Pippen, Jordan and Rodman. Pierce, Garnett and Allen. LeBron, Wade and Bosh. The NBA is littered with dynasties, and conventional wisdom seems to embrace the notion that success is built upon the power of three. The unveiling of the newest NBA “Big Three” — LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers — brings this phenomenon into the spotlight with renewed focus.
Salary cap is certainly a factor in why trios dominate many of the NBA’s top teams. unlike in baseball and international club soccer, there is a limit to how many superstars you can fit on your payroll. Three seems to be the limit for maximum contracts in the NBA, and you can see that even keeping three stars can be difficult.
For example, both LeBron-based trios were only possible because of LeBron’s willingness to take a pay cut. In Miami, LeBron took the pay cut in pursuit of a championship, and in his return to the Cavaliers, James again took a pay cut in the interest of winning back in Cleveland. Both Miami and Cleveland already featured established all-star caliber guards in Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, respectively. The Heat and the Cavaliers were able to parlay James’ reduced wages into acquiring a complementary superstar eagerly escaping a long stint at a struggling franchise, like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love.
Two dynamics have been created by the successful trios in Miami and Boston. The first is on the court, with good chemistry between a pre-eminent scorer, a forward with great rebounding and defensive skills and a supporting shooter. The other is in personality; you need the alpha male superstar (LeBron and Garnett), the confident star willing to concede the spotlight he once didn’t have to share (Wade, Pierce and Irving), and the underappreciated complementary player, who does his role professionally and efficiently without making a scene (Bosh, Allen and Love).
The Lakers of recent years — even when Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were healthy — failed because although they had the roles balanced, in reality, the personalities on the team did not mesh. Dwight Howard was as unwilling to be the complementary player as Kobe was unwilling to cede sole custody of the L.A. spotlight. Frankly, the Big Three concept is not always successful because it is not the most efficient avenue to a title. Granted, the blueprint is effective and simple if the right situation arises. However, putting most of a team’s salary into three players is extremely risky, as one injury or locker room incident can derail a season.
But there are other ways to build a lineup — based on depth, and with only one true superstar. The Heat of recent years had some nice role players in Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Chris Anderson and Mike Miller, but as seen in the NBA Finals this past year, a team built on depth and great role assignment can trump star talent. Although some will label Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker a Big Three, the truth is they do not operate in that manner, and they do not have the individual talent we have come to associate with other trios — Ginobili even operates as a sixth man most of the time. The Spurs have one aging superstar (Duncan), but the real star is Gregg Popovich’s system.
The Spurs are the anti-Heat; they play a lot of guys, and they spread the ball to all of their players. The result is an efficient offense that does not rely on a few guys getting hot; the Spurs get high-percentage shots, they keep everyone well-rested, and most importantly, they make every player feel involved and energized by giving them a role to play. The Spurs harassed the Heat this year — and were unlucky not to win in last year’s Finals — because their role players were just as deadly as their three best players. Patty Mills was spreading the defense with his range, Boris Diaw led all players in assists in the Finals and Kawhi Leonard combined lethal shooting with lock-down defense to earn MVP honors.
The Big Three is an undeniably splashy short-term strategy, but it is not the only model that works. At the end of the day, teams are as good as the sum of their parts; they can be comprised of a few bigger stars or a multitude of role players. Still, even in a sport that puts only five players on the court at any time, I’d much prefer the staying power of an effective system and the flexibility of having a variety of options. It remains to be seen if Irving, James and Love will be able to give Cleveland the championship it has long craved. If they do, James’ move from Miami will be justified, and the acceptance of the Big Three model will grow further.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.