Editor's Note, by bwoodsxyz: This is the first installment in what I expect to be an occasional series on NBA team construction. This column takes a look back at the Big 3 concept that was used in DC over the last half-decade before we turn to looking forward at the potential direction of the franchise. The plan is for the next installment to look more generally at how top-heavy recent successful teams have been, and how those franchises brought in their top talent.
The earliest mention I've been able to find of the term "Big Three" used in reference to basketball was as a moniker for Bob Cousy-Ed Macauley-Bill Sharman on the 1954 Celtics. Boston, LA, and St. Louis, among others, had Big Threes in the 50s and 60s. Since those 80s Celtics teams, "Big Three" got tossed around for the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman and Jordan-Pippen-Kukoc Bulls, among others. Some of the more prominent recent Big Three were the Kidd-Jefferson-Carter Nets and the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics.
I don't recall ever hearing the term used on any Bullets-Wizards combinations over the years, and I've been unable to turn up any news references. I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who remembers it having been used for this franchise. (One wonders what could-have-been for the Chris Webber-Rasheed Wallace-Juwan Howard combo had it been kept together beyond 95-96. I'd managed to forget just how young that group was. They were all 22 or younger. They had some very good supporting pieces.....) Moving on to the Wizards, after the jump.
Eddie Jordan came to DC from NJ in 03-04. Antawn Jamison and winning (relatively speaking--we are discussing the Wizards, after all) arrived the next year. With that, the "Big 3" term got slapped on the Wizards' three leading scorers. At the time, that was Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, and Antawn Jamison. They received the label very soon after it was placed on that Jason Kidd-led NJ lineup.
It is easy to forget now, but Hughes was by no means viewed as a third wheel in that group at the time. In Gilbert's first year in Washington, the dismal 03-04 season (under EJ), Hughes scored more, used more possessions, and was a bit more productive than Arenas.
In 04-05, with the team winning, Hughes posted what was almost definitely one of the five best seasons by a Wizard in the 2000s, and perhaps the best by anyone not named Gilbert Arenas, with 7.7 WS in under 2,400 minutes. His per-game averages were 22 pts, 6.3 reb, 4.7 ast, 2.9 stl. The "Big Three" collectively averaged 67.1 points per game and combined for 24.6 WS. Jamison was actually the third wheel from a WS perspective, though his rebounding contribution was important to that team.
When Hughes left in free agency, the story line was that the "Big Three" had broken up because of the Wizards' low-ball offer to Hughes. Meanwhile, Caron Butler and his more reasonable contract arrived. Caron never had posted a year as productive as what Hughes had just managed (and in fact still hasn't, though he came fairly close in 07-08), but it was thought he could replace a portion of the all-around productivity that was lost, and at a much more reasonable price.
Caron began 05-06 coming off the bench and with his minutes varying. But, he posted some productive games and saw his minutes and starts increase. Soon enough, Arenas, Butler, and Jamison were being referred to in the press as the "little Big Three" or the "new Big Three." A 10-3 stretch by the team after mid-season helped mostly shed the little/new and they became the "Big Three."
Their scoring as a trio almost matched the Hughes "Big Three." Butler didn't match Hughes' mark from the prior year, but Arenas took another big step forward, and had what was (and remains) the best season of his career, posting 13.6 WS on 29.3 ppg shooting a very efficient, especially considering the volume, 58.1 true shooting %. That's the 10th most efficient scoring by any player averaging 26 or more points per game in a season in the last decade.
The 05-06 edition of the Wizards' Big 3 combined for 28.1 WS on a 42-win team, with Arenas at 13.6, Jamison at 8.2 and Butler 6.3. The prior season, the Arenas-Hughes-Jamison combo produced 24.6 WS on a 45-win team, with Arenas at 11.5, Hughes at 7.7 and Jamison at 5.4. So, as a group, the 05-06 edition was a step forward across the board, and the supporting cast was more productive, but the team was less lucky and had fewer breaks during the season and won fewer games. Still, a set of three players producing 28.1 wins is a foundation a lot of teams would like to have.
They were a Big Three with a name built on scoring, a lack of talent surrounding them, and a lack of recent winning tradition to compare them against, but despite winning fewer games, they were actually a more productive group than the 04-05 Hughes edition.
It is important to emphasize the lack of talent surrounding those Wizards Big Threes. For a point of comparison, the 05-06 Miami Heat had Wade, Shaq, and Udonis Haslem, and won 52 games (to the Wizards' 42 wins). Shaq, however, missed significant time due to injury that year and was somewhat limited when he did play. He turned the ball over at a higher rate than any time since his rookie year, and ended up with 6.2 WS in 58 games played. Wade did the heavy lifting that year, with 14.4 WS. Haslem chipped in with another 7.0 WS. So, the Heat's top three produced a combined 27.6 WS for a 52-win team, while the Wizards' top three produced a combined 28.1 WS on an only 42-win team.
But, to compare the next five on each team, including all the players who tallied 1,000 minutes or more:
Wizards: Antonio Daniels (5.3 WS), Brendan Haywood (3.9), Jared Jeffires (3.1), Etan Thomas (2.5), Michael Ruffin (1.7).
Heat: Jason Williams (4.8), Alonzo Mourning (4.8), James Posey (4.2), Gary Payton (4.1), Antoine Walker (3.6).
So, the Wizards' tally essentially keeps pace through their top five, but then the Heat's next three look about five wins better than the Wizards next three. And that's before getting to the Jason Kopono versus Jarvis Hayes comparison.
Even if you don't buy into win shares as a decent measure for summarizing overall performance, just looking at the names on those teams beyond their respective top-threes make the Heat seem obviously the better team, irrespective of who was at the top. Just try imagining swapping the pieces surrounding the top threes.
So, while Arenas-Jamison-Butler were ultimately sunk as a group by injury and ... other events, there is a case to be made from this comparison that they might have actually been good enough as a group, but were just never surrounded with a respectable amount of talent to put them over the top. Perhaps they were actually better as a group than was realized and it was missed because of how little depth the team had. This would also help explain the depths they sunk to when injuries came. (Or, you could still make the argument that they came off better by various statistical measures than they should have, hiding their comparative defensive problems.)
Next time, we'll move on from the Wizards and that Heat team, and see what there is to be learned from the construction of the more successful teams of the last decade.
Thank you to basketball-reference.com for the WS figures.