Trio Tiers: How the NBA’s best Big Threes stack up entering the 2021-22 season

Winning a championship in the NBA is hard. In this era, winning one without a Big Three is even harder. While the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors proved it can be done, the list of championship contenders in 2021-22 leads with teams who’ve stuffed their starting fives with trios of star power. While the Bucks’ Big Three of Giannis AntetokounmpoKhris Middleton and Jrue Holiday enters the season as the defending champions, they don’t top the rankings of the league’s best trios.

Let’s take a tour of the league’s best, starting with the most ridiculous version in Brooklyn.

Tier 1: Beasts of the East

Brooklyn Nets

The best Big Three in the NBA right now plays in Brooklyn, and it’s not close. Kevin DurantJames Harden and Kyrie Irving are among the most dynamic and creative scorers of this era and are squarely in their primes. Durant is one of the best three players alive, Harden has won three of the past four scoring titles, and Irving hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history.

We caught a glimpse of how good these guys can be in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, when they combined to average 85.2 points per game against the Boston Celtics, the most by any trio in a single playoff series in league history. On paper, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but the Nets must stay healthy to win the championship.

Brooklyn’s super-trio combined to play just 202 minutes together in the regular season, and injuries to Harden and Irving reduced this Big Three to a Big One when it mattered most. The league is too deep right now for any short-handed team to emerge as champs. Not only were Milwaukee and Phoenix two of the league’s best teams last season, they also managed to stay healthier than teams like the Nets and Lakers.

Injuries aside, Harden is the one to watch. He’s the savviest offensive catalyst in the league, and 2021-22 is his best chance yet to win a ring. If The Beard is happy, healthy and hungry, expect this Nets offense to shatter scoring records. They broke the NBA record for offensive efficiency last year despite all those missed games. As they get more reps, the scoring will be downright scary.

Not only do these guys trot out three of the best scorers in the world, Joe Harris and the newly acquired Patty Mills represent one of the best pairs of catch-and-shoot threats anywhere in the league.

Milwaukee Bucks

If we needed a reminder that defense wins championships, the 2021 Bucks gave us a big one. Along with Brooklyn’s trio, the Bucks’ Big Three has helped tilt the NBA’s balance of power back to the Eastern Conference.

No Big Three in the league plays as well on defense as Milwaukee’s. In the playoffs last season, this trio logged a total of 565 minutes together and posted a net rating of plus-12.3, largely because they held opponents to a measly 97.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s incredible, especially in the playoffs against teams that included players such as Durant, Trae Young and Chris Paul.

Before last season, the Bucks sent out multiple players and a bevy of future draft assets to import Holiday, and it paid off. He replaced Eric Bledsoe in the rotation and immediately provided this team with a new vibe in big games. He has had an impeccable defensive reputation for years, but Holiday showed it off on a pair of big stages this summer. First, he contained Paul in the Finals, then he went to Tokyo and became Team USA’s flagship perimeter defender. All told, his defense helped earn him both a ring and a gold medal this summer, but here’s the scary part: Holiday’s not even the best defender in this trio.

Antetokounmpo’s marvelous two-way performance in the 2021 NBA Finals is a preview of coming attractions. He returned from a scary knee injury in the Eastern Conference finals and put on a master class on both ends of the floor that sparked the Bucks to the championship.

Not only did he put up 50 points in the close-out game and make breathtaking defensive plays that we will remember forever, he also led everyone in the Finals in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Nobody has owned the paint like that in the Finals since Shaquille O’Neal was wearing purple and gold. Considering Antetokounmpo is just 26, that comp alone should scare everyone else around the league.

Middleton was not as consistent as Antetokounmpo in the title run, but he did prove he can be the man, especially as the Bucks closed out the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals. He is capable of getting buckets down the stretch in ways that his MVP teammate simply is not. Holiday has given the Bucks a calming ball handler in crunch time, and Middleton gives them a big-time shot-maker. Between their title run and Holiday and Middleton’s Olympic glory, these three guys will arrive into camp as confident as anyone, and deservedly so.

Tier 2: Best of the West

Los Angeles Lakers

This new glam trio looks good on preseason Instagram posts, but will LeBron JamesAnthony Davis and Russell Westbrook look good on the basketball court? The success of the fancy new Big Three in Los Angeles ultimately depends on the answers to these three big questions:

1. Do they have enough shooting?

The modern NBA is obsessed with perimeter offense. Nearly 40% of NBA shots now come from downtown, and any team hoping to win the 2021-22 championship must at least be competent from beyond the arc. While James has become a decent 3-point threat, Westbrook and Davis still struggle to score efficiently from the perimeter.

Out of 70 NBA players who have attempted at least 2,000 jump shots over the past five seasons, Westbrook ranks last in efficiency with an eFG% of just 41.8 on 4,226 attempts. Anthony Davis ranks 69th.

This places a huge shooting burden on the backs of the role players in Los Angeles.

2. Did they screw up their elite defense?

The Frank Vogel-era Lakers have been a defensive juggernaut. They ranked third in defensive efficiency in 2019-20 and first last season. But it’s fair to ask if this summer’s transactions damaged this team’s ability to get stops. Not only did they bring in Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, whose defensive skills are waning, but they also sent out Kentavious Caldwell-PopeAlex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma, who represented a solid core of perimeter defenders. The West is chock full of elite offenses. Can this group get stops like the title team in 2019-20 did?

