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Certified trios are not the NBA staples they were just a couple of years ago.
Superstar duos remain all the rage. For the most part, you identify a team’s one-two punch without much of an issue. Those dual building blocks—or, in many cases, championship pillars—are sacred. And usually non-negotiable.
Expanding that process by one player is more interpretative. Having more than two stars or cornerstones is forever a luxury, but the Big Three model has undergone dilution in recent offseasons. Identifying the third member of a troika is by extension harder because so many squads technically haven’t set out to build them.
For our purposes, every team’s trio will be populated by their three best players so far. In instances where the No. 3 spot will be up for debate, we’ll turn to Bleacher Report’s top-100 rankings to get us through. If that doesn’t solve the issue, we’ll try to common sense our way to an attempted consensus. Players returning from injury or set to be more available at Disney World can leapfrog the next man up if the situation calls for it.
Everything is on the table when pitting our pool of 22 threeseomes against each other. It matters how much each group plays together, but that sample isn’t everything. The same goes for how well a team fares with each trio on the court.
Rankings will instead be guided by an overarching question: If we need to assemble a squad to win any given postseason series, around which three players would we most want to flesh out a rotation?
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22. Washington Wizards: Rui Hachimura, Ish Smith, Thomas Bryant
This is not ideal. It is also all the Wizards have. They will be without their three best players in Disney—Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, John Wall—and won’t even have Thomas Bryant for a while as he recovers from COVID-19.
Quibbling over this selection is futile. Does Moritz Wagner belong over Rui Hachimura? What about Troy Brown Jr.? Maybe.
Wagner has the strongest case if he starts shooting threes again. But subbing out the rookie for anyone else doesn’t result in a material change. Washington is the least equipped of any team on the Disney campus right now.
21. San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White
Building a trio with players who have logged hardly any time together doesn’t sit right. So it goes, though, for the Spurs. LaMarcus Aldridge is done for the year after undergoing right shoulder surgery, and ranking Rudy Gay, Patty Mills or Jakob Poeltl ahead of Dejounte Murray or Derrick White goes a little too far.
Spacing concerns abound for this troika, which has tallied a grand total of 146 possessions together, through which San Antonio owns an offensive rating in the, ahem, 6th percentile. Murray (37.8 percent) and White (35.6 percent) are faring just fine from beyond the arc, but their accuracy doesn’t come on appreciable volume or functionality (i.e. off-the-bounce looks).
Unless they or DeRozan undergo a stark offensive transformation, this isn’t a threesome that projects to do much damage or even see a ton of time.
20. Brooklyn Nets: Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert
Injuries and health concerns have ravaged the Nets roster just as much as they’ve ripped through the Wizards’ depth chart. But Brooklyn is decidedly better off than its counterparts. Each of its top-three players remaining would be part of any other NBA rotation.
Floating the Nets’ playoff chances will still be a chore—though much less so given the state of the Wizards.
Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have barely played without both Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving. LeVert has the off-the-bounce juice to shoulder a bulk of the shot-creation duties—he leads the league in pull-up three-point percentage among players to attempt at least three per game—but the offensive utility of Allen and Harris takes a hit without a more established setup man by their sides.
19. Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes
Richaun Holmes gets the nod despite appearing in just 39 games so far (shoulder injury). De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield were the only Kings players to crack the NBA 100, which makes this a more flexible selection process, and Holmes played well enough during his time on the court to warrant top-three-player-on-his-team treatment.
Sacramento has also fared quite well with all three in tow.
The offense puts up 118.3 points per 100 possessions to anchor a plus-2.7 net rating. That efficiency is in line with the makeup of this trio. Fox is already offensive-engine material, an amalgam of burst and decision-making with some functional shooting, while Hield remains a deadeye floor spacer. Holmes offers a strong presence around the rim, both as a roll man and putback hunter.
These three get infinitely more intriguing if Holmes is encouraged to let ‘er rip from long range. Whether they can rise much higher is a different story. Their collective defense needs to even out. Holmes can make stops around the bucket but isn’t an active deterrent, and Hield too often finds himself on the wrong end of bad matchups.
