Sidekicks Wanted: Who Will Emerge to Support Solo NBA Stars?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2017

Sidekicks Wanted: Who Will Emerge to Support Solo NBA Stars?

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The modern NBA is built on individual stars.

    They have signature shoes, cultivated social media presences and #brands. They are singular, and we glorify their late-game takeovers. Their isolation wizardry. We pick our favorite and identify with him. Though 10 players occupy the floor, we often still treat the league like a one-man show.

    But everybody knows the buddy system is still the only way to get anything done.

    Stars need sidekicks to augment their own games and achieve maximum success. And we're not talking a cadre of capable role-fillers. We're talking a single standout running mate. A Pippen to a Jordan. A supporting piece of the highest order.

    Big names need help to reach team and individual goals this year. Here, we'll suggest the best options for seven stars in search of assistance.

    Who'll answer the call?

Denver Nuggets

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    It's cool. They're friends now.
    It's cool. They're friends now.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Star: Nikola Jokic

    One of the best offensive players in the NBA at any position, Jokic is a dual-threat, pass-shoot scoring hub heading into his age-22 season. A Denver Nuggets team lucky enough to have a center like this could go a long way with the right supporting star.

    The Sidekick: Paul Millsap

    The temptation was to pick Jamal Murray or Gary Harris, younger players in Jokic's age range who can grow with him and hit their primes together. Murray, in particular, profiles as a perfect offensive partner; his smooth game, deep bag of scoring tricks and emerging playmaking fit with Jokic's facilitation and space creation.

    And Harris is a two-way wing of the sort everyone wants.

    But the Nugs paid Millsap $90 million for a reason: He's already an established stud, one of the league's best defenders (ideal for offsetting the weaker parts of Jokic's game) and still looks to have a season or two left as he moves deeper into his 30s.

    Though Harris (plus-4.6 net rating) and Murray (plus-5.4) helped Denver perform well when they shared the floor with Jokic last year, it's still Millsap who matters most. He can shore up Jokic's deficiencies, captaining a defense in the same way Jokic directs the flow on the other end.

    It's not so much a question of whether Millsap can handle this role. He's been an All-Star in each of the last four seasons. It's really more about how long he can stay at this level. If he's 90 percent of what he was a year ago, he can give Jokic and the Nuggets what they need to reach 50 wins.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Darren Hauck/Associated Press

    The Star: Giannis Antetokounmpo

    He averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in his age-22 season. He can also do this. Giannis is going to win an MVP Award eventually, and a little help could get him hardware sooner than later.

    The Sidekick: Khris Middleton

    Jabari Parker is the bigger name with the fancier draft pedigree, but two torn ACLs, an offense-only profile and a clunky positional fit with Antetokounmpo (both should ultimately play power forward) rule him out.

    It's also too early for Thon Maker.

    That leaves Middleton, who may have hit superstar sidekick levels three seasons ago, which was before Antetokounmpo realized his potential. Last year, a hamstring injury cost him several months and slowed him a bit (especially on defense) when he returned. Even a diminished Middleton drew praise.

    Here's The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks: "He's one of the smartest, most well-rounded wings in the NBA; he's not an elite athlete, but his game is proof that that isn't necessary to be a great basketball player. Middleton is easy to overlook because he doesn't do anything spectacularly; the strength of his game is that he doesn't do anything poorly."

    In 2014-15, Middleton ranked 10th in the NBA in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. In 2015-16, he was in the top 20.

    A 6'8" wing who defends three positions, creates in the pick-and-roll and has a career 40.4 percent mark from long range would feature as a star on most teams. In Milwaukee, he's the perfect running mate for one of the NBA's best young players.

    If Middleton plays like he did before his hamstring injury, he could help Antetokounmpo get the Bucks into the Eastern Conference's top four.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Star: Kawhi Leonard

    Two-time Defensive Player of the Year. MVP candidate. Top-five player in the NBA. Credentials established.

    The Sidekick: LaMarcus Aldridge

    Aldridge was never going to step in for an injured Leonard and save the San Antonio Spurs against the Golden State Warriors in last year's Western Conference Finals. The heat he caught for failing in a role he'd never played on a big stage—team-carrying alpha superstar—was unfair. That's not what he is. Even in his absolute prime with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge was a fringe No. 1 option, never leading his team past the second round.

    Don't let that taint your perception of what he can do.

    He's long been a capable superstar sidekick. So more than Aldridge emerging, this one is really about all of us remembering he's already done so.

    Last year, only 11 other players matched or exceeded Aldridge's combination of 53.2 percent true shooting, 24.5 percent usage rate and 1.3 defensive box plus-minus. They were all MVP candidates and/or household names.

    Aldridge's rep may be at an all-time low after he fell short as a stand-in for Leonard in the spring. Maybe he's not a top threat, but his numbers suggest he's darn close. As a No. 2, it's hard to do much better. The Spurs didn't win 60-plus games in each of the last two seasons because of Leonard and Gregg Popovich alone.

    Plus, if Aldridge still doesn't fit, or is unhappy in San Antonio, putting together a banner year as Leonard's top supporting piece could increase his value—which would either earn him more on his next deal if he opts out in 2018 or heat up the trade market if he doesn't.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    The Star: Blake Griffin

    With Chris Paul gone, the Los Angeles Clippers' pecking order has changed. Griffin is now the team's unquestioned leader, the guy whom, despite yet another surgery, the Clips buried under $173 million over five years.

    Who'll slot in and help?