3. Can they stay healthy?

If we’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s to trust James. After taking his talents to South Beach in 2010-11, he went to eight consecutive NBA Finals, but injuries are the biggest reasons why he has come up short in two of the past three seasons. Now he is turning 37 this December. Davis has also been plagued by injuries. Like the Nets, if the Lakers want to win it all, they must keep their trio in good condition — something they couldn’t do last season.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns’ Big Three might not be as glitzy as the Lakers’ or the Nets’ versions, but unlike those superstar-laden squads, they won their conference last year. Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton fit nicely together, and Phoenix’s front office has done a great job surrounding them with complementary wing pieces that helped this team knock out the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers en route to its first Finals appearance since 1993.

How’d they do it? Last season the Suns’ Big Three torched opposing defenses, logging an offensive rating of 118.3 in over 1,300 minutes together on the floor. For context, the Nets broke the NBA record by scoring 117.3 per 100 last season. Combine that with the fact that Phoenix ranked sixth in defensive efficiency last year and you’re left with a simple truth: This team was no fluke.

Still, are the Suns a legitimate threat to get back to the Finals? It depends on two things: Paul’s health and the growth of the young core. CP3 has battled injuries for years, and he will turn 37 during the 2022 playoffs, so it’s fair to ask if he can run it back for another long season without injury. Regardless, the future in Phoenix is sunny assuming the team’s impressive young core built around Booker and Ayton continues to improve. Add in Mikal BridgesCameron Payne and Cameron Johnson and you have one of the league’s best young groups of talent. If Paul can dodge injuries and the young guys keep getting better, this team could easily return to the Finals.

Tier 3: More Injury Questions

Golden State Warriors

Remember the Warriors? You know the iconic team that won three titles in four years? Well, their Big Three has been pretty good over the years and should be back together on the court this year.

Draymond GreenKlay Thompson and Stephen Curry are 365-113 (.764 win percentage) in games they have played together in their careers, the highest win percentage by any trio in NBA history (min. 400 games).

There’s only one reason this Big Three isn’t higher on this list: the dreaded injury bug. Thompson, one of the league’s best two-way wing players, hasn’t played a game since the 2019 NBA Finals. Reports suggest he could be back in action by Christmas. If that’s true, and if Thompson can play at his elite level, then this trio and this team immediately become an intriguing contender.

Curry won the scoring title last year and Green won another gold medal in Tokyo this summer, but this group hasn’t been a real threat since Thompson got hurt. The Warriors were a two-way juggernaut with the Splash Brothers powering the league’s most terrifying perimeter offense and Green captaining one of the league’s most versatile defenses.

But those Finals teams also featured a fleet of other elite actors, such as Durant, Andre Iguodala (who’s back in The Bay, but now 37) and Shaun Livingston. If this year’s Warriors team wants to get back to the top of the league, not only do they need their Big Three to play like it’s 2015 again, they’ll also need teammates like Andrew Wiggins and Otto Porter Jr. to step it up too.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ Big Three of Nikola JokicJamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. represents arguably the greatest young triple-threat in the association. The Nuggets produced a 123.9 offensive efficiency last season when Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr. all shared the floor. That was the highest among 154 trios to play 600+ minutes together.

All of these guys are under 30, and this team has bright days ahead, but for now, they’re on hold. Murray tore his ACL in April, and this squad really can’t reach its full potential until he’s back in action.

Still, Jokic is the reigning MVP for a reason. He’s the best playmaking center in the world, and any team with a legitimate MVP like him is bound to win a healthy amount of regular-season games.

Porter is blooming into one of the most efficient young scorers in the league. He is 23 years old, stands 6-foot-10 and blends volume and efficiency at impressive levels. He converted 63% of his 2-point shots and a cool 45% of his 3s, while attempting more than six per game.

For this season, Denver needs to hope it can play well enough throughout the regular season to get a decent playoff seed and that Murray can return in time to give them a powerful boost in the playoffs. In a world in which Murray comes back, Jokic keeps killing it and Porter makes another leap, the Nuggets might have the best Big Three in the West by the end of 2022.

Tier 4: Best of the Rest

Utah Jazz

Like the Bucks heading into last year, the Jazz have strung together a bunch of impressive regular seasons, yet they have failed to make noise in the postseason. If Rudy GobertDonovan Mitchell and Mike Conley want to gain the respect of the league, they must find a way to get to the conference finals this season. If they can do that, like the Bucks, they will change their reputations real fast.

Philadelphia 76ers

Will Ben Simmons even be in Philly on opening night? It remains to be seen. If he is, the Sixers are hopeful that the combination of Joel Embiid, Simmons and Tobias Harris can improve on last year’s woeful postseason run. There’s no question this team has talent, but it has yet to become anything greater than the sum of its parts, especially in the playoffs.

Miami Heat

Unlike Philly, the Heat have a reputation for coalescing into something better than a bunch of random talent, and the hope this year is that Kyle LowryJimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo merge into a tenacious Big Three and make noise in the East. It’s possible, especially if Adebayo continues to emerge as one of the best young bigs in the league — we know what the other two guys can do.

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