Are we witnessing the end of ‘Big Three’ era?

Looking back on it, Kevin Garnett was concerned it wouldn’t all work out.

It was 2007 and Garnett, coming off his 10th All-Star selection, had just been dealt to the Celtics as the final piece of an offseason shakeup in Boston that paired him with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

The expectation was a championship or bust for that group. Anything else would be a failure.

It wasn’t – and isn’t – a new scenario.

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Former Cleveland Cavaliers center Channing Frye grades the NBA Trade Deadline deals including James Harden’s move to the Philadelphia 76ers

Forming star trios had been the well-worn formula for building championship teams for decades in the NBA. It dates back to the Celtics’ historic reign in the 1960s, to the Showtime Lakers’ dominance in the 80s, to the Bulls’ six titles in the 90s.

Still, the 2007-08 season was the first time it had been done with such intention in the new millennium and the spotlight was shining bright on the Celtics. As much as then-Boston general manager Danny Ainge was the architect, it would be up to the players to make it work.

„I had a lot of confidence in myself. I had a lot of confidence in my ability. I think my big worries were how would I mesh with Paul? How would I mesh with Ray? How to mesh with some of their some of the young guys here?“ Garnett recalled last week. „Danny had a plan. I don’t know if that was the exact plan, but it worked out. And then having a future All-Star in the chamber with Rondo having so many complementary pieces made the team that much more special.“

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The script in hand, they followed it to the NBA Finals that season and ultimately the Celtics’ 17th title.

The secret, Garnett said, was they all bought in to the work and sacrifice it would take to realise their goal.

„I just think that we just fell right into the script,“ he said. „Day one. And we were just a bunch of guys who was from similar backgrounds, but we were all workers, so that was that was our connection. Everybody there was not a prima donna. Nobody was a diva.“

Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were integral to the Celtics' title run for their 17th championship in the 2007-08 season
Image: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were integral to the Celtics’ title run for their 17th championship in the 2007-08 season

But the Big Three blueprint does not guarantee success. This season is proving more than ever that star power on paper is not enough.

The Lakers have struggled massively since adding former MVP Russell Westbrook alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And in Year Two of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden came to an undignified end.

Harden ending up being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers following reports he was no longer „all-in“ on the plan to win with what is likely the most powerful scoring trio ever built in the NBA. In the end, they played just 16 games together in over a year together.

The Nets are 29-26 but have lost their last 11 games. They have essentially a part-time player in Irving who can only play in road games because of his refusal to comply with New York’s vaccine mandate. Durant has missed the last 13 games with a knee sprain. Even with the addition of Ben Simmons, they essentially only have half-a-Kyrie Irving, so it’s hard to argue they still have what could be veritably considered a ‘Big Three’.

Los Angeles Lakers players Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook during a timeout against the Detroit Pistons
Image: Los Angeles Lakers players Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook during a timeout against the Detroit Pistons

Los Angeles’ problems are two-fold. Firstly, Westbrook’s style has not gelled as well as the coaching staff would hope when paired with his All-Star counterparts. Knee injuries have kept both Davis and James out for stretches, preventing them from finding a rhythm.

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With the trade deadline now having been and gone without Lakers VP of operations Rob Pelinka being able to make a single move (probably due to having so few assets to work with after dealing many pieces in the misguided move to land Westbrook), it appears a long shot that the Lakers will be a contender this year.

At just 26-30 entering Saturday night’s matchup with Golden State, Los Angeles sits in ninth place in the West.

James returned to action a week ago after missing five games and celebrated with a triple-double in the Lakers’ overtime win over the Knicks but he acknowledged earlier in the week the recent injury issues have been frustrating for everyone.

As an example he pointed to the renewed energy they had after their win on January 25 win at Brooklyn in Davis’ first game back following a 17-game absence.

„I felt like it was a small dosage of what we could possibly see with the potential of our team and everybody getting back healthy,“ James said.

He woke up two days later to find his knee „a total wreck.“ He missed the next five games, the Lakers went 1-4 without him.

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The Heatcheck crew discuss whether LeBron James can take a struggling Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals?

The Lakers can still lay a foundation for the remainder of the season with matchups against the Warriors and Jazz heading into the All-Star break, beat both teams and that would inject some confidence into Frank Vogel’s sputtering team.

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Meanwhile, Brooklyn is 2-11 since Durant went on the injured list with his knee issue. Irving has no plans to get vaccinated and coach Steve Nash conceded it could tough going until Durant returns.

„There’s a good chance we’re [in range of the play-in tournament] after the All-Star break,“ Nash said. „We’re not going to panic.“

Maybe not, but what that means when talking championships and the power of having a ‘Big Three’ remains to be seen.

The Phoenix Suns have a team built which is focused on the depth of the roster and the Philadelphia 76ers believe the one-two punch of Joel Embiid and Harden will be enough.

The Toronto Raptors won the title in 2019 primarily thanks to Kawhi Leonard, likewise the Milwaukee Bucks mainly because of Giannis Antetoukoumpo last season – and in the bubble, James and Davis were more of a duo than a trio.

Perhaps the thinking of front offices may change when it comes to big threes moving forward, given what we have seen so far this season and however things develop moving forward.

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