To begin I’m defining a big three as three players that all earn multiple all-star honors within the time they play together. Because of this the OKC big 3 with Durant, Harden, and Westbrook won’t appear because Harden hadn’t fully emerged yet. Ordinarily this would also mean the trio of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman would be disqualified since Rodman wasn’t an All-Star during his Chicago days.
I’m willing to make exceptions if players boast All-NBA status, lead the league perennially in a major statistical category, or earn other significant seasonal awards multiple times. Since Rodman led the league in rebounds per game three times with the Bulls and made an All-Defensive first team, he qualifies.
I’d be less inclined to provide the exception to someone like Horace Grant, who made an All-Star appearance and two All-Defensive second teams with the Bulls. I won’t be accepting players like Jeff Hornacek who made only one All-Star game and it wasn’t even with the Utah Jazz (which had John Stockton and Karl Malone). Is it splitting hairs? Absolutely, but that’s kind of the point.
This requirement is in place to keep two great players from carrying a mediocre player or one-time all-star onto the list. They have to be three, high-profile all-star players. In fitting instances, I’ll include four players for greater emphasis on a team’s talent. I guess you could call those teams “big fours”. It sounds kind of lame, but there were teams with that much talent.
For this list I’m focusing on a mix of accomplishments and talent. So I’ll be focusing on things like wins, winning percentage, and championships on the team level, but also the all-time status and awards earned at the individual level by some players.
12. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love (2014-2016)
3 Conference Championships, 1 NBA Championship, 161-85 record
Cleveland welcomed James home after his four-year stint in Miami. The team traded Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota to get Love and build up the team around James and Irving. While I am including this team, it’s worth noting that they were weaker than the group James left in Miami. Irving has some of the best handles in history and is a clutch shooter, but it’s hard to go with him over someone with the raw ability and explosiveness of Dwyane Wade.
Love had a couple dominant years where he actually garnered MVP shares, but that all ended when he became the third wheel in Cleveland and was relegated to a spot-up shooter. He felt less utilized and much more out of place than Chris Bosh on the Miami team.
11. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor (1968-1971)
3 Conference Championships, 1 NBA Championship, 218-110 record (Includes all 1971)
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship during the 1971 season, which Baylor did participate in, but he only played nine games. So, Baylor technically isn’t a champion because he was off the team when they won. I’m not sure where to draw the line here, especially since Baylor only played in two games during the 1970 campaign. It could be argued that this trio really doesn’t deserve a spot on this list because of Baylor’s condition, but it’s too irresistible to not place them on the list.
10. Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, John Havlicek (1970-1977)
2 Conference Championship, 2 NBA Championship, 414-242 record
This was the least successful trio of the three pre-2000 Celtics groups on this list. That’s not a knock though. If anything it shows just how strong the other big threes were. The mid-late 1970s are often a forgotten period in the NBA because they precede the Magic vs. Bird battles and the Jordan era but follow the Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain years. Still, this trio was terrific.
Cowens was the 1970-71 Rookie of the Year and the 1972-73 MVP. In his ten years with Boston, he made the All-Star game eight times. White is probably the least known member of this trio. He made seven All-Star games in nine full seasons with the Celtics before being traded to the Golden State Warriors more than midway through the 1978-79 season.
Havilcek joined the Celtics back in 1962 and didn’t retire until the end of the 1977 season. He won a total of six championships with the organization and made the All-Star game in each of his final 13 seasons in the NBA. He was also the 1973-74 Finals MVP. It’s incredible that Havilcek bridged the Russell years to the years where this trio was active and then almost reached all the way to the Bird years.
9. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo (2007-2011)
2 Conference Championships, 1 NBA Championship, 273-121 record
The creation of the Celtics big-three is often credited with kicking off the modern arms race in the NBA. Allen and Garnett joined up with Pierce and Rondo in Boston to form a star loaded team. However, while the group did deliver a championship and two Eastern Conference Championships, the team disappointed a little. More was expected of a team that included three future Hall of Famers.
Still, the Celtics were an all-time great squad. Garnett, Pierce, and Rondo were all revered defenders. Pierce also has a highlight reel of clutch shots to his name and Allen was the best three point shooter in NBA history until Stephen Curry arrived. You’ve got to wonder what this group could have accomplished if they got together earlier in their careers.
8. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer (1985-1993)
3 Conference Championships, 2 NBA Championships, 432-306 record
The Bad Boy Pistons were something else. Their style of basketball has been outlawed in every possible way by the NBA now, but the 80s and 90s had a much less restricted version of basketball. Thomas is one of the best point guards of all-time and is in the Hall of Fame along with Dumars.
Laimbeer isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but he had over 13,000 points and 10,000 rebounds during his career. He’s also acknowledged as one of the toughest, roughest players in the game’s history. On a team named the Bad Boys, Laimbeer was badest. The Pistons had their best success before Michael Jordan’s first three-peat.
7. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh (2010-2013)
4 Conference Championships, 2 NBA Championships, 224-88 record
The original James big three was better than their 2-2 record in the finals shows. James and Wade were both dynamic scorers capable of playing strong defense as well while Bosh had averaged over 20 points per game for five straight seasons before joining the Miami Heat. His role in the team was more limited to grabbing rebounds, protecting the basket, and shooting threes, but he was still an essential player nonetheless.
James is the second best player of all-time and Wade will find himself in the top 35 if not the top 30 when all is said and done. Bosh’s greatness is often glossed over, but don’t sleep on his 11 consecutive All-Star appearances.
6. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green (2016-Present)
2 Conference Championships, 2 NBA Championships, 125-39 record (Not including current season)
With Durant’s impending free agency this offseason, the Warriors big four might be one of the shortest tenured super teams in NBA history. Granted the trio of Curry, Green, and Thompson could also be put in this spot without Durant and still rank high on this list. It just felt right to include Durant in this group.
After all, he and Curry are two of the greatest players of all-time and easily fall within the top 30 all-time. They should both be in the top 20 by the end of the careers. It was just too attractive to not include this combination of players on the list. They’d rank higher, but they’ve only been together for such a short period of time.
5. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman (1995-1997)
3 Conference Championships, 3 NBA Championships, 203-43 record
When baseball didn’t exactly work out, Jordan decided to return to the NBA and basically transformed from a legend to a god in the eyes of many fans. He was only back for part of the 1994-95 season, but the Bulls added Rodman for the 1995-96 season and the team went on to win three straight championships before Jordan retired a second time.
While MJ is the GOAT, Pippen has gone down as one of the greatest running mates in history, and Rodman as one of the best defenders of all-time. Even if they aren’t the most successful trio in NBA history, this is usually the group everyone thinks about when considering historic big threes.
4. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (1980-1991)
6 Conference Championships, 3 NBA Championships, 690-294 record
Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers created a tidal wave of interest in the NBA. Those two teams were some of the greatest to ever assemble and both had incredible success. Bird, like Johnson, is one of the ten greatest players in NBA history. He won three MVPs and made the All-Star game in all but one of his NBA seasons. McHale wasn’t a full-time starter for most of his career, which is why he was the Sixth Man of the Year twice. McHale actually won more championships as a sixth man than as a starter.
Unlike Bird and McHale, Parish was not a Celtic for life. He had a much longer career, 21 seasons, but all nine of his All-Star seasons came while he was in Boston. This trio was together for the second longest time out of all the big threes on this list.
3. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (2002-2015)
5 Conference Championships, 4 NBA Championships, 810-322 record
This trio might lack the overall star-power of some of the other groups on this list, but Duncan gives them a top ten or twelve player of all-time and they meshed so well together that they won four Championships. Duncan actually won a championship before Parker and Ginobili arrived.
All three of these guys are future Hall of Famers hands down. I know some people will try to debate me on Ginobili, but I don’t how he couldn’t end up in the Hall. The whole dynasty would have never been possible without head coach Gregg Popovich, but I’m not really taking head coaches into account on this list. No trio on this list was together as long as these Spurs.
2. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy (1982-1988)
6 Conference Championships, 3 NBA Championships, 420-154 record
The three championships are attractive, but I’m more interested in the fact that two of the top ten players of all-time (Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar) were on the same team. If this trio had won just a single title, I’d be tempted to still put them high on this list. The Showtime Lakers are one of the most iconic teams in basketball history. The explosive awe of Magic, consistency of Kareem, and flash of Worthy made the Lakers a must-see attraction. The battles between LA and Boston brought the NBA to new heights in terms of influence and popularity.
1. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones (1957-1962)
6 Conference Championships, 5 NBA Championships, 335-123 record
By this point you’ve probably seen several Celtics teams. Well, this was the original dominant Celtics squad, the one that kick-started the team building and rebuilding super teams for years to come. Obviously, Russell is the headliner. He’s one of the ten best players in NBA history and has more NBA championships (11) than fingers (presumably ten).
While these four players were together, Russell won four of his five league MVPs. Cousy won the 1956-57 MVP and led the league in assists per game eight times, the final three times came while these four played together. Heinsohn was the 1956-57 Rookie of the Year. He only played for nine seasons but made six All-Star appearances and scored over 1,000 points in each of his first eight seasons.
Jones joined the team for the 1957-58 season. He hit his peak after Cousy retired and put up over 20 points per game from 1964 through the 1967 season (four years). Considering how short their time was together and how many championships they won, this is the most dominant group on the list.
Reflecting on all of this, making some of the squads “big fours” instead of big threes might have limited the extent to which their achievements were displayed. Usually adding in an extra player shaved years off of the time during which the players were all assembled. Because of this some wins and championships weren’t mentioned in the article as I made sure I limited the team’s years to those during which every listed member was a part of the team. It’s also worth noting that my initial rule, requiring that all three players have strong credentials, might have eliminated some strong candidates for this list.