Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said it best in his recent blog post that declared the NBA to be a player-driven league: “Movement made and broke a super team. It took us from having one team with arguably 4 superstars to no team with obviously more than 2.”
The key word there: “obviously.” When Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Paul George switched teams this summer (look at those names!), the whirlwind of transactions created a flattened NBA landscape. Super teams turned into squads with super duos.
So, which tandem is the best? And which tandems have the best chance of becoming a starry trio? Oh, and what about the duos that have the best chance to crash the party in years to come? All are questions worthy of an answer, so I got to it. Below are the five best duos of today, followed by the five to bet on for the future, with both members being 25 years or younger.
Let’s get to it.
Top Five Duos of Today
1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)
This duo features the greatest player of his generation and perhaps the best big man of his generation. As I pointed out in the BIG Number last season, Davis promises to be the best player James has ever played with during his career (apologies to Dwyane Wade!). Even with the trade controversy engulfing New Orleans last season, Davis posted career-high marks in rebounds per possession, assists per possession and 3-pointers per possession, certifying himself as one of the most talented players on the planet.
A groin injury hampered James in 2018-19, but the upside is that he should be refreshed after logging 2,011 fewer minutes than he did in the previous season (Finals run included). Unlike other duos on this list, I’m not worried about a positional overlap that could cannibalize their talents on the court. These two will shine together or apart.
Most likely big three candidate: DeMarcus Cousins. Have you seen this guy recently? Cousins losing weight is great news for the Lakers. Studies show that weight loss is a strong predictor of successful post-Achilles recovery. If Cousins can stay fit in a contract year, this could be a big three before we know it.
2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (L.A. Clippers)
Good luck scoring against these two. If healthy, these two super-wings will terrify the rest of the league on both ends of the floor. Despite Paul George’s tweet late last month, I’m worried about his health after undergoing rotator cuff surgery to repair torn labrums in both shoulders this summer. A 2016 meta-analysis study found that only half of professional athletes return to the same level of play after undergoing treatment for one rotator cuff repair, let alone two.
But even if George isn’t 100 percent next season, he should still be a two-way force that draws the envy of every team outside Los Angeles. After all, George was an MVP candidate with two bum shoulders last season. Leonard and George do have injury risks, but their talents are undeniable. With a formidable supporting cast, this is my team to beat in 2018-19. But I can’t put them No. 1 with George’s health concerns.
Most likely big three candidate: Montrezl Harrell. You could slot reigning Sixth Man of the Year award-winner Lou Williams here and I wouldn’t mind. But Williams is 32 years old and Harrell is just entering his prime, turning 26 in January. Harrell’s pick-and-roll and glass-cleaning skills make him a snug fit next to Leonard and George. And he has room to grow.
3. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)
This ranking might surprise some folks, but it shouldn’t. No other team can flaunt an MVP winner and a Defensive Player of the Year in their primes. Putting accolades aside, Curry and Green complement each other’s games in seamless fashion, solidifying their spot on this list.
Don’t think they should rank this high? In the 868 minutes that Curry and Green have played without the aid of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala on the floor, the Warriors have still outscored opponents by 172 points, or 9.5 points every 48 minutes, per pbpstats.com. Curry and Green are still an elite duo. (For more on that, catch this BIG Number).
Most likely third candidate: D’Angelo Russell. Some might argue that this is a big three already with either Thompson or Russell representing that third slot. I’m not there yet. I’m taking the wait-and-see approach with Thompson’s recovery from an ACL tear. Yes, Russell was an All-Star last season at 23 years old, but only as a fill-in for Victor Oladipo in a weaker conference. I don’t like the fit next to Curry, but the Warriors have won championships and I have not.
4. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
This is not an overreaction to those Simmons pickup game videos that went around this week. Even if Simmons doesn’t add a 3-point shot next season, I have no qualms about keeping the Philly duo on the list. The Embiid and Simmons duo posted a plus-262 plus-minus last season, a strong mark for any pairing, much less one that featured a 22-year-old.
It’s true that Embiid and Simmons don’t fit together like Curry and Green -- far from it -- but Embiid and Simmons are great already and have more upside than anybody on this list. Embiid is just entering his prime years and Simmons is only scratching the surface of what he can become.
Most likely big three candidate: Tobias Harris. I love Al Horford as a player but at 33 years old, his best days are behind him. Harris just turned 27 and is in line for a breakout season in the East. As a tall sharp-shooter who can put the ball on the floor, Harris can be the Sixers’ version of prime Rashard Lewis. Like Lewis in Orlando, Harris has a big contract to live up to and I think he’ll get there soon, if not right away.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
The two best players on the NBA’s best team in the regular season. Really, Antetokounmpo and insert-NBA-player-here could arguably make this list based on the Greek Freak’s talent alone. But Middleton made his first All-Star Game last year and signed a five-year, $177 million contract this summer. He’s a worthy member of the duo, even if he struggled to assert himself in the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto.
