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From Contenders to Pretenders: Ranking the Big 3 of Every Western Conference Team


A simplified new formula broke down the contender or pretender status of each NBA Western Conference franchise’s Big Three.

The history of basketball is replete with stories about how a few big talents come together for a run at an NBA Finals appearance. Forming a Big Three is the quickest way to title, or a lot of titled questions when a franchise goes all-in but comes up short. So what goes into a Big Three, and is there any way to predict the ceiling or floor of any particular trio?

This simplified easy-to-understand formula is one attempt to sort the Western Conference into tiers.

No-hope Pretenders

Stick a fork in the following Big Threes though, they are most likely to be broken up as soon as this summer.

Utah Jazz (Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, John Collins)

  • Minutes Together: 534
  • True Shooting Percentage: 59.5% (15th)
  • Points: 33.4 (30th)
  • Rebounds: 12.8 (30th)
  • Assists: 8.5 (29th)
  • Steals: 1.7 (30th)
  • Blocks: 1.4 (29th)
  • Net Rating: -1.9 (21st)
  • PER Sum: 59.07 (11th)
  • PIE Sum: 49.9 (22nd)
  • B3CP Score: 217

Wait, aren’t the Jazz supposed to be, like, good? Yes and no. This trio cannot score, rebound, or play defense. The supporting cast will fall back to earth soon enough. So where does Utah go from here? Will they have time to build around Lauri Markkanen before he’s able to leave town? If not, why not sell high on a Big Three piece this summer? So many questions.

Collin Sexton (25), Collins (26), and Lauri Markkanen (26) are all under contract through at least next season. So are Jordan Clarkson and all Utah’s rookie scale prospects. Walker Kessler was a gem of a draft pick now well ahead of the developmental curve.

The Jazz are primed to make a move back towards the top end of the Western Conference sooner rather than later. What will Danny Ainge do this offseason, stock more assets, or start aiming for a top-six playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference?

San Antonio Spurs (Victor Wembanyama, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell)

  • Minutes Together: 664
  • True Shooting Percentage: 56.4% (25th)
  • Points: 34.9 (29th)
  • Rebounds: 14.3 (28th)
  • Assists: 9.8 (28th)
  • Steals: 2.5 (23rd)
  • Blocks: 2.5 (8th)
  • Net Rating: -2.6 (23rd)
  • PER Sum: 49.13 (25th)
  • PIE Sum: 50.3 (20th)
  • B3CP Score: 209

Devin Vassell, Victor Wembanyama, and Tre Jones have a +9.0 Net Rating in 498 minutes together. Jones is likely to be gone before the sensational Frenchman signs a second contract. Sochan has more minutes, so who is to argue with Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich?

The numbers say Keldon Johnson is a far better option, however. Either way, the Spurs are already looking to accelerate their timeline around Wembanyama. The rookie is already posting All-World numbers, eclipsing some season records before the All-Star break. That kind of talent will attract free agents. San Antonio will be in the top tier soon.

Portland Trail Blazers (Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, DeAndre Ayton)

  • Minutes Together: 478
  • True Shooting Percentage: 54.5% (30th)
  • Points: 56.5 (5th)
  • Rebounds: 21.1 (6th)
  • Assists: 12.2 (12th)
  • Steals: 3.1 (15th)
  • Blocks:1.7 (24th)
  • Net Rating: -10.9 (29th)
  • PER Sum: 49.63 (23rd)
  • PIE Sum: 43.2 (30th)
  • B3CP Score: 174

Anfernee Simons, DeAndre Ayton, and Jerami Grant are all about to enter their mid-20s primes. Scoot Henderson is still learning the ropes. The trio with the best Net Rating and over 300 minutes together is Grant, Malcom Brogdon, and Toumani Camara. Portland is just a half-finished patchwork quilt right now.

It’ll be cut, chopped, and sewn back together using mostly new shreds of fabric soon enough. The outline is there, the front office just has to thread the needle to get this rebuild right.

