The last CBA may have played a role in breaking up Miami’s Big Three, but if LeBron James has his way, we haven’t seen his last superstar trio.
A possible partnership between Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and James would give Cleveland arguably the best trio in the league, but what if we assembled a Big Three in a vacuum? Which three players could take on all comers? Glad you asked.
For the purpose of this hypothetical, we will be primarily relying on two metrics— John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Estimated Wins Added (EWA). Obviously, you could argue that the answer is simply the three players at the top of the EWA list, but we are going to delve a bit deeper and factor in how the individual pieces would work together within a team framework.
Obviously, positional depth is key, especially within the context of the NBA landscape. For instance, point guard is arguably the deepest position in the NBA. In this scenario, even though Chris Paul has the highest PER (25.98) and second-highest EWA (16.2) among point guards, the PER drop-off between Paul and the 30th ranked point guard , Jose Calderon (15.25), is only 10.73. The league average for PER is 15.0, so even the 30th-best point guard is still a slightly above average NBA player. That’s not nearly as steep as the difference between Kevin Durant (29.9) and Andrei Kirlenko (12.48), the 30th ranked small forward. We’re looking at the top-30 players for a simple reason— there are 30 NBA teams.
By virtue of the fact that James and Durant are so far ahead of everyone else in the league—not just at their position—small forward has the widest range between the league leader and the 30th ranked small forward. It’s also the position with the lowest average PER. So, not that you needed advanced metrics to tell you this, Durant and LeBron would be the logical first two building blocks of this optimal Big 3.
The question is, who would be that third wheel? You could make a case for Paul, but Durant (33) leads the league in usage rate and James (31) ranks fifth. Both players thrive with the ball in their hands and lead all small forwards in assists per game.
Last season, Durant and James combined for more than 11 assists per game, which would make up for a traditional point guard. By virtue of their versatility and ability to defend multiple positions, you could get away with playing two small forwards. They offer complementary skills, with either player capable of shifting over to the shooting guard or power forward spot, as we saw in the 2012 Olympics. Both have the foot speed to defend opposing point guards as well. For these reasons, a max-paid point guard like Irving is not necessarily the ideal James running mate, as the marginal difference is so small, relative to the abundance of talent at the position.
With that in mind, let’s look at the leaders in PER and EWA.
Once you start looking at big men to pair with Durant and James, it becomes clear that the two best options are Anthony Davis and Love. You could make a case for DeMarcus Cousins, but his temperament is a red flag.
Although, Love only marginally leads Davis in PER, his lead in EWA is significant, which is also because Love played 10 more games than Davis last season. Love also leads all power forwards in assists (4.4 per game), while Davis (1.6) ranks 18th. Just as significant is their defensive presence. Last season, the Timberwolves were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team, allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions.
The Pelicans were atrocious, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions, fifth-worst in the league. Despite Davis’s shot-blocking skills, the Pelicans weren’t noticeably better with him on the floor (107.1) or worse when he sat (107.6). The same applies to Love. Of course, this has a lot to do with defensive schemes and the other players on the floor. Opponents shot 48.9 percent at the rim against Davis, compared with 57.4 percent against Love, per NBA.com’s SportVU data.
Davis is still only 21, four years younger than Love, with quicker feet and better defensive instincts.Pairing Davis with Omer Asik this season will give us a better idea of the type of defender Davis can be. With Love, we know what he is at this point— an elite rebounder, but a below-average defender. While Love is the better rebounder, Durant and James could make up the difference. Last season, Durant (74.9 percent) and James (74 percent) led the league in rebounds per chance and are two of the best rebounders at their position.
As for the bench, who cares? Good luck beating a team built around James, Durant and Davis.