18. Orlando Magic: Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Jonathan Isaac would be a shoo-in for Orlando’s trio if it sounded like he was going to return from his left knee injury. It doesn’t.
Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic typify a league-average threesome. They all have their use, but it doesn’t coalesce into something much bigger. The absence of a primary offensive creator hurts most. Vooch can carry certain lineups but isn’t a face-up prober. Fournier is best deployed as a tertiary playmaker.
Gordon gives this troika, which has struggled to defend the rim and three-point line, in no small part due to Isaac’s limited availability, some wiggle room to surprise on offense. He has improved his pick-and-roll decision-making and is hitting 40.7 percent of his spot-up threes since Jan. 15. Orlando will be a lot better off if he can find his touch as a face-up scorer. (That’s a pretty monstrous if.)
17. Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Jonas Valanciunas
Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas aren’t the cleanest offensive fit, even though they both have range that extends beyond the arc. Neither is much of a threat off the dribble, and Valanciunas’ minimal outside volume is schemeable when the Grizzlies aren’t flush with knockdown-shooting wings.
That doesn’t make this the wrong triangle for Memphis. Valanciunas has been damn good this season, and Jackson’s three-point volume is mission-critical to the half-court balance. Maaaybe Brandon Clarke has a case for one of the spots, but the Grizzlies will still brush up against the same ceiling.
Fortunately for them, Ja Morant allows them to stave off a bottom-five ranking. His combination of shot-making and vision is lineup-proof, and Memphis has defended at an above-average clip with Jackson and Valanciunas on the frontline. (For what it’s worth: Clarke and Valanciunas have been interesting in limited action together.)
16. Indiana Pacers: Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
Victor Oladipo may wind up rejoining the Pacers rotation in Disney. He would replace Malcolm Brogdon or Myles Turner if and when he makes his return. Until his playing becomes official, though, this is Indy’s trio. And it’s not half bad.
The Pacers are plus-6.6 points per 100 possessions when Brogdon, Turner and Domantas Sabonis play without Oladipo, a differential buoyed almost entirely by a defensive performance that ranks inside the 98th percentile and includes top-shelf rim protection.
Surviving on the offensive end is a lot harder without Oladipo. Brogdon cannot replicate his off-the-dribble jumper or the pressure he puts on the rim, and Indiana still runs into spacing issues with Sabonis and Turner in the half-court.
One question worth considering: How much does Oladipo improve the Pacers’ trio ranking? Probably not much. He perked up on offense ahead of the league’s closure, but Indiana can’t be sure what’ll it get from him, and the competition to come is pretty stiff.
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15. Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio
Phoenix has virtually no shot at making the playoffs, and yet its trio might be…underrated. Over the 1,154 possessions in which Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio have shared the court, the Suns have a plus-7.2 net rating with an above-average offense and defense.
Knowing who else they’ll play beside, this threesome still feels like it wants for another off-the-dribble scorer. Ayton and Rubio aren’t major outside threats, and the degree of difficulty on Booker’s looks adds higher variance to his own outcomes.
Still, with Booker’s tightened-up decision-making around the rim and Rubio’s own defensive activity and table-setting, the Suns have something here.
14. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kristaps Porzingis
This absolutely, positively seems too low for a trio that includes Luka Doncic, who’s already a top-five player. But there remains a relative unknown-ness to the help around him. As The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney wrote:
“Luka Doncic working in space is inherently dangerous. The next few months should demonstrate that, while also peeling back the layers of this Mavs roster to make clear what it needs going forward. Can Kristaps Porzingis be a reliable secondary creator? What combinations of role players will get exposed by playoff competition? The only way to know for sure is to put the whole team to the test.”
The Mavericks aren’t above these inquiries.
Porzingis’ shooting splits are all over the place this year, and without a proven No. 2, let alone No. 3, Dallas has turned in a 29th-ranked offense during crunch time. At the bare minimum, any trio that includes Tim Hardaway Jr., who’s having a great year, has finite rankings appeal until it proves otherwise.
13. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic
Hassan Whiteside has played well enough—and the Blazers are depleted enough—to earn consideration next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But Jusuf Nurkic is on pace to return from compound fractures in his left leg, and he’s expected to start.