Houston Rockets (Fred VanVleet, Alperen Sengun, Dillon Brooks)

  • Minutes Together: 899
  • True Shooting Percentage: 57.9% (19th)
  • Points: 56.1 (6th)
  • Rebounds: 17.4 (15th)
  • Assists: 13.6 (5th)
  • Steals: 3.2 (13th)
  • Blocks: 2.0 (18th)
  • Net Rating: 4.7 (14th)
  • PER Sum: 48.63 (26th)
  • PIE Sum: 52.9 (14th)
  • B3CP  Score: 130
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The offense wins games, defense wins championships. Right now the Rockets just need to win games. This trio puts up the most points, grabs the most rebounds, and has the highest PIE score. At this point of the rebuild, just make shots and get possession of the attempts that do not go in. Build off of that.

NBA Playoffs outliers

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) and forward LeBron James (23) look on against the Utah Jazz during the fourth quarter at Delta Center.
Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Their records suggest they should be at least mentioned in the dark horse title contender talks. There are still just too many negative narratives around the respective locker rooms. A closer look at some fatal flaws or ill-fitting lineup configurations reveals a few squads that have probably hit a ceiling.

Golden State Warriors (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green)

  • Minutes Together: 455
  • True Shooting Percentage: 59.4% (14th)
  • Points: 45.6 (18th)
  • Rebounds: 17.2 (18th)
  • Assists: 10.6 (20th)
  • Steals: 2.2 (27th)
  • Blocks: 1.5 (27th)
  • Net Rating: 1.1 (17th)
  • PER Sum: 49.82 (22nd)
  • PIE Sum: 50.1 (21st)
  • B3CP  Score: 184

There is an argument to be made for Andrew Wiggins replacing Draymond Green. Wiggins has played alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for twice the minutes and games. He is younger and has proven playoff credentials. The Warriors just have to battle through the NBA Play-In Tournament.

Curry’s last crucible to face to cap off a Hall of Fame career; an elimination-game battle once deemed beneath his dignity. Well, that’s just the reason why the Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green trio must be kept together in this exercise.

That and they still score at the second-highest scoring combination, thanks to Curry’s greatness. For this season, the trio is sticking together to either captain another championship run or go down with the ship.

New Orleans Pelicans (Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum)

  • Minutes Together: 558
  • True Shooting Percentage: 58% (18th)
  • Points: 42.4 (25th)
  • Rebounds: 15.4 (24th)
  • Assists: 10.7 (17th)
  • Steals: 2.9 (16th)
  • Blocks: 1.8 (23rd)
  • Net Rating: -2.6 (23rd)
  • PER Sum: 59.23 (10th)
  • PIE Sum: 49.4 (23rd)
  • B3CP Score: 179

So low? For one of the hottest teams in the NBA? Well, they’ve yet to prove anything. Brandon Ingram still has not proven he can stay behind the three-point line for more than a game or two per month. Ingram and Zion Williamson’s pick-and-rolls get suffocated. Defenses pack the paint and sag off of both former All-Stars.

Put Jesus Shuttlesworth on the court, the Pelicans do not have a prayer at winning the West without space. The Pelicans have talent but may have bitten off more than they can swallow luxury tax-wise. Willie Green has to work out the rotations now. David Griffin has to figure out the salary cap this summer.

Los Angeles Lakers (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves)

  • Minutes Together: 796
  • True Shooting Percentage: 60.8% (11th)
  • Points: 43.0 (24th)
  • Rebounds: 14.9 (26th)
  • Assists: 10.6 (20th)
  • Steals: 2.5 (23rd)
  • Blocks: 2.3 (12th)
  • Net Rating: -1.6 (20th)
  • PER Sum: 63.98 (4th)
  • PIE Sum: 51.9 (16th)
  • B3CP Score: 156

The top five lineups all have negative net ratings. Can LeBron James fix that in an elimination game? It would not be a surprise. Over a seven-game series? Bet against it.

D’Angelo Russell could replace Austin Reaves in this equation but D’Lo spent the past month expected to be traded. Reaves just signed an extension and is spending summers with Team USA. He’d have to become a Dream Team-level talent quickly to save this season though.

The Lakers are the definition of a pretender, even with James looking relatively spry. This situation used to unfold in Cleveland.

