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Bob Ryan

Some titles have been triple crowns

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 26, 2010

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The idea of an NBA Big Three long has been with us, even if it wasn’t always spoken out loud. The acclaimed Miami Heat triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, in town to help the Celtics open their season tonight, is only the latest in a long line of threesomes that have lifted teams to championships.

Hey, wait a minute. The Heat trio hasn’t won a title — yet. But at least nine other NBA Big Threes have, starting with a trio who began play as a unit more than 60 years ago.

1. Minneapolis Lakers (George Mikan, Jim Pollard, and Slater Martin).

Years: 1949-50 through 1955-56 (Mikan retired at the conclusion of the ’53-54 season, then unretired for 37 unproductive games in ’55-56; Pollard’s final season was ’54-55).

Championships: 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954.

Mikan was the NBA’s first dominant big man, a player so proficient in both college and professional ball he was named the Player of the Half Century in a 1950 poll. The 6-foot-10-inch, 250-pound center was a bespectacled bruiser, if you can imagine such a thing. His repertoire of power moves and sweeping ambidextrous hook shots would seem dated today, but they were good for five consecutive seasons of 20-plus points per game, including seasons of 27.4 in ’49-50 and 28.4 in ’50-51.

Pollard was a precursor of the modern power forward with his leaping prowess and tremendous all-around athleticism at 6-4. Martin, a 5-10 guard, was the personification of toughness and was always identified by Bob Cousy as his toughest individual matchup.

A case also can be made for the frontcourt of Mikan, Pollard, and 6-7 inside force Vern Mikkelsen (a Laker from 1949-59) as the first classic center-small forward-power forward frontcourt. In truth, the Lakers had a Big Four.

2. Boston Celtics (Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Bill Sharman/Tom Heinsohn).

Years: 1956-57 through 1960-61 (Sharman) and 1961-62 through 1964-65 (Heinsohn).

Championships: 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965.

If you need a primer on Bill Russell, then clearly you’ve stumbled onto the wrong part of the paper. Suffice it to say he remains unchallenged as the greatest team winner in North American sport history, a man who probably could have made a Big Three out of himself, Brooks, and Dunn. Cousy and Sharman were perennial All-Stars who in several seasons together never had advanced to a Finals until Russ showed up. With him, Cousy’s unsurpassed ability to run a fast break and Sharman’s deadly mid-range shooting became fearsome weapons. Heinsohn was another perfect adjunct — a prolific scorer, outstanding rebounder (especially on the offensive boards), and a terrific competitor.

3. New York Knicks (Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Dave DeBusschere).

Years: 1968-69 through 1973-74.

Championships: 1970, 1973.

The date of Dec. 19, 1968, should be a high holy day for any Knicks fan, because that’s the day general manager Eddie Donovan traded the enigmatic Walt Bellamy and the fidgety Howie Komives to Detroit for the great DeBusschere. Thus the Knicks were able to shift Reed to his natural position of center, while giving themselves the benefits of DeBusschere’s all-around skills, which included defending, rebounding, and superb long-distance shooting. Frazier was already a menace with his ball-hawking and scoring.

Unwarranted hype for New York teams can be maddening, but these Knicks squads were special. They had a great team defense and there were nights when the ball movement could only be described as exquisite. The Garden rocked as it never has since.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain).

Years: 1968-69 to 1970-71 (Baylor retired nine games into the ’71-72 season).

Championships: None (Finals: 1969 and 1970).

No, they didn’t win, but they must be included on this list because the commotion when Chamberlain’s acquisition made this collaboration a reality was the closest thing we’ve known to the current Miami situation.

West was 30, Wilt was 32, and Baylor was a broken-down 34 when they got together so perhaps too much was expected of them. They lost the famous Game 7 Balloon Game to the Celtics in 1969, and the next season Chamberlain missed all but 12 regular-season games with a knee injury and Baylor missed 28 more in what would prove to be his final full season. They also lost the famous 1970 Game 7 to the Knicks when Reed hobbled out to provide inspiration and Frazier hit them for 36 points and 19 assists.

The ultimate irony for Baylor was that the ’71-72 Lakers began their historic 33-game winning streak the night he retired.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Jamaal Wilkes/James Worthy).

