Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Superstar Pairings Post-Free Agency

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaNBA AnalystJuly 17, 2019

Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Superstar Pairings Post-Free Agency

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    Dynamic duos are everywhere right now as players questing for rings are taking more control over their careers and trying to find ways to pair up. 

    Some are new, some are old and some are renewed. But 10 of the leading duos are quite formidable. 

    So, which is the best? To determine the order of these rankings, the following factors were considered:

    1. The combined talent of the two players
    2. The overall fit of the two players
    3. How much time the players have spent together

    The third concern was the smallest factor, but it remained a part of the analysis.

    Ultimately, all these pairings have high hopes of getting into the playoffs, if not deep into them. By the end of the season, even the new tandems (with one exception) will have some experience together. 

10. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    It was impossible to leave this pairing off the list. Likewise, it was impossible to have them any higher than No. 10 since Kevin Durant is likely to miss the entire season with a ruptured Achilles suffered against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. 

    Still, the Nets will have a ridiculous scoring duo once he's playing again.

    He and Kyrie Irving both averaged at least 20 points and five assists with true shooting percentages over 59 last season. The only other three players to do so were James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry

    While the "one ball" rule still applies to them, their efficiency with the rock and willingness as passers suggest they should fit nicely. 

    They just can't rise higher than 10th because it's going to be another year before we see them play together.

9. Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Kristaps Porzings and Luka Doncic have a lot in common. They're both European players who were drafted young and had fantastic rookie seasons. Doncic won Rookie of the Year, while Porzingis was first-team All-Rookie. 

    Last season, Porzingis did not play a single game as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered Feb. 6, 2018. He'll have a full 20 months of recovery by the time he takes the court for training camp, so he should have few lingering concerns. 

    He was averaging 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks when he went down two seasons ago with the New York Knicks. The Dallas Mavericks traded for him ahead of the deadline last year and sent the Knicks a pair of first-round picks.

    Doncic was nothing short of spectacular for the Mavs last season, leading them in points (21.2) and assists (6.0) while finishing second in rebounds (7.8). The only other rookie in NBA history to put up similar numbers was Oscar Robertson in 1960-61. 

    They should fit together well when they finally do play a game, forming a pair of perfect pick-and-pop partners. Porzingis shot 39.5 percent from deep in 2017-18, and 2.8 of Doncic's dimes assisted three-pointers during his average game.

    Porzingis will open up the court for Doncic, and Doncic will be able to create more open looks for Porzingis. Both players have had their career efficiencies sandbagged because they have served as the best scorers on teams with no one to lessen the pressure. That has allowed defenses to throw doubles at them, hedge on screens and more.

    Now, if you cheat on one, the other can make you pay the price. Doncic's passing, in particular, makes that threat even more lethal. 

    In a few years, this could be one of the best two or three duos. But both players still need to grow, and Porzingis needs to get back into basketball shape. 

8. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Nikola Jokic is the biggest draft steal in the NBA today. Taken with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft, he is now a top-10 player in the league. 

    By the time he retires, he might even be the biggest draft-day steal in league history. He's averaging 0.214 win shares per 48 minutes, which is the most of any player taken No. 31 or later (the equivalent of a modern-day second-round pick). 

    Last season, he averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. The only other players to put up counting numbers like that are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook

    On the other end of the spectrum is Jamal Murray, who was taken with the No. 7 pick in the 2016 draft and has emerged as the second-best player on a deep and talented Nuggets roster. In his third year, Murray averaged 18.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds. 

    When both were on the court last year, they carried the Nuggets to a plus-6.1 net rating and helped earn the league's fourth-best record. 

    Both players are still young and should see more natural growth. Jokic (24) has MVP potential, and Murray (22) could easily be an All-Star in the near future. 

7. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have both been in Portland for their entire careers. Lillard was drafted at No. 6 in 2012, and McCollum came off the board at No. 10 the year after. 

    Both own some hardware, as well. Lillard won Rookie of the Year and the 2018-19 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. McCollum was the 2015-16 Most Improved Player.

