Ranking the 10 greatest lineups in NBA history

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Ranking the 10 greatest lineups in NBA history

Free agency begins next week. Chapters will close and others will open. With Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson set to be free agents, we may have witnessed the end of one of the greatest chapters in NBA history. 

When Durant joined the Warriors in the summer of 2016, Golden State’s already infamous “Death Lineup” got a serious upgrade. 

The “Hamptons Five,” as it became known in honor of Durant’s free agency hub, featured a current or former All-Star at every position, including two former MVPs still in their prime in Durant and Curry. One of them, Curry, was the first-ever unanimous MVP, and the other, Durant, is a two-time Finals MVP. Then there’s Iguodala, who is also a Finals MVP and a two-time All-Defense recipient. Thompson, meanwhile, is a two-time All-NBA player and one of the greatest shooters ever. And to top it all off, Green is a former Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-NBA player.

That’s a lot of hardware, and it got me thinking: Has there been a lineup that good in NBA history? 

Answering that question was a mammoth undertaking that required hours and hours of research as well as the expertise of NBA historian Curtis Harris, who runs the delightful @ProHoopsHistory Twitter account. Go follow him if you haven’t already.

With Harris’ help, I whittled down the list to 10 five-man lineups. To qualify, these lineups had to play substantial minutes with each other but did not necessarily have to start games together (though all likely finished). One obstacle was that lineup data wasn’t kept until 2000, but with Harris’ expertise and some common sense, we have a pretty good idea of which 20th-century lineups actually played together. 

While winning a title helps, it’s not a requirement to be on this list; some juggernaut lineups fell apart due to injury, not ability. It also matters if lineups played together in the players’ prime years (ahem, 2003-04 Lakers). This isn’t just a collection of Hall of Famers that just so happened to play on the same team. They also had to actually play together as a five-man group.

This is also not a list of superstar duos (shouts to the 1990s Chicago Bulls) or incredible trios (LeBron’s Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; LeBron’s Cavs with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love). It’s also not about Big Fours with a so-so role player or teams with deep rosters that won a ton of games. Though the San Antonio Spurs sported some incredible teams, they were rarely built on a starry five-man unit with multiple players firmly in their primes. This is a look at the all-time best five-man lineups, with an emphasis on five.

Lastly, some notes on the honors listed: the Defensive Player of the Year award started in 1982-83 and the Finals MVP award began in 1969. In other words, Bill Russell’s zero in each category is not a typo; he might have won more of each award than any other player in history if they were invented before or during his career. They literally call it the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.

Now, with all that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s take a stroll through memory lane and rank the best five-man lineups of all-time. 

10. 2010-11 Boston Celtics

PG: Rajon Rondo
SG: Ray Allen
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Kevin Garnett
C: Shaquille O’Neal

Total All-Star appearances: 54
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 0

Look at that lineup. Despite Shaq laboring through right-leg injuries in what became his final season, this group was just about invincible when the Big Aristotle was on the court. In 266 minutes on the floor, this lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 18.3 points per 48 minutes, by far the largest differential of any Celtics’ Big Four lineup during that era. Crazy fact: With this five-man crew on the court, the Celtics shot 58 percent as a group, the highest field-goal percentage of any unit in the NBA (minimum 250 minutes played) since NBA.com began tracking lineup shooting percentages in 2007. Fifty-eight percent! Unfair.

The Celtics went 19-3 when Shaq played more than 20 minutes that season, but his body couldn’t hold up. After a series of injuries and cortisone shots, he shut it down for good in the playoffs and called it a career. Who knows what would have happened if Shaq was healthier, but this lineup featured jaw-dropping starpower, and did enough damage in his 37 games to deserve a spot on this list. No team on this top-10 list featured a five-man unit that accumulated more than 40 All-Star appearances in their respective careers ... except this one, which totaled 54. 

9. 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks

PG: Jason Kidd
SG: Jason Terry
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Tyson Chandler

Total All-Star appearances: 29
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

Don’t be surprised. This group didn’t just take down James, Wade and Bosh in the Finals. It annihilated everybody in its path. After taking down the Blazers in the first round, the Mavs swept Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and then took care of the OKC Thunder in five games. With four All-Stars and Terry, who won Sixth Man of the Year that season, this Mavs lineup wasn’t short on starpower or veteran poise.

