NBA Relationship Counseling: How Will New Star-Studded Duos Work?
In the NBA, you can't just mash together top talent and assume it'll work.
Chemistry matters. So does an established pecking order that dictates bus boarding protocol, crunch-time priority and who gets to yell at whom. There's also the delicate art of meshing personalities. ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reported one of the reasons Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler aren't teammates on the Boston Celtics right now was a concern about personal friction between the two.
Still, at a moment in time when even dreaming about a championship requires constructing a superteam (thanks, Golden State Warriors!), franchises are getting bolder. They're taking risks in the interest of talent consolidation, knowing that unless they want to get laughed off the floor against the Dubs, they must populate their rosters with multiple stars.
Which new groupings might confront chemistry concerns on the court or in the personality department? And how might those issues get solved?
Time to do some conflict management.
Chris Paul and James Harden, Houston Rockets
I went deep on the division of labor in this partnership in August, and the statistical evidence suggests James Harden should be the man doing most of the ball-handling when he and Chris Paul share the floor. The Beard's superior efficiency as a pick-and-roll orchestrator and Paul's more dangerous catch-and-shoot game make ideal roles clearer.
Which is a bit of a problem, because Paul is the hardwired leader. The blunt, unforgiving, detail-oriented deliverer of fierce finger points and withering stares. It's impossible to imagine CP3 changing his alpha ways after stepping into the league 12 years ago as an unquestioned shot-caller.
Harden is the guy with the quarter-billion-dollar commitment from the Houston Rockets, while Paul is potentially just a one-year rental. It's not hard to figure out who the organization will side with in the event of friction.
Ultimately, the power dynamics should play out this way: Harden will actually hold the most sway in this pairing because he'll control the offense and because he's the franchise's much bigger investment. But, ideally, Paul should be allowed to act the part of on-court leader, largely because he may not function any other way.
As far as the actual basketball these two will have to play, there's almost zero reason to worry.
Houston's approach isn't complicated. If Harden runs a pick-and-roll and can't find an open three or a layup, he can whip it to Paul on the weak side, who can then attack a scrambling defense or wait for his own screen, at which point the attack starts all over again.
Both can shoot, facilitate and score. Both have exceptionally high levels of basketball intelligence.
If Paul and Harden sort out the leadership question, which I think they will, the rest will take care of itself.
Failing that, they can resolve any disputes with a flop-off. Best contact-feigner wins the argument.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
KD's personal goals, which contributed to his departure, are worth acknowledging. He came to highly prize a collective culture and simply wanted a change. But if Russell Westbrook couldn't appease KD by widening his tunnel vision and playing within a system, why should we expect him to do it for George?
Westbrook, competitive and success-driven as he is, has a way of marginalizing the greatest of teammates. His one-man show, which hit a new level last season, has yet to produce significant success or maximize surrounding talent.
Fortunately, George, though not on Durant's level as an overall talent, may be better equipped than most stars for the challenge of fitting alongside Westbrook.
Here's Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated:
"George is a star who doesn't dominate the ball. Even in Indiana, where any better option was a consistent rarity, George still worked as a cutter and a catch-and-shoot threat. His total time of possession (3.1 minutes per game) was comparable to that of Austin Rivers or Tyler Johnson, despite George averaging significantly more minutes than either."
Head coach Billy Donovan could split Westbrook and George's minutes, allowing both to run the show independently for long stretches. But when the game matters most, they'll share the floor.
That's when, hopefully, George works effectively off the ball, making quick decisions, catching and shooting, and serving as the secondary playmaker. Fingers crossed that Westbrook actually looks for him once in a while.
The stakes here are difficult to overstate. George is a free agent next summer, and Westbrook can hit the market simultaneously if he doesn't sign an extension before the 2017-18 season. If the pairing works, maybe OKC keeps its elite one-two punch for the next half-decade.
If it doesn't, the Thunder will find themselves starting over.
Kyrie Irving and Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Kyrie Irving won't necessarily clash with a specific player on his new team. With him, it's more about the juxtaposition of a singular, score-first isolation force and a club run by head coach Brad Stevens, who's all about team play and ball movement.
Can one of the league's preeminent "go get me a bucket" chuckers survive in such an egalitarian environment?
