Lowe: Is a Big Two better than a Big Three for NBA teams?

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It was heralded as the summer of the Big Two. In spurning a galactic Big Three with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kawhi Leonard perhaps unknowingly realigned the NBA’s distribution of star power in a way that promised more parity — and left the league without a bona fide Big Three for the first time since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston 12 years ago.

Leonard’s power play, plus the subsequent trade of Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets, created (arguably) four pairings of top-15 players: LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers; Leonard and Paul George across Staples Center; Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn; and Westbrook and James Harden, reunited in Houston.

Other collections of star talent are harder to classify. Golden State has something like a Big Three with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but Thompson is out for an extended period. Green does not fit the traditional conception of a top-15 star. Those who value defense more might argue Utah has a chance to form a real Big Two with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — before factoring in Mike Conley — if Mitchell springboards out of Team USA. Philadelphia has four max or near-max players in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris, but Embiid is the only consensus top-15 guy among them.

But there is nothing at present precisely like the Big Threes (and one Big Four) that dominated the league for a decade-plus in Boston, Miami, Cleveland and Oakland.

Is this a thing? Will more teams choose two stars and legit depth over a real Big Three? Should they? The question is especially relevant for the Clippers, Lakers, Nets and Mavericks.

The Clippers and Nets surround two stars with real depth that mostly skews young or toward guys in their primes. There is power and longevity in that model. Teams strip to the studs to fit three superstars. They trade away quality depth and the draft picks that would help replenish that depth. They trawl for minimum-salaried graybeards and ring-chasers. The centerpiece stars can’t count on those guys for long.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn and the Clippers have about a dozen combined supporting rotation players and recent draft picks age 28 or younger. The Big Three model has won a lot of championships, but there are other paths. The Lakers (Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant) and Bulls (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen) won with historically great Big Twos. (Your mileage will vary in deciding whether Horace Grant — a one-time All-Star — and then Dennis Rodman shove either iteration of the three-peat Bulls into true Big Three territory.)

The league just watched the Raptors complete an improbable championship run with something like a Big One structure — one top-five (at worst) superstar surrounded by seven starter-quality players. The 2019 Raptors have drawn a lot of comparisons to the 2011 Mavericks — with Dirk Nowitzki in the Leonard role. The 2004 Pistons are perhaps the most famous outlier champion.

A few executives suggested that classifying the Raptors as a pure Big One underrates their star power. Kyle Lowry has made the past five All-Star Games. (I am a card-carrying member of the Kyle Lowry Is A Real Star, Damn It! club.) Marc Gasol is a three-time All-Star who made the team as recently as 2017. Pascal Siakam almost made it last season. Fine. They are hard to categorize. But they are not a Big Three team.

The existence of all these different sorts of champions is proof that the Big-Two-versus-Big-Three question is a little facile. There are blurry gradations of star power. Most teams don’t get to pick how many stars they have. They acquire who is available and fill the roster as best they can. The Bucks and Nuggets are building toward teams like the 2018-19 Raptors and 2010-11 Mavericks because what else are they going to do?

The choice of going all-in for a third star also (duh) depends on the identity of all three players — the two already in-house and the third who might be gettable. The Jordan/Pippen Bulls and Shaq/Kobe Lakers didn’t just have two stars. They had two all-time players in their primes who complemented each other. When the two stars are at that level, it’s easier to forsake star power for role players who fit.

The current Lakers might plausibly argue that they have such a pairing in Davis and James, though LeBron’s age — he will be third all time in minutes by the end of this season — complicates that. They telegraphed their thoughts by chasing a third star in Leonard.

The Clippers’ Leonard-George pairing approaches that level if George maintains his MVP-level play from last season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Leonard played only 60 regular-season games in 2018-19 under Toronto’s “load management” program. His presence on a Big Two raises a question: Is the best method of easing a star’s burden to load up on depth or acquire an extra star who can really do the heavy lifting?

Both Los Angeles teams have traded away everything that would net a third star, anyway. If either gets one, it will probably be via free agency — and will require clearing away almost all of their depth.

Brooklyn is different. The Nets have a bundle of young players and a cupboard full of picks. Durant is recovering from an Achilles tear. Depending on your taste (and your proximity to Boston), Irving is something like the 15th-best player in the league — not on the “all-time” level, and a notch below both Clippers. The Nets might want more bankable star power.

They could have two first-rounders in the 2020 draft. They just signed Caris LeVert to a three-year, $52 million extension that came in lower than most executives expected. If he improves, LeVert on that deal is a trade asset.

LeVert’s contract could instead lead the Nets toward the “Big Two and depth” direction. Most teams default to stars because their depth becomes too expensive. If you have to pay LeVert like a star, you might as well trade him — and lots of other stuff — for an actual star. The Nets, it turns out, are not quite paying LeVert like a star.

They could keep their entire core together for the 2020-21 season and end up about only $10 million above the tax line. That includes everyone important: the two stars, LeVert, Joe Harris (a free agent this summer, in line for a raise), Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, DeAndre Jordan (important assuming he actually tries this season), Taurean Prince (up for an extension now), Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa, Nicolas Claxton and the draft picks the team is likely to receive. The Nets’ new controlling owner, Joseph Tsai, is obscenely rich. He can afford a $15-20 million tax bill if the team is good enough to justify it.

