For decades now, some NBA executives have espoused the “theory of three” as the baseline for team-building.
In essence this is the theory: To be viable to win playoff series, an NBA team needs two stars and at least one other player on the fringe of stardom.
At its best this theory evolved into the label “Big Three.” First it was Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish with the Boston Celtics or Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-James Worthy with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Later it was Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-Dennis Rodman with the Chicago Bulls.
Most recently it was Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen with the Celtics and LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat.
About half the NBA’s 30 teams have something akin to this 21/2 stars combination. With the signing of free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson, the local NBA franchise will come closer to this than at any time since the Charlotte Bobcats’ inception in 2004.
Center Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker and Stephenson give the Hornets a shot at winning a playoff series. The closest the Bobcats ever came to that mix was Gerald Wallace-Stephen Jackson-and … and really nobody.
For whatever reason, center Tyson Chandler never worked out here the way the front office hoped, and he was eventually traded for Erick Dampier’s unguaranteed contract in a salary dump.
You have to go back to the original Hornets to come up with anything approaching a legit Big Three in Charlotte. The first was Alonzo Mourning-Larry Johnson-Kendall Gill. That never had much chance to jell because Mourning forced a trade to the Miami Heat in the fall of 1995.
The other Charlotte Big Three was Glen Rice-Anthony Mason-Vlade Divac from 1996 through 1998. The two seasons those three were Hornets, they won 54 and 51 games and beat the Atlanta Hawks 3-1 in an opening-round playoff series.
Key thing about building a Big Three – the parts have to be different enough to be complementary. You can’t just collect pieces that form statistics in the aggregate, like in fantasy sports. Example: Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire have never complemented each other with the New York Knicks because their skill sets are too similar.
So how will Jefferson-Stephenson-Walker stack up as a Big Three? The obvious plus is each plays a distinctly different position, so minutes for one wouldn’t cost another playing time. Also center Jefferson and point guard Walker cover the two toughest positions to fill in the NBA.
Newcomer Stephenson is coming off his best of four NBA seasons statistically: Playing for the Indiana Pacers, he averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He also shot 49 percent from the field, on the high side for a shooting guard.
Stephenson’s ball-handling skills should be a good supplement to Walker, who was tied for 13th in the NBA in assists at 6.1 per game. Power forward Josh McRoberts, who left for the Heat, was the Bobcats’ key secondary ball-handler last season.
The question on how well this threesome will do could hang on how Stephenson plays off Jefferson. Coach Steve Clifford and general manager Rich Cho have said consistently the Hornets’ offense will run inside-out. That means whenever Jefferson is in the game, the offense runs through his touches in the lane.
To turn your back on Jefferson’s 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game would be a mistake. Stephenson’s shooting can make Jefferson more effective by making it harder for teams to double-team in the lane.
The potential question is how much Stephenson needs the ball to be effective and content. He’s been known to handle the ball a lot and there was some grumbling last season when Pacers big men Roy Hibbert and David West weren’t getting it much.
Bottom line: Jefferson, Walker and Stephenson must learn how best to collaborate. Last summer Jefferson and Walker convinced teammates to devote August and September to improving in Charlotte. The sooner Stephenson learns his new teammates, the better.