What if players were never allowed to leave? If that was the case, we would see some franchises bolt to the top of the standings instead of dwelling at the bottom. We would see some franchises like the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves contend for a top spot in the standings. Instead of trades and superteams, these teams would be homegrown, changing the narrative of the current infrastructure of the league.
Teams like the Nets, Clippers, and Heat have struck out in the draft, but have been fortunate to lure free agents to their teams. Others like the Rockets and the Kings have confirmed their misfortunate and their current place in the league rankings. Each team relies on a big three in order to win a championship. Let’s rank those big threes based on if they stayed with the team that drafted them.
30. San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Keldon Johnson
For a team that prided themselves on forming a team through the draft, the Spurs have fallen flat on their face as of late. Since the departure of Kawhi Leonard, the team tried the veteran approach with DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Rudy Gay, while building through the draft. All it has gotten the Spurs is a losing season, missed playoffs, and a halt on the team’s development.
Dejounte Murray was a dark horse prospect to make a big jump this season. He is an 18-point, seven assist caliber guard in the league, but he is not a superstar just yet. Keldon Johnson made the Olympic roster, where he won a Gold medal, but he looks like a starting small forward and nothing more. Kyle Anderson is a capable starter as well, but these are all role players. There is no superstar talent here, which makes the Spurs fall to last on these rankings.
29. Utah Jazz
Gordon Hayward, Grayson Allen, Enes Kanter
When Hayward played for the Jazz, he recorded his first career All-Star appearance. Since those days, Hayward has sustained a career-altering injury. Last year, Hayward showed promise of his former years, averaging 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 44 games. Health is a major issue though as Hayward hasn’t played over 70 games in a season since 2018-2019.
Grayson Allen is a gifted shooter, but a backup at best. As for Ene Kanter, he has appeared in two games this season, averaging 5.0 minutes per game. Last year, Kanter averaged 11.2 points and 11.0 rebounds but was a major defensive liability. In their current state, this big three is not very competitive.
28. Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox, Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins
De’Aaron Fox would have to carry this team and we have seen firsthand what that looks like. Fox is a great player, but he can’t be the best player on a team that wants to go far in the playoffs. The Kings haven’t made the postseason since 2006. Despite Fox never playing in the postseason, he was given a max contract anyways, which proves how the Kings do business in such an unorthodox way.
As for the two other pieces, if this was 2016, maybe this would be a competitive team. Cousins was healthy and an All-NBA player. Cousins was one of the best centers in the league, averaging close to 20 points and 10 rebounds each night. However, his two major injuries have relegated him to a player at the end of the bench. As for Whiteside, the former rebounding champion is a backup center at best these days. Two weak centers and one non-All-Star guard isn’t going to take you far.
27. Brooklyn Nets
Kyle Kuzma, Jarrett Allen, Brook Lopez
Lopez is the team’s all-time leading scorer but is outside the top-10 in our rankings for centers. Lopez is a solid starting center, but he should not be considered in the big three if the team is looking to contend. His days of scoring 20 points per game are long behind him. With that said, his ability to shoot from outside would pay great dividends for Jarrett Allen.
Allen was looking like one of the best bench players in the league last year before he was packaged in a trade that landed James Harden. Allen remains on the young and unproven side as he has been one of the better players on bad teams. Could the Nets reach new heights with Kyle Kuzma leading them? He was once an 18-point scorer in this league and is currently averaging 15.9 points and 11.0 rebounds. Maybe, the Nets would be okay.
26. Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
If this was 2014, this team would be pretty great today. Blake Griffin was healthy and an All-NBA selection. DeAndre Jordan was a league leading rebounder that also made All-NBA. Eric Gordon was a Sixth Man of the Year. This would be a top-10 big three no doubt. Although, we are looking at today’s standards, which unfortunately have the Father Time variable impacting their performance.
Griffin and Gordon are both 32, while Jordan is 33 years old. All three players are coming off the bench at this point in their careers. With that said, all three would make their team competitive, but they aren’t the All-Star players they used to be. Luckily, the Clippers had money and draft picks and were able to buy their talent in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
25. Dallas Mavericks
Trae Young, Jalen Brunson, Kelly Olynyk
Outside of Luka Doncic, the Mavericks have somewhat struck out in the draft. The Mavericks traded for Doncic, who originally drafted Trae Young out of Oklahoma. Either pick would have been a great pickup for the team as both are the future of the league. Young has made the bigger splash in the postseason, leading the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals though.
