This past summer, the NBA liquefied from a league of super-teams (and wannabe super-teams) to a league of duos.
Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors’ championship not only ended an era in Golden State but also may have ended an era in the league altogether. To borrow from Daryl Morey’s Evernote, talent is still the biggest bargain in the league, but depth is what brings up the back. Some front offices are questioning the diminishing returns of a third star, and so we may see the age of the Big Two take over the NBA.
Here are the current Big Twos ranked, not just for next season, but also for sustained success as we head into this new world.
1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis
2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
Yes, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George may very well end up being the greatest defensive duo that ever smothered an NBA perimeter. Yes, both scored at MVP levels last season. And, yes, Leonard may be the best player in the game.
But take the belt away from LeBron James at your own risk.
He’s coming off his first season significantly impacted by injury but it’s unclear if last season is more of an anomaly than an age-induced trend. Pair him with a player who in his last complete season was, quite clearly, one of the best three or four players in the league and the Los Angeles Lakers have the only duo consisting of two top-five players.
Paul George is close to a top-five player, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury that significantly hurt his ability to score at a top-five player level. Leonard is the “load management” king. James and Davis have been healthier than Leonard and George over the last couple of seasons. That matters.
Still, it’s only a slight advantage. Leonard’s ability to Kobe Bryant his way to buckets as he pleases all the while being the most disruptive defender the NBA has ever seen is what allowed his “Big One” in Toronto to topple a limping Warriors dynasty. George and Leonard were in the MVP conversation last season. Neither James or Davis were mentioned.
While Leonard and George are much better defensively, I still don’t know who among them — or on the Clippers — guards Davis. When the Lakers play Davis at center, the Clippers don’t have a big who can stick with him on the perimeter or in the paint. Couple Davis’ size and versatility on offense and ability play defense at a Defensive Player of the Year-level with a bounceback year from the best player in the game (maybe ever) give the Lakers duo the edge.
If everything breaks right…
3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook
4. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
5. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
There are varying levels of risk to these three duos. Let’s start in Houston, where the risk is clear: can James Harden and Russell Westbrook live in harmony? The fit concerns between two high-usage ball handlers may be a bit overstated. At net, these are two All-NBA guards in their respective primes. There will be give and take, and it will take time, but both players have plenty of motivation to make it work. Don’t count them out.
The next duo in Brooklyn has quite a bit more grey area. Unlike Harden and Westbrook, both Durant and Irving have won championships. Both might want to win rings separate from their former teams, but one already won two as the best player on maybe the greatest team ever, and the other’s aura may not exist in this spatial plane. So who’s to say.
Durant is also coming off an Achilles tear, and Irving had to pay for extra checked luggage for all the baggage he’s bringing to Brooklyn. The Nets knew the risk when they signed the two. They had to do it, but it’s dicey.
Of the three duos in this tier, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have the highest floor. Curry tilts the court in ways no other player ever has, and Thompson (if healthy) is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and should have his milk-mustachioed face right there next to Curry on the Mount Rushmore of 3-point shooters. The fact the two have played together for nearly a decade helps, too.
Thompson gets points for efficiency while Westbrook and Irving get, well, points.
But does it work?
6. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
7. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
It’s tough to delineate which duo, between Portland’s and Philadelphia’s, is better, but think of it this way: the Trail Blazers win games because Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can run the offense and allow their teammates to pick up the rest of the pieces. The 76ers got as far as they did last season almost in spite of a clunky fit between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Lillard and McCollum have defensive weaknesses, but they do the most important thing as well as any duo in the league, and that’s score. It’s unclear if Embiid and Simmons can do that together at an elite level or even on a regular basis, despite how promising and talented they are.
Come along, now
8. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
9. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
10. Victor Oladipo and a Pacers big man
11. Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson
Elsewhere in the league are superstar players waiting for their supposed co-star to pop. In Denver, Nikola Jokic has baked and risen into a wonderful loaf of a player, while Jamal Murray remains a flash in the pan. The pair of Nuggets gets the edge over the other duos because Jokic is the best player among them.
For the Jazz, Rudy Gobert is a top-15-or-20 player depending on who you ask and how close they live to Salt Lake City, and Donovan Mitchell’s recent Team USA experience should only help him take that next step to expected superstardom. Gobert has serious limitations in the postseason, so for the Jazz duo to work, Mitchell will have to leap past him as the team’s best player, and one of the best in the league.
Shake a fist at Victor Oladipo’s knee injury and then remember he is one of the best two-way players in the game. This season could be a down year for the Pacers, but also a learning experience as they try to find out who between Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis should man the 5 for the Oladipo-led contender of the future.
Finally, in New Orleans, they have a complicated situation between 29-year-old Jrue Holiday and 19-year-old Zion Williamson. Williamson is clearly the future, but Holiday is clearly still a good player. (Let’s not forget his blazing campaign in the playoffs two seasons ago.)
This may not be the future of the Pelicans, but it is the present and should be a compatible fit. Both Holiday and Williamson can handle the ball, but don’t need it to make a difference. Alvin Gentry should be able to flip pick-and-rolls to put either player in the ball handling and screening positions. There’s enough help around them to bolster their talents. For as long as these two are together it should, if nothing else, be productive.
Maestros of the mid-range
12. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan
Figuring out where the San Antonio Spurs fit in was tough, but just like the bulk of their shot chart, they fit in their own little space.
In the post-Kawhi era, Greg Popovich leaned all the way into mid-range shooting, zagging when everyone either took a step back or got all the way to the rim. Snark aside, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are great mid-range shooters, and Pop is letting them do what they do best.
The result is a playoff team, but not much more.
Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Around the NBA, there are no other duos of players 24-years-old or younger with ceilings as high as the ones in Dallas and Memphis.
The Mavericks are going all in on Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, having yielded their cap space to role players who fit well around them.
When the Grizzlies are done playing hard ball with Andre Iguodala, they will have one of the youngest rosters in the league with a rookie point guard and second-year center who project to give teams the blues on Beale Street for several years.
The league belongs to seasoned duos in California, Houston and Brooklyn, but this is the next generation. And, even now, they are still very much worth your attention.