Since the Boston Celtics formed the Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, the concept of building around a star-studded trio became a tantalizing phenomenon for the modern NBA.
Some teams have built it through the draft like the San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green). Others have done it through trades like the Los Angeles Lakers (on several occasions with deals for Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook). Then, the fascination of it hit its apex with the Miami Heat forming “The Heatles” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
This path have helped some franchises reach the primary objective of winning a championship — Heat, Warriors, Spurs — and others have (to be brutally honest) failed miserably — Lakers and Nets with Durant/Harden/Kyrie.
When combining stars of this magnitude, especially with several players who have been the guy on good teams, it takes a special blend of fit and personality. It’s not totally bulletproof, but it’s ultimately a good strategy to win a championship, as a team will go as far as their best players take them.
The Memphis Grizzlies have shown something quite enticing through this 10-game winning streak: they have a championship-level Big 3. They’ve done it organically through the draft as well.
Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr. finally shared the floor together for the first time all season on December 23rd, as Bane hit the injury report the day Jackson returned on November 15th. Since then, the Grizzlies are 7-2 when their star trio suit up together, and they blitz opponents by +19.8 points per 100 possessions (282 total) — per Cleaning the Glass.
Though the Grizzlies’ young trio isn’t at the magnitude of the aforementioned players, they all possess elite traits into their games. Ja Morant has masterfully blended his elite paint scoring and playmaking even better than he did last season. Desmond Bane is one of the 5 best shooters in the world. Jaren Jackson Jr. might have stolen the mantle of NBA’s best defender and is posting historic defensive numbers this season.
It also fits with these 3 players. Morant is the offensive engine for this team, and he’ll handle the bulk of the responsibilities for them — posting a 38.7% usage rate, 97th percentile among guards in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.
Morant’s co-stars work off him perfectly. Bane is the ultimate kick-out partner for when defenses collapse on Morant’s shooting, but his budding skillset unlocks new dimensions for the offense. Because of Bane’s improved playmaking and live-dribble creation, Morant can play off the ball as a cutter, and the Grizzlies also have a clear go-to perimeter option when their star point guard sits.
One thing some star backcourts that fell short of a title recently — the Washington Wizards with John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as the Portland Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — is a star-level frontcourt player. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a transformative defender, swatting shots at insane rates and covering so much space on the floor as a legitimate switch big. He was already a defensive star, but his rising offensive efficiency (51.8 field goal percentage) grouped with his perimeter skills (37% from 3 on 4 attempts per game) and his ability to exploit mismatches make him an All-Star level big man. He’s the ideal big man to have next to a dynamic scoring backcourt.
The brilliance of the Grizzlies’ trio also stacks up well among other Big 3’s of other championship contenders.
These teams are often considered “championship contenders”: the Grizzlies, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Dallas Mavericks — while giving asterisks to both Los Angeles teams for various reasons.
Of those teams, the Grizzlies, Celtics, Nuggets, Bucks, Pelicans, 76ers, and Nets all have legitimate Big 3’s.
(Note: the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors lean towards more of a “core 4” rather than a “big 3” from a general standpoint. And Warriors fans should thank me for not using Jordan Poole’s numbers here).
The Grizzlies have the best average catch-all metrics among these championship contending Big 3’s. A description of “catch-all” from Andy Bailey:
If you sort every NBA player with 400+ minutes by the AVERAGE OF THEIR RANKS in 10 catch-alls (BPM, EPM, RAPTOR, RPM and GmSc/36, as well as the cumulative versions of each), this is the top 40.— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) January 14, 2023
All 314 qualified players here: https://t.co/Lb7quM1W99 pic.twitter.com/ddlmsuff5X
Average Catch-All Metrics, Big 3
|Team||Player 1, Rank||Player 2, Rank||Player 3, Rank||Average|
|Team||Player 1, Rank||Player 2, Rank||Player 3, Rank||Average|
|Memphis Grizzlies||Ja Morant, 14||Jaren Jackson Jr., 33||Desmond Bane, 75||40.7|
|Brooklyn Nets||Kevin Durant, 5||Kyrie Irving, 25||Ben Simmons, 100||43.3|
|Boston Celtics||Jayson Tatum, 6||Jaylen Brown, 31||Marcus Smart, 99||45.3|
|Philadelphia 76ers||Joel Embiid, 3||James Harden, 18||Tyrese Maxey, 117||46|
|New Orleans Pelicans||Zion Williamson, 27||CJ McCollum, 45||Brandon Ingram, 105||59|
|Denver Nuggets||Nikola Jokic, 1||Jamal Murray, 66||Michael Porter Jr., 127||64.7|
(Data notes: The Nuggets would be higher with Aaron Gordon (29th), but he isn’t in consensus Big 3. Khris Middleton hasn’t played enough games for the Bucks for their Big 3. Yes, Marcus Smart and Ben Simmons are that much of defensive stars to warrant “Big 3” consideration).
If you also want to summarize by “points per game,” the Grizzlies have 2 of their “Big 3 averaging 20 points per game — a common denominator for all these teams in contention status.
The Memphis Grizzlies have the foundation of a championship team. They have their trio, and for a lot of teams, that is the hardest part of the journey. Once a team finds their Big 3, it’s about identifying fits around them. In the starting lineup, they surround them with physicality through the screening and rebounding of Steven Adams, and the point-of-attack defense from Dillon Brooks. Off the bench, and often staggered with these 3 players, the Grizzlies have a combination of reliability (Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke), vertical pop (Clarke and Ziaire Williams), funk (Santi Aldama and John Konchar), and steadily improving outside shooting (Jones, Williams, Aldama, Konchar). Everything within the team fits is amplified through the great job Taylor Jenkins has done to help this team rise into the NBA’s elite.
As I said earlier this season when talking about the Grizzlies’ depth, teams go as far as their best players take them. Right now, as the Grizzlies’ Big 3 is getting more healthy, we’re seeing just how high of a level they’re capable of — one that could put them in the NBA Finals.