10. 1968-69 Los Angeles Lakers
Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor
In July 1968, Chamberlain was traded from Philadelphia to L.A., forming what was perhaps the NBA's very first modern-style Big 3 with West and Baylor. The result was a 55-win Lakers team that boasted three inner-circle Hall of Famers with PERs north of 20 -- although, oddly enough, the Wilt-infused '68-69 Lakers actually represented an offensive decline from the 1967-68 version, a team whose No. 3 player was Archie Clark.
Even so, L.A.'s 1968-69 team would meet expectations, eventually coming within a Game 7 Finals loss of being only the second team to topple the Celtics in a playoff series since 1958.
9. 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Bobby Dandridge
After an impressive rookie season in which he finished third in MVP voting, Abdul-Jabbar tore up the league as its clear-cut best player in 1970-71. Meanwhile, the Bucks had also pried Robertson away from Cincinnati before the '70-71 season, and the duo of NBA legends was supported by underrated wing Dandridge, one of the best complementary players in league history.
They put together the best regular-season schedule-adjusted points-per-game margin ever, then went 12-2 in the playoffs, so it's not hard to make a case that the '70-71 Bucks' top three players were the driving forces behind the greatest team in NBA history.
8. 1986-87 Boston Celtics
Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish
While the Celtics as a team enjoyed their most successful season in 1985-86, the following year, their fabled Big 3 reached new individual heights. Bird and Parish were still in the middle of their Hall of Fame primes, and '86-87 was actually the best statistical campaign of McHale's career by far. The only thing that ultimately derailed Boston was a Lakers team that came into the Finals with an 11-1 record and received a clutch "junior sky hook" in Game 4.
7. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc
When we think of the 1990s Bulls, a breathtaking duo comes to mind: Jordan and Pippen. However, Chicago's record-shattering 1995-96 roster also received the very best season in the career of Kukoc, who won Sixth Man of the Year honors after posting a 20.4 PER with 10.1 Win Shares. Together, the Bulls' superstars carried the team to a staggering 72 regular-season victories and the club's fourth NBA championship, in the process building a case for NBA's best-ever team that only the 1970-71 Bucks and 1985-86 Celtics can realistically challenge.
6. 1996-97 Utah Jazz
Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek
With the formula emphasizing production from each trio's third member, you might be surprised to see the Jazz here. Everyone knows the prodigious output Utah got from Malone and Stockton every season, but Hornacek also provided serious punch in 1996-97, posting double digits in Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added to help augment what was probably the best season of Malone's long and distinguished career.
5. 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden
One of two current Big 3s in this top-10 list, the Thunder's trio joined the ranks of the NBA's best ever largely on the basis of Harden's ascendancy. Despite coming off the bench, Harden put up the 82-game equivalent of 11.6 Win Shares and 12.8 Estimated Wins Added in 2011-12, combining with the already-outstanding production of Durant and Westbrook to form a three-headed monster no team outside of South Beach had an answer for. And the scariest part? They're probably going to be even better in 2012-13.
4. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich
Although their Chamberlain-West-Baylor triad could never wrest an NBA crown away from Boston, the 1971-72 edition of the Lakers made the transition from Baylor's abrupt retirement by putting together the greatest winning streak in league history, as well as one of its most dominant teams.
As an aside, Gail Goodrich's name probably seems out of place next to two Hall of Fame legends, but he notched 12.3 Win Shares and 14.4 Estimated Wins Added in 1971-72, and had one of the most insanely effective fluke seasons in NBA history. Neither before nor since were Goodrich's numbers even in the same area code as his monster '71-72 output, but he was an instrumental part of their championship run.
3. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion
It's fitting that the second-most prolific regular-season and playoff offense ever would have representatives on the list of all-time great Big 3s. In 2004-05, Nash won MVP honors, Stoudemire made a strong bid for the award as well, and many observers felt Marion was actually Phoenix's best all-around player. Together, they propelled the Suns to their first Western Conference finals since 1993, touching off one of the greatest stretches of sustained offensive output by a single team in the history of the NBA.
2. 2010-11 Miami Heat
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
No way do we make it through this Big 3 countdown without mentioning what is by far the highest-profile trio of stars ever assembled. The 2011-12 Heat won the NBA championship, but in many ways the previous season's version was even more dominant in the regular season, winning at a better clip and finishing first in the league in opponent-adjusted margin of victory.
While the 2011-12 Heat boasted James at arguably his highest level of play ever, the 2010-11 team received a greater all-around contribution from its star trio, because Wade and Bosh had much better seasons than in 2011-12.
1. 1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant
The most effective Big 3 ever (according to Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added, at least) belongs to the 1991-92 Bulls, who featured Jordan and Pippen at their absolute peaks and benefited from Grant posting one of the most spectacularly underrated high-efficiency seasons ever. Grant never again put up numbers similar to what he did in '91-92, but for one season, he gave Jordan and Pippen everything they could ask for in a third banana. As a result, Chicago's trio ranks atop the list of best NBA Big 3s since 1965.
