Some fans and analysts have used the concept of a Big Three as a prism through which to view the 2013 NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs boast Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, and Tim Duncan, while the Miami Heat have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. San Antonio has the chance to wrap up the series Tuesday night in Miami, prompting ESPN Insider analyst Tom Harberstroh to dive into the question of how the Spurs and Heat trios stack up next to the NBA's all-time great threesomes since 1974.
Haberstroh defines a Big Three as any group of three teammates who individually posted at least a five Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) in a given season. The ESPN scribe only considers trios from 1974 onward, as that year is when the NBA began counting turnovers, a component of WARP, as an official statistic.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Orlando Magic crack Haberstroh's top-10 list, with the trio of Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Nick Anderson coming in 10th. The trio qualified for Big Three status, under Haberstroh's definition, from 1994-96, making one NBA Finals appearance in that span. Despite not having homecourt advantage, the Houston Rockets swept the Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals. Orlando would not return to the NBA's biggest stage until 2009, where it lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. That Lakers squad, featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, ranks sixth on Haberstroh's list of all-time great Big Threes.
O'Neal infamously left the Magic as a free agent in 1996. The team kept Hardaway and Anderson together for another three seasons after O'Neal's departure, only to trade them within two days of each other in August of 1999 as John Gabriel looked to create salary-cap space to sign max-dollar free agents the following summer.
Though the O'Neal/Hardaway/Anderson triumvirate is undoubtedly the best Big Three in Magic history, one can argue that the late-aughts squad which advanced to the Finals was a better overall team. It didn't boast any secondary stars on the level of Hardaway or Anderson, but Stan Van Gundy coached it expertly, and it had stronger role players than the mid-90s squad did. And while Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson aren't on the level of Hardaway or Anderson, they nonetheless earned All-Star berths in 2009.
According to Haberstroh's methodology, the best Big Threes since 1974 are the Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics (1982-87); Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls (1990-93); and San Antonio's Duncan, Parker, and Ginóbili (2004-09, 2011).