HomeBasketball TodayFrom Contenders to Pretenders: Ranking the Eastern Conference's Big 3 Lineups

From Contenders to Pretenders: Ranking the Eastern Conference’s Big 3 Lineups


A simplified new formula broke down the contender or pretender status of each NBA Eastern 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. Especially if it’s not once, but twice like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh did with the Miami Heat.

There was the inevitable, crushing Boston Celtics with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy opened up the game. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker helped Gregg Popovic grind down more glamorous squads from bigger markets with sound fundamentals.

Even in the cases of Big Twos, John Stockon and Karl Malone had Jeff Hornacek. Shaq and Kobe had ‘Big Shot’ Robert Horry. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen still needed Toni Kukoc and then Dennis Rodman.

So what goes into a Big Three, and is there any way to predict the ceiling or floor of any particular trio? In a world of complex graphs and paywalled statistical algorithms, this is one simplified attempt to gauge every team’s core using ten stats. Nine are factored into a composite score, and minutes played are weighted in to account for sample size.

There is the traditional eye test five such as points, rebounds, steals, and blocks. Things you have to do to win. Those are paired with four more analytical complex stats like True Shooting Percentage, Player Efficiency Ratings, and Player Impact Estimate sums. Those are generally accepted as some of the more all-encompassing models that capture things not easily tracked on one-page stats sheets during the game.

There is no ability like availability, so minutes played together matter. If a franchise cannot have the three most talented players on the roster share the court then something must change or jobs will be lost. There were allowances given the NBA Trade Deadline just passed, and contract situations were also considered when choosing the trios. All stats are pulled from games occurring before the NBA All-Star break.

Teams were ranked in each category, which were then added together for a composite score. The lower the score means a better chance of appearing in the NBA Finals instead of hoping for luck in the draft lottery. Their final composite score made up each team’s B3CP score.

A score under 125 signifies a true contender in the next two years. Under 180 and maybe a fanbase can feel like there is a slim chance. Anything over 180 is either a rebuild, a teardown, or as one organization was called, “a junkyard.”

With no further adieu, and with a hat tip from the NBA All-Star game to this weekend’s Dayton 500, rev up the engines for the first-ever NBA Eastern Conference Big Three Contender or Pretender Diagnostic test.

NBA no-hope pretenders playing out the season

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

Charlotte Hornets (LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, Brandon Miller)

  • Minutes Together: 150
  • True Shooting Percentage: 55.4% (28th)
  • Points: 35.0 (28th)
  • Rebounds: 13.0 (29th)
  • Assists: 8.3 (30th)
  • Steals: 2.9 (18th)
  • Blocks: 1.1 (30th)
  • Net Rating: -12.5 (30th)
  • PER Sum: 49.61 (24th)
  • PIE Sum: 43.5 (29th)
  • B3CP Score: 246

LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, and Brandon Miller have only played 10 games together. The franchise was just sold. This entire roster might be sold for parts before Miller, a rookie, signs a second contract.

The organization has been called “Jordan’s junkyard” by more than one person employed by a team or the league. Ball, Miller, and Bridges are all good players, but this is not a good developmental situation as currently constructed.

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Washington Wizards (Kyle Kuzma, Tyus Jones, Deni Avdija)

  • Minutes Together: 895
  • True Shooting Percentage: 57.9% (19th)
  • Points: 42 (27th)
  • Rebounds: 14.6 (27th)
  • Assists: 10.7 (17th)
  • Steals: 2.6 (21st)
  • Blocks: 2.2 (15th)
  • Net Rating: -8.3 (28th)
  • PER Sum: 47.68 (28th)
  • PIE Sum: 46.3 (28th)
  • B3CP Score: 210

Tyus Jones, Kyle Kuzma, and Jordan Poole have played the most minutes together. Jones, Kuzma, and Deni Avdija have a better net rating over a 900-minute sample size. Kuzma reportedly did not want to be traded at the deadline.

Jones is a decent table-setting point guard. Avdija just went off for 43 points against the red-hot Pelicans. Poole is the odd man out whenever Washington needs a salary weight for a trade.

