The James Harden-Ben Simmons Trade and Russell Westbrook Debacle Could Mean the Official End of the NBA’s Big Three Era

Two of the most significant developments at the 2022 NBA trade deadline were the James Harden-Ben Simmons swap between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers‘ lack of any moves at all despite the Russell Westbrook nightmare.

It goes back further, but the last decade and a half of the NBA has been dominated by the allure of Big Threes or Superteams (whatever your choice of verbiage). Think Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen with the Boston Celtics; or LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat.

The definition of what a Big Three is can vary. But for the sake of this thought exercise, we can define it with three (because obviously) main characteristics:

  • Are the three players clear Hall of Famers?
  • Was there league-wide hype surrounding the team?
  • Are all three players considered to be “stars” in the NBA?

With those rules in mind, here’s the question — Is the league trending out of the Big Three era?

James Harden demanded a trade and got his way out of Brooklyn

Pouted his way out of Brooklyn would be more accurate. Or whined his way out. Or cried his way out.

Whatever your personal opinion of the saga is, Harden got what he wanted and was sent packing to Philly.

That marked the end of an exciting, engaging, dramatic — but also unbelievably brief — agreement to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with the Nets.

The answer is pretty obvious, but just to double-check our criteria:

  • Are the three players clear Hall of Famers? Yes.
  • Was there league-wide hype surrounding the team? Yes.
  • Are all three players considered to be “stars” in the NBA? Yes.

So The Beard’s exit in Brooklyn broke up a Big Three. Which is pretty wild, considering the trio only played 16 total games together. That constitutes a failure.

The Lakers’ experiment with Russell Westbrook has also failed

Will the James Harden trade and Russell Westbrook's time with the Lakers end the NBA's time with Big Threes?
Russell Westbrook of the Los Angeles Lakers, wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey, congratulates James Harden of the Houston Rockets during the first quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs. | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

LA — likely at the request of LeBron and Anthony Davis — decided to make the NBA’s most recent blockbuster trade before the Harden-Simmons deal when the franchise went all-in on acquiring Russ from the Wizards.

To check again:

  • Are the three players clear Hall of Famers? Yes.
  • Was there league-wide hype surrounding the team? Yes.
  • Are all three players considered to be stars in the NBA? Yes.

After the way this year has gone in LA, Westbrook may not fit the final part of that criteria anymore. But he’s still a household name and was definitively a “star” when he landed in Hollywood.

Going into a matchup with the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 12, Russ and his bunch sat in ninth place in the Western Conference with a record of 26-30. The season’s been a trainwreck.

So it’s fair to say both of these teams — Brooklyn and the Lakers — had Big Threes, and both failed.

Is the league beginning to trend away from star trios?

Here are the past 10 NBA champions and, based on our criteria, whether or not they had what would be considered a Big Three (Big Three champions in bold):

  • 2012: Miami Heat — LeBron, Wade, Bosh. Yes, a Big Three.
  • 2013: Miami Heat — LeBron, Wade, Bosh. Yes, a Big Three.
  • 2014: San Antonio Spurs — Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard. Not a Big Three (Parker is likely one, but not a clear Hall of Famer).
  • 2015: Golden State Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green. Yes, a Big Three.
  • 2016: Cleveland Cavaliers — James, Irving, Kevin Love. Right on the line, but Love is not a clear Hall of Famer. Not a Big Three.
  • 2017: Golden State Warriors — Curry, Thompson, Durant. Yes, a Big Three.
  • 2018: Golden State Warriors — Curry, Thompson, Durant. Yes, a Big Three.
  • 2019: Toronto Raptors — Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry. Not a Big Three.
  • 2020: Los Angeles Lakers — James, Davis, Rajon Rondo? Kyle Kuzma? Not a Big Three.
  • 2021: Milwaukee Bucks — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday. Not a Big Three (No for both Middleton and Holiday in categories one and three).

It’s an even split in the past 10 seasons: five Big Three champions, five non-Big Three champions.

But look at the last three title-winners. An MVP in Giannis surrounded by two excellent role players, an MVP in Bron surrounded by a superstar and role players, and an MVP in Kawhi surrounded by excellent role players. There’s a trend.

Coupled with the past three champions built around a single “A+” MVP along with “B/B+” role players, and then this year’s Harden and Westbrook fiascos, the answer seems clear: The era of the NBA’s Big Three has come to an end.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: NBA Trade Deadline Winners and Losers: Ben Simmons and James Harden Get Their Wish, LeBron James Gets Left Hanging