says a lot about the quality of the Dubs starters. Of course, it says even more about the atrocious bench that blows all of the leads their elite first unit accumulates.

    Anyway, the point is this: Golden State has the most effective Big Three in the league. Curry, Lee and Iguodala are ridiculously good on both ends, and they've sustained their performance over a sample of nearly 1,200 minutes this season.

    Curry requires a double-team at all times, Lee's coordination and technical skills are remarkable, and Iguodala shuts down the opponent's best scorer while facilitating on offense. These guys do it all, and they do it all in a highly entertaining, highly effective fashion.

    They've earned the No. 1 spot here.