Detroit Pistons (Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren)

  • Minutes Together: 479
  • True Shooting Percentage: 57.6% (22nd)
  • Points: 43.5 (22nd)
  • Rebounds: 18.2 (12th)
  • Assists: 10.6 (20th)
  • Steals: 2.2 (27th)
  • Blocks: 1.9 (21st)
  • Net Rating: -4.2 (25th)
  • PER Sum: 47.65 (29th)
  • PIE Sum: 47.4 (25th)
  • B3CP Score: 203

If height is the one thing you cannot teach, youth is the second. Jaden Ivey, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Duren are the future. Still, Mo’ Town has more work to do if Monty Williams wants to maintain a good reputation. It’s been downright dreadful in Detroit this season.

Brooklyn Nets (Mikal Bridges, Ben Simmons, Cameron Thomas)

  • Minutes Together: 222
  • True Shooting Percentage: 55.1% (29th)
  • Points: 43.3 (23rd)
  • Rebounds: 17.3 (17th)
  • Assists: 11.5 (14th)
  • Steals: 2.6 (21st)
  • Blocks: 1.9 (21st)
  • Net Rating: -2.1 (22nd)
  • PER Sum: 45.88 (30th)
  • PIE Sum: 49.3 (24th)
  • B3CP Score: 201

Cam Thomas has 12 games with the two highest-paid players; Cameron Johnson has just three. That and age are the two main reasons why the 22-year-old gets the nod here. Brigdes is the building block.

Thomas and Johnson can help hold down the fort for a while. Flipping Simmons for anything beyond more surplus to requirement parts is the next step toward contention.

Atlanta Hawks (Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, Clint Capela)

  • Minutes Together: 825 (most used lineup)
  • True Shooting Percentage: 55.8% (27th)
  • Points: 49.8 (13th)
  • Rebounds: 20 (8th)
  • Assists: 11.2 (16th)
  • Steals: 3.4 (8th)
  • Blocks: 2.2 (15th)
  • Lineup Net Rating: -5.2 (26th)
  • PER Sum: 58.0 (14th)
  • PIE Sum: 47.1 (26th)
  • B3CP Score: 153

Arguments for Bogdan Bogdanovic if you like points, which would jump up to 65 if swapped with Clint Capela here. Rebounds would be cut in half though and Capela has the highest PER on the team.

Dejounte Murray, Trae Young, and Capela is the most used three-man lineup for a reason. The same goes for each key contributor being on the trade block. The Hawks have the inside track to the final Play-In spot but it’s doubtful anyone in the locker room wants to go through those motions. This messy, cobbled-together marriage will be annulled this summer.

Chicago Bulls (Zach LaVine, Coby White, Nikola Vucevic)

  • Minutes Together: 645
  • True Shooting Percentage: 57.2% (23rd)
  • Points: 58 (4th)
  • Rebounds: 21.4 (5th)
  • Assists: 13.1 (8th)
  • Steals: 3.3 (11th)
  • Blocks: 2.3 (14th)
  • Net Rating: -5.9 (27th)
  • PER Sum: 51.29 (20th)
  • PIE Sum: 46.4 (27th)
  • B3CP  Score: 139

Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine, and DeMar DeRozan are the only other lineup trotted out more than the trio above. White is the obvious choice as DeRozan is a soon-to-be free agent. Lonzo Ball is barely back to doing on-court activities. Vucevic is 33 years old. Nobody wants Zach Lavine’s contract.

The Bulls could not be faulted for going toward a hard reset around Coby White and Patrick Williams at this point. They had dreams before Ball’s bothersome knee became unbearable. Now they’ve got nothing but an overcooked steak of a roster.

Toronto Raptors (Scottie Barnes, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley)

  • Minutes Together: 364
  • True Shooting Percentage: 57.8% (21st)
  • Points: 48.1 (14th)
  • Rebounds: 18.2 (12th)
  • Assists: 12.4 (10th)
  • Steals: 3.2 (13th)
  • Blocks: 2.5 (8th)
  • Net Rating: 0.6 (18th)
  • PER Sum: 50.76 (21st)
  • PIE Sum: 50.9 (18th)
  • B3CP  Score: 135
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RJ Barrett, Scottie Barnes, and Immanuel Quickley have played 18 games together. Toronto has a decent core if you try hard enough to see it, but it’s easier to see this rebuild falling short.

