In today’s high-stakes NBA, a powerful pair beats three of a kind.
Teams who longed to build a Big Three are now striving for a dynamic duo, hoping two premier players are good enough to win a championship when the belief used to be that it required a trio.
And with some of the combinations assembled this summer, it sure seems less is more.
That’s certainly the thinking in Los Angeles, where LeBron James and Anthony Davis will try to power the Lakers back to the playoffs, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George attempt to carry the Clippers further than they’ve ever gone before.
Houston is putting James Harden and Russell Westbrook together in a backcourt of recent MVPs, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant made the Nets the talk of not only New York but also the entire NBA on the opening day of free agency when they decided to partner up in Brooklyn.
“Everybody was looking for a Big Three,” George said. “It didn’t work for a lot of teams, so now this is a new dynamic for the new generation of this league.”
One that could make the NBA more balanced and exciting this season. If one team hoards too many good players, as Golden State did while reaching the last five NBA Finals, it leaves a lengthy list of clubs who have no realistic hope of contending for a title.
But if it only takes a pair of All-Star players, that opens the door for teams who already have two, or have one and the assets to get another.
The Big Three model kept some of those teams from going all in, but that era appears over.
“I think that’s the way the league just went,” Davis said. “I’m not sure if it was done purposefully, but I think this is maybe the most exciting the league ever has been in a while. It’s going to be fun.”
James won rings with two versions of a Big Three, teaming with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for back-to-back titles in Miami, and then rallying Cleveland to the 2016 championship along with Irving and Kevin Love. Now he’ll try to do it with one fewer, which might be enough if the Lakers put the right pieces around him and Davis, who are two of the top players in the league.
So are Leonard and George. Doc Rivers coached a Big Three to the 2008 title in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and the Celtics might’ve won another if not for the Heat building a younger one two years later.
Now he’ll try to win with two, with a Clippers team that George thinks looks like many other teams in today’s NBA.
“I think what Boston did was special. I think what Miami did was special,” he said. “But I think it goes back to you have two guys that are the guys and then you have a group around them that supports them to the highest level, and that foundation is around a lot of guys in this league.”
Though the focus has been on the tandem of twos, George said a number of teams could point to a complementary player and say they have a Big Three. Houston is one of them, coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked the reason for the trend.
“A lot of it is media-driven in the sense of we’ve got Eric Gordon. He’s a superstar,” D’Antoni said. “Eric Gordon’s as good as anybody in the league. So you focus on, `Oh, we’ve only got two,’ because that’s the named two. But probably money and cap does create an equal system for everybody.”
Trying to afford three top players and keep them for long became even more challenging only a year after James and Bosh went to Miami, with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement implementing severe penalties for teams who exceed the luxury tax. Short of players sacrificing salary, as Tim Duncan repeatedly did in San Antonio when the Spurs kept him, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili together long enough to win four titles, it’s almost impossible to get three stars and a competent cast around them.
Even if the salaries work, the personalities might not. It’s hard to keep three alpha dogs happy, as Irving showed by asking out of Cleveland, especially because one of them usually has to give up so much of his game so three isn’t a crowd.
“You have a guy that’s used to being a focal point of the offense – take Bron’s teams in Miami,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “There’s more sacrifice I think probably to be had if it’s a Big Three versus a Big Two, but that would be my two cents on it.”
And his two cents on the two-man trend?
“I think we’ve got the best of them, of all the duos,” he said.