Neil Paine is a writer for Basketball-Reference.com.
TOP 10 CURENT BIG 3
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Thaddeus Young: 18.9 | Spencer Hawes: 18.2 | Andre Iguodala: 17.6.
Combined PER: 54.7 (18.2 average)
This metric loves Young's efficiency off the bench -- a proficient scorer who almost never coughs up the ball -- but it can't quite quantify Iguodala's massive value on the defensive end because the box score is mostly blind to that side of the ball. It evens out. Now that Elton Brand is out of the picture via the amnesty clause, Hawes and Young, who just turned 24, should have plenty of room to blossom in the frontcourt. It's more like "medium threes" instead of big threes at this end of the ranking.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
Ersan Ilyasova: 20.6 | Brandon Jennings: 18.5 | Monta Ellis: 17.5.
Combined PER: 56.6 (18.9 average)
Even though Jennings and Ellis might chip the rim with all of their missed shots next season, the Bucks are quietly building a foundation that is bordered with some youngsters in the frontcourt (John Henson, Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders). People forget that Ilyasova averaged 16 points and nine rebounds and shot better than 50 percent from 3-point range after the All-Star break. And he just turned 25.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol: 18.4 | Zach Randolph: 18.0 | Rudy Gay: 17.8
Combined PER: 54.2 (18.1 average)
Expected them to be higher on this list? Not with Randolph struggling like he did last season. While Gasol took a step forward since 2010-11, Randolph simply couldn't shake the back and knee injuries that limited him for much of the season. Mike Conley could squeeze into this ranking next year, but for now, the Grizzlies should be satisfied with this solid crew. As you can tell by the ranking, I like this trio better than PER does.
7. New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony: 21.2 | Tyson Chandler: 18.7 | Amare Stoudemire: 17.7.
Combined PER: 57.6 (19.2 average)
Interestingly enough, Boston and New York have nearly identical combined PERs from their respective big threes. While these three look good on paper by name value alone, they didn't rank higher on this list for this slightly important issue: They didn't play well together. At all. The Knicks' big three was outscored by their opponent while on the floor. Not sure they can be considered an elite big three if they lose more than they win. There's some on-court chemistry issues that needs attention, especially between Stoudemire and Anthony.
6. Boston Celtics
Kevin Garnett: 20.5 | Paul Pierce: 19.7 | Rajon Rondo: 17.6
Combined PER: 57.8 (19.3 average)
Finally, we get some clarification on the real big three in Boston. Ray Allen was probably demoted from big three status last season with his nagging injuries, but that didn't stop people from including him in the vaunted trio. That won't be a problem now that he is in Miami, though Rondo probably earned his spot years ago. Garnett and Rondo's defensive capabilities give them the edge over New York's crew, as Stoudemire and Anthony are so absent defensively, it mitigates Chandler's value. Considering Garnett's and Pierce's ages, it might be this big three's last hurrah.
5. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose: 23.1 | Carlos Boozer: 19.8 | Joakim Noah: 19.6
Combined PER: 62.5 (20.8 average)
One could argue that they don't belong on this list because of Rose's injury, which could knock him out for most of next season. Athleticism has always been the foundation of Rose's game, and you have to wonder if he'll ever return to his pre-injury brilliance on the floor. Nonetheless, if healthy, this is one of the league's top trios. They would be recognized as such if it weren't for Boozer's infamous contract. If the Bulls could ever find an above-average shooting guard to pair with these guys, they'd rival not just Miami's big three but the team as a whole.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
Andrew Bynum: 23.0 | Kobe Bryant: 22.0 | Pau Gasol: 20.5 | Steve Nash: 20.3
Combined PER: 65.5 (21.8 average)
Meet the league's finest big four. Alas, this isn't a big four list, so they'll have to wait their turn. You can take your pick among this quartet, but any trio will rank among the best in the league. If Nash and Bryant weren't so far past their primes, they would give Miami's big three a run for its money. This group faces the same question as Boston's over the years: Who exactly is the big three?
3. San Antonio Spurs
Manu Ginobili: 24.2 | Tim Duncan: 22.6 | Tony Parker: 22.0
Combined PER: 68.8 (22.9 average)
Let there be no doubt, this generation's original big three can still bring it. Although the youthful Thunder ran away with the Western Conference title, the Ginobili-Duncan-Parker trio spearheaded a 20-game winning streak that marked the longest such run to extend into the playoffs in NBA history. Though age will catch up to them soon enough, the Spurs were more efficient on the floor last season with their big three than Oklahoma City was with its trio.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant: 26.2 | Russell Westbrook: 23.0 | James Harden: 21.1
Combined PER: 70.3 (23.4 avg.)
This is the current runner-up and favorite to overtake Miami's big three down the line. But don't expect it to happen anytime soon. Not because the Thunder's three-headed monster will be broken up in the near future, but because the Heat's three are just that good. This trio is so young that the oldest player (Durant) is younger than every player in the rest of the top seven. The sky's the limit.
