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NBA teams either have a Big Three or are working to form one.
Championship hopefuls must complete the puzzle sooner than later, as hoops history holds that it’s awfully tricky to take home a title without an uber-talented trio. Even long-term rebuilders are scoping out strategies for eventually getting their transformational triads together.
The following four teams are two-thirds of the way there, having already assembled a dynamic duo. Let’s spotlight those pairings and then examine how each club can go about finding that elusive third star.
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The Celtics might have the Association’s top young tandem in All-Star forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There will be times during the upcoming season when it seems those two are already leading a Big Three, as Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder or even Al Horford might appear up to the third-wheel challenge.
But the gap between Boston’s top two and the rest is wide enough to know this team is one elite player short of a true title-chasing trio. The Shamrocks likely need to work the trade market to find that missing third, as their free-agent funds look tight for the foreseeable future and their floor is too high to deliver a prime draft asset.
While just about every win-now dreamer is hoping Bradley Beal eventually seeks a split from the Washington Wizards, Boston should be especially interested in a Beal deal. Not only would he give this offense the third scorer it needs, but he’d also join forces with Tatum, a longtime friend and fellow St. Louis native.
“He’s someone that I’ve always looked up to and still look up to this day,” Tatum said, per NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes. “It’s just we want the extreme best for each other. Two guys that play at a very high level and are always pushing each other. … That’s just kind of the relationship that we have.”
Whether it’s Beal or some disgruntled star, the Celtics might have the trade chips to get something done. They can offer financial relief in Schroder’s expiring deal or Horford’s partially guaranteed contract or stability in the form of the recently extended Smart and Robert Williams III. They have long-term lottery tickets like Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to sweeten an offer.
If Boston opts for the Big Three route, it should be able to trade its way there.
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There’s an argument to be made that the Nuggets don’t belong on this list. They may have made the Big Three jump already last season, when Nikola Jokic claimed MVP honors, Jamal Murray crushed as his wildly efficient co-star and Michael Porter Jr. toyed with defenders to the tune of 19 points per game on 54.2/44.5/79.1 shooting.
Denver enjoyed 784 minutes with that trio together and scorched opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions during that time.
But two things hold the Nuggets back from no-brainer Big Three status. First, Murray is recovering from an April tear of his left ACL, and no one knows when he’ll return or how he’ll look. Second, Porter is less of a third star than a scoring specialist at this stage of his career, which sort of makes sense when he doesn’t even have 3,000 regular-season minutes under his belt yet.
To frame that in a different, more frightening manner: The Nuggets probably haven’t played their best basketball yet. Give them a healthy Murray and a more well-rounded Porter, and that might be all the horsepower they need to reign supreme over the entire Western Conference.
However, if that isn’t the case—if Murray isn’t himself on the other side of this ACL recovery or Porter never shores up his weaknesses—Denver still has time to look outside the organization for its missing piece. A trade package built around either player should be strong enough to snag a stranded star.
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The Clippers might be content to keep their supporting cast as deep as possible around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It will be years before they have any meaningful cap space, and they have first-round draft debts to pay until 2026.
But if opportunity knocked, the front office might be all over a third star. They “pondered” a run at Kyle Lowry ahead of the trade deadline, per The Athletic’s Sam Amick, and they eyed Lonzo Ball in free agency, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
The Clippers don’t have the funds to sign a star outright, so any Big Three building must take place on the trade market. But since they’re already short on draft picks, they need some of their young players to show enough juice to anchor a third-star swap.
The good thing is they have more 25-and-under talent than you might expect of a championship chaser. The not-great thing is none of those players has flashed a particularly lofty ceiling.
Saying that, though, Terance Mann and Ivica Zubac have both impressed in meaningful minutes with the club, and incoming rookies Keon Johnson, Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr. all arrive with undeniable attention. If you want to get really optimistic, maybe Luke Kennard or Justise Winslow could even show enough to serve in some trade-sweetening fashion.
If the Clippers can develop some trade chips, then they can look outside the organization for a third banana, perhaps a playmaking point guard or a two-way big who holds his own on the perimeter.
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The Pelicans should be in a better spot than their current predicament.
They have a 21-year-old rock star in Zion Williamson, who contributed last season’s third-most offensive win shares and is only starting to dabble in his role as a jumbo playmaker. They also have an under-25 three-level scorer in Brandon Ingram, who almost perpetually improves as a shooter and shot-creator.
That’s the foundation of a highly enviable roster, but New Orleans has yet to assemble anything of substance around them. The Pels had a busy summer, but they lost a better player (Lonzo Ball) than anyone they brought in. They picked up some win-now talent (Jonas Valanciunas, Tomas Satoransky, Devonte’ Graham), but they might help themselves most by leaning on their youth (Kira Lewis Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes and Trey Murphy III).
It’s tough to tell what they’re trying to do, beyond some broad attempt to pacify a potentially restless Williamson. Even that effort is hard to follow, as Williamson made clear his desire for Ball to stay, and the Pels helped orchestrate his escape as a 23-year-old restricted free agent.
New Orleans needs upgrades. The franchise could have the money to make a splash signing next summer, and the free-agent class could be loaded. Attracting talent to the Big Easy has never been easy, though maybe the presence of the Ingram-Williamson tandem can change that. If Zach LaVine gets to the open market, he might be perfect. If not, the Pels could do a lot worse than Collin Sexton.
But maybe that shaky track record sends New Orleans to the trade market first. The Pels have draft picks for days, a slew of sizable (but manageable) salaries and a strong collection of prospects. Teams with stars to shop will probably place an early call to New Orleans, and the organization should take advantage of these negotiating opportunities.
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The first season for Chris Paul and Devin Booker together on the Suns was, in a word, magical.
They simultaneously snapped the franchise out of a decade-plus playoff drought and into its first NBA Finals appearance since 1993. They co-piloted the Association’s seventh-most efficient offense and thrashed opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions across their 1,485 minutes of shared floor time.
“They’re the perfect fit,” Devin’s father, Melvin Booker, said, per Suns.com’s Gina Mizell. “They’re the perfect storm. They’re the same person. They’re so competitive. … They’re both dogs.”
This has already proved to be a transformative twosome for Phoenix, though the road to repeat as Western Conference champs—let alone break through and capture an NBA title—is littered with obstacles at every turn. Successfully navigating them all could require the addition of a third star.
Unlike the other teams listed here, though, the Suns may not need to look outside the organization for that player. They have one obvious candidate in-house with 2018’s top pick, Deandre Ayton, plus a stealth candidate in that same draft’s 10th overall selection, Mikal Bridges.
The good version of Ayton controls the interior at both ends of the court. He wins with finesse and force, as he’s just as comfortable dunking over defenders as he is rendering them helpless with a soft turnaround jumper. Like many young players, though, he’s still discovering the keys to consistency. Until he finds them, he won’t quite reach third-star status.
It’s a longer shot for Bridges to get there, as he probably lacks the shot-creation chops needed to enter the discussion. But he’s such a good stopper and sniper (42.5 percent from range last season), he just might overload in both categories to the point of becoming a star support piece.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.