With Malcolm Brogdon gone to Indiana, Middleton can stretch out a bit more and show he’s one of the premier wing scorers in the game. Last season, Middleton scored 24.5 points per 36 minutes with Brogdon off the floor, per NBA.com/stats. If he can do that next season and ease the burden on Antetokounmpo’s broad shoulders, they’ll jump higher on this list.
Most likely big three candidate: Eric Bledsoe. I’m not high on Bledsoe’s chances of ascending and making this a star trio, but the Bucks are obviously believers. Milwaukee brass signed him to a $70 million contract in March and let Brogdon go this summer, making Bledsoe the team’s point guard for the foreseeable future. If Bledsoe doesn’t bounce back from a disappointing postseason, don’t be surprised if Chris Paul trade rumors surface.
Apologies to (in no particular order):
James Harden and Russell Westbrook: Hard to imagine two MVPs having a worse fit.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum: Another trip to the West finals would solidify their spot.
Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert: Love Utah, but shockingly, they have zero All-Star appearances among them.
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge: Elite scorers, but still not top five.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant: Check back in 2020-21.
Top Five Duos of Tomorrow
1. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (Dallas Mavericks)
Nothing from Doncic’s rookie season could dissuade me from thinking he’s a future MVP in this league. Playing most of his first NBA season as a teenager, Doncic averaged an astounding 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists for the Mavericks and joined James in some rarified air.
Porzingis’ future is a little fuzzier. His Mavericks debut in October will come about 20 months after his ACL tear. An All-Star at 22 years old, the 7-foot-3 do-it-all big man had future MVP candidate written all over him before the injury. Porzingis might be rusty this season, but no duo collectively has higher ceilings than these two youngsters.
2. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)
Nikola Jokic is already a top-ten player, no doubt. Murray is making his way there. You can point to the Nuggets’ No. 2 seed in the Western Conference as justification for putting Jokic and Murray atop this list, but I still need to see more from Murray before I tab him as one of the league’s elite up-and-coming talents (he finished just inside the top 100 in real plus-minus (RPM) last season).
With that said, Murray is 22 years old and really, really good. An elite shooter and capable distributor, he can be a Brandon Roy/Bradley Beal-type player for the Nuggets. If Murray gets to that level, the Nuggets will be title contenders immediately. Jokic may be good enough that they’re title contenders no matter what.
3. Trae Young and John Collins (Atlanta Hawks)
Neither of these guys are even 22 years old yet and they’re near-locks for 20-and-10 every night. Young tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in seven games in his rookie season, including a 49-point, 16-assist supernova against Chicago in March. Collins finished his sophomore season averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, with a grand finale of 20 points, 25 rebounds and six assists in the team’s final game.
Next season will help determine whether those eye-popping stat-lines will turn into wins. Young and Collins need some defensive stalwarts around them long-term (hello, De’Andre Hunter), but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this duo became All-Stars next season. They have the makings of the next generation’s Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
4. Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball (New Orleans Pelicans)
I don’t know who will become Zion Williamson’s co-pilot in New Orleans, but Ball has the best chance of any of the youngsters. I always saw him as a Jrue Holiday prototype but with better vision. And now the 21-year-old will join Holiday in New Orleans.
With Holiday, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors setting the tone in the locker room, I love the youth movement that executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin is overseeing in the Big Easy. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, freshly off being named to 2019 NBA Summer League First Team, also deserves to be mentioned along with Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and No. 8 overall pick Jaxson Hayes. Williamson’s upside alone puts New Orleans on this list, but I’m still a big believer in Ball.
5. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Amazing what a difference a year makes. Boston’s young duo may have ranked No. 1 on the Summer 2018 version of this list, but both players struggled to take a big step forward last season. Brown is entering a contract year, as he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer in what promises to be a weak free agency class. I still see Tatum reaching All-Star status, but I’m a little less bullish on Brown, who turns 23 years old in October.
Remember, these two were the leading scorers on an Eastern Conference finals team two years ago. One disappointing season doesn’t remove them from consideration, but an uneven 2019-20 campaign will surely sour their once-golden status around the league.
Apologies to (in no particular order):
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins: I’ve lost patience on Wiggins, who turns 25 in February.
Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen: Stay healthy, please?
Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner: If Indiana doesn’t think they’re a duo, should I?
Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton: Let’s see what Monty Williams, Booker’s fourth head coach, can do.
De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III: Sacramento has a bright future if Bagley commits to defense.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.: Both teenagers still, and don’t sleep on rookie Brandon Clarke.