Don’t believe this lineup deserves a spot on this list? Know this fact: This five-man unit had easily the best point differential of any lineup since 2000 if we look at lineups that played at least 300 minutes together. In 351.1 minutes on the floor, this Mavs lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 195 points, which translates to a margin of plus-26.7 every 48 minutes. That’s mercy-rule type stuff. 

Who knows what would have happened if the Mavs didn’t let Chandler sign with the New York Knicks in free agency. Maybe the aging crew doesn’t bounce back after the long 2011 lockout layoff even with Chandler manning the back line. But for that one season, the stars were perfectly aligned. 

8. 1970-72 Milwaukee Bucks

PG: Oscar Robertson
SG: Jon McGlocklin
SF: Bob Dandridge
PF: Greg Smith
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Total All-Star appearances: 36
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

This was the rare time when two players in the G.O.A.T. discussion played on the same team. But don’t think this was just a two-man unit. McGlocklin and Dandridge were both All-Stars at one point in their careers. Though Smith never made it to an All-Star Game himself, he averaged an impressive 10.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in a Finals sweep over the Baltimore Bullets. He’s no slouch.

Robertson -- who was traded by the Cincinnati Royals in 1970, marking one of the most lopsided deals in history -- was just coming out of his prime, while Kareem was just entering his. With Oscar and Kareem at the helm, the Bucks beat the living daylights out of opponents, going 66-16 in the regular season -- the second-most wins in NBA history at that point. They also went 12-2 in the playoffs that year and won at least 60 games in each of the next two seasons. 

Though Smith was only a member of this version for one-and-a-half seasons, the 1971 championship team was won of the most dominant in NBA history. With four All-Stars, two all-timers and an elite role player in Smith, this represents one of the greatest lineups of the 70s.

7. 1971-74 New York Knicks

PG: Walt Frazier
SG: Earl Monroe
SF: Bill Bradley
PF: Dave DeBusschere
C: Willis Reed

Total All-Star appearances:27
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

How good was this lineup? In 1973, it helped take down the mighty Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and then the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals,  despite Wilt Chamberlain playing every single minute of the series. The Stilt was so spent, he decided to retire after the Knicks were done with him. (Maybe he should have gotten a breather, after all). 

This five-man unit delivered the Knicks’ only championship after 1970, but that’s not the reason it’s on here. The 1973 team featured three players that suited up in the All-Star Game that year (Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere) with Earl the Pearl and Reed rounding out the unit. All five players went onto the Hall of Fame, with Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas also part of the supporting cast. No wonder New York won it all.

The 1973 championship was also memorable because it was Reed’s final full season in the NBA. After winning Finals MVP, he played just 19 games in the 1973-74 season due to an assortment of injuries and hung it up for good after that. You can argue the 1969-70 Knicks team was better top to bottom, but Monroe’s addition in 1972 created this vaunted lineup.

6. 1982-85 Philadelphia 76ers

PG: Maurice Cheeks
SG: Andrew Toney
SF: Julius Erving
PF: Bobby Jones
C: Moses Malone

Total All-Star appearances: 40
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

The Fo, Fo, Fo Sixers didn’t actually sweep their way to the 1983 title like Hall of Fame big man Moses Malone predicted before the playoffs, but Dr. J and Big Mo were good enough to go Fo, Fi, Fo, dropping just one game along the way to finally destroying the Lakers in the championship. 

On one of the greatest teams ever, this five-man group played prominently together with Jones filling the Iguodala role as the defensive menace who popped in and out of the starting lineup. For perspective on how good this lineup was, Cheeks, Erving and Malone started the 1982-83 All-Star game with Andrew “The Boston Strangler” Toney coming off the All-Star bench. Meanwhile, Jones had been on the previous two All-Star teams and became the Sixth Man of the Year for the ‘85 season. Four Hall of Famers in their prime and a two-time All-Star in Toney. Not bad. 

Oh, and then a rookie named Charles Barkley joined them in 1984 just as Toney’s career was derailed by foot injuries. Though Barkley’s inclusion looked superior on paper, the team undoubtedly peaked in 1983 with Toney and the rest of the group in its prime. Take it from Barkley, who once declared, “Andrew Toney is the best player I ever played with.” OK, that’s settled.