Young proved that he can put up one heckuva slash line even on non-competitive Hawks teams. Everything is about equilibrium though. While Young is an All-Star, Jalen Brunson is a backup point guard, so that brings the team’s overall competitiveness down. Kelly Olynyk puts up big numbers on bad teams. He is nothing more than a backup forward in the league at this point too. Young would have great individual stats, but the team’s performance would be near the bottom of the league.
24. Houston Rockets
Dillon Brooks, Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela
The Rockets would have the potential to compete at a high level. Dillon Brooks is a hustler that competes on both sides of the floor. Montrezl Harrell is a former Sixth Man of the Year, while Clint Capela is the reigning rebounding champion. While all three are considered role players, the Wizards right now are proving that a group of role players can compete at a high level.
With that said, the Wizards also have Bradley Beal, who is a true superstar. If you look at superstar power, the Rockets lack in that department among this big three. The team would be scrappy, but other teams have a higher amount of superstar power.
23. New York Knicks
RJ Barrett, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kristaps Porzingis
While the idea of Kristaps Porzingis is nice, his ability to consistently be injured is a major turnoff. Porzingis hasn’t played like an All-Star in years. He brings some impressive tangibles to the court with his ability to shoot from outside as a seven-footer, but he is always a health risk. Even so, Porzingis also has question marks about how he fits with another superstar, as evident by his ability to play with Luka Doncic.
Porzingis has played with Tim Hardaway Jr. for the last two years, but the Mavericks haven’t made it out of the first round. RJ Barrett is a solid small forward in this league offensive and defensively. Those three are first-round playoff contenders with a ceiling as high as the semifinals.
22. Detroit Pistons
Spencer Dinwiddie, Khris Middleton, Andre Drummond
Before Dinwiddie got hurt last year, he was coming off a season that saw him average over 20 points per game. So far this year, Dinwiddie looks healthy as evident by his 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to let Dinwiddie prove that he is a top guard in this league. The same goes for Drummond, a former rebounding champion, who is now a backup to Joel Embiid.
Both Dinwiddie and Drummond have the potential to shine this year in their roles. The difference-maker is Khris Middleton. If you take Giannis off the Bucks, would Middleton be the same player? He is a great No. 2, but not a player that would lead a franchisee himself. For those reasons, we have to put into perspective how good the Pistons would be if they had all three of these players.
21. Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon, Domantas Sabonis, Dwight Howard
Defensively, there is an upside to this team. While Dwight Howard is not the same player he once was, he remains a bonafide rim protector that can shoot at a high percentage in the paint. Domantas Sabonis is one of the few power forwards in the league that can produce a triple-double. With Aaron Gordon in the mix, most teams would have to buy a rebound.
Assuming that this team could find a few decent starting caliber guards, this team could compete in the middle of the pack. Sabonis needs to prove he can be a true No. 1 option on a contending team instead of a bad team, but there is potential here.
20. Washington Wizards
John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jordan Clarkson
Despite Wall not playing this year, he proved last year that he can still play at a high level. Wall averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists for the Rockets. While those numbers are solid, you have to take those numbers with a grain of salt because it was for a bad team. He also played just 40 games due to injuries. If you put Wall on a better team, does he average those same stats?
Bradley Beal is leading the Wizards to a hot start this year, but history has shown that when he is the best player, the Wizards are a borderline eighth seed. Just because he was the league’s runner-up in the scoring last year, the team's success doesn’t follow. As for Jordan Clarkson, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, how many times have we seen a sixth man thrust into the starting lineup and the team make a major jump in the standings? Normally, teams are better if the sixth man comes off the bench because the team has deeper options.
19. Miami Heat
Tyler Herro, Bojan Bogdanovic, Bam Adebayo
The Heat would have two gifted outside shooters and one of the best two-way players in the league. The reason for their middle-of-the-pack rating is Tyler Herro. Through seven games this season, Herro has averaged 22.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. Those are All-Star caliber numbers for the 21-year old. With that said, he must prove he can do that for a full season before we consider him a true difference-maker.
