NBA franchises are seemingly obsessed with having a ‘big three’ at their disposal. Most recently, Carmelo Anthony has hooked up with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Oklahoma City, joining an increasingly long list of big threes across the league.
However, assembling a star trio is no guarantee of success. For every Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, there is a Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. For every Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, there is Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. Seems like maybe Rondo isn’t the best guy to have on your team these days.
While enticing on paper, the big-three concept doesn’t always pan out as planned. Here are some examples of it failing miserably.
Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler – Houston Rockets 1996/98
The Rockets were just two seasons removed from claiming back-to-back NBA titles when Charles Barkley teamed up with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to chase the ring that had eluded him. So if you hear Chuck moaning about Kevin Durant joining the Warriors, remember that he did pretty much the same thing.
Performances weren’t terrible during this trio’s two-year stint together. In 1997, the Rockets reached the conference finals before bowing out to the Utah Jazz. Barkley averaged 19.2 points per game but was limited to just 53 regular-season appearances as the injuries that would plague the end of his career set in.
Olajuwon and Drexler both performed well, averaging 23 and 18 points, respectively. But with a combined age of 103, this was a big three in decline.
The 1997/98 season proved this as Houston limped into the playoffs with a 41-41 record following an injury ravaged season. In the postseason, they were again eliminated by the Jazz with Barkley sitting out the crucial Game 5 defeat with a torn bicep.
That defeat spelled the end of the trio’s time together. Drexler would retire following the season-ending defeat whilst Olajuwon and Barkley were gone a few years later. It was hardly disastrous but given the lofty status of the three men involved, this alliance was a failure.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams – Brooklyn Nets 2013/14
You could make a strong case for this being the worst big three ever just because of the absolute chaos that has engulfed the Nets since they traded for Garnett and Pierce. Brooklyn completely sold their future to Boston, giving away a plethora of draft picks for two aging superstars. Throw into the mix the forever unreliable Deron Williams and you have a recipe for disaster.
On the court, performances were not, in fact, terrible as the Nets secured the sixth seed and upset the Toronto Raptors in seven games to advance to the conference semis. However, they were easily defeated by a far superior big three in Miami and that was that for this ill-fated experiment.
Pierce left in free agency to the Wizards, and Garnett went back to Minnesota a year later along with Williams. The Nets were left in basketball purgatory with no future assets, no decent players and not much hope for the future.
Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard – Los Angeles Lakers 2012/13
This was meant to be Kobe Bryant’s glorious finale as the Lakers assembled a starting five with a combined 32 All-Star appearances between them. On paper, Steve Nash would orchestrate the offense, Kobe would get buckets and Dwight Howard would anchor the defense; the best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that.
The stars aligned against LA in 2012/13, however. A lockout-shortened offseason saw Mike Brown struggle to implement his Princeton offense and Howard’s back surgery meant he didn’t pick up a basketball until October and had problems adjusting.
As is often the case with aging players, niggling injuries to both Bryant and Nash severely limited the team’s ability to gel and when Brown was fired early on the team had to adapt to yet another offense as Mike D’Antoni took over. The Lakers rallied under D’Antoni to make the playoffs as the seventh seed but were completely outclassed by the San Antonio Spurs.
In the offseason, Howard rejected a five-year max deal worth $118 million to sign with the Houston Rockets and this short-lived trio was done. The Lakers haven’t made the postseason since 2013 and are now transitioning into a new era. It was the 2012/13 season, where they promised so much on paper, which will haunt Lakers fans for years to come.
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