    The Sidekick: DeAndre Jordan

    Jordan must become the defender many (Doc Rivers included) seem to think he's been for the last several years.

    Labeled as a star and potential DPOY candidate, Jordan has merely been a good defender on his best days. Last season, he allowed opponents to shoot 56.5 percent inside six feet, which ranked 15th out of 28 bigs who defended at least five such shots per game. His block rate of 4.3 percent ranked 13th among qualified players in 2016-17.

    Again: good but not great.

    Jordan made his first All-Star game last season, but it had more to do with a career-best 71.4 field-goal percentage (the fifth straight year he led the league in that stat) than sterling defense. Without Paul feeding him, Jordan must not only prove he can still score efficiently but must also prop up a defense that lost CP3, the best point guard-stopper in the league.

    Basically, if Jordan can be the guy everyone thinks he is, he'll give Griffin the high-efficiency lob threat and dominating rim protector he needs.

Utah Jazz

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Star: Rudy Gobert

    You could make the case Gobert was the Utah Jazz's best player before Gordon Hayward left. Albeit in a different role, Gobert topped Hayward in win shares, VORP and box plus-minus during the 2016-17 season. There's no debate now, though: Gobert is the guy in Utah.

    The Sidekick: Rodney Hood

    Hayward's departure created a void Gobert can't fill. No amount of elite rim protection, rebounding, high-percentage inside finishing and better-than-you-think passing from him will replace Hayward's scoring and playmaking.

    That's where Hood comes in.

    "There were a lot of challenges we gave Rodney," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune. "What he needs to be doing, his commitment level to his development. And he's responded this summer. He's going to be given a prominent role, and his development will be significant to us."

    At 6'8", 206 pounds, Hood has the size you want on the wing. And he shot 37.1 percent from deep last year. Heading into his fourth season, it's time for him to do more—especially if he signs an extension by Oct. 16.

    To best complement Gobert and give Utah a crack at the playoffs, he'll have to dramatically improve his facilitation in the pick-and-roll. Hood's size and quick release make it too easy for him to get his own looks; finding a rolling Gobert or shooters on the wing must become a priority.

    In addition, Hood, a habitual contact-avoider, must get himself to the foul line more. Eighty-six players averaged at least 11 shots per game last season, and Hood's free-throw rate ranked 76th in that group.

    A dominant interior force like Gobert means the Jazz can basically sleepwalk to a top-five defensive rating. If Hood can be Hayward Lite, don't rule out 50 wins.

Indiana Pacers

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    The Star: Myles Turner

    Turner's star designation is the most speculative on this list. Just two years into his career, the 21-year-old has never been an All-Star or the top option on his team. He is also the only player in NBA history to average at least 14 points, seven boards and two blocks per game while hitting 40 threes in his age-20 season.

    His stardom is a "when," not an "if."

    The Sidekick: Victor Oladipo

    It's easier to buy Turner warranting top-option status than Oladipo establishing himself as a capable sidekick. Though it's difficult to judge the numbers of anyone who played with usage monster Russell Westbrook last year, it's still telling that Oladipo's assist and steal rates are both on four-year slides. What's more, despite pushing his three-point percentage to a personal-best 36.1 last season, he's still fluctuated between just 51.4 and 53.4 percent true shooting since coming into the league in 2013.

    Last year's 53.4 percent figure ranked Oladipo 40th out of the 46 players who averaged at least 13.9 field-goal attempts per game.

    There's hope, though.

    Oladipo has experience playing both guard spots, is athletic enough to be a more impactful defender than he's been and showed a willingness to fit in however he could by becoming a more effective spot-up three-point shooter last season. Even if it wasn't ideal for his game, Oladipo embraced the role he was asked to play in Oklahoma City.

    Now back in Indiana and looking to make good in the first season of a four-year, $84 million contract, he should be uniquely motivated.

    If he can shoulder a big-minute, high-usage combo-guard role while not losing any of his already low-end efficiency, he'll pair well with Turner, a big man who can protect the rim, hit shots in the pick-and-pop and generate fast-break chances with his disruptive defensive play.

    That best-case scenario might only get the Pacers to 40 wins, but it'll be a good start to their rebuild.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    The Star: Kemba Walker

    Walker's first All-Star season was a doozy: 23.2 points and 5.5 assists per game and a spike in his off-the-dribble three-point shooting (only James Harden, Stephen Curry and Westbrook made more) that produced a career-high 52.7 effective field-goal percentage.

    He needs a do-it-all wing to offer secondary playmaking, knockdown three-point shooting and versatile defense.

    The Sidekick: Nicolas Batum

    Those are Batum's specialties...or at least they used to be.

    While it's tempting to note his three-year downward trend in VORP and box plus-minus, it's an oversimplification to say he's losing effectiveness with age. Because Batum has also upped his rebound, assist, free-throw and usage rates in each of the last two seasons. It's not so much that he's doing less. It's more like he's doing things differently.

    Perhaps (at least over the last two years), that's been part of a broader deference to Walker, who handles the ball a ton and has to score in bunches to offset suspect defense. But if Batum can sustain those on-the-margins contributions while getting back to the scoring efficiency of his Portland days (53.2 effective field-goal percentage in seven seasons with the Blazers vs. 48.8 in two seasons in Charlotte), he'll take pressure off Walker.

    Last year, Batum was one of just four players to average at least 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists. The other three: LeBron, Russ and Harden.

    He's one of those rangy, multiskilled wings who just looks like he can do everything well. That capability is what makes it fair to ask for more.

        

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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