The Raptors are five games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the final Play-In spot. Will either franchise value the experience more than a better draft pick?

The Hawks are headed for a divorce. Toronto is starting another honeymoon period. Consider this a vote for letting that new relationship energy fuel a run up the standings.

NBA Playoffs outliers 

Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner (22) and forward Paolo Banchero (5) celebrate their 117-108 win against the New York Knicks at KIA Center.
Mike Watters-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.

Orlando Magic (Paolo Banchero, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner)

  • Minutes Together: 843
  • True Shooting Percentage: 56.3% (26th)
  • Points: 46.3 (17th)
  • Rebounds: 18.5 (11th)
  • Assists: 10.5 (24th)
  • Steals: 3.8 (3rd)
  • Blocks: 2.1 (17th)
  • Net Rating: 0.3 (19th)
  • PER Sum: 48.57 (27th)
  • PIE Sum: 51 (17th)
  • B3CP Score: 161

Oh, Orlando. Always one step away a year too early, left trying to make moves too late. It feels like one of their homegrown stars will have to be sent away from Disney World for this franchise to take another step toward contention.

The supporting cast has a few long-term holds but what you see is what you get with this group. Just like pretty much like all of their stats, middle of the pack. They may punch above their weight class for a few games but talent wins out over a two-week battle. No magic here, just another team stuck at a crossroads.

Miami Heat (Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro)

  • Minutes Together: 387
  • True Shooting Percentage: 58.3% (17th)
  • Points: 45.4 (19th)
  • Rebounds: 17.6 (14th)
  • Assists: 10.6 (20th)
  • Steals: 3.3 (12th)
  • Blocks:1.6 (26th)
  • Net Rating: 4.5 (15th)
  • PER Sum: 57.64 (15th)
  • PIE Sum: 52.7 (15th)
  • B3CP Score: 153

This is the Heat’s third-most played three-man lineup. Terry Rozier is not displacing Tyler Herro in the team’s hierarchy with less than 30 games left to play. Eric Spolstra’s tinkering in the playoffs is a different discussion.

A 35-year-old Jimmy Butler can not keep flipping the switch when the playoffs start. Eventually, that bulb is going to burst. Winning three series after fighting through the NBA Play-In Tournament is not impossible, but it’ll be tough to duplicate.

Cleveland Cavaliers (Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley)

  • Minutes Together: 342
  • True Shooting Percentage: 59.6% (12th)
  • Points: 42.4 (25th)
  • Rebounds: 15.8 (22nd)
  • Assists: 9.9 (27th)
  • Steals: 3.8 (3rd)
  • Blocks: 2.0 (18th)
  • Net Rating: 7.5 (13th)
  • PER Sum: 58.97 (12th)
  • PIE Sum: 55.6 (10th)
  • B3CP Score: 142

Evan Mobley is playing 1.2 more minutes and scoring 0.2 more points per game than Jarrett Allen. He is also 22 years old and has not spent two years getting tossed around the rumor mill every cycle. Swap them out and the results remain about the same.

The Cavaliers are going to have to make a decision sooner rather than later, especially if Mitchell wants to bolt to the Big Apple. There is just too much redundancy with their best players.

Eastern Conference’s finest five fighting for one spot

Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) talks with forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during a time out during the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum.
Petre Thomas-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 New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers are new faces in this conversation. The hobbled Philadelphia 76ers have hit second-round walls in the last few years. Everyone else has made conference finals appearances or better with their current core.

Boston Celtics (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis)

  • Minutes Together: 692
  • True Shooting Percentage: 61.3% (9th)
  • Points: 52.6 (12th)
  • Rebounds: 19.4 (10th)
  • Assists: 11.6 (13th)
  • Steals: 2.8 (20th)
  • Blocks: 2.8 (5th)
  • Net Rating: 10.5 (11th)
  • PER Sum: 54.15 (19th)
  • PIE Sum: 56.5 (5th)
  • B3CP Score: 104
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Swap Jrue Holiday in for Kristaps Porzingis and the Celtics score at the same rate (52.5 ppg) but their Net Rating is halved (5.6). Still, Holiday has almost 200 more minutes with Tatum and Brown. Joe Mazzulla has been forced to due to injury.

