Cover Image: The Big Three

The Big Three

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Member Reviews

Subtitled: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Rebirth of the Boston Celtics

I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve never been a fan of the Boston Celtics, but after reading Three Ring Circus, about the Lakers, I was in the mood to read another book about the NBA based in the last couple of decades and this one seemed like it might be pretty good.

This book can be broken down into three sections. The first part details how Danny Ainge went about acquiring Garnett and Allen to augment Pierce and hiring coach Doc Rivers to make the Celtics a championship contender. The second part examined the Celtics as a team during the years they won and/or were serious contenders for the NBA title. The last part diagnosed what happened to the team as the Big 3 aged and Boston fell from the ranks of the league’s elite teams.

While it was obviously written by a Celtics fan, the book avoided going overboard in praising the team and its players. It provided honest criticism of players, coaches, and executives where merited and provided a fascinating look at the construction and break up of one of the best teams of the late 00’s and early teens.

For those reasons, I gave The Big Three five stars. As a stat geek I would have liked to see an appendix including the team’s stats for the years covered as well as career stats for the big three, but I still enjoyed the book without them.
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Winning an NBA championship is hard; the road to a title demands a lot of the players on the floor. But one could argue that assembling a championship squad is even harder, a delicate dance involving winning trades, quality drafting, good signings … and more than a little luck.

Michael Holley’s “The Big Three: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Rebirth of the Boston Celtics” tells the story of one such squad and the titanic trio that operated at its center. It’s an in-depth look at how the 2008 Celtics championship squad was assembled, from the 2003 purchase of the Celtics by a new ownership group to the hiring of Danny Ainge as general manager to the acquisition of Garnett and Allen to the eventual breaking up of the band to move the franchise forward.

It’s a remarkably well-reported book, a detailed exploration of the many ups and downs that came along with trying to assemble this sort of next-level team. Through conversations and archival research, Holley crafts a portrait that focuses on the people involved as opposed to the numbers, a fine juxtaposition to Ainge’s ongoing insistence on refusing to allow the personal to interfere with his plan.

For nearly two decades, the storied Boston Celtics franchise was mired in mediocrity. Sometimes bad, sometimes pretty good, never great, the Celtics were growing ever farther removed from their championship heyday; Boston hadn’t hoisted the trophy since 1986.

The path to change began in 2003 when the Celtics changed hands. Team owner Paul Gaston sold the team for a then-record $360 million to Boston Basketball Partners, headed up by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca. The new owners hired Danny Ainge – then a network analyst – to take the team-building reins. Ainge hired Doc Rivers to be his coach.

And then he got down to business.

The first piece was already in-house. Paul Pierce was the 10th pick in the 1998 draft, selected by the Celtics out of Kansas. The early part of his career was marked by solid statistical performance – much of it alongside then-teammate Antoine Walker – but he was viewed by Ainge and company as the by-far superior player to Walker. He would serve as a foundational part of the championship team Ainge hoped to assemble.

The next parts would prove a little tougher.

Kevin Garnett had been an elite NBA player for more than a decade, even winning an MVP in 2004. But he was stuck on the Minnesota Timberwolves, a snakebitten franchise that could never figure out a way to give Garnett any help on the floor. Seemingly every effort backfired, leaving Garnett to play his heart out for teams destined to max out at first-round playoff exits.

Ray Allen was one of the best shooters in the league, doing his thing in Seattle. He was putting up points on the regular, but there were rumblings that new ownership had some less-than-ideal plans for the franchise. Allen was a SuperSonic – but for how long?

Thanks to some elaborate wheeling and dealing that I won’t even try to spell out here – seriously, it’s one of the best parts of the book when Holley walks you through it – Ainge managed to pull off trades that landed both Garnett and Allen in Boston. They joined Pierce and turned a long-mediocre Celtics squad into an instant favorite. For two decades, when you said “Big Three” in Boston, everyone knew you were talking Bird, McHale and Parish. Now?

Pierce, Garnett, Allen – the new Big Three.

