Some Celtics historians may be offended that the franchise's new star trio of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce has received the nickname "The Big Three," since the franchise already had a beloved trio with that same nickname in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
But the so-called original Big Three wasn't the first star threesome for the franchise, either. And the Celtics' top-scoring trios of all-time don't come close to the other top trios in NBA history.
Since the beginning of the NBA in 1949, the league has had several high-scoring trios, led by the likes of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Alex English, and Jerry West, ones with great nicknames like "Run TMC," and even threesomes that might have been forgotten, like John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Dave Cowens in Boston.
So before the Celtics' new Big Three plays its first regular-season game together, there is a lot it can learn from the top-scoring trios in league history, who enjoyed championships and also suffered disappointment.
"The Celtics, the Lakers, you just look at their history, guys through the course of the years that have played together," said ex-Golden State Warriors great Chris Mullin, a member of "Run TMC."
"There have been Hall of Fame players that have played together and won. Detroit, those teams in Chicago. It's not anything new. If you got three of the best players in the league, you figure out everything else as they go."
The top-scoring trio in Celtics history was Bird, McHale, and Parish during the 1986-87 season. They combined for 71.7 points per game, with Bird averaging 28.1, McHale 26.1, and Parish 17.5. Those Celtics advanced to the 1987 NBA Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
"We came up as a young group together," McHale said. "Everybody complemented each other. We had good chemistry. Good symmetry. Everybody's talents complemented each other.
"Until you go back and look at some of this kind of stuff when I retired and then they retired my number, I hadn't thought about it and looked at it for a long time. There were some nights where we had between us 88 points, 54 rebounds. You go like, 'Dang, that's an entire team.'
"We were able to get a lot of stuff accomplished. You didn't realize all that stuff was there until you looked back on it. It just worked."
Bird said the main reason that Big Three worked was that players, most notably Parish, were willing to sacrifice. Parish was considered one of the best centers in the NBA at that time, making one of his nine All-Star appearances that season. But The Chief averaged only 13.2 shots per game despite shooing .556 percent from the field while Bird averaged 20.2 shots per game and McHale 16.97.
"One of the reasons it worked was Robert Parish," Bird said. "He got what he got. He didn't demand the ball. He was more of a team guy. If he needed 18 shots, it wouldn't have worked.
"It was about sacrificing, and Robert was a big part of that. He could have scored more points, but he cared about winning. He's so low-key. He could have done more [offensively]. But he's also a Hall of Famer."
Those Celtics had other talented players, including a starting backcourt of Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson. Ainge and Johnson also sacrificed offensively but still had solid numbers, averaging 14.8 and 13.4 points, respectively. For today's Celtics, their Ainge and Johnson are point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins, although they aren't expected to score like Ainge and Johnson.
"Dennis Johnson was a 2-guard who made a switch over to point guard so Ainge could play 2," Bird said. "Everyone made adjustments. When it came down to it, they did what they did to win."
When asked if those Celtics had any offensive issues, Bird said, "If you took a bad shot, someone might say something like, 'Get the ball inside or get the ball to DJ."
As for the Celtics' new Big Three, Bird said, "The two [new] players they got are great basketball players. Ray Allen is a great shooter. Kevin Garnett is a hard worker, a leader. Paul Pierce is hard to guard. They will always have to give a bit."
Historical high point
As great as the Celtics' Big Three of 1986-87 was, it doesn't come close to what the greatest scoring trio in NBA history averaged. That distinction goes to Baylor, West, and Rudy LaRusso of the 1961-62 Lakers, who combined for 86.2 points per game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (minimum 20 games played with the team). Baylor averaged 38.3 points, West 30.8, and LaRusso 17.2.
"It's gratifying to know that it [still] stands," Baylor said.
During the 1961-62 season, the Philadelphia Warriors also had a high-scoring trio of Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, and Tom Gola, who combined for 85.9 points per game. Chamberlain averaged an NBA-record 50.4 points, Arizin 21.9, and Gola 13.7. It was the only time in NBA history that two teams had trios that averaged more than 85 points per game in the same season. But even with all that scoring, the Celtics defeated the Lakers in seven games to win the NBA championship after knocking out the Warriors in the Eastern Conference finals.