Adebayo is a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Not to mention, he can give 18 points and 10 rebounds each night. Adebayo is the perfect complement to any star, but not a true No. 1 option. The glue guy in this lineup would be Bojan Bogdanovic, who is needed in Utah. When Bogdanovic was out two years ago, the Jazz was defeated in the first round. With him in the lineup, the Jazz rose to the No. 1 seed because he is a 20-point scorer.
18. Charlotte Hornets
Kemba Walker, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LaMelo Ball
The backcourt has real potential. Based on what we have seen from LaMelo Ball in a limited time, he is a superstar in the making. It may be too premature to suggest, but would we be surprised if he passes Kemba Walker for most points in franchise history. Walker is still a borderline All-Star when healthy, so these two guards would have John Wall and Bradley Beal feel from a few years ago on those competitive Wizards teams.
The difference-maker would be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 23-year-old has yet to make an All-Star appearance but is demonstrating signs of being a superstar. That is why the Thunder made a huge investment by giving him a max contract this summer. The Warriors were title contenders in 2015 and 2016 by playing small ball. This small ball lineup has great potential as a dark horse.
17. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge
Jimmy Butler can make any player good, older, or young. Butler remains a top-20 player in the league and an All-Defensive candidate. With that said, Butler would need a supportive cast like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to help this team compete at a high level because this big three features two solid role players in its big three.
We are talking about the 2021 version of Derrick Rose, not the 2011 version. While we do respect what Rose has done to his game, you have to accept that he is a sixth man at best. He is not the MVP he once was. Rose can still drop 20 points on any given night now that he is healthy, but there are teams with more star power on their respective rosters. Aldridge nearly retired last year and is not a 20 and 10 player he once was either.
16. Atlanta Hawks
Luka Doncic, Dennis Schroder, John Collins
When Trae Young and John Collins played together, the Hawks made a run to the Conference Finals after securing the fifth seed. Cinderella can strike at any time, but this ranking would see the Hawks be in a similar position. The difference-maker would be how much would the Hawks be better, or worse, with Doncic playing instead of Young.
Doncic hasn’t made it out of the first round with him leading the team, so there is a caution to believe he would carry this team far with Collins as his sidekick. Collins is one of the best “sidekicks” in the league given his 20-point, 10-rebound potential with an outside stroke that hits nearly 40% of the time. With Schroder, a former Sixth Man of the Year candidate, running the point, we might see a similar Hawks team from 2021.
15. Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton
Yes, Booker looked great last year in the playoffs. Also, the combination of Booker and Ayton made a jump in their game and the Suns made the NBA Finals. With that said, how much of that was because of Booker and Ayton, or because the Suns added Chris Paul and Jae Crowder? When Booker and Ayton led the team, the Suns were contending for an eighth seed in the playoffs.
Ayton took a step defensively last year but lost a step offensively. There’s a reason that he hasn’t signed a max contract because executives don’t believe he is worth the money. Booker is a great player but is similar to a player like Zach LaVine, who also needed help to lead a team to new heights. T.J. Warren can’t stay healthy anymore, so he loses value as well.
14. Milwaukee Bucks
Malcolm Brogdon, Donte DiVencenzo, Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Bucks are a middle-of-the-pack team only because of Giannis. Playing alongside Malcolm Brogdon and Donte DiVencenzo is a lot different than playing with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Brogdon has some great numbers on paper, but the Pacers are not a good team. It all goes back to the idea of what that would look like with a good team. Brogdon does have some saving grace given the fact that he made the 50-40-90 club while playing with Giannis in 2018-2019.
As for DiVencenzo, he was the team’s starting shooting guard last year before getting injured in the playoffs. However, his career-high in the league is 10.4 points. He is a role player and brings down the overall hype of this big three, even with the two-time MVP Giannis on the roster.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley Jr., Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Mike Conley Jr. is playing some of the best basketball in his career. That’s saying something because Conley left the Grizzlies as the all-time leading scorer. Assuming that Jaren Jackson Jr. is healthy, which he appears to be for the first time in forever, the combination of Ja Morant and him makes the Grizzlies a competitive team. The idea that Conley could make both of these players jump similarly as Paul did to Booker and Ayton makes this an interesting scenario.