Giving him priority over Whiteside isn’t much of a leap. He was Portland’s second-best player for much of the 2018-19 regular season and gives this trio a higher ceiling at both ends if he approaches normal form. He is a better passer than Whiteside and can torch defenses on short rolls—range Whiteside also doesn’t have.
Pairing a healthy Nurkic with Lillard and McCollum, two of the game’s best from-scratch scorers, opens up all sorts of offensive doors without risking a defensive trade-off. Whiteside is a stout rim protector but can get burned by simple fakes and screens if he’s not patrolling the area directly beneath the basket.
Consider the Blazers’ placement a hedge. Last year’s version of Nurkic gives them a top-10-trio case, but he hasn’t played in over a year. It may take time for him to regain his feel—more time than Portland will have if it doesn’t make the postseason.
12. Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic
Duncan Robinson technically belongs here by letter of the law. He joined Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic as the third and final member of the Heat to crack the NBA 100. But Goran Dragic would’ve pieced together a stronger argument if not for his right groin injury early this year. He is Miami’s third-best player in a vacuum, assuming Andre Iguodala doesn’t start aging in reverse.
Many will still call for Robinson, if only because he spends so much more time alongside Butler and Adebayo. But that’s sort of the point. Dragic is capable of generating his own offense and steering lineups independent of the other two.
The temptation to put Miami’s triplet higher is real. These three provide a mix of everything. Butler puts unrelenting pressure on the rim and draws fouls in his sleep. Adebayo works at light speed on defense. Dragic puts in threes. They can all set up shots for everyone else.
Something about them still seems…off. Butler’s devolving jumper is part of it. Maintaining defensive integrity with Dragic on the floor is the rest of it. At 6’9″, Adebayo is better suited to bust up plays on the perimeter than serve as the sole backline defender, and Miami hasn’t seen enough of this trio next to Iguodala or Jae Crowder to know whether they’ll help contain outside-in attackers.
11. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray
Jamal Murray is Denver’s swing piece in this exercise. Whether this trio should be higher or lower falls squarely on his shoulders.
Consistency continues to be the barrier that separates him from stardom. The Nuggets need him to be their second-best player all the time. They’re losing the minutes he plays without Nikola Jokic while posting a below-average offensive rating. That matters only so much when most of his reps come next to Denver’s superstar, but his question marks persist even then.
Can he be the guy who gets the Nuggets a from-scratch bucket in crunch time? Who helps them tread water in Jokic’s absence? Who gets to the line more? Who doesn’t bail out defenses before he gets to the rim? Last year’s postseason sample offered mixed returns. He was both savior and vanishing act.
On the bright side, Denver is blowing out opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when Jokic, Murray and Paul Millsap take the floor, a differential buttressed almost entirely by the team’s powerhouse starting five. Between Jokic’s offensive world domination and Millsap’s defensive stability and increasingly plug-and-play scoring, the Nuggets have the tools to enter the next plane of consideration.
It all comes down to whether this trio has an actual No. 2 in Murray.
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Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending right wrist injury prevents the Utah Jazz from finishing any higher. Putting this trio here might even be a gift.
Utah is plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions when Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell are in the lineup, during which time the offense has been volcanic. The Jazz as a team are shooting 39.6 percent from three (92nd percentile) and 68.6 percent at the rim (93rd percentile) in these minutes.
Except, most of the reps for this trio have come with Bogdanovic. In the 220 possessions they’ve tallied without him, the offense has imploded.
That complicates this threesome’s ranking a great deal. It is one shot-maker and secondary creator short of earning votes of confidence on the offensive end. Mitchell’s effective field-goal percentage has dropped by almost three points without Bogdanovic and, despite his off-the-bounce confidence, stands to incur a similar or steeper blow when the playoffs tip off.
Remedying this issue requires the emergence of an entirely different No. 3. Relying on Ingles to generate too much of his own offense toes a fine line. He has the vision and shooting touch to be a half-court nuisance but is overstretched as a focal point.
Enter Mike Conley.