Years: 1979-80 through 1988-89 (Wilkes through ’84-85, Worthy till ’88-89, when Kareem retired).

Championships: 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988.

Kareem was floating through Laker life, bored and not interested, when Magic Johnson plopped into his world in 1979. Wilkes was the perfect silent assassin to make it a real Big Three. His stealth-like 37 points the night of Magic’s wondrous 42-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist dazzler in 1980’s clinching Game 6 against the Sixers was a classic Wilkes performance.

Worthy showed up in 1982, and one knew it was merely a matter of time before he would supplant Wilkes, which he did by 1985. Worthy’s career gem was a Game 7 triple-double against the Pistons in 1988, which was the last title for Kareem, as well as Pat Riley’s last LA championship.

6. Boston Celtics (Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale).

Years: 1980-81 through 1991-92.

Championships: 1981, 1984, 1986.

The ultimate Big Three, at least as far as longevity is concerned. Parish and McHale arrived via the same astonishing draft-day trade with Golden State, Parish becoming an immediate starter and McHale establishing himself as the league’s most feared sixth man until starting after Cedric Maxwell was traded away in 1985. What made it work so well was McHale’s amazing ability to guard anyone from a 6-5 Adrian Dantley to a 6-6 Dr. J to a 6-8 Dan Roundfield or even a 7-4 Ralph Sampson. He always took the tough defensive assignment, leaving Bird free to roam.

Parish’s consistency was legendary. He shot between .535 and .598 from the floor for 13 consecutive seasons. As for Bird, see the comments on Bill Russell.

7. Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant).

Years: 1987-88 through 1992-93.

Championships: 1991, 1992, 1993.

From the moment Jordan dropped those 63 points on the Celtics in Game 2 of the first round of the 1986 playoffs (an OT classic won, however, by the Celtics), there was an aura of inevitability about the Bulls. Pippen and Grant arrived jointly in 1987, Pippen via a clever draft-day trade orchestrated by GM Jerry Krause (with Seattle in exchange for Olden Polynice and swaps of various draft picks) and Grant as the 10th pick of the draft. After three years of maturation, the kids teamed with Jordan to produce titles from 1991-93 before Jordan stunned the world with his retirement and attempt at playing professional baseball.

The 6-8 Pippen was the only swingman even approaching the greatness of John Havlicek, while the underrated Grant was a true power forward who could also make a 15-footer. Jordan? See Russell and Bird.

8. Chicago Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, and Dennis Rodman).

Years: 1995-96 through 1997-98.

Championships: 1996, 1997, 1998.

Jordan returned in the 1994-95 season and there was a new dynamic the following year when Rodman became the team’s power forward. With this trio the Bulls were a truly formidable defensive team. Rodman was sui generis, a great rebounder (seven-time NBA leader) and defender who could go days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and eons without taking a shot.

9. San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili).

Years: 2002-03 to the present.

Championships: 2003, 2005, 2007.

The Spurs won their first title in 1999 with a David Robinson-Duncan nucleus. This trio took shape when Parker was drafted in 2001, right out of France. Ginobili, the noble Argentine, came the following year. Duncan is one of the truly great players of all time, a pure player equally at home as a center or forward. Parker needed to acquire a shot, which he has done. The 6-6 Ginobili needed little refinement. He’s got a throwback game when he goes to the hoop and a modern game when he steps back for a killer three. With Duncan a native of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, this is the only group on the list in which each member was born outside the continental United States.

10. Boston Celtics (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen).

Years: 2007-08 to the present.

Championships: 2008.

Pierce went from a frustrated All-Star wondering aloud if his career was being squandered to a Finals MVP, thanks to the maneuvering of GM Danny Ainge, who traded for Allen and Garnett, the latter only saying yes to a relocation because the former was already aboard. There was a seamless meshing, as they became the backbone of a team that was not just efficient on offense but which also was stifling on defense. Defense, in fact, was the emphasis. Offense was an afterthought. Who’d have thought that possible? They came within a Garnett injury one season and 94 disastrous fourth-quarter Game 7 seconds against the Lakers in the next of winning three in a row.

OK, LeBron, D-Wade, and Mr. Bosh: it’s your turn.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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