Predicting and Ranking NBA's Top 10 Dynamic Duos This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 28, 2020

Predicting and Ranking NBA's Top 10 Dynamic Duos This Season

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In addition to keeping you safe on field trips and at pool parties, the buddy system is also integral to building an NBA championship contender.

    That's some real range.

    Teams with the highest aims can't stop at one star. They need two, and you can't just throw any pair of high-end talents together without a plan. The very best pairings work in a complementary way, ideally improving one another on both ends.

    Here, we'll take a crack at forecasting which twosomes will fare best this year. In cases where we don't have much of a track record to refer to for guidance, this will be pure guesswork. We suspect Devin Booker and Chris Paul will work well together, but we can't be sure until we see it happen on the floor.

    We're looking for tandems that'll excel in the areas of statistical production, fit and, ultimately, team success.

    These are the NBA's best buddies for the 2020-21 campaign.

Honorable Mention

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

    Everyone fixates on the Dallas Mavericks' need for a third star, but maybe we should wait to see if Kristaps Porzingis can finish a season healthy for the first time in his career before we assume they have a second one.


    Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    Stephen Curry is a sport-altering megastar with a pair of MVPs and the rare distinction of basically assuring awesome offense—regardless of what's around him. This duo, which drove five straight Finals runs, was the hardest one to omit from the top 10. The reasoning is pretty simple: Green has to prove he's healthy, that  he hasn't lost more than a half-step on defense and that he can get that three-point hit rate up above 31 percent for the first time since 2015-16.


    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

    Dame is a superstar, and McCollum has been a rock-solid source of elite secondary offense for the last half-decade. But defense is still a thing, and these two small guards don't combine to produce enough of it.


    Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

    The "no defense" criticism applies here as well. More broadly, we're going to need to see some wins from the Washington Wizards before we consider this pair for the top 10. Westbrook's waning athleticism and uncompromising style have the potential to detract from Beal's game, and the best duos make each other better—not the opposite.

10. Chris Paul and Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    This isn't bad for a duo with no history together. If Chris Paul and Devin Booker carry the Phoenix Suns to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, possibly as a top-four seed, the No. 10 spot will seem too low in hindsight.

    In one sense, there's an appealing synergy between these two players. Paul, who enjoyed a renaissance season with the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, is undeniably in the decline phase of his career. Booker, though, is just entering what should be his prime years. If the former slips, the latter could improve enough to make up the difference.

    It'll be interesting to see if both Paul and Booker can produce at the same levels together as they did apart last season. Paul was fifth in RPM Wins during 2019-20, while Booker was 14th. That's the highest combined ranking of any pair* on this list. Is that repeatable in a situation where Paul and Booker share the ball, rather than run their own shows?

    It's hard to know how to quantify the mentorship aspect of a pairing like this, but we have to acknowledge how valuable Paul's leadership and professionalism will be for a younger star like Booker. If nothing else, Booker is going to witness a masterclass on how to exploit every edge and angle. Nobody knows more tricks of the trade than CP3. If Booker picks up on the dark arts Paul has perfected, it could take his game to a new level.


    *James Harden and Russell Westbrook were third and 13th, respectively, but they've since split.

9. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    This might feel too low for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who have taken the Philadelphia 76ers to the playoffs every year they've both been healthy and have a combined five All-Star berths between them.

    But it says something that Simmons and Embiid are the tandem with the highest odds of being split up this year—and that's not just because James Harden could be available in trade.

    From the jump, the Simmons-Embiid fit has been clunky. That's mostly because of Simmons' unwillingness to shoot from the perimeter, but their markedly different personalities add to the fit issues. Reports that they don't get along are nothing new.

    You get the feeling that if Philadelphia doesn't get off to a strong start with a revamped supporting cast (that can shoot!), a trade is likely.

    Breakup potential is a huge problem, as are Embiid's persistent conditioning concerns. But these two are the best defensive pairing in these rankings, and the talent isn't in question. There's a decent chance the Sixers can still build a big-time winner around them.

8. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Donovan Mitchell has improved every year, topping out last season with his first All-Star nod and a career-high 24.0 points per game on 55.8 percent true shooting. Any lingering thoughts that he was just a touch below the league's elite level of first-option scorers disappeared when he averaged 36.3 points per game on a 52.9/51.6/94.8 shooting split in an epic seven-game first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets.

