Ever since The Decision from LeBron James in the summer of 2010, the idea of teams acquiring a "big three," has been all the rage in the NBA -- the accepted and necessary blueprint for being a legitimate contender. The past two NBA Finals pitted Miami's threesome with those of San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
Of course, anyone with the least bit sense of NBA history knows and understands that the concept of building a championship team around three stars is hardly an original one and really throughout NBA history title-winning teams have had three All-Star caliber players, and the ones who haven't are the exception rather than the rule. Heck, the Celtics pulled it off just two years before Miami did, when they traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join incumbent Paul Pierce. The uproar with Miami had to do with the fact that only one of the three guys was drafted by the Heat, and that one of the two joining the organization -- James, of course -- wasn't just an All-Star but the best player in the league.
As you've no doubt heard, the Spurs "Big Three," of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker played their 664th regular season game together and won their 491st, thereby passing the Lakers' trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper for second all-time, behind the 80's Celtics big three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, who played 729 games together and won 540 of them.
I submit that the Spurs' trio is actually the best of them all in terms of longevity and success for one simple reason: They had the least help.
Let's look at the top big threes throughout history real quick.
The Bill Russell Dynasty Celtics have trios that are fourth and fifth on the all-time list, with Russell-Sam Jones-Satch Sanders recording 463 wins together and Russell-Sam Jones-K.C. Jones edging them out with 466. However, you don't win 11 championships in 13 seasons without considerable depth and those Celtics teams had just a few more Hall-of-Famers you may have heard of in Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Tommy Heinsohn but also Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman and Clyde Lovellette, That's nine Hall-of-Famers in all, and Satch Sanders wasn't among them, which says something about where he was in the team's hierarchy.
Then you've got the Lakers triumvirate from the 80's, where Cooper was a glue guy, a capable sixth man and a solid defender. But never, not at any time, was he one of the team's best four players. When their big three started in 1979-80 -- Magic's famous rookie year -- the Lakers not only had a Hall-of-Fame small-forward in Jamaal Wilks but also Norm Nixon and even Spencer Haywood at the tail end of his career. Then, because they're the Lakers, they brought in yet another Hall-of-Famer in James Worthy, not to mention Byron Scott, Mitch Kupchak, A.C. Green, Bob McAdoo (another HoFer to spend time backing up Kareem's) and once McAdoo retired, Mychal Thompson.
The 80's Celtics, meanwhile, have a legit "Big Three," in that at least Bird-McHale-Parish were their three best players, but, back when they started in 1980-81, they had Hall-of-Famer Tiny Archibald and a clutch, underrated scorer in Cedric Maxwell. For their 1984 title they replaced Archibald with another Hall-of-Fame point guard in Dennis Johnson and threw in Danny Ainge of good measure. In 1986, they squeezed one last productive season out of Bill Walton, who was maybe the best backup center ever. By the end of their run in the early '90s they had Reggie Lewis, another All-Star, who died tragically in 1993.
Even the much-hyped KG-era big three in the late '00s had that one loaded team for their title in 2008 with not only Rajon Rondo but also Kendrick Perkins back before his knee injury, Big Baby, P.J. Brown, Tony Allen and Eddie House.
Contrast those teams to the Big Three Era Spurs. Who is the best player they've ever played with? David Robinson's final year, in which he averaged 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds and put up a 17.6 PER in 26 minutes a night, was Ginobili's first. Since then the centers have been pedestrian journeymen like Nazr Mohammad, Fabricio Oberto and Tiago Splitter, who's a bit better but not by much. Robert Horry has the big-time clutch reputation and helped the Spurs win a couple of rings, but they got him at the end of his career and he never averaged more than 6.0 points or 3.8 rebounds for San Antonio. Brent Barry and Michael Finley both helped the cause, but neither ever approached anything near their best with the Spurs. Bruce Bowen is obviously the first answer people think of, but he was strictly a one-way player who was an offensive liability.
Forget playing with Hall-of-Famers. The Spurs Big Three haven't had a teammate make one measly All-Star game.
Really, the correct answer, the ONLY answer, is Kawhi Leonard. He's the best player to play with the Big Three and it's not close. It's a shame he didn't come around six or seven years sooner. We might have been talking about six straight titles from 2003-2008 and people would be talking about Duncan in the same breath as Russell and Parker/Ginobili as the league's premier backcourt. It's a testament to the greatness of the Spurs trio that they've been able to drag so many sorry rosters, especially from 2008-2010, to 50-win seasons and fringe-contender status. I guess how you look at it is a matter of perspective as to whether this is a good thing or a bit of cruel, ironic timing, but just as their individual brilliance has waned, the team's front office finally managed to put quality pieces around them in not only Leonard and Splitter but also Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw.
(Incidentally, I think Miami's triples deserve more appreciation. In three seasons together, they've gone to three Finals, won two, they could be headed for another trip in their fourth year, and like the Spurs you could fit the Grand Canyon between Chris Bosh and their fourth-best guy.)
I'm not sure if San Antonio's Big Three will ever get the true appreciation they deserve. Perhaps it will take one more title and even then it may not be enough. What I do know is that we should follow Gregg Popovich's advice and appreciate them more and more while they're still together.
* * *
This goofy thing I wrote a few days ago got a lot of attention -- some good, some bad -- and whatever your reaction to it was, I just wanted to clarify for the record that it was all in fun. No, I don't think Zach Lowe doesn't watch the Spurs or has some huge bias against them. I've always respected Lowe's work and read him regularly. While I disagree with his opinions at times I know he puts his work in. Mr. Lowe did reach out to me a few days back and we went back and forth about a few things and while I'm not sure we came to an understanding about anything, I can report that a truce has been reached and everything's cool. Hopefully he'll be nicer to Spurs fans and we'll feel less persecuted.
* * *
Also, on a personal note, as I've mentioned a few times throughout the year, I will be moving to San Antonio this summer, mid-July to be specific, to cover the 2014-15 Spurs for PtR. However, I will still need a regular day job to pay the bills and keep the lights on. If you're a business owner in the area or work at a place where you think I'd be a good fit, whether it's an office, a restaurant (I'm a waiter now) or wherever, please don't hesitate to let me know and make the proper inquiries with the proper people. Obviously I'm not looking to get rich or anything, but I need to make a livable income and also have enough flexibility in the job that they won't make me work at night during Spurs home games. That's kind of non-negotiable.
So if you ever thought to yourself, "Hey, Erler kind of seems like a lovable nut, I wonder what he'd be like to work with." here's your chance to find out. Thanks in advance for all your assistance with this.