For the next few years, this Boston Celtics squad stood as one of the best in the league – a generationally-good team, albeit one that would ultimately win just the one championship. But a title is a title; banners hang forever. And that was what these three players brought to Boston.

“The Big Three” offers insight into the people and personalities involved in this memorable era of Celtics basketball. Yes, we spend a lot of time with Pierce, Garnett and Allen, getting to know who they were and the sacrifices they made in order to make their triumvirate work. And yes, we’re given insight into Ainge and Rivers and what makes them tick; both men are among the very best at what they do, so it’s interesting to get a peek behind the curtain.

But we also get to meet some of the other folks involved – ownership, front office, players – in the championship season, as well as what came before and after. There are a few familiar names mixed in. We learn a lot about the organization’s relationship to Rajon Rondo as the headstrong youngster came into his own. We meet a young front office wonk named Daryl Morey, who would go on to assemble his own super team (with somewhat less playoff success) in Houston.

What Holley has done is bring the entire era to vivid life, capturing that relatively brief stretch when the Celtics stood atop the basketball world, taking on all comers on their way to the promised land. And yes, the multiple championships never materialized; Ainge kept his promise to himself to never let his personal feelings get in the way of moving the organization forward. It was a shooting star of a team, one that burned bright and fast before fading.

“The Big Three” is a book about feeling; Holley does a wonderful job of capturing just how these men felt about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There’s not much in the way of nuts-and-bolts statistics or game recaps – it’s not that kind of book. People who want that can look at box scores or Basketball-Reference. It’s about evoking the very human stories behind this era of Boston basketball. That evocation is Holley’s primary goal – one that he very much achieves.

If you’re a fan of the Boston Celtics or NBA history in general, you’re going to dig “The Big Three.” Michael Holley is a talented writer with a solid understanding of professional basketball both on and off the court. Honestly, even if you’re familiar with the story of this team, there’s a lot here that will likely prove new to you – it certainly did to me. The temptation is to call this book a slam-dunk, but it’s more than that – it’s a dagger three and a game-changing block and a crisp pass. As far as sports books go, it does it all … just like Boston’s Big Three.
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Entertaining but (as a big fan) not a lot of new information.  Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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Well-written, enjoyable read. Easy to follow, highly recommended for anyone who was an NBA fan during the time period.
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A good sports book has a few beats it needs to cover to succeed. First, the team is assembled. Second, you talk about the growing pains when the team is first brought together. Finally, you read about how the team achieves it's goals. This book is interesting because it adds another phase: what happens after the championship banners are raised?

Holley's book shows how the post 2008 title Celtics glided from a great team to a rebuilding one. By page 100, the discussion of the title season has concluded. Their core is rent apart by animosity between Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, as well as the aging of the entire team. Doc Rivers stands by, looking on patiently while trying to keep the group playing at a high enough level to get that next championship. Danny Ainge is back in the lab, cooking up trades to try and patch holes in a roster that develops them at a breakneck pace. But it isn't meant to be.

Holley did a great job of being fair and even handed in his treatment of Allen and Rondo. We see a different side of Allen that really hasn't been portrayed in the media, that of a lonely craftsman who just wants to find his place in the league. Rondo is given the keys to the team and proves that the contract extension he received was a mistake. He's eventually shipped off to Dallas, and becomes a journeyman who finally won another title with the 2020 Lakers. But we also see the passionate side of Rondo. He's a proud man who's unable to properly express his emotion. He's not immature; he just can't bear not to win. 

I recommend this book to all sports fans. It's not often you get to read about how a team dies after achieving the greatest success.
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Basketball fans are aware that the Boston Celtics have won 17 championships, a record they held themselves until the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers tied that mark. This book by Michael Holley, who has been called "the premier chronicler of Boston sports", tells the reader the complete story behind the 17th title, which was won in 2008.  It is a fascinating look at the complete picture of the era of the "Big Three" in Boston, from the first day that former Celtics player Danny Ainge considered a front office job with his former team to the last chance for the team as it was constructed in 2013 to get back to the Finals.

