There's a lot of focus on the efforts of single players in the NBA. So much so that we can sometimes forget how dynamic these athletes can be when working alongside each other. It leads to much discussion, both in fact and in fantasy, about which couples are best or about those that could be.
The upcoming 2014-15 NBA season will be sure to initiate many of those conversations, but one duo that will remain largely active, and potentially at the forefront, of those talks is the Portland Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
While you can certainly analyse combinations out on the wing like the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they don't exactly play off each other as much as the guard-big duos of the league.
It's been well documented how essential competent play in both the backcourt and the frontcourt is to team success. In years past, injuries to core contributors like Kevin Garnett (2009), Kendrick Perkins (2010) or Serge Ibaka (2014) quickly derailed the hopes of the Boston Celtics and Thunder, respectively, proving that an overall approach is needed to win.
As such, organisations around the league have attempted to tool competitive rosters that are led by stars who encompass different positions. Despite the same formula being implemented across different teams, we as fans are graced with a multitude of combinations that offer different skill sets and levels of dominance.
Immediately, the Los Angeles Clippers' guard-big duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin comes to mind, with perhaps the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah following closely behind. There's also the Houston Rockets' James Harden and Dwight Howard, and the up-and-coming twosome of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Lest we forget, the craft veteran doublet of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan for the San Antonio Spurs is perhaps one of the most iconic and prevalent in league history. Also, the newly formed Cleveland Cavaliers' pair of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will be sure to causes headaches for opposing defenses but offers little defensive impact in itself.
There remain a number of honorable mentions that can't be ignored, as well, but don't offer the same prowess as those mentioned above:
- the Brooklyn Nets' Deron Williams and Brook Lopez
- the Charlotte Hornets' Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson
- the Dallas Mavericks' Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki
- the Denver Nuggets' Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried
- the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh
The multitude and diversity of the partnerships out there in the NBA is potentially overwhelming. But despite all those listed, Lillard and Aldridge have the capacity to rise beyond and top the league in terms of being the best one-two punch.
While it's almost a certainty that the Clippers' Paul-Griffin combo outmatches the Blazers' duo at this point, we are beginning to approach the former pair's ceiling. Paul is undoubtedly the NBA's top floor general, offering an array of offensive and defensive skills that are beautifully polished.
Griffin, after completing an MVP-worthy season last year, is flourishing into a dominant offensive player who can score from the outside and in the post, as well as pass admirably for his size. He still has a ways to go defensively, and is yet to evolve into a moderately effective shot-blocker despite his size and athleticism.
According to NBA.com, Griffin allowed opponents to shoot 53.5 percent at the rim last season. He did register 1.2 steals per game but swatted only 0.6 attempts per contest.
Portland is yet to see the full potential of Lillard just yet, despite the major developments he's made since entering the league. He still needs to develop more of an inside game in terms of getting to the rim and finishing (40.4 percent on drives last season), but he's already one of the NBA's best and most prolific shooters.
After only two professional seasons, Lillard has knocked down 403 three-point field goals. Just for comparison to two historic shooters: Ray Allen and Reggie Miller made 410 threes in their first two seasons combined. At this rate, Lillard could join the aforesaid two names as the only players with over 2,000 made threes, but in only 10 professional seasons.
But let's not get too ahead of ourselves.
At this stage, Lillard has already been established as an All-Star-calibre player. He's also one of the top clutch players in the NBA, converting on 47.3 percent in the last five minutes of the game with the final margin within five points.
In addition, the guard has a terrific handle of the ball and great vision as a distributor. Head coach Terry Stotts' offensive game plan has more than one initiator on offense, but expect to see Lillard do more on that end this season.
Portland relied heavily on his teammate in Aldridge on offense, netting the big man a career year in points (23.2), rebounds (11.1) and assists (2.6).
But with the continued improvement of Lillard, together they'll form a duo that not only outdoes most of the league, but truly plays off each other as a tandem.
Few duos have a connection like that, no matter that individual skill of either counterpart.
The "Lob City" moniker given to the Paul-Blake alley-oops that provide endless entertainment is appropriate but also points to the limited approach in that regard.
For instance, that pick-and-roll play for the Clippers is outright scary. Griffin's ability to maneuver through the defense, with or without the ball, is only matched by Paul's skill to do the same or hit from the outside.
But the Blazers' tandem has a slight advantage.
Aldridge's shooting ability can be likened to that of Nowitzki, with expert accuracy and a high release that is infuriatingly difficult to contest. It might not extend beyond the arc, but Aldridge is deadly when left open in the mid-range area (42.2 percent). He's also versatile in the regard that he can take it inside as well, if only to play in the post and score.
On defense, Aldridge has remained steady, although not smothering. Opponents still shot a high percentage against the big man (49.9 percent), yet he was able to register a steal and a block per game. Aldridge’s size also plays a big part of his work defensively. He isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of Griffin guarding opponents, but he definitely has the edge.
Griffin doesn't yet have that shooting prowess or brilliance in the low post on either end of the court.
Paul is an able scorer when he wants to be, but he can be hesitant at times. With his dazzling charm distributing the ball, it's hard to argue when he passes up a shot or two if it's in the best interest of his teammate or the entertainment of the crowd (or both).
Lillard, on the other hand, hasn't yet grown fully comfortable running an offense. That isn't to say he is unable to, but the first thought of him is knocking down shots from the outside.
As such, he's a deadly counterpart to Aldridge in pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops. Defenses have only really begun to close out on Griffin lately, allowing the big man to shoot a jump shot with oft-questionable accuracy up until last season.
You don't even need a game plan to know that can't be the case with Aldridge. Lillard is arguably a better shooter than Paul at this stage, and can only get better in scoring more diversely and passing.
Hence: you can't leave Aldridge open on the perimeter or in the post, nor Lillard on the perimeter or cutting to the rim.
The same can't be said for Griffin and/or Paul.
At its core, the Blazers' duo is fundamentally stronger than that of the Clippers. That in itself doesn't necessarily make it better, but combined with what Aldridge and Lillard can do together, it gives Rip City the nod over Lob City.
While Paul can certainly outplay Lillard in a multitude of areas, and Griffin the same against Aldridge, the turning point is that Portland's duo bests Los Angeles' pair when playing as a unit.
A lot is riding on Lillard to take greater strides and evolve as an able, consistent scorer and defender, which he's truly capable of based on the past two seasons.
Highlights and flashy plays always trump steady production in terms of fan attention (see the Spurs), thus it's easy to doubt the leap Aldridge and Lillard can make this season. But given their respective ages and skill sets, they can combine as the top guard-big duo in the NBA.
With dead-eye shooting, crafty offense and steady defense, expect the Blazers' All-Stars to combine as a dangerous tandem and lead the team to the playoffs once more.
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