For one season at least, the NBA’s hierarchy isn’t ruled by a single super-team. Instead, this off-season re-distributed the league’s marquee talent and opened up seats at the contender’s table, making two stars enough to be in the title conversation.
Attempting to compare those duos without an overwhelming powerhouse to measure them against, though, requires clear parameters.
As last summer proved, only this season is certain for these specific player combinations. To guess where anyone will be next year is to throw darts in the dark. So now, the goal is to rank the top-five duos that will definitely play together in the 2019-20 season.
Likewise, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are omitted because Thompson is expected to miss at least 55 games while recovering from a torn ACL. And, when he does return, it’s reasonable to think he’ll be eased back into the lineup on a minutes restriction, meaning that the effective time Thompson and Curry are on the floor together for the Golden State Warriors in the regular season — transcendent as it likely will still be — shall be minimal.
The Top Five
Last season, Simmons attempted six three-pointers. Six total across 79 games played. From 14 or more feet away from the basket, but still inside the arc, that number only goes up to 26.
It’s one thing to miss open shots when they’re there, it’s another altogether to have one of your best two players be all-but ignorable when they’re more than 14 feet from the rim.
But where the Philadelphia 76ers have an edge over other teams — such as the Milwaukee Bucks, whose stars lack an essential skill — is their co-star.
Embiid, when healthy, is across the board one of the best big men in the NBA — he isn’t even that efficient yet, coming in at around league-average for bigs on shots at the basket and in the mid-range — and helps alleviate some of the floor-cramping created by Simmons.
As a floor-spacer last year, Embiid took 255 three-pointers, connecting on just 31 per cent, but the mere act of taking them enables configurations that position Simmons nearer to his at-the-basket comfort zone.
If Simmons learns to shoot and if Embiid can be healthy when it counts, the trip to the Eastern Conference Finals that a four-bounce shot deprived them of is within reach.
Saying out loud that the Houston Rockets are pairing two of the last three MVP award winners together, one of whom rendered averaging a triple-double boring and another who crafted one of the greatest scoring runs in NBA history, sounds like a team should be title-favourites.
But adding Westbrook to the Rockets’ mix is not the same as adding The Rock to the Fast and The Furious series. This is not a guaranteed money-maker that will assuredly extend the franchise’s relevance deep into the 2020’s.
Both these players are offensive systems unto themselves. Harden, with his hyper-efficient foul drawing and unguardable step-back three, is the purest distillation of what analytics sought to accomplish. Conversely, Westbrook, with his headlong sprints down the court and declining shooting averages that dropped his points per shot attempt to around one, is a shoot-your-shot star rebelling against what the math says good shots are.
Optimists will point to Westbrook and Harden’s successful early years in Oklahoma City together as proof that they can work together. But breaking up with your college flame so that you two can grow independently of one another, and then reuniting years later to see if what was once there still is, is no guarantee for happiness. The ways people — and players — grow separately sometimes means outgrowing what was there in the first place altogether.
Mixing two MVPs could produce the best backcourt in the NBA — as the Rockets’ pre-season opener suggested — or it could combust before the All-Star break. Few chemistry experiments will be more interesting to watch.
In a league whose landscape has shifted like time-lapsed tectonic plates, stable ground may be the best territory to find oneself on. That comfort and familiarity, more than anything, is the edge Lillard and McCollum -— and the Portland Trail Blazers more broadly — will look to capitalize on.
Since their first playoffs together, they’ve only made it to the West Finals one year. But a cursory glance at how those eliminations played out since 2016 reveals a trend:
• 2016 — Round 2 by the Warriors, whose bid for a repeat was foiled by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
• 2017 — Round 1 by the Warriors, who went on to win the NBA Championship with Durant as Finals MVP.
• 2018 — Round 1 sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans, who only won one more game after that because they faced the Warriors next.
• 2019 — Round 3 by the Warriors, who went on to lose to the Toronto Raptors.
In case you missed it, the through-line connecting Lillard and McCollum’s last four playoffs has been the Warriors — as it has, really, for the whole NBA.
Those Warriors are gone, for now. If there was a year for Lillard and McCollum’s learned synergy to manifest into a banner, it’s this one, and Lillard has authored enough series-defining moments to make the thought at least believable.
Last season James turned 34. He suffered the first significant injury of his career, and was shut down by mid-April. He missed the playoffs for the first time since his 21st birthday. He didn’t appear in the NBA Finals for the first time in eight years.
For the first time since at least that 21st birthday, his on-court success didn’t appear to be a foregone conclusion.
So the Los Angeles Lakers did what the Lakers do and traded the future for a starry present. It brought Davis to Hollywood, pairing James with the greatest big man he’s ever played with — and, possibly, the most purely talented player he’s ever played with — to close out the twilight of his career.
For whatever it’s worth, James’ early comments have suggested a willingness to let Davis be the team’s focal point at this stage of their careers.
“We do all know how good Anthony Davis is, and if we are not playing through Anthony Davis while he is on the floor, then there’s no sense to have him on the floor,” James said during the Lakers’ media day. “He’s that great. It doesn’t mean every time down we throw it to him, we throw it to him, we throw it to him. But we have the ability of doing it.”
A healthy, motivated James is league-changing and with rumblings that he will slide over to point guard full-time, the prospect of a James-Davis pick-and-roll becomes one of the dominant go-to options in the NBA.
The ceiling is banner 17 for Los Angeles and the floor, should they both avoid injury, isn’t a whole lot beneath that.
George went from receiving the third-most MVP votes to being the second-best player on his team, and doing so will likely form the best defensive tandem in the league. In his career, Leonard has been named to five All-NBA Defensive teams and has won Defensive Player of the Year twice. George has been named to the All-NBA Defensive team four times.
On offence, perhaps the only nit to pick is that neither player profiles as an exceptional facilitator relative to their usage rate, with both of them hovering around the 50th percentile in assist-to-usage ratio among forwards. But given the rest of what they can accomplish on that end, it’s a small nit.
The only true asterisk they face is health. George is still recovering from a shoulder injury that derailed his season, Leonard often looked like he was playing on one good leg in the Finals for Toronto, and strategic load-managing should be expected throughout the 82-game marathon.
But as the Raptors proved last season, if you have Leonard you have the chance to hang a banner. The Clippers have more than that.