5. Philadelphia 76ers 1966-67 

PG: Larry Costello 
SG: Hal Greer
SF: Chet Walker
PF: Luke Jackson
C: Wilt Chamberlain

Total All-Star appearances: 37
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

This squad was stacked, starting the season 38-4, with all five players being All-Stars and an eventual championship ring in its bag. Costello, a six-time All-Star point guard, was limited due to injury for a chunk of the season, but the Sixers had enough talent to take down a San Francisco Warriors team featuring Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond in the NBA Finals. 

Walker, Greer and Chamberlain were each Hall of Famers, clocking in with 30 All-Star appearances between them. Jackson may have had the least decorated career of this championship bunch, but he was an All-Star and a member of the 1964-65 All-Rookie team. What’s downright mean is that this group had young Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham as the sixth man off the bench. This is Harris’ pick as the greatest lineup ever, though he admits, as the proprietor of @SixersHistory, he has a strong personal connection. “I’ve talked to almost all the guys from that team so I’m probably super biased in their favor.” 

4. 1978-83 Los Angeles Lakers

PG: Norm Nixon
SG: Michael Cooper
SF: Jamaal Wilkes
PF/PG: Magic Johnson
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Total All-Star appearances: 36
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

Like the great Celtics teams of the 60s and 80s, it’s hard to pick which five-man group is the best of this Lakers era. But this one has it all: two players in the GOAT discussion in Magic and Kareem; a two-time All-Star point guard in Nixon, a Defensive Player of the Year in Cooper and a three-time All-Star in Wilkes. Together, they won two championships in 1980 and 1982 before Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers for Byron Scott. 

The Showtime Lakers would go on to win three more championships under coach Pat Riley with a different iteration of this core, but in terms of 1-through-5 talent, this group with Nixon, Wilkes and Cooper formed the pinnacle lineup. The 1986-87 team that won the title after going 65-27 might have been the best roster with the addition of James Worthy, but there wasn’t a five-man group that could flaunt the kind of starpower that the 1980 and 1982 teams did. Though Scott, Kurt Rambis and Mychal Thompson were great players, none of them ever received an All-Star bid during their fine careers, and A.C. Green was just starting his Ironman tenure. 

3. 1984-88 Boston Celtics

PG: Dennis Johnson
SG: Danny Ainge
SF: Larry Bird
PF: Kevin McHale
C: Robert Parish

Total All-Star appearances: 34
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

Of the 1980s Celtics teams, this lineup was the best. It featured four Hall of Famers and Danny Ainge, who made a record-breaking 148 3-pointers in the 1987-88 season, earning a spot on the All-Star squad that year. No Celtics team has won as many games since this team’s 67-15 record in 1985-86, largely on the back of this powerful starting unit that began regularly playing together after the 1984 championship.

All in all, this formidable Celtics group went 137-37 (.787) as a starting lineup over four seasons from 1984-85 to 1987-88 and won the 1986 title with another former MVP and Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, coming off the bench to win Sixth Man of the Year. If Walton made more than one start with this group, he’d be included on this list of all-time great fives but Parish, a freakin’ nine-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA center, will just have to do. What a group.

2. Golden State Warriors 2016-2019

PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Andre Iguodala
PF: Kevin Durant
C: Draymond Green

Total All-Star appearances: 25
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

This lineup has everything you need, except for maybe elite rebounding. Shooting, passing, dribbling, defense and high basketball IQ. Among the 138 lineups that have played at least 500 minutes together since 2000, the Warriors’ Hamptons Five lineup was the third-most unstoppable five-man unit on record, outscoring opponents by 19.9 points per 48 minutes in the regular season and playoffs, per an analysis of lineup data from Basketball-Reference.com. 

So, which lineups fared better? 

Turns out, the original Death Lineup and the Andrew Bogut version, by a hair. Plot twist! Bogut, playing in Durant’s spot, posted the best-ever differential (plus-20.8) and Harrison Barnes in Durant’s spot (plus-20.6) tops the Hamptons Five by a smidge. But the Hamptons Five won two championships as a unit while the others only won one.