That last chapter of the team's saga, with Ray Allen having already departed the Celtics in favor of the then-rival Miami Heat, was especially painful considering the stories from the previous chapters. For the most part, the "Big Three" players mentioned in the subtitle – Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen – all had similar NBA careers before they were teammates.  Pierce had spent his entire career in Boston and was getting antsy to be able to add a banner to the rafters of the TD Garden.  Garnett, having already won one MVP award in Minnesota, was growing frustrated with the inability of the Timberwolves to build off their one year of playoff success in 2004.  Allen was starring in Seattle but wasn't happy with all the side talk about the team moving to Oklahoma City.

Here is where Ainge, along with coach Doc Rivers, puts together two brilliant trade packages to land Allen and Garnett to play alongside Pierce, making up the Celtics' "Big Three".  It is to the author's credit that he does not try to make this seem like a historic collection of stars – indeed, he frequently mentions an earlier "big three" combination for the Celtics of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, who were all teammates of Ainge.  The latter of those three remained friends with Ainge and that connection was the key in obtaining Garnett as McHale was the GM of the Timberwolves at the time. 

The story of the Garnett trade, with not only that trade itself but what Ainge did to ensure that he collected all the parts Minnesota wanted to make the trade, was Holley's writing at its finest.  While he certainly writes about the on-court action well, especially during the 2008 NBA finals when the Big Three won their only championship together, it is his writing about the front office workings and the conversations between the players or players and Rivers off the court that makes the book stand out.  Any reader will learn a lot about the Celtics and their use of analytics before it became as big as it is now, one very important part of why Ainge was successful at putting together  team that for five years was among the very best in the NBA, making it to at least the conference finals three of those five years. 

There is also good material on important items in the league that didn't directly involve the Celtics but had an impact on them, such as LeBron James moving from Cleveland to Miami and the NBA lockout of 2011. Holley makes sure to tie these back to the Celtics and what these meant to the team.  This was important to help paint the complete picture of the Boston Celtics from 2007 to 2012.  If this is a topic about which a reader wishes to learn more, this is an excellent source.

I wish to thank Hachette Books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
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This was an interesting read about the Celtics return to glory and how a new ownership group brought a new identity with one goal in mind.  It was excellent to read through Danny Ainge becoming GM, Doc Rivers becoming coach and hw they acquired the two other members of the big three.

The chapters about their championship run were filled with great stories about leadership, sacrifice and going all in for the greater good of the title.

I'd recommend this to any basketball or sports fan.
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The scope of this book (SIX years of NBA seasons) was simply way too large for such a tiny book. While it was undoubtedly fun to read, it was not truly satisfying and was a mere footnote in the long history of excellent NBA books.
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Am I biased in writing this review? Yes. I became a Celtics fan a year before KG and Ray Allen came to Boston. I lived this book in real time. I knew I would enjoy the insider information the book would hold, and I did. But I didn’t expect to emotionally re-live the excitement of the Big Three, the rise of Rondo, the championship, the frustration of the years after the championship, the Heat hatred, and the devastation of the relationship disintegration and watching the team I loved more than any other basketball team in history go separate ways. My heart raced at times. I audibly cheered at times. I read through tears several times. It was an emotional rollercoaster that only sports can take you in and only the passion of Boston teams could kick into high gear. When the Celtics team I loved broke in many directions, my heart was also broken. I mourned the loss of that team and struggled to get on board with a new Celtics team. The book gives a different spin. Knowing what happened behind the scenes of the trades made it easier to accept. The book ended with an optimism that I was too short sighted to see at the time. And that’s really the heart of this book...a man willing to look at the long game when forming a team and not getting caught up in the here and now. I cannot recommend this book more for any Celtics fan, but it is also a great read for any basketball or sports fan in general. The money ball of basketball told through a more personal and less clinical lens. I loved it immensely!
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This book covered the history of how the Celtics rebuild began, what sparked it, and what followed after the championship. It covered the relationships between the players, coaches and management. It covered how other teams viewed the Celtics. I love how in depth this book dove. It covered topics that most sports biographies miss. Learning about the connections between everyone on the team was fascinating. When I think of sports, I don't really think of the connections between players and management but this book covered it. I loved every second of reading this.
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