    The pair combined for 46.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game last season. And while those assist numbers might seem a tad low for an entire starting backcourt, the two were the impetus behind the Association's third-best offense in 2018-19. 

    Lillard scored 1,100 unassisted points; McCollum produced another 655

    The on/off numbers highlight their impact. When both were on the court, the Blazers' offensive rating was 116.4. When neither was on the court, it fell to 102.9. 

    That was enough to get them to the 2019 Western Conference Finals and put them on the list of top tandems. 

6. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid show might have taken a bit longer to process than originally intended. But two years into it, they're both proving their mettle. 

    There are two ways to look at last year's playoffs. One is that they were bounced in the second round. The other is that they came within one shot of beating the Toronto Raptors, who went on to win the NBA Finals. (They were also the only squad that really changed the eventual champions.)

    Sometimes it's too easy to dismiss an entire season based on a single shot, and the Sixers are wisely choosing not to do so. Embiid is already tied up long-term, and they gave Simmons a max extension this summer. 

    Last year, the pair averaged a combined 44.4 points, 22.4 rebounds, 11.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.7 blocks. 

    Folks, those numbers are remarkable. 

    Yes, both their games have enduring flaws. For example, it would be nice to see Simmons, who is 0-of-17 from deep throughout his career, learn how to make a jump shot.

    That doesn't change the reality of what Embiid and Simmons have already done on the court, or that they can continue to improve their games tremendously while just 25 and 22 years old, respectively.

    They're just outside the top five for these rankings, but they could very well end the season in first place. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    It was a bit of a struggle to come up with the Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo's Batman.

    The Milwaukee Bucks have more than two stars. Both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have excellent arguments. The Bledsoe-Greek Freak tandem posted a 16.9 net rating last year—slightly higher than the Middleton-Greek Freak duo's 15.2.

    Yet Middleton was the fellow All-Star and put up the better overall numbers, so he gets the nod here. He and the league MVP combined to put up 46.0 points, 18.5 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.6 blocks. Middleton led the team in threes, while Antetokounmpo's destroyed the rim with 279 dunks

    Middleton carved out his niche in the league as a three-and-D wing, but he has evolved into a more complete playmaker. Last season, he had a career-high 4.3 assists per game, and 291 of his 506 buckets were unassisted. 

    Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP after a remarkable season in which he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists while notching a 64.4 percent true shooting percentage

    They also play well together, as 25.8 percent of Middleton's assisted buckets came off the MVP's passes while he fed Antetokounmpo for 26.9 percent of his. 

    The Bucks' future looks just fine with one of the league's best duos locked up for the foreseeable future after Middleton re-signed for five years and $178 million.

4. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

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    Rarely have two former MVPs teamed up in their primes: Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry for the Golden State Warriors in 2016-17 and Moses Malone and Julius Erving with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982-83.

    Charles Barkley joined Hakeem Olajuwon in 1996-97. Karl Malone joined Shaquille O'Neal in 2003-04. O'Neal joined LeBron James in 2009-10. Steve Nash joined Kobe Bryant in 2012-13. But in each of those cases, at least one of the parties was past his prime. 

    The two occurrences of in-their-prime MVPs pairing up resulted not just in championships, but in two of the greatest single-season teams in history. Can the James Harden and Russell Westbrook reunion lead to the same result?

    They are two of the best shot-creators in the game today, if not ever. 

    Harden scored 36.1 points per game and added 17.8 through assists in 2018-19. Westbrook donated 22.9 and 25.5, respectively. That's a combined 102.3 points generated per game, which is nearly as many points as the Memphis Grizzlies averaged (103.5).

    If things were as simple as gluing their numbers together, they'd be higher on the list. But chemistry and fit could be big problems, as a lot has changed since they played three years together with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The "one ball" rule applies here in a big way. 

    They can make it work by having Harden play off the ball when Westbrook has possession, where he could open up the court by moving and creating space for his new teammate. When Harden has the ball, Westbrook could trail him on drives for fearsome putbacks or cut to the rim for violent alley-oops. 

    They can make it work.

