Paul George completes Sixers’ Big 3. But it’s a Big 5 League now

The Philadelphia 76ers landed the biggest fish of free agency, agreeing to terms with former L.A. Clippers star Paul George on a reported four-year, $212 million pact in the opening hours of free agency. It represents probably the most impactful free agent signing in Philly’s 75-year franchise history. The Sixers’ faithful should be thrilled with their new Big 3 of George, Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid.

But the last two teams to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy — the 2022-23 Denver Nuggets and the 2023-24 Boston Celtics — were built upon the belief that the Big 3 era is dead. Welcome to the era of the Big 5.

More so than ever, the NBA has become a war of attrition, with injuries dictating postseason outcomes. And to survive it, you can’t have all of the team’s hopes hinging on just three players.

While sports talk shows spent countless hours debating where the Celtics’ Big 2 of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown stacked up against the rest of the league’s star duos, Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ front office were busy building a Big 5. Yes, as I wrote in the aftermath of their championship, the Celtics’ title is a crowning confirmation that three (points) is more than two.

But it also proved that five (stars) is more than three.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 23: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers high fives Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers after the game on December 23, 2022 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joel Embiid and Paul George are joining forces in Philly. How far can they go in the East? (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Rather than breaking up the Tatum-Brown duo, the Celtics went in the other direction and upgraded the supporting cast. Before last season, the Celtics boldly cut bait on Marcus Smart and traded him for a former All-Star in Kristaps Porziņģis, who had been coming off a year in which he averaged 23.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in Washington. Not only that, they flipped Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams III and two first-round picks for two-time All-Star Jrue Holiday, who had been traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard.

Counting Tatum, Brown and Al Horford, those monster deals gave the Celtics five players who had been an All-Star in the previous six seasons. Add Derrick White, who just agreed to a contract worth a reported $30-plus million in annual dollars, and that’s six star-caliber players on the roster.

The Celtics effectively made a bet that the sheer depth of star-caliber players would overwhelm top-heavy opponents who might be acutely vulnerable to injury or incongruity with their star players. And looking at their playoff run, they were right on the money.

Against the Miami Heat, the Celtics didn’t have to play against their Big 2 of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler because the latter hurt his knee. Done in five games.

In the conference semifinals, the Cavaliers’ Big 3 of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen didn’t even take the floor together due to injuries to Allen, who missed the entire series with a rib injury, and Mitchell, who missed Games 4 and 5 nursing a calf injury. Dispatched in five games.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 17: Jayson Tatum #0, Al Horford #42, Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics celebrate after Boston's 106-88 win against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 17, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
The Celtics raised Banner No. 18 behind the strength of six star-caliber players. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

And the Indiana Pacers led by Tyrese Haliburton and Pascal Siakam? Same story. Haliburton came up limp in Game 2 and missed the final two games of the Celtics’ sweep with a hamstring injury.

In the NBA Finals, it was a strength in numbers story. Prognosticators across the media landscape (like yours truly) thought that the Celtics would be defeated because Dallas seemingly presented a more formidable duo in Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. As it turned out, the Celtics proved again that having two stars (or three) is great in theory, but having an elite starting five is better.

Look at the contender graveyard in the Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks tried to upgrade their Big 3 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Holiday by trading for Lillard — and they broke at the seams. With physical ailments to Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle (and seemingly half the roster), the New York Knicks almost ground themselves into dust trying to make it through the playoffs. In Philadelphia, Embiid was laboring on one leg throughout much of their first-round series against the Knicks.

They say the best ability is availability and the Celtics employed that in spades. To win it all, you need star bodies, and the Celtics possessed the most of any.

It would be a misnomer to suggest that all of the injury luck fell on the Celtics’ side en route to a championship. Not when Porziņģis missed the entire conference semifinals and conference finals dealing with a calf injury himself.

The Celtics didn’t seem to miss a beat without Porziņģis. And guess what — that’s because they were built that way. When other teams lost a star player, or a player of Porziņģis’ stature, they weren’t able to stay afloat. The Celtics were prepared.

Porziņģis out? No problem. Welcome back to the starting lineup, five-time All-Star Al Horford. Tatum going through a cold spell? Not a worry; here comes Jaylen Brown, who ended up winning Eastern Conference finals and Finals MVP awards. A glowing testament to the C’s depth: Holiday and White each led the Celtics in scoring in at least one playoff game.

