Star NBA Duos in Need of a Break-Up
The NBA's history can be traced from one championship banner-raising partnership to the next.
Entire eras have been controlled by dynamic duos. Before Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, there was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Before them, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson or Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Before them, it was Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
A successful superstar pairing can not only take teams to the Association's mountain top but also keep them in contention year after year.
But just like in real life, not all basketball marriages are built to last. In fact, the following five-star duos have already run their course and are in need of a divorce.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum
The formula for maximizing the 2018-19 Boston Celtics sounded simple enough. Add last year's breakout postseason stars with healthy versions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and the Shamrocks should've taken off.
But the calculations couldn't account for chemistry. The jobs changed for those playoff performers, the roles reduced and the shot attempts trended down. Jayson Tatum came closest among the youngsters to retaining his involvement, but he went from being the focal point of a three-headed attack to Irving's sidekick.
Tatum couldn't be the same player, though he came close in the 15 games he played without Irving (17.4 points on 47.6 percent shooting). His regression seemed a necessary sacrifice at first, but it rendered him powerless to stop the Celtics' tailspin once Uncle Drew disappeared in the playoffs (30.1 percent shooting, 18.5 percent from three over their final four outings).
It's clear the 27-year-old Irving and 21-year-old Tatum aren't on the same timeline. Moreover, since Irving (199) and Tatum (162) each accounted for more than a quarter of Boston's 623 isolations, there might be too much overlap in their skills and styles to successfully coexist.
Luckily, with free agency awaiting Irving (once he declines his $21.3 million player option), this offseason offers the opportunity of a clean split.
If the Celtics bring him back, they should chase their ultimate win-now move with a deal for Anthony Davis, which would almost certainly involve Tatum. There might be some hesitance on Boston's end, but as The Athletic's Sam Amick reported in February, the scoring forward "is expected to be a major part of the talks when June rolls around."
But if a Davis deal isn't happening, letting Irving walk and realigning the franchise around Tatum and Jaylen Brown (and maybe Terry Rozier) could be best for its future.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday
We're not here to rain on David Griffin's parade, but short of outfitting a billboard with flashing lights and loudspeakers, we're not sure how Anthony Davis could make his desire for a scenery change any clearer.
Davis' agent, Rich Paul, shared the trade request with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in January. Then, Davis himself detailed that desire days later.
"I feel like it's my time," the six-time All-Star told reporters. "I gave the city, organization and fans all that I could. I don't know how long I'm going to play the game. I feel like it's my time to move on."
Then, to send one last message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, he rocked a "That's All, Folks!" to the New Orleans Pelicans' final home game.
He. Wants. Out.
And no, New Orleans' draft lottery win did nothing to change that opinion, sources told The Athletic's Shams Charania.
On one hand, it's a huge bummer, and not just for Big Easy-based basketball diehards. Injures and an underwhelming supporting cast kept the Davis-Jrue Holiday duo from approaching its potential, but the two typically wreaked havoc together (plus-9.5 net rating over 1,437 minutes this past season). Adding a hyper-athletic Swiss Army knife like Zion Williamson to the mix could've pushed their ceiling several stories higher.
On the other, New Orleans possesses one of the most coveted trade chips in years and can cash it in to give Williamson (and Holiday, if he sticks around) the ideal running mates. As much as Griffin might want to see this core with Davis, it's best to capitalize on his trade value now and eliminate risks of injury or an uncomfortable start to Williamson's potentially fortune-changing career.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George and Russell Westbrook
Does two years seem too quick to pull the plug on the Russell Westbrook-Paul George pairing? Not if you're concerned—as we are—that the club is too flawed to contend and lacking the resources needed to correct them.
During the first two seasons of the Westbrook-George regime, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished with good-not-great win totals of 48 and 49 and then bowed out of first-round series with a combined record of 3-8. Maybe that doesn't automatically sound like a reason for panic, but dig a little deeper and the alarm sirens are blaring.
These aren't the finding-our-rhythm campaigns of a young nucleus. George just celebrated his 29th birthday. Westbrook's 31st is coming in November. George is in the heart of his prime; Westbrook appears on the wrong side of his. (Push the triple-doubles aside, and Westbrook just posted his worst player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes since 2009-10. Yikes.)