    But it's a lot to ask players this far along in their careers to make changes this drastic. They might be the most talented pair of teammates, but they're only the fourth-best duo until they prove they can thrive together.

3. Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis-LeBron James duo is perhaps the hardest one to gauge.

    James is competing with Michael Jordan for the unofficial title of greatest player of all time. If you want a number that demonstrates just how ridiculous his career has been, he's 546 points from becoming the only player to notch 40,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists in the regular season and postseason combined.

    Kobe Bryant and Oscar Robertson are the only ones to get within 70 percent of those numbers. 

    Anthony Davis, meanwhile, has been a top-10 player the last few years, averaging 27.5 points and 11.6 boards since 2016-17. 

    You could argue they're just as talented as Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and they're a better fit, too. 

    However, concerns still exist. James just missed a career-high 27 games. He'll be better rested than he's been in a decade. But he's still going to be 35 in December, and the Lakers might manage him accordingly. Davis sat out of 26 contests in 2018-19, and it's not the first time he's missed significant action. He's never missed fewer than seven games. 

    Each player missing 10 or more games wouldn't be a shock, and depending on the timing of the absences, that could mean the Lakers would have to play a quarter of the season without both on the court. While regular-season games don't matter as much, playoff seeding is crucial while the Western Conference looks so tough.

    Maybe everything will work out as planned, and the Lakers will go deep into the playoffs or even with the title. But if it doesn't, slips in the regular season could lead to a first- or second-round playoff loss.

2. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Even after Kevin Durant's departure, the Golden State Warriors are filled with stars: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and now D'Angelo Russell.

    Curry was an obvious pick for the leading pairing because he's a two-time MVP. Green joins him because Thompson will miss at least half the season recovering from a torn ACL, and we haven't seen how Russell will fit on his new team. 

    Even without those qualifiers, Green might have been the best choice anyway. 

    Last year, the Dubs outscored their opponents by 521 points with the Curry-Green tandem on the court. And since Steve Kerr took over as head coach in 2014-15, they've topped their opponents by 4,159 points between regular-season and postseason contests with those two playing.

    While Curry was winning two MVPs, Green won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17 and was the runner-up the two seasons prior.

    Curry revolutionized the way we think of offense with his electric ability to make threes off the bounce and from anywhere on the court. He's already third all-time in made threes and will likely climb over Reggie Miller next season and Ray Allen the year after that. Green helped revolutionize the way modern teams play defense with his ability to switch and play small-ball center. He proved you can win championships that way. 

    While both players' numbers dipped the last couple of years as they assimilated Kevin Durant into the system, they proved in this year's postseason they still have it. Curry averaged 28.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the playoffs. Green averaged 13.3, 10.1 and 8.5. 

    These two have an argument as the best duo going, and they have both the hardware and rings to prove it. 

1. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Do you know who had the most real plus-minus wins last year?

    It wasn't James Harden (18.54), Russell Westbrook (9.76) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (15.22). It wasn't even Kawhi Leonard (8.32). 

    According to ESPN, it was Paul George with 19.86. 

    Granted, that's just one imperfect way to measure value, but you can make a legitimate argument that George was the best regular-season player in the NBA last year. And Leonard, winner of the Finals MVP for the Toronto Raptors, was the best postseason player. 

    That's a couple of pretty big additions to a Los Angeles Clippers team that won 48 games in 2018-19. 

    Leonard and George are both two-way players. They might even be two of the three best two-way players in the world right now (with Antetokounmpo as the third). 

    Putting them together on defense might be the biggest nightmare for opponents, as the wing has become the most important position in today's NBA. Having two guys who can guard the other team's best player is a treat. 

    Both are long and can cut off passing lanes. Both can defend in the post. Both can stop penetration. When the game is on the line, they'll make it hard to even get a shot off, much less put it in the hole. 

    Also, both can score, even in crunch-time situations. Leonard finished fourth in clutch points last year, and Leonard sat at No. 5.

    Because of their dynamic duo, the Clippers will be a hard team to stop and an even harder one to score against. They might even win the title. 

          

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com