The Celtics are a house of cards with three sides holding strong and the fourth seemingly being held together with scotch tape. Boston has to shore up the rotations, and have a great contingency plan, if they want to return to the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Brook Lopez)

  • Minutes Together: 957
  • True Shooting Percentage: 62.3% (6th)
  • Points: 53.9 (10th)
  • Rebounds: 20.2 (7th)
  • Assists: 11.3 (15th)
  • Steals: 2.5 (23rd)
  • Blocks:2.5 (8th)
  • Net Rating: 12.6 (7th)
  • PER Sum: 65.29 (3rd)
  • PIE Sum: 56.4 (6th)
  • B3CP Score: 85

Not the same Kris Middleton? Replace Brook Lopez with Middleton and the Net Rating jumps to 18.2 and PIE is 58.8. Still, Lopez is invaluable to the team’s defensive coverages though.

The Bucks did not buy into Adrian Griffin’s plan in part because of how Lopez was deployed, allegedly. Doc Rivers gets to deal with those problems now and has not done well. If it’s a glaring problem now, it’ll be a fatal flaw in the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (Tyrese Haliburton, Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner)

  • Minutes Together: 168
  • True Shooting Percentage: 65.5% (1st)
  • Points: 55.9 (7th)
  • Rebounds: 16.0 (21st)
  • Assists: 15.1 (2nd)
  • Steals: 2.9 (16th)
  • Blocks: 3.1 (3rd)
  • Net Rating: 11.2 (10th)
  • PER Sum: 63.54 (5th)
  • PIE Sum: 53.5 (13th)
  • B3CP Score: 78

The Pacers made a run to the Finals, in the NBA In-Season Tournament. One-off elimination games after a group staged played while locker rooms were still working things out are a different beast from a seven-game series at the end of an 82-game slog.

Tyrese Haliburton, Pascal Siakam, and Myles Turner have meshed well so far. How will they fare when opponents are game-planning for them every day for a week?

New York Knicks (Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, OG Anunoby)

  • Minutes Together: 285
  • True Shooting Percentage: 65.3% (2nd)
  • Points: 63.6 (1st)
  • Rebounds: 23.8 (18th)
  • Assists: 13.8 (4th)
  • Steals: 4.3 (1st)
  • Blocks: 2.6 (6th)
  • Net Rating: 24.5 (2nd)
  • PER Sum: 54.51 (18th)
  • PIE Sum: 60.9 (2nd)
  • B3CP Score: 54

Lineups with Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, and Josh Hart (Net Rating +12.7) have been downright brutal to face. Hart is getting rebounds that crush spirits, no doubt about it. Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic bolster the bench for a team that could have home-court advantage throughout the NBA Playoffs.

Brunson (27.6 PPG, 6.5 APG, 48.3% FGA, 41.1% 3PA) is a fringe top-five MVP candidate. Randle’s dislocated shoulder and three-point shooting (31%) are the biggest worry.

Thankfully, the numbers do not suffer too much when Hart is next to Brunson. Gelling with O.G. Anunoby and getting Randle ready for some NBA Playoffs battling are the priorities over the next two dozen games.

Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris)

  • Minutes Together: 747
  • True Shooting Percentage: 62.9% (4th)
  • Points: 61.4 (2nd)
  • Rebounds: 21.5 (4th)
  • Assists: 14.3 (3rd)
  • Steals: 3.6 (7th)
  • Blocks: 3.2 (2nd)
  • Net Rating: 14.5 (3rd)
  • PER Sum: 71.08 (1st)
  • PIE Sum: 57.1 (3rd)
  • B3CP Score: 29

Truly a Big Two and Who? situation. And that’s on a good day in the City of Brotherly Love. Embiid might not make it back in time to ramp up for the playoffs. The 76ers are coming out of the NBA All-Star break with a let Tyrese Maxey cook and maybe someone else will show up gameplan.

Tobias Harris one night, Buddy Hield gets hot the next is the best-case scenario until the MVP candidate can play again. Harris was used here due to the available sample size. None of it matters if Embiid is not back at 100% for a seven-game series.


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