Minnesota Timberwolves (Anthony Edwards, Karl Anthony-Towns, Rudy Gobert)

  • Minutes Together: 921
  • True Shooting Percentage: 62% (7th)
  • Points: 44.6 (21st)
  • Rebounds: 16.8 (20th)
  • Assists: 10.3 (25th)
  • Steals: 2.4 (26th)
  • Blocks: 2.0 (18th)
  • Net Rating: 9.3 (12th)
  • PER Sum: 58.89 (13th)
  • PIE Sum: 55.2 (12th)
  • B3CP Score: 154
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The Timberwolves are fighting for home-court advantage but also still figuring things out. They are also getting called out as frauds, already, before the All-Star break. Will their brand of basketball work in the playoffs, or will defenses hedge their bets on Anthony Edwards going iso-ball heavy?

The entire league knows Rudy Gobert’s defensive gravity is different in the postseason. Scheme up actions that bring Gobert out on the perimeter, run a pick-n-roll, and the Frenchman is not a factor. This Big Three is rowing upstream against the naysayers from here on out.

Memphis Grizzlies (Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane)

  • Minutes Together: 444
  • True Shooting Percentage: 56.8% (24th)
  • Points: 47.0 (15th)
  • Rebounds: 17.4 (15th)
  • Assists: 10.2 (26th)
  • Steals: 3.3 (9th)
  • Blocks: 2.6 (6th)
  • Net Rating: 12.8 (5th)
  • PER Sum:  56.78 (16th)
  • PIE Sum: 55.8 (9th)
  • B3CP Score: 125

These stats include the 29 games played together last year. Ja Morant is out for the season with a labrum tear having played only nine games. Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. might as well take the rest of the season off.

Go for the draft pick and hope for the best during the NBA Draft lottery. It’s a hibernation year for the Grizzlies. Next year they’ll look to get fat on winning streaks.

Sacramento Kings (De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Keegan Murray)

  • Minutes Together: 971
  • True Shooting Percentage: 59.6% (12th)
  • Points: 55.9 (8th)
  • Rebounds: 19.9 (9th)
  • Assists: 13.3 (6th)
  • Steals: 3.8 (5th)
  • Blocks: 1.5 (27th)
  • Net Rating: 2.5 (16th)
  • PER Sum: 56.34 (17th)
  • PIE Sum: 50.8 (19th)
  • B3CP Score: 119

Malik Monk has been getting hyped as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate lately in some analytical circles. However, Monk, Domantas Sabonis, and De’Aaron Fox have a -5.8 Net Rating. Murray has been outstanding.

The vision is there. But winning a series is likely their ceiling. They just do not have enough interior defense or outside shooting to truly separate from the pack.

Western Conference’s Finest Five

Los Angeles Clippers guard James Harden (1) reacts after forward Kawhi Leonard (2) scores three point basket against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Crypto.com Arena.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

How many times did that Kawhi Leonard shot bounce before eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers? How close was that Ray Allen corner three from being either too late or too early, resulting in who knows what? This equation is more likely to point out pretenders and confirm the contenders.

The Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder are new faces in this conversation. The Los Angeles Clippers have hit second-round walls in the last few years. Everyone else has made conference finals appearances or better.

Oklahoma City Thunder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgen, Jalen Williams)

  • Minutes Together: 831
  • True Shooting Percentage: 62% (7th)
  • Points: 46.8 (16th)
  • Rebounds: 15.5 (23rd)
  • Assists: 10.7 (17th)
  • Steals: 2.9 (16th)
  • Blocks: 2.9 (4th)
  • Net Rating: 11.4 (9th)
  • PER Sum: 69.71 (2nd)
  • PIE Sum: 55.9 (8th)
  • B3CP Score: 102

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads one of the best half-court offenses in the world. Chet Holmgren is chasing the pinnacle of perfection, per the Oklahoman. Jalen Williams would be an All-Star on most other rosters. Cason Wallace is another gem getting polished up in Sam Presti’s system.

They are ahead of schedule but on the right side of the line, statistically speaking. They are deep enough to earn a top-four seed but only five players are on the court at a time. Who supplements this trio when the score is tied in the fourth quarter?