In the previous season, the Nuggets were a shining example of the power of the starting five. The Nuggets never had a Big 2, much less a Big 3. Nikola Jokić remains the only MVP to have never had a star co-pilot; he has never been afforded a player who has earned an All-Star, All-NBA or All-Defense award alongside him. As good as Jokić is, it’s a team sport. Though it was Embiid who won MVP in the 2022-23 season, it was the Nuggets’ starting five that posted the best plus-minus of any five-man unit in the regular season, per (They were the best in the playoffs, too). Like this year’s Boston squad, that was a collective superteam, emphasis on team.

DENVER, CO - MAY 16: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets leads Aaron Gordon (50), Jamal Murray (27) and Michael Porter Jr. (1) of the Denver Nuggets towards the bench after drawing a foul from. Anthony Davis (3) of the Los Angeles Lakers during the fourth quarter of the Nuggets' 132-126 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. The Nuggets took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
The Nuggets boasted the league's best starting five when they won the title in 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

We’re not far removed from the starry trio of the Brooklyn Nets starring Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving being seen as the benchmark of the Eastern Conference. Until injuries and lack of cohesion led to their downfall. Durant chased another Big 3 model in Phoenix, with perhaps the most top-heavy roster in the league alongside Devin Booker and Bradley Beal — and promptly got swept. It’s not a coincidence that the Golden State Warriors last won a title in Andrew Wiggins’ All-Star season, and haven’t been back.

In today’s NBA, three stars may not be enough. With a more punitive apron-structure in the CBA, it may be harder than ever to keep pricey star talent together. The Celtics were able to time it perfectly with their collection of stars under contract for at least the next two seasons. Following that blueprint, the Oklahoma City Thunder vastly upgraded their supporting cast by adding Isaiah Hartenstein and Alex Caruso to their young star trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams. Though it’s the Sixers who have an MVP on their roster, I feel better about OKC’s chances to win a title over the next four years than the Sixers.

Yes, one can go ahead and rank George, Maxey and Embiid as the league’s newest Big 3 party. George may be a perfect fit next to Maxey and Embiid’s talents, complementing their skill-sets with two-way productivity and upside. On paper, the Sixers have what it takes.

But the 2023-24 Milwaukee Bucks were paper champs, too. And so were the Durant-Booker-Beal Suns. On paper, the Sixers look to be as formidable as any of their many Embiid iterations now that George is in town, as are Eric Gordon and Andre Drummond.

But George is 34. Gordon is 35. Drummond, finishing his 12th season, has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Embiid has fared better than Drummond, but the next time he makes it out of the second round will be his first. One reason for that: Embiid’s body hasn’t held up. In seven postseasons with the Sixers, Embiid has played in every one of his team’s games just twice; both were first-round exits, in 2019-20 and this past season.

One could argue that George fled one injury-riddled superstar partnership for another. In five seasons with the Clippers, George and Kawhi Leonard played just 26 of the teams’ 43 playoff games over that span, a troubling proportion of just 60 percent. Mind you, that doesn’t count the 2022-23 season in which the Clippers missed the playoffs, largely due to the fact that Leonard missed the season with a torn ACL and George missed 51 of the Clippers’ 82 games with an elbow injury.

On paper, the Leonard and George pairing figured to be a perennial title contender. The reality was much different. On average, the Leonard-George duo averaged 5.2 playoff games played together per season under contract.

Put another way: George and Leonard played 26 playoff games together in five seasons. Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns have played 27. But here’s the crazy thing: when Leonard and George teamed up in the summer of 2019, Edwards was five months away from making his debut — at the University of Georgia.

George and the Sixers hope that he has better luck playing next to Embiid, who dealt with knee issues and Bell’s Palsy this past postseason. The Sixers’ top-heaviness resembles that of the Big 3s that struggled to stay on the floor. Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations, has a well-established affinity for going big-game hunting on the star market. At his disposal, he’ll have two first-round picks (2025 and 2027) and a first-round pick swap (2029 with the Clippers) that he can float in trade talks to acquire another star.

But therein lies the problem. If Morey lands another star, the question is whether George will be happy about it. The Clippers went out and acquired James Harden and Russell Westbrook to supplement the core around George. A few months later, he stunned the NBA and orchestrated his escape from LA. Again, the Sixers hope this time is different.

There’s little doubt the Sixers are in a better place than they were before free agency opened. In effect, the Sixers traded, on an eight-month delay, a disgruntled Harden for George, two first-round picks and a first-round swap. Thirty out of 30 teams make that deal. But does it get them over the top? If the bar is making the Eastern Conference finals, they have a great chance of clearing it. But if the goal is to win a championship, they need more. After all, five is more than three.