LeBron-Davis, Kawhi-George lead NBA's top duos

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LeBron-Davis, Kawhi-George lead NBA's top duos

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.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

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Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, the 2024 second-round pick and the 2025 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

For Portland, Trevor Ariza isn’t impactful enough for this to be seen as more than a cost-cutting move. Ariza, at 34 years old, has struggled to find the same level of play that made him a key player on the Houston Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in 2018.

Ariza has bounced around the league in his twilight years. In the last two seasons, Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento and now Portland have hoped he can help lead a middling team to the playoffs, but none so far have had much luck in that department. In his prime, Ariza represented the 3-and-D standard. But his mobility isn’t what it once was, leaving him as best suited for a bench role.

In Portland, he’ll be thrusted into the starting lineup by default, with Rodney Hood (Achilles) out for the season and Bazemore going to SacTown. With only a $1.8 million of $12.8 million guaranteed for next season, the Blazers can let Ariza go this summer for a small price if they’d like to change direction. The cost savings will be substantial for a 18-25 team with the largest tax bill in the NBA; The Blazers will slice their luxury tax bill to $7 million and save $12.5 million in salary overall. 

In basketball terms, this is mostly a sideways move for both sides. Neither Bazemore nor Ariza ranked higher than seventh in minutes per game on their respective teams. Ariza had found a larger role for the Kings recently, but inconsistent production made him expendable from the Kings’ perspective. 

The Blazers were wise to cut back their 2019-20 spending, given that their playoff chances have been dwindling. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has them at a 26% chance of making the postseason in the West. Most execs I’ve spoken to expected Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside’s expiring deals to be flipped before the deadline. One down, another to go?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.