In 2007-08, the Boston Celtics won big with a direct path to NBA success: the Big Three approach. They added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a Paul Pierce-led team, which helped the team win 66 games and a title. Two summers later, LeBron James brought his talents (and Chris Bosh) to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and the Heat, a grouping that yielded four Finals appearances and a pair of championships. Since then, the Spurs and Warriors have won titles with more balanced and less top-heavy rosters, although the Cleveland Cavaliers (with stars James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) still hope the Big Three formula will pan out. So which team has the best power trio? We compared each team's top three using player efficiency rating (PER), which measures a player's per-minute production across various offensive and defensive categories. PER attempts to quantify a player's overall value relative to his peers using a single number. And the top combo isn't what you might expect: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and (surprise!) Enes Kanter of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Cumulative PER rankings
Let's see how NBA teams stack up in a 3-on-3 format with each team's most efficient all-around players. To be eligible, a player must have played at least 10 games and averaged 15 minutes per game. For reference, an average PER is 15, so a trio of average players would have a cumulative PER of 45.
NOTES: The new Big Three in Miami of Hassan Whiteside, Bosh and Wade ranks a surprising second in the East. Whiteside's excellent shot-blocking and rebounding drive his high PER, and this season has been business as usual for 10-time All-Star Bosh and his efficient offensive game. Greg Monroe boasts a 22.3 PER for Milwaukee (whose trio ranks higher under this scenario than the team does in the actual standings), and John Henson kicks in a 19.3 PER off the bench for the Bucks.
NOTES: You might notice the Grizzlies' total, which is far from impressive despite a solid record. The reason? Mike Conley leads the team with an 18.5 PER, but beyond him the team is balanced: Four players have above-average PER and nine players have averaged 15 minutes per game. Memphis is in playoff position in large part because of a stat that isn't easily factored into PER -- defensive rating. Its 102.3 rating is sixth best in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Pelicans' trio is seventh in the West, thanks to the sheer box-score-filling power of Anthony Davis (24.3 PER) and the efficient performances of Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday. On the other hand, the team's defensive rating (106.1) is a liability.
Kanter: far from a third wheel
It's clear from the lists above that few teams have three legitimate stars on their rosters and that the current blueprint for winning includes deep rosters and balance. It's extremely difficult to structure a team and payroll that would even allow a team to house three superstars at once. So what makes the Thunder's top three that much better than the trios of the other upper-echelon teams? The prowess of Westbrook and Durant has been well-documented, as in this piece by Royce Young that outlines how the two are on a historic pace as a duo. But what's overlooked is Kanter's high production. As of Thursday, Kanter ranked ninth in the league in PER, ahead of the likes of Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Paul Millsap. And among the members of our power trios with the third-highest PER, he is easily the best of the group. Here is a look at highs and lows among the No. 3 contributors:
Since a PER of 15 represents an average player, there are multiple teams (Pistons, Lakers, 76ers) that don't even have three players deemed above-average. But let's talk more about Kanter. His numbers are strong in leaguewide categories across the board: He's second in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage, fifth in total rebound percentage, sixth in win shares per 48 minutes and eighth in true shooting percentage. But in the post-Big Three era, the Thunder don't try to overuse him (he averages just over 20 minutes per game). Among all power trio members in the league, here's where the Thunder's version falls when looking at PER and minutes per game. Let's compare OKC's trio with that of the Warriors, a team the Thunder could meet in the playoffs:
You can see what an outlier Kanter is, producing at a level seen more commonly in players averaging 30-plus minutes per game. But coach Billy Donovan has used Kanter strategically to maximize his rebounding and interior offensive game without letting any defensive shortcomings hurt the team. Of course, Stephen Curry is another outlier, with a PER north of 30, and the Warriors star continues to put together an MVP-worthy season. But the second member of the Warriors' triumvirate, Draymond Green, is actually less productive than Kanter. While there has been considerable buzz around Golden State this season, it's clear that the amazing output of Westbrook and Durant, along with Kanter, makes for something special.
Is Oklahoma City's trio a true Big Three, with All-Stars in each slot like the Celtics and Heat had or this year's Cavs have? No, Kanter won't be suiting up for the West squad at the All-Star Game next month. Still, it's an interesting way to look at the league as a whole and see what everyone's version of a Big Three would be. In many cases, teams are light-years behind the NBA's best three-man band, which resides in Oklahoma City.
Statistics through Jan. 14, courtesy of NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com and the ESPN The Magazine research department. Eric Bledsoe and Jarrett Jack are included although they're out for the season because they met the minimum requirements. The numbers for Mario Chalmers and Ish Smith are from their current teams.