1. Miami Heat
LeBron James: 30.8 | Dwyane Wade: 26.4 | Chris Bosh: 18.9
Combined PER: 76.1 (25.4 avg.)
How good is Miami's big three? The difference in combined PER between the Oklahoma City and Miami's big three is the greater than the difference between the Thunder and Lakers. Though Wade didn't play as often as Durant this season, his per-minute production was better than Durant's -- and Wade isn't even the best player of this bunch. Will Oklahoma City rival Miami's in the coming years? Maybe. But right now? It's not close.
Emerging Top 10 Big 3s
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (49.3 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Kevin Durant (20.9) | Russell Westbrook | James Harden
No surprise that the league's youngest and most exciting core projects to lap the field in a few years.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (38.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Chris Paul (17.1) | Blake Griffin | DeAndre Jordan
You'd like to see Jordan replaced as the third guy, but even so, the Clippers have the pieces to go places you never thought this franchise would go. The question: Can they stop themselves from messing this up?
3. New Orleans Hornets (38.8 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Anthony Davis (16.0) | Ryan Anderson | Eric Gordon
If Davis is as good as his projection, the Hornets have made the vital first step toward big-time contention, especially if Anderson proves to be a good fit alongside him. And don't forget about Austin Rivers, who currently doesn't project well but might in the not-too-distant future.
4. Miami Heat (36.7 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: LeBron James (22.5) | Dwyane Wade | Chris Bosh
Will the Heat keep their Big Three intact past the players' current deals? They will be getting long in the tooth by 2016 but still awfully good.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (30.4 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Kevin Love (18.4) | Ricky Rubio | Nikola Pekovic
The upside of the Wolves' young core isn't exactly Thunder-like, but it's close enough to be really exciting if you're a Minnesota fan. Of course, that is if Love decides he wants to stay put.
6. Atlanta Hawks (28.1 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Josh Smith (12.8) | Lou Williams | Al Horford
This is a team in flux, though Horford's projection is held down by his injury-marred 2011-12 season. Williams might not be a true core piece, but he'll help. Smith showed signs of elite performance, but also petulance.
7. Utah Jazz (26.0 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Paul Millsap (10.4) | Al Jefferson | Derrick Favors
The Jazz have a growing collection of shiny pieces, but it's a mystery how all of these redundant parts will get on the court at the same time. Still, it's better to have talent than not.
8. Indiana Pacers (25.5 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Paul George (10.5) | Roy Hibbert | Danny Granger
If the Pacers don't uncover that superstar scorer, it remains to be seen how far they can go with a roster full of second and third options.
9. Detroit Pistons (24.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Greg Monroe (15.3) | Andre Drummond | Brandon Knight
This assumes that our optimistic rookie projection pans out for Drummond and that Monroe continues his development into a franchise player, but it sure looks as if the Pistons are positioned to take a leap in the next few years.
10. Milwaukee Bucks (24.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Brandon Jennings (11.5) | Ersan Ilyasova | Monta Ellis
This looks like a pretty good projection for the Bucks, but if Jennings tops out at 11.5 WAR, he's not the franchise centerpiece you typically find on a championship team.
Sacramento Kings (24.8 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: DeMarcus Cousins (11.6) | Isaiah Thomas | Thomas Robinson
This age-based method of production is probably too optimistic for Thomas, but the Kings have plenty of time to find a perimeter stud to go with a promising pair of big men. The Kings thought Tyreke Evans was that guy, but perhaps trading him could net them that perimeter threat.
New York Knicks (17.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Carmelo Anthony (6.8) | Tyson Chandler | Jeremy Lin
The little-discussed fact about the Knicks' hodgepodge of a rebuilding effort: Not only are the pieces ill-fitting, but they aren't even that young. They will have to keep spending Park Avenue money just to remain in the NBA's middle class.
Denver Nuggets (24.6 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Ty Lawson (9.3) | Kenneth Faried | JaVale McGee
For things to be any different for Denver than they are now, it has to find a higher upside top scorer. The Nuggets might not epitomize depth, but someone has to distinguish himself. Danilo Gallinari looked like that guy until an ankle injury hampered him.
Boston Celtics (20.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Jared Sullinger (8.4) | Rajon Rondo | Paul Pierce
It's doubtful that Sullinger will pan out to be the top player on a contender, and it's doubtful Pierce will still be playing in 2016. But there's little doubt Rondo is part of a trio somewhere else.
Washington Wizards (13.6 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: John Wall (8.3) | Bradley Beal | Kevin Seraphin
Hey, I like the Wizards' base of Wall and Beal and think their projections will improve greatly in the next year. However, the presence of Seraphin in this group underscores the folly of trying to shortcut past real rebuilding by acquiring the likes of Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
Brooklyn Nets (16.9 Big 3 WAR)
Projected core: Deron Williams (7.9) | Kris Humphries | Joe Johnson
Chances are in four years Williams will be no better than a third wheel on a good team, Johnson will be a massive financial sinkhole and Humphries ... he probably won't even be in Brooklyn next season.