Phoenix Suns (Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal)

  • Minutes Together: 440
  • True Shooting Percentage: 64.8% (3rd)
  • Points: 52.9 (11th)
  • Rebounds: 17.2 (18th)
  • Assists: 13.3 (6th)
  • Steals: 3.3 (9th)
  • Blocks: 1.7 (24th)
  • Net Rating: 12.7 (6th)
  • PER Sum: 60.98 (9th)
  • PIE Sum: 56.1 (7th)
  • B3CP Score: 93

The top-end talent is there. The front office made some moves around the margins to upgrade the supporting cast. Ownership has appeared on every media outlet available waiving a blank check.

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But will this Big Three ever get healthy at the same time? Will they have time to mesh before the games truly matter? No money in the world can provide those answers in February.

Dallas Mavericks (Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, P.J. Washington)

  • Minutes Together: 53
  • True Shooting Percentage: 59% (16th)
  • Points: 44.7 (20th)
  • Rebounds: 21.7 (3rd)
  • Assists: 12.3 (11th)
  • Steals: 2.0 (29th)
  • Blocks: 3.7 (1st)
  • Net Rating: 26.6 (1st)
  • PER Sum: 63.24 (6th)
  • PIE Sum: 64.2 (1st)
  • B3CP Score: 88

Everything is built around Luca Doncic, of course, since he is under contract through 2025-26, with a player option to extend one more year. That’s unlikely since he is eligible for an extension or could opt out but still. That’s the groundwork for the All-World talent.

Mark Cuban had been chasing a second star and finally landed one in Kyrie Irving. The mercurial All-NBA guard has slotted in well next to Doncic and is signed through next season with a player option for the 2025-26 season.

Derrick Jones Jr. has the most total minutes next to Doncic and Irving. That trio has a 7.1 Net Rating but the Mavs can only fit so many undersized players on the court at one time. Rookie big man Derrick Lively II is a future Big Three piece but is still carving out a niche. Daniel Gafford is in to help, but for how long?

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been getting the most minutes besides Kyrie and Luka but things changed at the trade deadline. The 6’7” P.J. Washington is already getting more run per game next to the Big Two than the 6’5” Hardaway Jr. The Mavs had to add some height and flexibility.

Now Jason Kidd has to work out the new dynamics before the NBA Playoffs. The lineups Iriving, Doncic, and Washington are shooting 29.7% from three-point range and leaking buckets.

Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden)

  • Minutes Together: 887
  • True Shooting Percentage 62.4% (5th)
  • Points: 54.8 (9th)
  • Rebounds: 15.2 (25th)
  • Assists: 12.6 (9th)
  • Steals: 3.9 (2nd)
  • Blocks: 2.3 (12th)
  • Net Rating: 11.7 (8th)
  • PER Sum:61.96 (8th)
  • PIE Sum: 56.6 (4th)
  • B3CP Score: 82

The Clippers were called old by Anthony Edwards during the All-Star break. They are also 19-5 since Christmas Day. Ty Lue feels bold enough to bounce down the hallways, skipping up ramps and shouting down referees.

Kawhi Leonard is feeling better than ever. James Harden is a system. Paul George is the best third option in the NBA. The Clippers are aiming to make history and hang a banner when they open the new arena.

Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr.)

  • Minutes Together: 846
  • True Shooting Percentage: 61% (1oth)
  • Points: 61.3 (3rd)
  • Rebounds: 23.4 (2nd)
  • Assists: 15.4 (1st)
  • Steals: 3.7 (6th)
  • Blocks:2.4 (11th)
  • Net Rating: 13.6 (4th)
  • PER Sum: 62.08 (7th)
  • PIE Sum: 55.2 (11th)
  • B3CP Score: 55

Denver’s championship core has been able to sit out a few fourth quarters this season, and it’s picking your poison around the MVP. This is no slight on Jamal Murray, a clear number two in the playoffs. The stats represent the trio with the most games played together this season, though they also have better numbers than when Murray replaces either Porter Jr. or Gordon.

Michael Porter Jr. has gotten 46 more minutes with Jokic and Murray than Aaron Gordon. Jokic, Gordon, and Porter Jr. get more minutes when sorted on a per-game basis. Either way, it’s all splitting hairs. The numbers do not fluctuate much as long as Jokic has one of Porter Jr., Gordon, or Murray on the court, hence the MVP trophies.


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