The Hamptons Five is one of the few lineups of the modern era that features an All-Star at every position, complete with four players in their prime. Though Iguodala is 35 years old, he remains a vital piece of the puzzle. Coach Steve Kerr tasked him with defending reigning MVP James Harden this postseason, and Iguodala had enough energy to average 13.5 points on 59 percent shooting on the other end, mimicking the performance that won him a Finals MVP. When the fifth guy is a Finals MVP, it’s clear we may never see a group like this ever again.

Though Durant is a clear upgrade over Barnes as a player, it’s notable that the original Death Lineup and the Bogut version fared better on the scoreboard overall. This postseason, the Hamptons Five only outscored opponents by 12 points (406 to 394), nothing to write home about. Cumulative fatigue and aging may have dented their performance, but they could have three-peated were it not for the injuries to Durant and Thompson. Then again, injuries have wrecked plenty other historic lineups on this list.

1. 1954-1961 Boston Celtics

PG: Bob Cousy
SG: Bill Sharman
SF: Frank Ramsey
PF: Tom Heinsohn
C: Bill Russell

Total All-Star appearances: 39
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 0
Titles won together: 4

Take your pick of any Celtics team from 1955-56 to 1968-69, a 14-year period in which Boston won 12 championships. You can’t really go wrong. This particular five-man group featured five Hall of Famers that won four of five championships together before Sharman retired at the end of the 1960-61 season. An absolute machine.

If there’s a knock, it’s that Ramsey was never an All-Star, but The Kentucky Colonel was a Hall of Famer and is credited as being the first star to voluntarily play in the sixth-man role under legendary coach Red Auerbach. John Havlicek would later embrace that position for Auerbach, but by the time he hit his prime, Cousy had already retired. Iguodala, Terry and Manu Ginobili built championship legacies by coming off the bench, but it was Ramsey who started it all.

The 1963-64 Celtics with Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Havlicek alongside Russell and Heinsohn deserve honorable mention here as Harris calls it “probably the best defensive iteration of the dynasty.” But Cousy, Sharman, Ramsey, Heinsohn and Russell won four championships together and featured Hall of Famers at every position. They get the nod for both starpower and longevity.

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

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

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Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

Well, that was quick. We’ve reached the one-month mark of the 2019-20 NBA season and, admittedly, it’s been a bit of a rocky start. Between the Golden State Warriors falling apart, a slew of PED suspensions hitting the league, and rookie sensation Zion Williamson still sitting out, things have not exactly gone as advertised.

But there are plenty of other feel-good storylines and fascinating developments that have made the season a pleasure to watch. Let’s highlight five trends that I’m buying or selling at this stage of the season.

BUY: Luka Doncic, MVP candidate

Don’t look now but the Dallas Mavericks have the top offense in the loaded Western Conference so far, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Can the average NBA fan name more than two starters on that team?

It starts with Doncic, who is averaging an astounding 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the 6-4 Mavericks. Those stats aren’t juiced by a turbo-charged NBA; Unlike the rapid-fire Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks rank just 20th in the league in pace. Instead, Doncic is seeing the game faster in his sophomore season and, well, he’s playing a lot faster, too.

Following a rookie season in which he was noticeably doughier, Doncic looks like he’s in better shape this season after taking the summer off from national basketball. A source close to Doncic says he’s largely kept away from bread and sugary foods as part of his effort to prepare for the 82-game grind. That’s no small thing for a 20-year-old who flies around the world for a living.

Doncic has trimmed the fat in his game too. He has taken two -- two! -- shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc this season, per NBA.com tracking. One was an 18-foot floater, which he made. The other was a late-game mid-range pull-up in the epic showdown against the Lakers (he missed). Doncic probably has a slick mid-range jumper, but he’s too good around the rim to settle there.

Like I mentioned on the Habershow with Brandon Payne, Doncic is a puppeteer. At least once a game, he’ll get a 7-footer to bite on his pump-fake in the lane and giggle on his way back on defense after he lays it in uncontested. It’s mean. He’s currently shooting 64.6 percent on shots in the paint, per NBA.com. Only three players have converted a higher percentage with at least 75 attempts in the paint: Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those three are dunk factories. Doncic has one dunk so far.