Left hamstring issues have limited his availability, and transitioning from an offense that features a floor-spacing big man to one with a rim-running behemoth has nuked his effectiveness out of the pick-and-roll. A lot changes for the Jazz if he can sniff the player he was when he left Memphis. (He’s feeling good.)
Dependable shot creation alone would shield Utah against last season’s playoff undoing, in which Mitchell was overtaxed and many of his supporting-cast members forgot how to hit wide-open threes.
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Those clamoring for Steven Adams to join the Oklahoma City Thunder’s choice trio are duly noted. Just one thing: Who’re you replacing? Surely not Chris Paul or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Some might be inclined to jettison Danilo Gallinari. That would be a mistake. He’s consistently played at a fringe-All-Star level over the years when healthy. This season is no different. He’s averaging 19.2 points while nailing 40.9 percent of his threes. He’s not getting to the rim or the foul line as often, but he still has those head-down power drives in his arsenal.
Playing Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul at the same time guarantees a souped-up offense. They can all manufacture their own shots, yet each maintains at least decent off-ball touch. Gilgeous-Alexander is the least efficient of the three on spot-up treys…and he’s splashing them in at a 40.7 percent clip.
Oklahoma City is pumping in more than 120 points per 100 possessions with these three on the court. That is terrifyingly high.
This output craters without Paul, but that tends to happen when removing a licensed killer from the pecking order. He has re-staked his claim in the top-10-player debate (for this season). He’s posting the second-highest effective field-goal percentage among 108 players taking at least three pull-up jumpers per game (minimum five appearances), shooting 53 percent from mid-range (96th percentile) and making more buckets during crunch time than anyone in the league.
Starrier trios exist, but this one deserves its due. If the offensive returns spill into the postseason—and this group continues to thrive defensively without Steven Adams on the floor—the Gallo-SGA-CP3 troika may blow its ninth-place finish to smithereens.
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Awarding a top-eight finish to a trio that isn’t guaranteed to crack the postseason might seem wrong on its face. But the New Orleans Pelicans wouldn’t be in this fringe playoff position if they had Zion Williamson for the entire season.
At least, that’s what the numbers say.
New Orleans is plus-10.2 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the court. That net rating mushrooms to plus-18.6 when he’s next to Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram. Their sample size together isn’t huge, but 663 possessions also isn’t nothing.
To be fair, Williamson’s right knee injury might’ve been a blessing for Ingram. It gave him more influence over the offense, which he parlayed into an All-Star selection. He wouldn’t have the agency of a central hub if the Pelicans had begun the season featuring Williamson.
Then again, maybe he would. Williamson has done so much of his damage within the flow of the offense. Almost 47 percent of his possessions come in transition, off cuts and on putbacks. And nearly 76 percent of his made buckets come off assists. New Orleans can feed him without foisting immense concession onto anybody else.
Holiday simplifies matters in the same vein. He straddles the line between primary playmaker and offensive complement, someone who can generate looks for himself and those around him but who works within a catch-and-shoot and transition-heavy role.
Elements of this trio, which, mind you, could toe the line of an actual Big Three, still feel flimsy. Is it an issue that Holiday does a better job guarding wings than Ingram? Will they hit enough threes? Do they provide enough functional shooting between them?
Lineups featuring Holiday, Ingram and Williamson are downing just 33 percent of their long balls and rely heavily on volume at the rim. That may not be tenable if and when they make the postseason and the games slow down. But all three of them, individually, are talented enough to warrant this gamble.
Only two trios on this list can say they tout three top-30 players. New Orleans is one of them.
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Sticking the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid-Tobias Harris-Ben Simmons triad at No. 7 simultaneously feels too high and too low. That jibes with the entire team’s season overall, so let’s assume this is the perfect landing spot.
Alternative selections don’t really exist. Embiid would be a consensus top-seven player if we could count on his availability throughout the entire season. Simmons has firmly planted himself in the top-20 range despite single-handedly keeping NBA Twitter’s meme factory afloat. Both are immovable inclusions.