This also isn't a club that's still fleshing out its roster. At least, the Thunder should hope they aren't when salaries alone could cost them nearly $150 million next season.
"The Thunder is spending as if the team is in the middle of a championship window, but it isn't good enough to win big now, and it has little flexibility to improve its short-term positioning," Ben Golliver wrote for the Washington Post.
General manager Sam Presti is in a brutal spot. George is clearly the team's best player, so trading him makes no sense. Westbrook could prove impossible to deal with declining advanced metrics and an increasing salary. Moving Steven Adams would open a massive hole on the interior. Moving anyone else likely doesn't return a difference-maker.
We don't know where the Thunder can or should go moving forward, but we're almost positive we just heard the championship window for the Westbrook-George duo slam shut.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
The Philadelphia 76ers are presumably in an envious position.
While teams don't raise banners for back-to-back 50-win seasons, the fact that those campaigns were led by a 25-year-old (Joel Embiid) and a 22-year-old (Ben Simmons) would seem to indicate a banner-raising is coming sooner than later.
But Philly's whole has yet to eclipse the sum of its parts. Given the dramatically different on-court needs of Embiid and Simmons, it's fair to question if it ever will.
While Embiid has some modern enhancements like perimeter defense and a willingness to fire from deep, he's a throwback terror on the low block. He averaged 10.2 points on post-ups alone and was a 78th percentile finisher on those plays. His ideal supporting cast, then, includes an army of three-point snipers and players comfortable working in the half-court setting.
Simmons, on the other hand, is a supercharged (and supersized at 6'10") point guard with the vision, strength and explosiveness to elicit LeBron James comparisons for fast-break attacks. Simmons needs a group of gazelles in the open court and enough perimeter shooters to cover the fact that he almost never launches outside of 10 feet.
"Unless his shooting improves drastically, it's always going to be really hard to build a team around him," one front-office evaluator told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman. "... The only way is to do so bottom-up, with the idea that he's your star and everything brought in must boost him."
Separately, Embiid (a contemporary Hakeem Olajuwon) and Simmons (maybe a Magic Johnson reboot) are offensive cheat codes. Together, they proved as offensively efficient as the Minnesota Timberwolves (110.5 offensive rating).
Given the all-in moves Philly has made with the rest of its roster, this looks like the perfect time to trade one (cough, Simmons) and maximize the other's chance of making a championship run.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal and John Wall
This could sound like a recycled take. Blame the Washington Wizards if that's the case.
They might be the only ones still believing in the Bradley Beal-John Wall backcourt. That, or they've deemed Beal too talented to trade while learning Wall might be impossible to move.
In mid-December, Vice Sports' Michael Pina dubbed Wall's contract the second-worst in the league. For a memory-refresher, this was before Wall underwent season-ending heel surgery and then later ruptured his Achilles. He might not even suit up in 2019-20, when he'll pocket a whopping $38.1 million for his age-29 season. His salary and biological clock will both keep climbing from there.
Perhaps that means we're being too generous by labeling Wall a star. But as worrisome as the length and cost of his contract are, that shouldn't distort our view of his talent. He's one of three players to average at least 19 points and eight assists in each of the last three seasons; LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the others.
That doesn't make his deal any less burdensome on Washington's future, which is unfortunate given what Beal could do alone in the driver's seat.
Once Wall went down, Beal's production rocketed to 27.2 points, 6.0 assists and 5.1 rebounds. Similarly, the Wizards' attack jumped in both efficiency (20th to 11th) and assist percentage (12th to sixth), displaying better ball movement and improved shooting from all three levels.
"With Wall, the offense is a monster truck bouncing up and down the dirt track; with Beal, it drives like a Tesla," The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote.
While the 25-year-old Beal would be a building block in most situations, the Wizards' grim outlook transforms that status. A full-on reset might be unavoidable, and trading him could be the only way to make it work. He would slot in right behind AD on contenders' wish lists, and they'd help replenish Washington's painfully thin asset collection.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.