Bryant & Gasol are one of the strongest 1-2 combinations in the NBA.
More so than any other sport, the NBA is a league that's built around promoting and celebrating their individual superstars.
In football, faces are lost behind the helmets. You only see a baseball player when he's up to bat or records an out. But in basketball, you routinely see the faces and mannerisms of every player on the court.
The league has always used the face recognition tactic as a way to further popularize their star players, starting in the '60s with the Bill Russell/Wilt Chamberlain showdowns into the '80s with Bird & Magic to today's game with LeBron and Kobe.
But even though the league's focus often at times appears to be more on the individual than the team, no matter how great or transcending one player he is, he can't win a title by himself. The list of NBA champions in the last 50 years backs that up.
Bill Russell jumped onto a team with five Hall-of-Famers when he entered the league: Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Jim Loscutoff.
Bird had his share of Hall-of-Famers flanking him throughout the '80s: Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton, to name a few.
Magic only played with the NBA's career leader in points (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), as well as James Worthy and Byron Scott.
Michael Jordan didn't start winning titles until Scottie Pippen matured.
Tim Duncan has always been surrounded with guys like Avery Johnson, David Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.
Kobe and Shaq needed each other to lead the early-2000 Lakers to dominance.
The point is that every elite player needs either another great player along side or a couple of really solid glue guys in order to compete for a championship. And more often that not, you can't just have two superstar guards, two forwards, or two centers—you need an inside-outside combination whose skill sets can complement one another.
There is no shortage of that 1-2 punch in the NBA this year, especially in the Western Conference where there is arguably the greatest amount of depth at the guard position since the '80s and bigs inside with a unique variety of low-post moves and mid-range game.
So what inside-outside combos will be the most effective heading into the 2010-11 season? Glad you asked. Let's do a rundown of the top 10 and see which ones will give opposing coaches nightmares when trying to game-plan a way to slow them down (and don't miss Mike B.'s list of 10 best duos in the East).
Our first duo in the top-10 have yet to play a regular season game together but have the potential to leave their imprint on the West for the next decade.
Eric Gordon has quietly averaged 16-plus points per game in each of his first two seasons and didn't have a lot of plays drawn up for him offensively. He was solid coming off the bench for Team USA in the FIBA Championships and will take on a bigger role with the Clippers this year.
An older Baron Davis posted his lowest back-to-back points per game totals in his first two years in L.A. while Gordon has started to thrive. He possesses seemingly endless range, is surprisingly physical for a player of his frame, and finishes strong at the rim.
Inside, Blake Griffin plays at one speed: breakneck. We've never seen him in a meaningful NBA game but if preseason is any indication, he'll have no trouble finding his role.
J.A. Adande tweeted yesterday that it seems like Griffin is always in one of two places: at the rim or on the floor. Playing with that kind of tenacity and reckless abandon can lead to injuries, but if Griffin stays healthy, the G & G combo will be difficult to defend for years to come.
Another combo that has yet to play together in a regular season NBA game, the explosive duo of Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins will (this is a guarantee) be a dominant force in the Western Conference for the next 5-10 years.
We already saw what Evans is capable of last season—as everyone probably knows by now, he was just the fourth rookie (Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James) to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists in a season.
Last season's Rookie of the Year, he has an explosive first step, a potent jumper from 12-18 feet, and carries himself with an indefinable swagger—he's good, and he knows he's good, but in the words of Jim Tressel, he's just trying to get better every time he steps on the court.
Cousins was considered to have the biggest upside of any player in the 2010 Draft but mental toughness and stability were two reasons why he slid down to No. 5 behind Derrick Favors and Wes Johnson. Normally these red flags carry merit--great players are typically wired in a certain way and if you ever have to question someone's focus then they're probably not going to maximize their potential.
But Cousins has done nothing (so far at least) to suggest that the Kings made a mistake in drafting him. On the contrary, Sacramento may have struck gold in the draft two years in a row and set their foundation for the next decade.
I love Bill Simmons' theory behind a situation like this. He says (I'm paraphrasing) something along the lines of "it's OK to have one crazy or mentally unstable person on team, but you can't have two. Otherwise they might starting hanging out and that's when bad things happen." So even if Cousins has a little Rasheed Wallace in him, as the long as the Kings don't pair him up with their version of Zach Randolph or Ruben Patterson, then he'll be alright.
