Despite perceptions, NBA super-teams aren’t a new phenomenon. Countless teams over the past six decades have featured multiple All-Stars. Just look at the Bulls and Jazz of the 90s or the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons of the 80s, and so on. The difference is that the formation of super-teams is a much more deliberate endeavor these days, particularly in players courting other players in free agency. It’s that distinction that tends to rub some people the wrong way.
In reality, it’s mostly a byproduct of player empowerment, which in many ways is the mark of a healthy league. But regardless of whether it happens organically through the draft or through back-channeling and subterfuge, super-teams are a staple of the modern NBA, and they’ve come to dominate the league over the past decade in the form of superstar trios.
Below is our ranking of the very best of the Big 3s that helped define the 2010s.
The Brooklyn Nets’ newly-assembled trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden might eventually take their place high atop this list, but any attempt to rank them would be purely guesswork at this point. Still, the expectations are high, and the talent is certainly there to make big things happen.
Let’s also take this opportunity to give a special shout to a couple of trios that never quite made it to the promised land but nonetheless gave us plenty of thrills during their time together. As a rule of thumb, if your core group was good enough to earn a nickname that has become part of the common parlance, then you deserve some acknowledgement. So shout-out to the Lob City Clippers and the Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies and their respective cores of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley.
6. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
The Lakers Big 3 was already winding down when they won their second-straight championship, exacting revenge on the Celtics for their loss in 2008. It would prove to be Kobe’s last title run and would mark the beginning of the organization’s slow decline that would essentially last until LeBron’s arrival in the summer of 2019.
Still, Kobe and company gave us quite a Finals series to kick off the decade — a gritty seven-game grudge match between the two most decorated teams in league history and one of the all-time great rivalries, to boot.
5. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker
If the Big 3 Heat were “Hollywood as Hell,” as Joakim Noah liked to say, then the Big 3 Spurs were whatever the opposite of that might be, i.e. a blue-collar, workmanlike team from a modest town like San Antonio. Yet, there was nothing prosaic about the way Tim Duncan and company were able to dominate the NBA at various points over the course of two decades. This is a 2010s list, mind you, so their accomplishments of the 2000s don’t factor in here.
By 2013, the aging Spurs were the unlikeliest of foils to the ebullient Heat, but there they were anyway, pushing LeBron and company to the hairy edge in a seven-game series and coming just one rebound away from toppling the Miami juggernaut and almost certainly sending that organization into an existential tailspin. And that heart-breaking loss only inspired them to come back with the type of vengeance typically reserved for super-villain origin stories.
In their rematch in the 2014 Finals, the Spurs so categorically dismantled the Heat that it wasn’t even funny. They put on an absolute clinic of passing, defense, and play-making, elevating the game to its Platonic ideal, with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili (and Kawhi) thoroughly outplaying their Miami counterparts en route to a fifth and final championship.
4. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green
The Kevin Durant era in Golden State was undoubtedly the most dominant, but the 2015-2016 squad was by far the most fun. And we’re talking pure, unadulterated, delirious fun. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the impact Steph Curry had on the basketball world during those back-to-back MVP campaigns. He helped change the way we play and think about the game, cemented his status as the greatest shooter ever, and entertained the living hell out of us on a nightly basis with his ball-handling wizardry and the wild audacity of his shot-selection.
Much of this, of course, was facilitated by his running mates. Klay’s equally-deadly shooting and Draymond’s uncanny play-making abilities turned the Warriors into a finely-calibrated offensive machine. With Steph as its catalyst, the Warriors demoralized opponents with turbocharged scoring spurts that would make leads balloon from five to 20 points in a matter of minutes and erase double-digit deficits.
The result was a record-setting 73-win season, which of course ended in disappointment, giving us the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
3. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving
This particular Cavs trio isn’t defined so much by what they accomplished, but rather who they accomplished it against, and how. Overcoming a 3-1 series deficit is a monumental, once-in-a-generation achievement. Doing it against the greatest regular-season team in NBA history is the stuff of fantasy. And that miraculous 2016 title also had the rare effect of retroactively altering the perception of the Warriors’ championship the previous year, when LeBron and the Cavs were without both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love because of injury.
There isn’t much more that needs to be said. This Cavs iteration made three straight Finals appearances and did the impossible in one of them. They also did it in the most dramatic way possible, with each member of their Big 3 logging a signature moment in Game 7 with the championship on the line, whether it was Love’s lockdown defense on Steph, LeBron’s reality-defying block on Andre Iguodala, or Kyrie’s ice-cold step-back three in Steph’s face to seal the title.
Perhaps most impressively, they helped LeBron deliver on his promise to bring the city of Cleveland its first championship in more than 50 years.
2. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade
Okay, so maybe they didn’t win seven titles like LeBron predicted during that infamous introductory concert/ceremony. And maybe they got off to a rough start in their first year together when they came up short against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. And maybe that first title came against an OKC squad that was literally the youngest team ever to reach the Finals. Nevermind all that.
After their fiasco against the Mavs, it took some serious soul-searching, but the Big 3 Heat took that frustration and disappointment and embarked on a two-year rampage that yielded back-to-back titles and doubled as one of the most dominant stretches of LeBron’s career. That first championship in 2012 marked a long-awaited coronation for The King, who’d fallen short in his championship quest on so many prior occasions, and the following year also blessed us with an all-time great Finals series, an epic seven-game heart-stopper against the Spurs that featured — at the time — the greatest shot in Finals history, courtesy of Ray Allen and the ice water running through his veins.
But the real legacy of the Big 3 Heat is that it helped usher in the era of player empowerment. LeBron’s Decision — while still a sore spot for some — laid the blueprint for players to take agency over their futures and team up with other stars around the league, a trend that has, as this list might suggest, resulted in varying degrees of success.
1. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry
Arguably the most dominant NBA trio ever assembled, the King Ghidorah (RIP DOOM) version of the Warriors owns the longest winning streak in postseason history with 15 consecutive victories and the best overall playoff record of 16-1. With a pair of former MVPs and two of the greatest shooters of all-time, Golden State was pure nightmare fuel for their opponents, and Kevin Durant was particularly deadly on his way to his first Finals MVP, averaging better than 30 points per game, the highest scoring mark since Shaq in the 2000 Finals.
Nobody even came close to testing them until Game 4 of the Finals, the Cavs’ lone victory in the series, which took a record-setting 86 first-half points and Herculean efforts from both LeBron and Kyrie. The following year was a different story, as the Houston Rockets pushed them to seven games behind James Harden and Chris Paul, but ultimately squandered that opportunity in an epic Game 7 collapse, during which they missed 27 straight three-pointers and closed their window for good.
The less said about the 2019 Finals, the better. Credit to the Toronto Raptors for carpe-ing the diem, but the Warriors were dealing with major injuries to two of their main stars, which proved too much to overcome. Still, that two-year stretch in Golden State stands as one of the most impressive runs by any Big 3 in league history.