General Managers and coaches love to talk about the importance of chemistry in piecing together a team. Chemistry, however, is a science and the assembling of a champion is anything but. In fact, mathematics is the discipline that really applies to such construction jobs, with certain formulas for victory emerging over time. One of them, call it the Threesome Theorem, holds that a team's best chance to win an NBA title is to make sure that three elite players factor into the equation.
There are data to support that supposition. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, the Los Angeles Lakers won three league championships in the 1980s. When the Lakers didn't prevail, the Boston Celtics, who won three titles that decade by building on the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish foundation, usually did. Since then, many a contender with two elite players has turned into Carl Sagan, looking for one more star. Among the searchers last season were the Lakers, who traded for sharp-shooting forward Glen Rice to complement center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, and the Houston Rockets, who acquired Scottie Pippen to expand the Hakeem Olajuwon-Charles Barkley duo into a trio.
But champions these days stand on two sturdy legs, not a tripod. The team that dominated the '90s, the Chicago Bulls, was defined by a brace of preeminent players, Pippen and Michael Jordan. The Threesome Theorem, like the two-hand set shot and commercial flights, is obsolete in today's NBA. The formula that's now holding up best is the Pair Postulate. "I'd rather have two great ones and a bunch of unselfish guys," says Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown. "It takes more than great players. It takes guys who understand what the team is about."
The number of believers in the Pair Postulate is growing—and so is the evidence that supports it. Last season's Finals matched teams that relied on the two-star system: the San Antonio Spurs, with forward Tim Duncan and center David Robinson, and the New York Knicks, with guards Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. As for L.A. and Houston, the addition of a third top player didn't just fail to pay off; it also might very well have moved them further from a championship. The Lakers were more effective with Eddie Jones as an excellent supporting player than they were after trading him to the Charlotte Hornets to get Rice. The Rockets were better with Barkley and Olajuwon than they were after adding Pippen to the mix.
"I'd rather be on a team with one superstar, who everybody knows, without hesitation, is the Man," says Denver Nuggets guard Bryant Stith. "Then you need one other very good player to complement your superstar, three guys to plug into that starting five and some guys coming off the bench who understand their roles."
That sounds like a description of the Spurs and the Knicks, who figure to go deep into the playoffs again this season. The Pair Postulate is why other teams who fit the model-such as the Miami Heat with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, and the Utah Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton—shouldn't be dismissed as title contenders. It's why the Portland Trail Blazers may find, as they did last year, that they actually have too many All-Star-caliber players to win a championship: the recently obtained Pippen and guard Steve Smith, plus forwards Brian Grant and Rasheed Wallace and playmaker Damon Stoudamire. It's why the success of the Phoenix Suns depends largely on whether newly acquired shooting guard Penny Hardaway blends with point guard Jason Kidd as the team's second star—and whether forward Tom Gugliotta, a former All-Star, can adjust to being part of the supporting cast. It's why the Indiana Pacers, longtime contenders with guard Reggie Miller and center Rik Smits as their mainstays, may slip this season as Smits's effectiveness is continually reduced by injury. It's why the Sacramento Kings, who have perhaps the most promising tandem in the league, power forward Chris Webber and point guard Jason Williams, have reason to feel they are on a championship track.
Having a pair of top guns rather than a trio simplifies matters in two key areas: payroll and players' roles. The main reason the Lakers couldn't make a competitive offer last summer to free-agent power forward Charles Oakley, a blue-collar worker who would have been a perfect fit for them, was that the gargantuan contracts of Bryant, O'Neal and Rice consumed so much of the salary-cap room that the club had only a $2 million slot. Oakley turned down L.A.'s offer and re-signed with the Toronto Raptors for $18 million over three years. The Celtics had the makings of a three-star outfit with forwards Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce and guard Ron Mercer, but they didn't want to commit superstar money to Mercer, so they traded him to Denver, a move that should eventually benefit both teams. Walker and Pierce are the backbone of the Boston team, while Mercer and forward Antonio McDyess could lead the Nuggets out of mediocrity.
"The problem today is, teams have to decide whether they can afford to keep three top-flight players," says Lakers president Jerry West. "It is going to be increasingly difficult, with the constraints put on budgets, to keep players and keep them happy, especially in light of the fact that some players are being paid star salaries when they shouldn't be."
Even if a team's three stars are happy with their contracts, they'll often find something else to gripe about—such as their shot totals. Consider the clashes Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn had when they formed what was seemingly a formidable troika for the Dallas Mavericks in the mid '90s. "What we're really talking about is ego," says Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl. "It's easier to manage two egos than three egos."
The Rockets discovered that a pair can beat three of a kind last year when Pippen grumbled about his role as the third wheel most of the season and finally was traded to Portland after firing several verbal shots, one of them aimed squarely at Barkley's backside. Pippen's time in Houston was a fiasco because the Rockets couldn't find a way to fit him into an attack that revolved around the post-up talents of Olajuwon and Barkley.