Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Big 3 Phenomenon

The whole Big 3 phenomenon started with the Boston Celtics acquisitions of both Ray Allen & then Kevin Garnett joining Paul Pierce prior to the start of the 2007-08 season. They went onto have an impressive 1st year together by winning the NBA title with a rookie point guard in Rajon Rondo & the success the Celtics had seemed to get fans & even GMs into a tizzy hoping for their own version of the Big 3. There was one slight problem with that thinking though...what the Celtics were able to do was basically an anomaly.

People lose sight of the fact that successful basketball is built on spacing. It's very hard to win without it. For the Celtics, they had 3 players with perfect personalities, at the perfect times in their careers & who's games all complimented each other. All 3 had been the go-to guy on teams that had plenty of regular season success but limited playoff success. None had the type of basketball egos that would prevent the others from being able to play their style of basketball. In fact, it was a perfect blend of styles.

Garnett by that point in his career was no longer a 20-10 guy but still a very effective scorer who's main focus was to be the anchor on defense. Allen was the long range shooter who was able to get most of his shots off of back screens & picks, another strength of Garnett's. Pierce meanwhile was the mainstay. The only one of the 3 who had been drafted the Celtics. His old school style of play, with his slashing & shooting meant that each man could play in their favorite areas on the floor without having to worry about getting in each other's way.

That natural spacing that they were able to maintain while adding Garnett & Allen made it possible for it to work. The 3 remaining pieces, Rajon Rondo at point guard, Kendrick Perkins at center & Doc Rivers at the helm made it a perfect fit from top to bottom. Perkins was a young yet already established vet who was known as a tough hard-nosed rebounder & defender, while Rondo was a rookie who played great individual defense & was a pass-first point guard. Rivers was a former NBA All-Star & 14 year veteran point guard himself so he was the perfect teacher for Rondo. So with Perkins & Rondo, the team had 2 guys who were also at a point in their careers where it was very easy to acquiesce to the veteran Big 3. So basically you had a perfect storm of talent, ego, style & coaching that immediately paid huge dividends.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2010 & "The Decision". Now, I'm not going to waste any time debating or discussing the move because we all know how it polarized the basketball world but I will remind everyone that LeBron James & Dwyane Wade both took less money to play together while also allowing Bosh to get the max contract. That fact often gets lost in all of the hoopla behind The Decision but in the age of hold outs & lock outs, those guys took less to win together & had they not, it would never have happened.

The biggest difference between the Celtics Big 3 & Miami's are basically all of those points I made about why it worked for the Celtics. With James & Wade, you have 2 guys who both generally played with the ball in their hands most times & in pretty much the same areas of the basketball court. Even Chris Bosh as a 6-11 big man, played a style that would put him squarely in between both James & Wade's forays into the paint as he was more a face up jump shooting big. It helped that all 3 sat together & discussed the idea of playing together & as it's obvious they are actually good friends prior to all of this. That friendship is partly responsible for them being able to make it work quickly.

It took some time in their 1st season to mesh because they all had to adjust their games on some level & the fact that Miami was Wade's town I'm sure caused James to relent to him at times. Ultimately, Wade became the one who had to give up his title as the go-to guy & hand the reigns to the franchise over to James. What they've essentially done is, learn to play at a pace & flow that accentuates their athletic advantage over other teams, in a league that showcases arguably the greatest athletes in the world. It's worked extremely well especially after James developed a low post game thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Knicks have tried to put together their own Big 3 starting with Amare Stoudemire, then adding Carmelo Anthony. Their dream scenario was to somehow add Chris Paul to that pair but obviously that never happened as Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nets are trying to establish their own with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson & Brook Lopez while they flirted with the idea of bringing in Dwight Howard. The Oklahoma City Thunder had their Big 3 with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook & James Harden, but Harden became too expensive & they made the decision to trade him.
My point to all of this is, it is extremely difficult to build a Big 3 through trades & free agency by bringing in veterans who have established themselves & their style of play. You need certain conditions that go way beyond just finding the right talent to play together. It takes guys putting egos aside, putting shots aside & the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has to work in your favor as it did for Miami when James & Wade agreed to take less money. The one advantage of building a Big 3 through the draft is, those players all grow into established players together so they learn how to play together while learning how to play in the NBA. The disadvantage however is, it takes patience, a little bit of luck & the financial well with all to make it happen, just ask the Thunder & Harden.

The real truth to the matter is, the Celtics Big 3 wasn't the start of a trend though. The method by which they created their Big 3 was the start of the trend. There's been Big 3's before many times in the NBA. The Lakers with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & James Worthy, the Celtics with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale & Robert Parish & even the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili & Tony Parker. If you look closely though, you'll notice that the only person on that list that was an established veteran when their team's Big 3 was formed was Kareem. Parish was going into his 5th year in the league & was at the very beginning of his prime when he went to Boston from the Golden State Warriors.

So the reality is the Big 3 phenomenon is really nothing new at all, it's just the way the latest trend of Big 3s are being put together that's new. I said in a previous post (see: Tipoff Is Here) that this year's Finals will possibly be a referendum on how teams build their rosters because the Spurs are the last of the traditional Big 3 with all 3 of their stars being drafted by them, while the Heat now represent the new trend of trading for or signing via free agency, established vets to form a Big 3. As I said in that post, in this copy-cat league, depending on the outcome of the series, will teams continue to follow the new trend or will they go back to the old one.