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July 9, 2012
Big 3 Model
What is it, and is it a bad thing?

by Bradford Doolittle

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Author's Note: This is the first installment of a weeklong series at ESPN Insider examining how the "Big 3" model is used in the NBA and its short-term and long-term impact on the league. Tommorow, Tom Haberstroh will rank current Big 3s. On Wednesday, Larry Coon will write about the long-term economic consequences of a Big 3 model. I'll be back on Thursday, projecting future Big 3s based on current rosters and potential player development. That piece will also run on Basketball Prospectus. Neil Paine will take a historical look of Big 3s through the ages on Friday. Finally, David Thorpe will wrap up the series by examining the Xs and Os of a Big 3 team. I urge you to check out all of these pieces at ESPN Insider.

When the Miami Heat knocked off Oklahoma City Thunder last month in the NBA Finals, we were hammered to death by comparisons of each team's core trio. Miami was a contrived creation, with LeBron James and Chris Bosh electing to come together with Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010 to form a South Beach version of what they had seen work so well for Boston over the last few seasons.

Oklahoma City's Big 3 was every bit as potent, especially on offense, and it was an organic group of players plucked from the upper rungs of the NBA's lottery ladder. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have grown together quickly, making the Thunder the hot pick to dominate the West for the foreseeable future. With the Heat and Thunder poised to contend for the crown over the next few years, it's no wonder why teams are scrambling to assemble Big 3s of their own.

Have we entered the age of the Big 3? For many who dread such an era, the Heat have made those fears palpable. Dwight Howard has been threatening to make the Brooklyn Nets a Big 3 team somehow, and now comes word that Kevin Love is unhappy in Minnesota. Could he make yet another team a Big 3? Could we soon see too much of the NBA's elite talent mustered up in a few teams?

Indeed, it's easy to understand why people might think that would be the case, but that appears to be true only at the top of the NBA. Of course, that's the only place where it matters. And that's also the problem.

What is a Big 3?

Since the inception of the 3-point rule for the 1979-80 season, teams have gotten an average of just less than 48.7 percent of their scoring from its top three players. Of 894 teams to have logged an NBA season since that time, just two have exceeded 65 percent.

Tops on the list: The 2010-11 Heat, with James, Wade and Bosh scoring 65.6 percent of Miami's points. A tick behind Miami at No. 2 is the 2011-12 Thunder. It's no wonder teams are so excited about the concept.

Examining the Big 3 Model

At the center of the Big 3 movement is Boston general manager Danny Ainge. Ainge played on the first team that bore the Big 3 label when he was a supporting player to the great Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s. Indeed, all three of the Celtics' title teams that decade got more than half their points from its top three scorers, led by 53.7 percent from the 1983-84 version.

By the middle of the last decade, Ainge was running the Celtics and not doing particularly well. Then, according to the Wall Street Journal, Boston conducted a study of the 25 previous NBA champions to determine what, if any, commonalities the teams had. What they found is that 24 of those champions featured a top-50 all-time player at the top of the heap and two supporting All-Stars. Ainge, who already had Paul Pierce in-house, then went out and signed Ray Allen, traded half his roster for Kevin Garnett and the course of the league was rewritten.

There is no easy definition of what constitutes a Big 3. We've used points here, but of course wins are created in other ways. Point guard dominated champions can have egalitarian point distribution, for instance. Think the late 1980s' Detroit Pistons, which featured Isiah Thomas, bruising defense and depth. The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s also fit that description, with Magic Johnson deciding who was going to score among himself, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green.

Still, focusing a Big 3 examination on scoring distribution works as well as anything. Remember, we said that since 1989-90, NBA teams have gotten 48.7 percent of their points from its top three scorers. Twenty-eight of the 33 championship teams have been above that average. While there are many ways to go about building a title contender, having a bedrock of top-flight scorers seems to be a virtual necessity.

Of those 33 championship teams, 32 of them were led by a surefire Hall of Famer. When we say "led", we're talking scoring for the most part, but there are also those point guard dominated teams led by Magic and Isiah to account for. Otherwise, it's been Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant,Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki,Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone and, now, LeBron James leading -- and scoring -- their teams to titles. The only exception was the 2003-04 Pistons, built around defense and balanced scoring. Some of those guys might end up in Springfield, Mass., but none of them fall into the surefire category.

On average, the scoring distribution for the last 33 champions breaks down like this:

  1. 23 percent of points from a top scorer. This ranges from a high of Jordan's 29.7 percent for the 1997-98 Bulls down to 17.3 percent for Thomas' 1988-89 Pistons.
  2. 17 percent from the second "big"
  3. 13 percent from the third "big"

Just less than 53 percent (52.8) of total team scoring comes from the top three players on typical championship teams. Those numbers are a bit skewed by the scoring dominance of Jordan and Bryant, but we can simplify our definition.

Think of it as the 20/50 rule. If a team gets at least 20 percent of its scoring from one star and 50 percent from its top three scorers, it's following a typical model of a Big 3 championship team. The actual numbers to watch for are more like 19/48, but 20/50 is easier to remember. Last season, just four teams fit the 20/50 mold: the Heat, Thunder, Lakers and Clippers. Those teams, for what it's worth, all advanced to at least the conference semifinals and will wind up being on the short list of favorites for the 2012-13 championship.

Not so fast

However, last season was atypical in terms of scoring distribution. League-wide, teams got just 47.7 percent of their scoring from top-three players, the lowest of the 3-point era. Also, 32.8 percent of points came from scorers outside of teams' top five, putting depth at a premium during the regular season. Part of this might be due to the lockout-compressed schedule of last season, but it's interesting to note in terms of five-year rolling averages, the trend for top-three scoring has declined in each of the past eight seasons.

In fact, the rolling averages show steady downward trends in points from a top scorer, top-two, top-four and top-five. The only group that is taking a bigger share of the scoring load is the "other" category, those outside the top five in scoring. It's hard to say why this is occurring. Teams might have learned to ease off on top players during the regular season. Perhaps those players are missing more games than before. Maybe the league has become more matchup-oriented as advanced data shows the advantages of using various lineup combinations. It might also have something to do with ever-increasing restrictions on defense in the rulebook.

While the league trend seems to be toward a wider distribution of scoring, the trend might be bucked by the success of the Heat and Thunder. The notion that championship teams have a foundation of bedrock scorers who can carry them through any playoff matchup problems is stronger than ever.

This is going to remain the case until a truly balanced team breaks through and wins a championship or two. Last season, the Spurs looked like they were going to be that team, getting just 38 percent of its points from its top three players. San Antonio has always been a Big 3 team in construction, but its regular season point distribution doesn't always reflect that because of Gregg Popovich's preference for managing the minutes of his star players. Still, last year's Spurs were a balanced team, as were the Bulls (42 percent top-three scoring) and the Pacers (44 percent).

The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were one of the more balanced teams in recent history, too, but Nowitzki scored 20.5 percent of Dallas' points that season, and the top three of Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion kicked in 48.3 percent of Dallas' scoring. The Mavs fit in pretty well with the 20/50 rubric of our Big 3 definition.

In many ways, the method by which the Spurs, Bulls and Pacers are built is the great populous hope for those who fear a Big 3 era. Again, there are only so many All-Star caliber players in the league at any given time, and if those players get the idea that the only way to get a title is to form a power trio, then the league runs the risk of seeing its upper-echelon talent concentrated on a handful of teams. If San Antonio or Chicago or Indiana or someone else of that ilk can vanquish the Heat, Thunder or L.A. teams, then perhaps that notion will be laid to rest.

If not, the Big 3 era might really be upon us.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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