Ditto for Tobias Harris at this point. Al Horford hasn’t played nearly well enough (he’s battled injuries), and going with Josh Richardson is too much of a stretch. Harris has recovered nicely from his season-opening rut, anyway. He’s averaging 20.0 points and 3.1 assists per game since Nov. 15 while swishing 39.1 percent of his triples.
Whether this trio has the offensive chops to float a higher ranking—or even this one—is to be determined. Not one of these three is adept at scoring across all three levels.
Simmons is pushing it when he takes shots outside of the restricted area. Embiid can obliterate bodies inside and is shooting an acceptable 34.8 percent from deep. He even has some sway off the dribble. But he isn’t the guy to stop on a dime and put down jumpers. Harris is closer to that player. He also doesn’t—really, can’t—put the necessary pressure on the rim.
Head coach Brett Brown has moved Simmons to the 4 since the team arrived in Orlando. That should be an upgrade, if only because it means more minutes independent of Horford and a spacing boost at point guard in the form of Shake Milton.
The real question: Does this shift improve the offensive partnership between Embiid and Simmons? They still need to occupy the same space. Color me skeptical. Brown is more optimistic.
“Watching Joel and him play off each other has been a really good look—I think they’ve been fantastic together,” he said, per Philly Voice’s Kyle Neubeck.
Philly’s lineup data agrees. The offense ranks in the 93rd percentile during the time Embiid and Simmons have played without Horford. That placement rises to the 98th percentile when adding Harris into the equation, albeit across a smaller 406-possession sample.
None of these stints have included Simmons at the 4. But moving him to power forward basically translates to bouncing either Mike Scott or Matisse Thybulle from the fold. That shouldn’t adversely impact the offense unless Milton belly-flops.
This is all to say, the Sixers’ threesome might now be in high-floor, high-ceiling territory.
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Figuring out the Toronto Raptors’ trio is more than half the battle here. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are must-haves, but the nature of Toronto’s motion offense and team defense obfuscates who comes after them.
Basing it off our NBA 100 rankings leaves us with Fred VanVleet. That…seems right. But a healthy Marc Gasol has his say. So does OG Anunoby. For much of the season, so has Norman Powell. And who can forget gourmet chef-turned-pro basketball player Serge Ibaka?
VanVleet’s importance to the offense—and leveled-up availability over Gasol—invariably pushes the scales in his favor. Bench-heavy units with him at the helm aren’t wowing, but the Raptors haven’t enjoyed the collective health to read too much into his solo stints. Besides, his play alongside Lowry and Siakam is more important to this discussion.
Toronto is a plus-6.6 points per 100 possessions with these three in the lineup. The offense has room to grow, but that’s the prevailing theme of the Raptors season. Arrangements featuring these three do a nice job putting pressure on the rim but lag in the finishing department. Their half-court efficiency is just a hair above average, too.
Any offense with Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet has a higher ceiling than what these numbers show. VanVleet is a whiz at playing off his running mates. He whips second and third passes around the perimeter and is banging in 43.9 percent of his standstill triples. Siakam is far more accustomed to firing up shots off the dribble and has made progress as an initiator. He should up his frequency at the rim as he becomes more at home navigating traffic inside the arc.
Lowry is the Raptors’ heartbeat—no longer their best player, but still in the running for their most important. He both sets the tone and adapts to it. His square-one jumpers can be a lifeline when movement bogs down, but he exists in service of the larger picture. He’ll dribble or screen his way into creating two to three different looks for his teammates on the same possession, and he’s a better spot-up shooter than his 35.5 percent clip on catch-and-launch threes suggest.
Sentimentalists will have an inkling to move Toronto’s threesome higher. I’m speaking from personal experience. They epitomize success-by-committee vibes and, despite including two undersized guards, ream opposing offenses. But Lowry and Siakam, while firmly in the top-20-player conversation, are less likely to be the absolute best player in a postseason series than other trio heavyweights in this range.
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Absent a conventional big for either the 4 or 5 spot, the Boston Celtics’ trio might tickle everyone’s fancy. It should. They’re closer to having a concrete Big Three than not.
Just how close depends on your feelings about Jaylen Brown. Spoiler alert: You should feel pretty good.
