James Harden and the Clippers join list of NBA Big Fours

ByAnthony Gharib ESPN logo
Thursday, November 16, 2023

The LA Clippers' recent acquisition of James Harden marks another chapter in the NBA's history of "Big Four" partnerships.

Harden joined Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook to form a quartet of superstars. So far, the trade hasn't reaped benefits for LA -- the Clippers have yet to win a game, while the Philadelphia 76ers are 6-1 since moving Harden.

LA's decision to trade for the former MVP came months after the Boston Celtics also created their own Big Four. Boston made separate trades for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday during the offseason, pairing the two with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The new partnership, alongside key playersAl Horford and Derrick White,has the Celtics atop the Eastern Conference with a 9-2 record.

History says the Clippers and Celtics' Big Four can either emerge victorious with a championship or end without one.

Here's how some notable Big Four partnerships in the NBA, put together either by free agency or trades, panned out.

Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich

One of the earliest superteams in the NBA formed in 1970 when the Phoenix Suns traded Gail Goodrich back to the Los Angeles Lakers. Goodrich had been drafted by the Lakers, but signed with the Suns in 1968, the same season Wilt Chamberlain arrived in Los Angeles.

The group's first season together ended in a Western Conference finals loss, but everything turned around the next season.

The Lakers won 69 games, including an NBA record 33 in a row, in 1971-72. Baylor retired nine games into the season, ending the Big Four after two seasons. But L.A. still won the title, defeating the New York Knicks 4-1 in the 1972 Finals.

1980s Los Angeles Lakers

Always in the way of the Celtics, the Lakers had multiple iterations of their own Big Four throughout the 1980s.

Los Angeles traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, then signed Jamaal Wilkes in 1977, the same year they drafted Norm Nixon. That trio became a Big Four when the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson in 1979, a pick they acquired when they traded Gail Goodrich to the then-New Orleans Jazz in 1976.

Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Nixon and Wilkes won championships in 1980 and 1982 with each player averaging at least 15 points during the regular season. Los Angeles made it to the Finals again in 1983, but were swept by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Because of a previous trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Lakers had the Cavaliers' No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, selecting James Worthy. As Los Angeles traded Nixon that offseason, Worthy slotted in as a new member of the Big Four. The Lakers reached the finals in their first season together, but lost to the Celtics.

Wilkes' production dipped in the 1984-85 season, his final with the Lakers. But, Byron Scott, acquired in the Nixon trade, stepped up, averaging 16.9 points during Los Angeles' championship winning run. Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy and Scott reached the Finals in four of the next five seasons, losing only once.

Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, ending the successful partnership.

Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson

Not long after their dominance in the 1960s, the Celtics put together a Big Four that competed consistently in the 1980s. Boston won the NBA Finals in 1981, but failed to reach the stage in the next two seasons, prompting Red Auerbach to make a move.

Auerbach traded for Johnson, a then-four-time All-Star coming off a 19.5 points per game season. The acquisition instantly paid off. The Celtics reached the Finals in each of Johnson's first four seasons with the team, winning championships in 1984 and 1986. The 1986 Boston team is seen as one of the greatest in NBA history.

The Celtics' success ran out when they lost to the Lakers in the 1987 Finals. After making it to the Eastern Conference finals in 1988, Boston lost in the first round the next two seasons. Johnson retired in 1990, while Bird followed suit in 1992 and McHale in 1993. Parish left the Celtics in 1994, ending any remnants of a dominant 1980s' team.

Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Gary Payton

After missing out on a four-peat the previous season, the Los Angeles Lakers doubled up on their Shaq-Kobe duo, signing Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton for the 2003-2004 campaign. Both players were in the twilight of their careers, looking for their first NBA championship.

Instead, the teammates embarked on a season full of internal problems as Bryant and O'Neal's bickering reached its peak. The Lakers won 56 games and made it to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in five seasons.

Seen as the favorites to defeat the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers crumbled in the Finals. They lost three games by double digits, including a 100-87 series clinching Game 5, as Detroit beat Los Angeles 4-1. Hampered with an injury, Malone played in just one Finals game.

Only Bryant remained part of the Lakers after the offseason -- O'Neal and Payton were traded to the Miami Heat, while Malone and coach Phil Jackson retired.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen

James and Bosh created the NBA's newest big three when they joined Wade in Miami during the 2010 offseason. Two years later, Allen signed with the Heat after spending five seasons with the Boston Celtics, who faced Miami in two straight playoff runs.

Allen's decision proved to be a successful one for the sharpshooter. In a new role off the bench, he complimented the big three, especially during the Heat's 2012-13 championship run.

Against the San Antonio Spurs, Allen hit the game-tying shot with five seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Miami ended up winning the series in seven games.

The Heat's fire ran out next season. They reached the NBA Finals, but lost in five games to the Spurs. Miami's partnership came to an end soon thereafter -- James signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Allen retired after an 18-year career. Wade and Bosh remained in Miami for two more seasons.

Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard

The Lakers pulled another one before the 2012-13 season.

L.A. first acquired Steve Nash from the Suns in July 2012. Almost exactly a month later, Howard was traded from the Orlando Magic.

The blockbuster acquisitions didn't translate to on-court success.

The Lakers fired coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start, Nash played 50 games and Bryant criticized Howard for a lack of urgency. With a 25-29 record at the All-Star break, L.A. finished the regular season 19-8, good enough for the No. 7 seed in the playoffs.

It came at a cost, however, as Bryant tore his Achilles in the third-to-last regular-season game. The Lakers were swept in the first round by the Spurs and Howard signed with the Houston Rockets that offseason.

Nash played 15 games in the 2013-14 season and retired before the 2014-15 season. Bryant retired in 2016 with the Lakers, while Gasol left L.A. in the 2014 offseason.

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

The Golden State Warriors are the blueprint for success when it comes to Big Four partnerships.

Then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant lost to the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. He signed with Golden State in the next offseason, forming one of the more dominant teams in NBA history.

The Warriors won 152 games across three seasons plus back-to-back championships, becoming the seventh NBA franchise to win consecutive titles. Golden State's 67-15 record in the 2016-17 season is tied for the sixth highest win total all time.

Injuries to Durant and Thompson in the 2019 NBA Finals hindered a possible three-peat. The Warriors lost in six games to the Toronto Raptors and Durant left Golden State the ensuing offseason, putting to rest the Big Four.