Sure, Isaiah Thomas put up huge scoring numbers last season in what we should assume will be Irving's role. But Thomas was a nonstop sprinter off the ball, and thanks to Boston's more free-flowing attack, had 43.5 percent of his baskets assisted. Irving was at 30.4 percent.
For Irving, this adjustment will be about willingness—not ability. Last year, he was absolutely lights-out as a spot-up shooter, hitting an effective field-goal percentage of 68.7 percent on catch-and-shoot looks. Thomas finished at 58.5 percent.
Irving is "ecstatic" about playing for Stevens' Celtics, according to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.
Easy to say now. But when so much of Irving's desire to move on from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers was about expanding his game, role and leadership chops on a new team, should we so readily assume "fitting in" is among his top priorities?
In addition to scoring outside of one-on-one situations, Irving will have to make plays, read defenses and avoid arresting the flow of Stevens' offense. That'll mean tweaking his pass-shoot calibration and moving with purpose off the ball.
If Irving doesn't change, he can still help the Celtics. But making this a perfect fit depends on his willingness to play within Stevens' system.
Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin may prove to be abrasive and overbearing as the Los Angeles Clippers' new alpha, but it's unlikely he ever reaches Paul's level of controlling curmudgeonry. Which means the discussion of his fit with offseason addition Danilo Gallinari can more narrowly focus on the basketball side of the partnership.
All signs point to this being a clunky alliance.
Gallinari is best utilized at power forward, where he played 62 percent of his minutes a year ago. Not quick enough to stay with wings on defense, Gallo is conversely skilled enough to dominate bigger foes on the other end. His off-the-dribble game and crafty foul-drawing make him a nightmare for conventional 4s, and his career conversion rate of 37 percent from deep demands close attention on the perimeter.
Better still, he can punish wings in the mid and low post.
But Griffin is L.A.'s power forward and clear offensive hub. He'll occupy that spot for huge minutes, and DeAndre Jordan is too good to take off the floor for long stretches at center. That leaves Gallo at the 3, where he'll be vulnerable on D.
There's a chance this all works out with proper rotation staggering. If Griffin and Gallinari split as many minutes as possible, the Clips could have one strong offensive fulcrum at the 4 throughout the game. But head coach Doc Rivers is notoriously poor at solving these sorts of puzzles. He struggled to split Paul and Griffin for years, and a coach whose calling card is playing five-man bench units can't be counted on to manage this situation effectively.
A further complication: Still recovering from toe surgery, Griffin could be out until December. In the meantime, Gallinari will be getting used to a major role as the offensive focal point—which will change immediately upon Griffin's reintroduction.
The cynic's solution to all this is injury. Griffin and Gallo have both missed at least 15 games in each of the past three seasons. History suggests one or the other will often be unavailable, and you can't have a positional logjam unless everybody's healthy enough to play.
Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns—Minnesota Timberwolves
Jimmy Butler's out here predicting the Minnesota Timberwolves' biggest offensive problem.
"Everybody keys in on you when you're on a 'bad team,'" Butler said on the Bill Simmons Podcast in July. "I think it's easier (on a good team), because you can't key in on one guy. So pick your poison, who are you going to double-team?"
The answer would clearly seem to be Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps the game's best young offensive player, and one who'll struggle to get clean looks in a lineup featuring two wings who don't scare defenses as spot- up shooters.
Butler and Andrew Wiggins are fantastic creators of their own offense, and Butler is a high-level facilitator. But neither have histories of doing much damage as spacers, and Wiggins tends to stand around when he doesn't have the ball. That's bad news for Towns, who is dominant enough to demand a second defender in almost any situation—but will see special scrutiny this year.
Normally, you'd solve this problem by staggering minutes. By getting a shooter on the floor in place of either Towns or Wiggins for long stretches, which would allow for both to function as primary ball-handlers more often. But the Wolves' bench is painfully thin, and head coach Tom Thibodeau plays his top options 38 minutes per game as a rule, which limits opportunities for more thoughtful lineup manipulation.
Fortunately for Minnesota, there's such a glut of top-end offensive talent on the roster that a clunky fit could still easily lead to a top-five offense. The Wolves ranked 10th last year without Butler.
If Wiggins continues to develop as a catch-and-shoot threat, problem solved. If Butler punishes opponents by attacking closeouts and kicking out, problem solved. If Towns' already complete offensive game takes another step, problem solved.
There are solutions here.