    That was pure, uncut superstar stuff. Though we shouldn't expect Mitchell to be that great going forward, we know he's got it in him and can confidently price in yet another step forward in his fourth season. 

    The Utah Jazz, having handed him a five-year max extension, feel similarly.

    Rudy Gobert isn't still developing like Mitchell; he's already established as arguably the best defensive player of the past half-decade. His uncommon mobility for a player with his length sets him apart, and the Jazz can trust that his presence inside assures them of excellent regular-season defense.

    The five-year, $205 million extension he signed with Utah just before the season won't age well. But salaries have nothing to do with these rankings, so we won't hold the Jazz's excessive spending against Gobert.

    These two have yet to advance past the second round, but they've gotten the Jazz to the playoffs three straight years and have highly complementary games. Utah can get it done on both ends with Mitchell's offense and Gobert's D.

7. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    If Jayson Tatum could develop his finishing craft a bit more, rather than defaulting to his patented (and usually unsuccessful) off-arm shove to create space, he'd become about as complete of an offensive weapon as there is in the league.

    Given his overall growth trajectory and the leap he took midway through last season, don't bet against Tatum getting there this year. He's already a bona fide All-NBA performer; it won't take much for him to cement his status as a top-10 player in the league.

    Jaylen Brown is not on that level, but Boston's other two-way wing might still be among the league's more underrated players. No, Brown isn't the shot-creator Tatum is, and it's also true many of the catch-all metrics range from negative to "meh" on his defense. But Brown is 24, has ideal size for a modern wing and just keeps getting better.

    He hit 38.2 percent of his threes a year ago and has evolved beyond trying to dunk over the top of anything between him and the bucket. Brown still throws down, but he's become a more effective finisher over the last two years by expanding his close-range scoring repertoire.

    The clear understanding of roles makes this partnership special. Tatum's play means he's undeniably Boston's alpha, while Brown's game and demeanor suit him for a Pippen role to Tatum's Jordan. Maybe there are more talented pairs, but this fit is hard to top.

6. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The results speak for themselves here, as Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo lugged the Miami Heat to the Finals last season.

    Butler is an unconventional superstar in that he's a top wing threat who doesn't shoot threes (until he has to uncork a few in the playoffs), while Adebayo is unique in his own right. There aren't many five-position-defending centers who are also comfortable slinging passes all over the floor and orchestrating as a handoff hub around the elbows.

    We tend to think of facilitators only as passers, but the more complete definition of the term, "a person or thing that makes an action or process easier," is a perfect description of how Adebayo helps the Heat. Everything just works better when he's involved.

    Butler, 31, could slip athletically in his 10th season. But his legendary focus on conditioning and last year's spike in assists (to a career-high 6.0 per game) suggest he'll find enough workarounds to offset diminishing quickness. Adebayo is only 23; though he's already an All-Defensive team star and one of the very best centers in the league, a leap could still be in the offing.

    This pair has already driven winning at the highest levels and has real room to get better. And as an added bonus, Butler is basically an Adebayo hype man. He pumps up his teammate as the key to Miami's success at every opportunity.

    Mutual respect and the vet-to-young player mentorship aspect only makes this partnership more potent.

5. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    This might be the most purely complementary tandem on this list, which has something to do with Nikola Jokic sitting waaaaaaay up toward the top of the list of guys who make their teammates better. Everyone looks great when they're getting dimed up on backdoor cuts and treated to clean attack lanes by perfect dribble handoffs.

    Jamal Murray is hardly getting a free ride, though. He and Jokic have a two-way-street thing going.

    Last season, Jokic assisted on 129 Murray baskets, the third-highest player-to-player assist combo in the league. The Murray-to-Jokic setup tally reached 116 buckets, good for ninth on that same list. No teammates set each other up for more total scores than these two.

    Murray also proved during the 2020 playoffs that his game has a superstar level to it. The trick is tapping into it more often. As he's only in his age-24 season, the time could be right for a full breakout.

    Jokic is the best passing center anyone's ever seen, and he also pairs dominant low-post scoring with enough streaky three-point shooting to provide legitimate stretch in the Denver Nuggets offense.