Brown hasn’t developed into a high-end shot creator or facilitator, but his excellence as a play-finisher renders him a universal complement. Boston gives him pick-and-roll reps, but he does a lion’s share of his damage attacking open spaces, in transition and on assisted threes. And while he isn’t putting as much pressure on the rim as he did in years past, he’s still a walking bucket at the bucket and is averaging a career-high 4.6 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.
This Celtics trio also doesn’t seem so small relative to Brown’s defensive bandwidth. He is a standout rebounder for his size and has four-position range. Neither Gordon Hayward nor Jayson Tatum logs as much time guarding power forwards, and only Marcus Smart sees more reps against No. 1 options, according to data from Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu.
Tatum adds to the size-doesn’t-matter rallying cry with his own defense. He isn’t what you’d call lockdown, but he can float between ball-handlers and screeners at warp speed and bust up possessions away from the main action.
His offensive ascent has safeguarded Boston against going overlooked in the larger trio discourse. He and Kemba Walker headline one of the league’s most playoff-ready offenses. The Celtics lead the Association in effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, and only the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers rely on unassisted threes more frequently.
Walker and Tatum make it all possible. Only five players have converted more than 36 percent of their pull-up treys while attempting 200 or more of them. Tatum and Walker account for two of those five spots. Their capacity to drain difficult looks outfits the Celtics offense in a certain armor that should hold up during the postseason.
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Pairing two superstars with a decided non-star tends to create a dilemma. Do you give the benefit of the doubt to trios with more evenly distributed fringe stardom? Or to the threesomes with two bigwigs?
P.J. Tucker turns this situation into a non-dilemma. He has given the Houston Rockets a pathway to playing super small, doesn’t sponge up too many possessions on offense and is shooting 40 percent on corner threes.
Russell Westbrook has likewise breathed new life into this threesome. It turns out surrounding him with four shooters is a good thing. Who knew. He’s averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage since Clint Capela left the rotation. And not only are way more of his looks coming inside five feet—55.7 percent during this time compared to 46.3 percent beforehand—but he’s canning 35.5 percent of his triples (on a lower number of attempts).
James Harden is, well, James Harden. Top-five players can tilt the tenor of an entire trio, and he’s an offense unto himself. Step-back threes, Eurosteps when going downhill, change-of-direction isolations, expert foul-drawing and even the threat of his off-ball duck-ins make him impossible to guard. The passes he throws and shots he creates for others with his magnetic pull render him impossible to guard.
Potential variance does cap how high the Rockets can climb up this ladder. Tucker-at-center arrangements essentially punt on the rebounding battle and aren’t always defensively tenable. (Robert Covington’s arrival has helped steady the returns.) This might be the best version of Westbrook we’ve ever seen, but he’s historically an efficiency seesaw.
Harden is the surest thing among the three, and postseason fatigue perhaps isn’t as big of a concern after a months-long layoff. But he entered the NBA’s hiatus laboring through a protracted rut, and someone who launches so many step-backs is subject to both the highest highs and lowest lows.
Still, this threesome works, even if you don’t fully buy into the functional synergy between Harden and Westbrook. Through the 1,000-plus possessions in which they’ve shared the floor with Tucker as the official 5, Houston owns a plus-9.5 net rating and, most encouragingly, an elite-level defense (84th percentile).
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Slotting the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Eric Bledsoe-Khris Middleton triumvirate outside the top two feels wrong. The Milwaukee Bucks have run roughshod over everyone else for most of this season, and their stability at the top is a critical reason why.
Antetokounmpo has inoculated his game against predictability. Barreling his way toward the rim remains his bread and butter, but he has doubled his volume of pull-up three-pointers compared to last season and uncorked more fadeways.
Bledsoe has earned himself similar benefit of the doubt. He’s still hitting only 34.9 percent of his wide-open threes, but he’s knocking down 39.6 percent of his pull-up triples, and his effective field-goal percentage of 62.0 in isolation ranks first among 65 players with more than 50 such shots under their belt.