When asked how the NBA's hottest-scoring trio of all-time worked so well together, Baylor said, "We were a very unselfish team and we didn't care who shot the ball because everyone knew that Jerry, Rudy, and I were going to do the bulk of the scoring. We were successful at that and everyone stuck to the game plan."
Trades were made to bring Garnett and Allen to the Celtics this offseason to join forces with Pierce. In recent years, the most similar situation of such stars coming together was in 2003-04, when Karl Malone and Gary Payton took major pay cuts in free agency in hopes of winning their first NBA titles by joining Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers.
That team probably had more preseason hype than today's Celtics. And there was a daily media circus because Bryant was being prosecuted in a sexual assault trial. The Lakers won 56 games and the Pacific Division title, but with Malone fighting a knee injury, they lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games in the 2004 Finals.
That season, Bryant averaged 24 points and O'Neal 21.5, while Malone averaged a career-low 13.2 and Payton's average dipped nearly 6 points from the previous season to 14.6.
"You kind of just throw the ball out there," Bryant said. "The team establishes its own balance, its own chemistry. You don't appoint this particular player as this or that. You kind of let the guys develop on their own. The team will kind of mesh together as the season goes on and the personality of the team will develop.
"It was really easy. That team for us was really rolling. Detroit, obviously, spanked us. But we had a pretty good season in terms of how well we played.
"It makes it a lot easier when you play with guys who are talented, have high basketball IQs, can read the floor, and make big plays. It makes it a lot easier."
Chemistry a key
The top-scoring trio in the NBA last season was the Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Earl Boykins, who combined to average 69.0 points. But the most feared group of scorers came from the Suns, who averaged an NBA-best 110.2 points per game. Amare Stoudemire averaged 20.4 points, Steve Nash 18.6 points and a league-best 11.6 assists, Leandro Barbosa 18 points, and Shawn Marion 17.5 points. Stoudemire, Nash, and Marion were All-Stars for a team that advanced to the Western Conference finals.
"If you have three All-Stars on the team, you have to share the ball," Stoudemire said. "You have to make sure everybody gets their normal touches. You have to make sure that everybody is comfortable.
"The hard part about it? It's not hard at all when you're winning because winning cures all problems. So if you can find a way to win with three All-Stars, you're good to go.
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice because you have so many different players that can score or rebound. And sometimes you just have to let a player do what he does best and just clear the lane or vice versa."
One good thing about Allen, Garnett, and Pierce is they all seem to be getting along extremely well; they enjoy doing things together like interviews and taking pictures and seem to have made it a point to put their egos aside. When asked how the three were getting along, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said well but also cautioned that it is early and the tough times of an NBA season haven't arrived yet.
Marion has expressed some unhappiness playing for the Suns and has been mentioned in trade rumors. When asked how he tries to manage the stars' egos, coach Mike D'Antoni said, "If you win, it takes care of everything.
"The [Boston] players are going to have to figure out how they are going to interact. And they will. They'll figure it out. They're great players at a good time in their career. Doc will tell them what he needs and they'll do it. The only time you can't figure it out is when they don't want to do it."
A Golden group
"The Big Three" isn't a very creative nickname for a great scoring trio, especially since it has been used in Boston already. The trio with probably the best nickname was the Warriors' "Run TMC."
During the 1990-91 season, Mullin (25.7 points), Mitch Richmond (23.9), and Tim Hardaway (22.9) averaged 72.5 points per game. They were called Run TMC (after the rap group Run DMC) because of their first names (Tim, Mitch, Chris). Mullin said one reason Run TMC was special was that each of the three was a very different kind of player, which also is the case with the Celtics' new star trio.
"Coming into the game, there are probably matchups where one guy has an advantage," Mullin said. "Who knows how they play you [defensively]? When one guy gets hot, it's obvious. When you got guys with talent, they know when they've got a mismatch. They're probably best at their position every night.
"Guys are going to go to their strengths. More times than not, no matter what they do, they'll figure it out."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org