The best three-man unit is a classic debate among basketball purists, with many candidates and lengthy arguments for each. In 2008, the Boston Celtics won the NBA Championship with an especially notable threesome: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. This served to fuel renewal into the classic top-trio discussion; yet for many, only proved to be reminiscent of another Celtics three-player combo that formerly dominated the hardwood.
Throughout the 1980’s, the Celtics won three NBA Championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986. Driving the force of the team were the frontcourt three of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Larry Bird. Although discussion will always arise over who is the best group of three players, and how to quantify such a statement, there is no denying a level of greatness from this squad. All three would be inducted to the Hall of Fame, and on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the league in 1996, all three would be named among the 50 Greatest Players in National Basketball Association history.
1. Robert Parish
Nicknamed “Chief” for his stoic demeanor and intimidating presence on the court, Parish had an unorthodox style for his position at center. He had an excellent mid-range jump shot, along with often leading NBA centers in free-throw shooting. This shooting prowess enabled him to be a constant threat on the court, and a perfect complement to his teammates.
2. Kevin McHale
He would call the paint “The Torture Chamber” under the boards, because once he had the ball he had a nearly unstoppable arsenal of head fakes, drop steps, hand fakes, a decent hook shot and a killer turnaround jumper. Using any method available to score near the basket, he would prove to be the foreshadowing inspiration for future big men who used a similar arsenal, such as Hakeen Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal.
3. Larry Bird
Larry Legend offered the league a unique legacy that, alone, has filled several books trying to adequately describe his greatness. The hard-working “Hick from French Lick” is inarguably among the NBA’s all-time greatest shooters. Whereas the next generation’s stars such as Allen Iverson have led the league in scoring with a field-goal percentage below 45%, Larry would finish several seasons shooting over 50% from the field, 90% from the free-throw line, and 40% from three-point range. Despite also being an intuitive passer and hustling rebounder, Bird was perhaps most famous for his clutch play, sporting late-game theatrics in which he would demand the ball and, even though everyone knew he would attempt the final shot, often beat both defenders and the buzzer to win games.
The combined statistics for this trio during the 1985-1986 season? Per game, they averaged 63.2 points, 27.4 rebounds, 12.5 assists, and 4 blocks. As good as Garnett, Pierce, and Allen are, they have yet to inspire the remarkable threat of their team from a generation before; the best frontcourt of all time, and possibly the best three-man unit ever, from all positions.