But only one year later — the 2021-22 season — things get hairy. Allen’s first veteran contract will kick in. Dinwiddie can decline a $12.3 million player option and reenter free agency in the summer of 2021 if he’s confident he can get a fatter deal. LeVert’s deal rises every season, per contract details obtained by ESPN.com. Deals for Harris and Prince might too if Brooklyn re-signs them. All of a sudden, the Nets could vault something like $25 million over the tax — triggering a tax bill approaching $50 million. Even obscenely wealthy owners might blanch at that.

This is Bird rights prison. Sub-star rotation guys on good teams usually get raises during their primes. The sheen of winning lifts everyone. Teams are forced to choose between careening into the tax to overpay incumbent role players, or scrambling to replace them on the cheap.

Depth can get expensive enough that there is more bang for the buck from one great player earning $35 million than three good players earning $50 million. The Nets surely see this coming. They are deep enough to trade for a third star and still retain two or three of their young core — though that would eventually result in the same kind of tax bill.

The trick is finding the right third star. Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are probably out of this conversation — very good players who are 30 and working under huge contracts that carry some risk. We are probably years away from the next class of youngish disgruntled stars pushing their way out. There might not be any circumstance in which Milwaukee has even one conversation about Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The name that will come up over and over, in connection with every realistic destination, is Bradley Beal. Beal is really good. He just turned 26. He can thrive off the ball. Beal would bring minimal skill overlap to most preexisting star pairings.

Star power can overcome such overlap. Those “your turn, my turn” offenses that emerge on some super-teams can still win titles because that is what stars do. Depth becomes less important in the playoffs, when stars can play 40-plus minutes every game.

But there are diminishing returns. Love resembled a high-level role player at times next to Irving and James. Allen fit next to Garnett and Pierce because of his willingness to work as a roving catch-and-shoot specialist — a pure finisher. Green is almost the inverse of Allen: a defensive savant who can initiate offense as Golden State’s historic shooters orbit him.

Beal checks the age and fit boxes. Whether he has enough raw, supernova talent — Beal has made one All-Star roster and zero All-NBA teams — is something each suitor will have to decide based in part on who is already on its team (and if the Wizards ever make Beal available, which they have not, per sources).

He would mesh well with the wing-big Big Two rising in Dallas — Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis — if Dallas even chases the Big Three model. After years of whiffing on stars, the Mavs split one superstar cap slot among several solid players in their primes who fit with the team’s young stars: Delon Wright, Seth Curry, Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. The Mavs are also short on trade ammo after sending out two first-round picks for Porzingis.

But they will have one summer of cap room to chase a third star — the summer of 2021; i.e., the potential Summer of Giannis, Leonard, George, Gobert and Beal in unrestricted free agency — before Doncic’s rookie contract expires. Strike then, and Dallas could have a one-season window to carry three stars and some solid depth without dipping too far into the tax. That is the rare luxury of having a proven star on a rookie deal.

I would expect the Mavs to go star-hunting again if they get the chance. Even if all those supporting guys hit, the Mavs probably top out as a middling playoff team in the Western Conference over the next two-plus seasons. By that point, the Wright/Curry/Kleber crew won’t have much upside left — even if they have all earned the sort of salary bumps that could price them out of Dallas. A third star becomes more valuable than quality depth.

The calculus can be close once you get beyond the league’s top-10 players. I suspect the Nets would have a spirited debate about dealing, say, at least LeVert, Allen, Kurucs and two unprotected first-round picks for Beal. The Clippers don’t have the draft assets for such a trade, but I wonder how they would feel about a theoretical package of Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Mfiondu Kabengele — leaving a thin and aging roster around Beal, Leonard and George. If stars in the player empowerment era are more or less permanent flight risks, then building around depth carries a little more appeal.

In a lot of cases, the trump card beyond dollars-per-production is that gathering stars is the best hedge against an ill-timed injury to one of them. With apologies to everyone in the greater Oklahoma City area, there might be no better recent example than the Thunder in the wake of the James Harden trade.

The Thunder spun Harden into four cost-controlled assets (plus Kevin Martin) they could, if things broke right, spin into more assets down the line. It ended up a huge bet on the sustainability the Big-Two-and-depth model promises.

It is revealing that such a model was probably not Plan A. In the lead-up to the Harden deal, the Thunder made calls on young players with star potential, including (according to reports and sources at the time) Beal, Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas. (I would be surprised if they did not call New Orleans about Davis.) They wanted a third star.

They didn’t get one. They fielded championship-level teams anyway because their two remaining stars — Durant and Westbrook — were that good, particularly Durant, who was on pace to be one of the 10 greatest players ever before his Achilles tear. (Serge Ibaka was also a borderline All-Star in some of those seasons.)

But they never won it all, in part because they had no margin of error when Westbrook or Durant got hurt. Harden was the missing margin of error.

These are hard choices. There are lots of pathways to a championship. Each one is a long shot. Each requires luck. But hoarding three stars probably brings both the highest floor and the highest ceiling for most teams.

Most executives around the league think the Big Two trend was largely random and anticipate another Big Three soon. Some expect that the current Big Three vacuum might inspire something of a race — one that could take multiple years, but still — to create the next one.

They are probably right, even if it might cost some team depth they took great pride in building.



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