Jackson is not as good as Ayton in terms of overall play. When healthy, Jackson averaged 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds, which are not scrub numbers. Morant is one of the most exciting players in the league right now, showing displays of a future Russell Westbrook. With a true leader in Conley, the Grizzlies would remain competitive.
12. Toronto Raptors
DeMar DeRozan, Pascal Siakam, Jonas Valanciunas
This team could rise through the rankings depending on how DeMar DeRozan keeps playing. DeRozan is playing like an All-NBA selection and has the Bulls at the top of the standings. Even if DeRozan wasn’t playing like this, he remains a top scorer in this league and is the Raptors’ all-time leading scorer.
Pascal Siakam does his best when playing alongside a superstar, as evidenced by the team’s championship run to the 2019 title while playing with Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. The combination of Siakam and DeRozan is an interesting dynamic duo. As fr Valanciunas, he has become a double-double machine.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Will Barton
Consistently, the Trail Blazers are a team that finishes between fifth and seventh in the standings with Lillard and McCollum leading the way. That is why the team falls at No. 12 on these rankings. Given that Will Barton makes the team’s big three complete, we could probably expect this team to compete for a playoff spot, while their competitiveness would be a second-round berth.
Lillard is a First-Team All-NBA selection type of talent. He led the league in clutch points, but history has proven what his teams do with just him leading the way. The Trail Blazers have made the Conference Finals once in nine years. McCollum and Barton are streaky shooters, but they aren’t enough for this team to make a deep playoff run.
10. Los Angeles Lakers
D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle
Let D’Angelo Russell run with this team and he would complete the trifecta for Most Improved Player of the Year. Both Ingram and Randle are the last two year’s winners. If you put Ingram with Randle, we would probably see that team be a borderline top-10 team. Russell has jumped back and forth between the starting lineup in Minnesota, but he is still a player that can serve up 20 points each night.
We are seeing it now with Rusell in Minnesota. When he is the third option, the team produces. Ingram has taken a step in being the man that delivers game-winning shots. Randle isn’t a true No. 1, but we saw what the Knicks did with a complete team. This has a complete team feeling to it. The Knicks ceiling was the four seed, so this Lakers team would also be in that conversation.
9. Boston Celtics
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum
The current Celtics big three features Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart as the third. If we substitute Smart for Rozier, do the Celtics get better? They would. Smart is the emotional leader of this team. He is one of the better defensive guards in the league. But, those tangibles only get you so far. At some point, you have to be able to play some offense.
Smart is not a skilled offensive player like Rozier, who is coming off a season that saw him average 20.4 points. You can apply the metric of inflated stats on a bad team given the Hornets were not very competitive, but we know what Smart, Brown, and Tatum got us last year. The Celtics fell in the standings. The team needs one more true offensive player. If they had it, they would be a top-10 team, rather than fighting for a playoff spot.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Zach LaVine, Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns
Remember, it was shortly after the Timberwolves traded away Zach LaVine for Jimmy Butler with the opportunity for Butler to lead the team to a playoff berth. The marriage was short-lived as Butler was later traded away, but the LaVine trade “helped” the team land Karl-Anthony Towns the following year.
Today, LaVine is a dynamic scorer that can score at any part of the floor. Towns is a top-3 center in the league that can also shoot from downtown. Anthony Edwards, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, is a 20-point scorer that has a lot of promise. If you put LaVine back with the Timberwolves, this would be an exciting, competitive team to watch.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Jrue Holiday, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid
Remember when Jrue Holiday was the x-factor in the Bucks winning a championship. Could Holiday be the x-factor for the 76ers too? Before Holiday was seen as a top guard by the Pelicans, he was a former All-Star with the 76ers. Now, his offense has developed and he is a First-Team All-Defensive selection.
Pair Holiday with Ben Simmons, a runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, and that is the best defensive backcourt in the entire NBA. Joel Embiid was the runner-up in the MVP voting and is a top-2 center, only second to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. The 76ers lose some points in the rankings because of Simmons’ current mental state and his availability for the team. If he was playing, Philly would jump to a title contender with this big three.