Doncic’s bag of tricks goes deeper than almost any NBA player at this point. And he will only get better as Kristaps Porzingis shakes off some rust and takes some pressure off of the Slovenian. The Luka hype is very real. 

SELL: The coach’s challenge

Doc Rivers has said it over and over: He hates the newly instituted coach’s challenge. And that’s probably because coaches aren’t winning the challenge much, if at all. 

Outside of the occasional out-of-bounds challenge, it’s been a frustrating experience for NBA coaches. Through Sunday’s games, there have been 95 coach’s challenges, with 32 calls being overturned, a success rate of just 34 percent. Drilling down even further, challenges on foul calls have only produced a 30 percent success rate, which makes sense given the nature of personal foul calls (Again, Doc really hates this rule.). The more clear-cut judgment calls -- out-of-bounds plays, specifically -- have been successful in six of the 11 challenges. That also makes sense; those plays are easier to see.

Behavioral economists will have a field day with the other aspects of the data. The league offers by-quarter breakdowns, which show that only six percent of the challenges have come in the first quarter, but those first-quarter challenges are tied with the second quarter challenges for the best success rate at 50 percent. Challenges in the fourth quarter, when coaches are possibly more emotional and using a might-as-well-burn-it mentality with the challenge, have the worst overturn rate at 24 percent. 

I don’t think the overturn rate is high enough to justify the buzzkilling stoppage in play. Fourth quarters in the NBA are long enough as it is and the overturn rate is so low that it’s mostly a waste of time. Tracking data from inpredictable.com provided to NBC Sports shows that NBA games this season are, on average, two hours and 16.4 minutes long, which is 2.6 minutes longer than this time last season.

The NBA deserves big kudos for transparency in this space. They didn’t just open their referees to extra scrutiny by implementing the coach’s challenge, but they’re also publishing the data from them to their media website. It’s also good for fans to know that the league wants to get calls right, but this is a one-year trial that fans shouldn’t expect to stick. Most of the head coaches I contacted agree with Doc. When asked whether he was for or against the coach’s challenge, one NBA coach simply responded back: “Ugh.” Another’s take from a long-time coach: “I’m a coach, not an official. Gets me focusing on the wrong things. Hate it.” And no, that’s not a quip from Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who finally got one overturned after six unsuccessful tries.

But here's my favorite bit of data. Every coach in the NBA had used the coach’s challenge through Tuesday’s games. Except for one: Gregg Popovich. That streak ended on Wednesday night when he challenged a foul call on LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Popovich lost the appeal. He may never do it again.

SELL: The Phoenix Suns are a playoff team

To be clear, I love what the Suns are doing right now. I’m a proud subscriber to the Aron Baynes Fan Club feed. That satirical Twitter account has been replying to viral NBA tweets with insanely pro-Baynes propaganda for years and it is somehow becoming more accurate by the day. Since being salary-dumped by the Boston Celtics this summer, Baynes has been absolutely fantastic as DeAndre Ayton’s fill-in, averaging 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists with a 70 percent effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers). Yes, Aron Baynes!

He’s the face of a suddenly very-grown-up Suns team under new head coach Monty Williams, who last coached a fiery New Orleans Pelicans team that held its own against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. After fielding the second-youngest roster in the league last season, the Suns added actual adults like Baynes and Ricky Rubio to the starting lineup next to Devin Booker and now they’re playing like an actual playoff contender. Three of Phoenix’s four losses went down to the final minute, including Tuesday night’s close loss to the Lakers. This is a team that could be 9-1 with a couple bounces going their way.

So why am I selling? This feels like a best-case scenario start to the season. Booker and Baynes aren’t going to make half their 3s all season. And I think Ayton coming back will actually hurt them. While his 25-game suspension looks bad from an optics standpoint, I think it actually helps the team win in the short-term with Baynes filling in his minutes. 

He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick, but Baynes does the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Baynes pancakes opponents on screens, ranks fifth in box-outs and is second in charges taken -- all while playing in just 24.3 minutes per game. Ayton, meanwhile, was among the least-impactful rim protectors in the league last season. It’s hard to imagine the Suns bringing their franchise big man off the bench, especially since he’s a favorite of Suns owner Robert Sarver, a fellow Arizona Wildcat. They could trade Baynes and his $5.8 million expiring contract to a contender. You know who could really use him? That team in Boston.

