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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Adams: The death of the Big Three era in the NBA

Some say it began with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Others say with the Miami Heat in 2012. You could even make an argument for the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, or the Chicago Bulls in 1996 if you want to get frisky. In any case, the “Big Three” era of the NBA seems to have met at least a temporary end, solidified by the fire sale that was the 2019 NBA free agency period.

As Kevin Durant elected to leave (chickened out on) Oklahoma City to join the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016, and the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving, at his request, to the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2017, the NBA began an odd transition period. The league began to move away from forming elite trios of stars and have now reached a “Dynamic Duo” era.

It was a strange time during the transition period, as teams tried to scrounge up as much talent as possible in order to combat the Warriors quartet of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Philadelphia 76ers acquired Jimmy Butler and made a Big Three with him, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, eventually making their own quartet by adding Tobias Harris in a trade with the Clippers. The Boston Celtics tried to stack their team Warriors-style by pairing Gordon Hayward with Irving, Al Horford and a host of young talent. Even the Thunder experimented with a trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, which quickly turned into a mere (better) pair of Westbrook and George, as everyone (except Melo) realized that Carmelo Anthony was past his prime and irrelevant as an iso scorer in today’s NBA.

Still, some teams went with duos earlier than others and the results have helped to bring the NBA to where it currently is. Harkening back to the days of the Jordans and Pippens, the Kobes and Shaqs, the NBA has reached another Dynamic Duo phase.

Chris Paul and James Harden joined forces in Houston in 2017 and narrowly lost to the Warriors in the 2018 conference finals. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals in their first playoff appearance; the Portland Trailblazers team that beat the Nuggets, led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, are still chipping away at the Western Conference Playoff rounds one explosive offensive season at a time. And, Lebron James offered his whole supporting Lakers cast to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis (though the Lakers did try to get a third star in free agency and fell short).

The Milwaukee Bucks rose to be the NBA’s winningest team last season as reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a superstar and Kris Middleton has developed into an all-star caliber player alongside him. There are even young pairings looking to build up their franchises, like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton on the Phoenix Suns, or Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis with the Dallas Mavericks.

Now, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have joined one another in Brooklyn of all places, essentially solidifying the Nets as THE team in New York (though admittedly not that difficult a task with the Knicks’ persistent incompetence). On the west coast, Paul George and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be playing their first season with the Los Angeles Clippers, hoping to re-dethrone the now James-and-Davis-led Lakers as THE team in Los Angeles.

Westbrook and Harden have reunited in Houston since their days in Oklahoma City and will have to find a way to balance both of their ball-hog tendencies. Lastly, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are still keeping the Spurs in the playoff picture as they seemingly remain the last team unwilling to tank for lottery picks (God bless Gregg Popovich).

Still, some teams are hanging on to the Big Three formula. The 76ers, after losing Jimmy Butler in free agency, paired Al Horford with Simmons and Embiid, leaving essentially no big men in the Eastern Conference capable of guarding Embiid. The Warriors, on the other hand, are “handicapped” by Klay Thompson’s ACL injury to a trio of Curry, Green and D’Angelo Russell.

Whether or not the Big Three formula will ever return to the NBA is yet to be seen. However, this shift from three stars to two took some time, and with it becoming evident that the shift has indeed occurred, NBA franchises should remember that those who don’t keep up with change are often left behind by it.