Middleton, meanwhile, is doing his damnedest to put the notion that he isn’t a viable No. 2 on a championship team to bed. He is annihilating defenses from pretty much everywhere on the floor, including the mid-range, where he’s shooting 52 percent (99th percentile). His 54.1 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers ranks third among 76 players averaging at least four attempts per game, trailing only Chris Paul and Damian Lillard.
Milwaukee is unsurprisingly annihilating opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions when these three share the floor. There isn’t a defensive liability among them. Bledsoe is an All-Defense candidate, while Antetokounmpo might win Defensive Player of the Year.
Pit these three against any other trios in the East and it isn’t much of a conversation. Not with the regular season they’re having. Placing them outside the top two, behind a pair of Western Conference contenders, is as much of a nod to last year’s struggles in the Eastern Conference Finals as I’m willing to give.
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Danny Green, like P.J. Tucker before him, is good enough for us not to waste too much time wondering whether the Los Angeles Lakers’ top three players have enough aggregate star power to contend for a prime-time spot.
It also wouldn’t matter if he were more of a question mark. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are megastars. They’re talented enough to elevate anyone attached to them.
James’ place in the league is inarguable. He is in the conversation for best-player-alive honors. Sticking more than two people ahead of him—Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, to be more specific—is actually an insult. His command over the game is unparalleled. He has baked more variance into his jumpers—fadeaways, step-backs—and he just decided, in his age-35 season, to lead the league in assists. That is objectively bonkers.
Davis has reached his contextual nirvana beside James, his role equal parts simplified and amplified. He has never been more dangerous as a play-finisher. He’s posting an effective field-goal percentage of 63.9 as the roll man, his highest mark since at least 2015-16. (More Davis pick-and-rolls, please.) But he also maintains his level of independence. Nearly 42 percent of his made twos have gone unassisted.
Danny Green completes this trio with one of the NBA’s most scalable skill sets. He attempts almost 70 percent of his shots without taking a dribble, he’s downing more than 38 percent of his spot-up threes, and he gives the Lakers a tryhard defender versus guards and wings who also maintains his edge in transition.
Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with these three on the floor, a relative non-surprise. Their offensive games seamlessly blend together, and they are all, including James, defending at a high level. Davis in particular has remained on the peripherals of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Wonky on-off splits do not accurately reflect the ground he covers or the lineups he must sometimes uplift.
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Putting the finishing touches on the Los Angeles Clippers’ trio is more of a thought exercise than it seems.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are givens. They’re both All-NBA defenders with half-court optionality that verges on positionless. They can cover 1 through 4 between them, and Leonard specifically boasts the length and strength necessary to guard small-ball 5s if need be.
Both are comparably versatile on offense. Leonard is the better from-scratch creator, which puts George in his No. 2 sweet spot. Neither is a floor general by nature, but they each facilitate enough out of the pick-and-roll to power an offense on their own.
Superstardom seldom feels so plug-and-play. Other ball-dominant cornerstones need specifically tailored supporting casts. You aren’t plopping in James Harden or LeBron James and telling them to play second fiddle or work extensively without the ball. George and Leonard are different. The latter’s off-the-dribble jumper is overwhelming and demands the usage awarded to traditional superstars, but he, like George, can punish defenses in volume on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Completing this trio is less exact. Montrezl Harrell earned the Clippers’ third-highest finish in our NBA 100 (No. 59), but arguments can be made for Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. Beverley’s is strongest. He doesn’t need the ball on offense and defends with a ceaseless grit, effectively rendering him the antithesis of Williams.
Harrell feels like the nice middle ground, and not just because his selection adheres to our initial criteria. Williams is his ideal pick-and-roll partner, but he’s a natural diver beside George and Leonard. He’s shooting a combined 55.9 percent when firing away after catching a pass from one of them. And he isn’t solely a roll-man outlet. He can storm his way to buckets in the post and navigate open spaces off the dribble.
Some will still have a problem with this troika’s top billing. Harrell comes off the bench and won’t close every game, and the Clippers are a net negative when he plays next to George and Leonard without Williams. Those are fair criticisms. But complaints should then focus more on the threesome’s makeup than its standing. George and Leonard are idyllic building blocks, which means they’d carry pretty much any third wheel to the No. 1 spot.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.
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