It seems like the same old story with Steve Nash every year:
—Is this finally the season that his back gives out?
—There's no way he can keep producing All-Star level numbers in his mid-30s, right?
—The Suns lost (fill in the blank-player). That's one less guy he'll have to pass to...last year will be his last good season.
And every year he just keeps churning out wins and staking his claim for the title of "best PG in the NBA."
This season, it's the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire that has many wondering who Nash has left in Phoenix. Without a viable low-post pick-and-roll option, how will Nash still be effective?
But now he has multiple options. The Suns will be rich in three-point shooters with Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley, and Channing Frye. They've got athletic forwards that can get up-and-down the court fluently in Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. They've got a point forward (Hedo Turkoglu) who can hit three's and be the screener or screenee in pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop situations.
And they also one of the most underrated centers in the league: Robin Lopez.
More of an afterthought than his twin brother Brook, Robin started 31 games for Phoenix down the stretch before a back injury forced him to sit out the final month of the regular season and the first two rounds of the postseason. At far less than 100 percent, he still averaged 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in just 17 minutes per game against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum—not shabby by any means.
This year, with no Stoudemire and few other inside options, Lopez will see plenty of action. He averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 24 minutes as a starter. Stretch that to 35 minutes per game and you're looking at 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks.
Having Nash be the one that sets him up will only make things that much easier.
Aldridge and Roy have been Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring for Portland over the past three seasons, combining for 36.1, 40.0, and 38.7 points per game from 2008-2010, respectively.
Even though the Blazers have seemingly been bitten by the injury bug all three years, these two are the constants that have kept Portland in the postseason. This year, the Blazers are considered one of the West's top teams and many see them as having a realistic shot to make some noise in the postseason, especially considering their recent success against the Lakers.
Roy is the catalyst—he sets everything up with his attacking of the basket and high success rate in isolation sets. But Aldridge complements him so well because he can clean up the offensive glass (2.5-plus offensive rebounds per game the last three seasons) and step back to a face-up, mid-range game (where he seems most comfortable operating from).
They may not wow you on paper or look overly impressive during in-game action. But put a healthy supporting cast around these two and suddenly Portland is one of the elite teams in a very deep conference.
Do you really need an explanation as to why CP3 is on the list? I didn't think so.
So let's go to David West. An underrated and undervalued power forward, West has put up numbers comparable to those of Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, and Carlos Boozer from 2005-2010.
He's never averaged worse than 17.1 points per game in that stretch, peaking at 20.6 points in 2008 and 21.0 in 2009. He's never had worse than 7.5 rebounds either, again peaking in 2008 and 2009 with 8.9 and 8.5, respectively, and his assist numbers have increased annually for the past six years.
He's shot 47 percent or better every year of his career (except in 2004-05 when he only played 30 games) and has been in the mid-80s in free throw shooting as well.
The kicker? He'll make about $8.3 million this year, and an appropriately-valued player in today's NBA is quite a rarity. Would you rather pay West $8.3 million or Josh Smith $12 million? Or Al Jefferson at $13 million? Carlos Boozer at $14.4 million or Hedo Turkoglu at $10 million?
You get the point. Since Paul's been around, West has averaged 19.3 points and 8.0 rebounds. A pretty potent 1-2 punch.
This tandem probably didn't work out the way Mark Cuban envisioned, but they're still quite effective.
Dirk will get his points in about every way imaginable. The Mavs wanted to flank him with a guard that could push the tempo and take off some of the pressure.
Kidd can still execute a fast break flawlessly but he was never much of a threat in the half-court during his time in Dallas...until he developed a three-point shot.
Most players don't develop a three-point shot while they're in the league—you either enter as a threat from long-range or you don't take any. Kidd's has never been known as a shooter; here are his three-point percentages for his 16-year career:
27.2 ('95), 33.6 ('96), 37.0 ('97), 31.3 ('98), 36.6 ('99), 33.7 ('00), 29.7 ('01), 32.1 ('02), 34.1 ('03), 32.1 ('04), 36.0 ('05), 35.2 ('06), 34.3 ('07), 38.1 ('08), 40.6 ('09), 42.5 ('10)
He cracked 37 percent once in his first 13 years, then proceeded to go over 40 percent in back-to-back years...at the tail end of his career! I can't think of any other player that saw such a dramatic rise in three-point percentage in their late 30s.
