All the great teams and dynasties of yesteryear have had a few core pieces. Bill Russell got to play alongside Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and partnered with Red Auerbach before becoming the most high-profile player-coach in the NBA. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry was so dramatic because Los Angeles put Magic Johnson next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, while Boston trotted out Larry Bird plus Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Michael Jordan was flanked by Scottie Pippen for over a decade. And despite falling short of the championship, John Stockton partnered with Karl Malone for nearly twenty years, peaking with the Jazz's back-to-back Finals appearances. Even the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers held on for eight seasons before that ever-increasing rift finally split them apart.
By contrast, today's great teams are fleeting. The Celtics trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen lasted but five seasons, before Allen decided to bolt for the rival Miami Heat, and Garnett and Pierce lasted one more season in Beantown before general manager Danny Ainge (himself a cohort of the Bird-era Celtics) sent them to Brooklyn. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have been together for 5 and a half seasons, but with Gasol continually being mentioned in trade rumors and wishlists (Gasol was sent to Houston in the aborted Chris Paul Trade 1.0), this partnership is no more permanent than the Celtics recently dismantled core. The Heat's current incarnation, created with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in sign-and-trades to complement franchise star Dwyane Wade, is but three seasons young.
Meanwhile, San Antonio's Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili seem to have been playing in the Alamo City forever. When Ginobili joined the Spurs in 2002-03, fresh off helping Argentina win silver in Indianapolis, Duncan was an established superstar, having acquired his first MVP, and Parker came off a season where he qualified for the All-Rookie First Team. That season, the three went on to win their first Finals appearance together. Back then, Duncan was at his utmost peak, not only bagging his second MVP but also netting Finals MVP behind an otherworldly 24 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 blocks a game. Not to mention the near quadruple-double in the clincher that allowed David Robinson to retire a champion.
Two seasons later, the dynamic changed. Ginobili led his native Argentina to an upset over Duncan's United States to win the gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Ginobili was 27 and in his athletic prime (as well as the peak of his follicle powers). Coach Gregg Popovich named him the starter at shooting guard and he blossomed, earning an All-Star berth and enjoying a career-high 48 points in a game against the Suns. Parker was still the young budding star of the team, but Duncan remained the rock, posting his usual 20/10 numbers, even if he was hampered by a late season ankle injury. The Spurs won the title in 7 hard-fought games against the Pistons, where Ginobili made many key plays, including the critical pass that led to Robert Horry's game winner in Game 5. Nevertheless, Duncan took home his third Finals MVP after anchoring San Antonio on both ends of the floor.
Flash forward two seasons later. The dynamic had changed once more. The Big Three was really living up to its name, with Parker named to the All-Star team in 2006 and 2007. Duncan remained the defensive anchor and low post first option, but Parker and Ginobili (now established as the sixth man) were potent offensive options in their own right. Despite finishing third in the Western Conference, the Spurs rode their Big Three to the franchise's fourth title, and Parker won Finals MVP (though as one would note, Duncan did the legwork defensively and Ginobili wreaked havoc off the bench).
As they have aged, the Big Three remained the team's core, even as their roles changed. Duncan's role shifted as he grew older and his knee limited him - no longer would the Spurs ride Tim in the post as the first option. Rather, the pick and roll (and pick and pop) became the squad's bread and butter. Ginobili remained the team's sixth man, and Pop increasingly used him as a secondary playmaker as opposed to a wild card scorer.
The 2010-11 season remains one of Manu's top seasons in my book, primarily due to his good health, a starting role, and being the linchpin of the Spurs' uptempo attack. Finally, Parker has blossomed the past two years. With Ginobili's role as scoring playmaker diminished due to age and the injuries the past two seasons. The wee Frenchman has flourished, becoming one of four players to average 20 points a game while shooting at least 50% from the field -- joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade. After reducing his three point attempts after the 2004-05 season, Chip Engelland made Parker focus on developing an elite pull-up midrange jumper, even as he has reintroduced the corner 3 to his arsenal.
Even if our memories of the Big Three change, I will always cherish what they have done for a franchise and a city that watched them give all they had, and gave them love in return. It is unlikely we'll ever see a trio like them soon, one developed organically, one that stands for loyalty, one emblematic of winning, one example of a precedent once common but now rarely seen.