SELL: LeBron James’ double-digit assists

Just when you think you know a guy. In his 17th NBA season, James is averaging a career-high and league-leading 11.1 assists per game. He has never compiled this many assists in the opening 10 games of the season. The closest he came to this level was in 2016-17 when he registered 97 assists and 37 turnovers in the Cavs’ first ten games. This season, he has 110 assists, and four fewer turnovers (34). It’s obscene.

When the trade winds were swirling last February, I declared Anthony Davis as the best teammate LeBron James would ever have, better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. So far, so good. The on-court chemistry between the Klutch clients has been other-wordly. Of James’ 122 assists, 29 of them have been distributed to his new prized big-man Davis. No other Lakers teammate has more than 18, per Basketball Reference tracking

James is certainly on a mission to show love to Davis, who, as Bulls fans will remind you, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Using data from NBA.com’s stats page, James is feeding 25.5 passes per 36 minutes to Davis while they’re on the floor together. That’s a huge number. For perspective, Jrue Holiday sent 18.4 passes per 36 minutes into Davis’ hands last season when they shared the court. You think James is excited about his new toy?

With that said, I don’t think this keeps up. For one, it’s not a good sign that Davis’ shoulder is already giving him issues. If James’ favorite target goes down for any chunk of time, that’ll obviously hurt the King’s ability to rack up assists. Secondly, Rajon Rondo’s back. Lakers fans know how I feel about this clunky partnership. But the numbers don’t lie: James’ assist rate last season fell from 11.9 assists per 100 possessions without Rondo on the court down to 8.9 per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, per PBPStats.com tracking

It appears that Davis’ presence has given James new life, especially in the assist column. But Davis’ health and Rondo’s arrival doesn't make me optimistic about James’ ability to set a new career high -- even if the King and the Brow have been a joy to watch so far.

BUY: Pascal Siakam, back-to-back Most Improved Player

I’m all for breaking tradition. I know the Most Improved Player award is conventionally given to an up-and-coming player who ascends from plucky role player to legitimate star. Siakam’s selection last season was just that.

But what about star to MVP candidate? That leap is way harder to pull off and Siakam is doing it right now. You can see the door opening for Siakam’s candidacy. Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton’s injuries have delivered a significant blow to Boston and Milwaukee’s staying power atop the East. Kyle Lowry’s fractured thumb won’t keep him out nearly as long and Fred VanVleet can fill Lowry’s void better than Hayward and Middleton’s backups can for their respective clubs.

But Siakam is that good. He’s improved his scoring average more this season than he did the previous season, in which he won Most Improved Player. Siakam’s scoring average is higher than LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker entering play Thursday night. And it’s not because of unsustainably hot shooting, like in the case of Brandon Ingram and Booker. Siakam is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from downtown, which is more or less where he’s been in his career. 

The difference -- and this is so difficult in today’s NBA -- is that he’s maintained his efficiency despite nearly doubling his field goal attempts per game from 11.8 last season to 20.9 this year. His improved ball-handling and sharpened shot-making have made him a legitimate scoring alpha. To put Siakam’s scoring load in perspective, the 25-year-old’s usage rate is higher than Kobe Bryant’s in his age-25 season. 

Siakam’s climb is pretty much unprecedented, even when compared to his former Toronto Raptors teammate. It’s cliche to make the Kawhi Leonard parallel, but the truth is that Siakam’s rise has been steeper. Leonard didn’t become “MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard” until his sixth season in the league. This is Siakam’s fourth. And as crazy as Leonard’s ascension was, Siakam rose from a lower floor, averaging just 4.2 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 27th overall in 2016. (It’s early, but Siakam may end up being the best of a class that also features Ben Simmons, Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.)

With the top of Eastern Conference battered and bruised right now, the Toronto Raptors should remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. If Siakam keeps this up -- and I think he can -- there will be whispers about his MVP campaign. He might not win it, but if there’s a player who deserves to be the first two-time Most Improved Player award, it’s Siakam.

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

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

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Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told NBCSports.com that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

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