6. Denver Nuggets
Donovan Mitchell, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert
The combination of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert provided that the Jazz can be title contenders with them leading the team. The Jazz was the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference last year, while Gobert cemented his legacy in the game by winning his third Defensive Player of the Year Award. Pair the two with the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, and you are talking about a pretty good ball club.
The fit with Jokic and Gobert is a questionable one, which is why the team fits just outside the top five. Jokic and Gobert play the same positions, but Jokic is so versatile in his game that he could probably play power forward with limited impact on the rest of the team. You would have one of the game’s best shooters and one of the game’s best passing big men on the team. With Gobert as the rock of the defense, the team would be a title contender.
5. Indiana Pacers
Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Myles Turner
We are assuming that Kawhi Leonard is healthy in this scenario. When healthy, the Clippers own two of the top-10 players in the league in Leonard and Paul George. Had Leonard not been hurt in the playoffs, we might be talking about how Leonard and George led the Clippers to the NBA Finals for the first time last year. Instead, we have to wait until next year to see if they can run it back.
Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP that is a top-5 player in this league when healthy. George can look like an MVP candidate at times. Turner would have led the league in blocks last year had he played enough games. This combination offensively and defensively would be a matchup nightmare.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
Chris Paul, Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis
The Pelicans always seem to just have their timing off. First, it was Chris Paul as the face of the team. Then, Anthony Davis tried and failed. Both needed help but the small market could never provide it. Now, we are going to potentially witness the same thing with Zion Williamson if the Pelicans can’t get out of the cellar of the standings.
If these three were playing together now, it would be an immediate jump from last to first potentially. Davis is a DPOY candidate, while a double-double machine. We know the impact that Paul has on big men. Can you imagine the ceiling of potential with Paul to Davis on offense? We saw that with Paul and Blake Griffin years ago. Williamson is a better version of Griffin. Instead of bowing out in the second round, we would see this team make a run for the NBA Finals.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron James
Even at age 37, LeBron remains a top player in this league. If LeBron and Kyrie Irving played together now, the Cavaliers would remain a fixture for contending in the Eastern Conference. After all, the duo led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals four consecutive years from 2015-2018.
We nearly saw this big three during that period. At the time, the Cavaliers had used the No. 1 overall pick on Wiggins, who never suited up for the Cavaliers, and traded him for Kevin Love in a trade package. Looking back, this was a great trade because Love was more of a proven player. Today, Wiggins looks like the player that was once a No. 1 overall pick. He brings defense and is capable of 20 points per game. In this scenario, the duo of LeBron and Kyrie was so good that Wiggins would be the perfect third piece.
2. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green
Again, we are assuming that everyone is healthy. Thompson’s level of play is a concern after missing the last two seasons. But, even with him taking a dip to be the team’s third-best option, we know that this core works. It’s the only big three originally drafted by their franchise that still plays together today. This big three, along with Kevin Durant for three years, made the NBA Finals five years in a row with three championships.
Even before Durant, the team made the Finals and won 73 games. We understand it’s been five years since then; however, nobody told that to Curry. The way Curry is playing, he looks like an MVP candidate, as evidenced by his third-place finish last year, where he led the league in scoring. Green remains a dominant power forward that can rebound, assist, and defend. We need Thompson to come back to verify this, but once he does come back, expect the Warriors to make a run back to the NBA Finals as the Bulls did in 1996 to 1998.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant
We nearly got to see this big three formed this year. Trade talks surrounded Russell Westbrook, while there was a black shadow that followed Kyrie Irving. Instead, Westbrook was traded to the Lakers, but we did get to see a glimpse of the Harden-Durant combination in last year’s playoffs. Injuries took a toll on the two playing the whole year together, but when at full strength, they are a dangerous combination. It took seven games, one half of a foot by Durant, and a few points for the Bucks to defeat the Nets in the playoffs last year.
When healthy, Durant is the favorite to win the MVP. Harden is a triple-double machine. Westbrook is a triple-double machine time ten. Westbrook finished his fourth season averaging a triple-double last year, but with this cast, he could revert to being the second or third option. This lineup took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 when they were younger. A more mature trio would help the Thunder win the championship in this scenario.