Still a triple-double threat, he's added a new element to his repertoire, which gives defenses one less help defender when it comes to double-teaming Dirk.
But let's just keep this simple. Since 2005, Ginobili has shot at least 37.6 percent from the three-point line (excluding '09 where he played just 44 games because of a bum ankle). Overall, he's averaging about 39 percent during that time and hitting 1.64 three's per game en route to 17.0 points per game.
Over that same period, Duncan has averaged a double-double every year (in fact, he's done that every year of his career), going for 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds on 50.8 percent shooting, as well as being a perennial All-Star and earning either first or second team All-NBA Defense honors.
Oh, and the Spurs won two titles ('05, '07), had the best record in the league once ('06), and advanced at least to the Western Conference semis twice ('06, '10) and finals once ('08).
I'd say they earned their spot.
These two are unlike any other duo because they're built so similar—Durant at 6'9", 215 lbs. and Green at 6'9", 235 lbs.
They even play similar positions—Durant is typically at small forward while Green is the four. They're both versatile, so playing them at the 4/5 isn't out of the question either.
So how is this an inside-outside combination?
I think we're all familiar with Durant's outside numbers. Even though his three-point percentage dropped from 42.2 percent in '09 to 36.5 percent in '10, he's still the best pure shooter in the league. Scoring comes so natural to him that he makes it look effortless.
But Green isn't a slouch from the perimeter either. He made over 100 three-pointers last year and peaked in '09 with a 38.9 percentage from beyond the arc. Like Durant, those numbers dipped in '10 but he's still more than capable of spreading the floor.
They're both adept at handling the ball in the post. Durant has such long arms that it's nearly impossible to block his shot when he spins and fades away.
Green's not an ideal low-post scorer but he can be creative with his back to the basket.
Both players are quality rebounders too. Green's actually a little unimpressive, averaging 4.7, 6.7, and 6.0 rebounds in his first three seasons. But Durant's numbers have increased since he was drafted in '07, earning 4.4, 6.5, and 7.6 rebounds per game from 2008-2010.
And when one player is occupying space inside, the other is usually waiting to wreak havoc on the perimeter. Their games complement each other nicely—rarely are both of them standing at the three-point line or fighting for position inside. Even though they're both forwards, they get the inside-outside nod because of their versatility.
Because of injuries, not a lot of people gave the Jazz a chance in the first-round of the playoffs against the Nuggets last year.
Who could blame them? Starting center Mehmet Okur was out. So was Andrei Kirilenko. They were starting Kyrylo Fesenko in the middle and alternating between unproven C.J. Miles and undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews on the perimeter.
They were playing the Nuggets, who made the Western Conference Finals in the prior season. Carmelo Anthony had torched them for 33.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. They had a chance to win the division outright on the last night of the regular season and were thumped at home by the Suns.
Then they stole Game Two on the road and everyone's eyebrows raised. After the game on Inside The NBA, Chris Webber made a terrific point that went something like this (more paraphrasing):
"Players in Utah trust the system. As long as you have your two big stars—in this case, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer—Jerry Sloan will plug in the pieces around them, even with injuries. They know that if they fulfill their role and execute properly, they'll be successful."
And they were. They went on to beat the Nuggets and advance to the second round, an impressive feat for a team missing two starters.
Webber was right—the Jazz have been successful because of the trust that the players have in Jerry Sloan's system. They've seen it since the days of John Stockton and Karl Malone. They saw it with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer.
This year, they'll see it with Williams and Al Jefferson. Both Jefferson and Boozer are comparable players; Boozer has a little bit more range but Jefferson is a better defender.
When they start running the pick-and-roll, it'll be like nothing has changed for the Jazz. Same coach, same rowdy atmosphere, same style of play...and same devastating PG/PF combination.
The best big-game player in the league and the face of the post-Jordan generation with one of the most versatile, well-rounded power forwards on a team that's won back-to-back NBA championships.
Were you really expecting anyone else at No. 1?