    Murray has the shot-creating skill and outsized confidence you want in a high-scoring lead guard, but he gets an added boost by having a teammate in Jokic who can gift wrap him 30-point nights at will.

    Jokic and Murray are in their fifth year together, which gives them more reps than all but one other duo on this list. Last year's stirring run to the West Finals validated them as top-flight teammates, and there's a chance we remember it as the beginning of a partnership that will someday produce a title.

4. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    You can't have too much of a good thing—when that good thing is unstoppable offense.

    Kevin Durant is an unsolvable scorer. Immune to defense of any kind because of his length, skill and touch, he seems destined to be the most successful post-Achilles player we've ever seen. Early 2020-21 returns indicate he's in pre-injury bucket-getting form.

    Though Kyrie Irving comes with baggage and a lengthening trail of questionable attempts at leadership, he's kind of the guard equivalent of Durant. Irving's handle, lights-out shooting (off the dribble or on the catch; pick your poison) and bottomless bag of creative shot-making tricks renders him similarly unguardable.

    We know the drawbacks with this pair. Defense has never been Irving's main focus, and Durant, even before his injury, was more of a switch-flipper than a consistent force on that end. We also know that while Durant hasn't full-on complained about sharing touches, he has a history of harboring grievances when he hasn't gotten what he believes is his due credit.

    Irving's hunger for his own shine was more blatant. He got himself traded because he was tired of playing second fiddle to LeBron James. Even if Kyrie united with Durant deliberately, are we sure he can handle sharing touches and the spotlight in this union?

    Their ranking here is a bet that all those potential trouble spots won't stop a twosome good enough to score its way to a Finals berth.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's dominance lifts every teammate's production by drawing the full attention of the defense. We have to keep that in mind when assessing his partnership with Khris Middleton, a superb player in his own right but certainly not one on close to equal footing with the two-time MVP.

    Middleton was a hair away from a 50-40-90 season last year. Regardless of the chasm between him and Giannis, that's proof the Milwaukee Bucks' No. 2 option is no slouch. But the lineup numbers clearly show who makes the real difference.

    With Antetokounmpo and Middleton on the floor together, the Bucks steamrolled everyone in 2019-20, producing a plus-17.1 net rating. Taking Middleton off the floor, Giannis-only lineups still crushed opponents to the tune of a plus-13.7 figure. Middleton alone only managed a plus-5.4.

    This isn't some revelation. Antetokounmpo is obviously in the leading role here. Frankly, there's a chance new teammate Jrue Holiday usurps Middleton as the Greek Freak's top teammate this season. The smart money is still on Middleton and Giannis obliterating teams as the Bucks cruise to the East's top seed again. Their stats, along with the level of team success they've produced, means we can't rank them any lower.

    But we have to agree that this is the most imbalanced duo on the list—even if that's mostly because Giannis is on his own planet.

2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have both finished seasons in the top three of MVP voting, making them one of just two combos on this list with that distinction. The former is a two-time DPOY who was also the top offensive option on the title-winning 2019 Toronto Raptors, while the latter's resume includes five All-NBA nods and four All-Defensive team honors (two firsts and two seconds).

    On pure talent alone, the Los Angeles Clippers' wings have little competition.

    Big wings who can make plays, space the floor, score in isolation and defend the other team's top perimeter threat are the league's most precious options. Ideally, teams try to find one around which to build.

    The Los Angeles Clippers have two.

    Granted, Leonard and George flopped famously in their first year together. Chalk it up to growing pains. These two are absolutely good enough to comprise a championship core, and George's demonstrated ability to occupy a 1B role to Leonard's 1A means this partnership (which, critically, was orchestrated by these two) is perfectly constructed.

1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    This is uncontroversial.

    LeBron James is still the first player you'd pick to anchor your championship hopeful, and Anthony Davis is somewhere in the top five on that same list.

    At 27, AD has become an increasingly skilled perimeter scorer while also providing elite finishing inside and uncrackable defensive versatility. Davis was the only player in 2019-20 to average at least two blocks, a steal and a made three per game. Maybe that seems like cherry-picking, but Davis' game has become so complete that we have to come up with niche ways to express his singular two-way impact.

    He and James root for one another, and their aims are aligned. Where other partnerships might suffer from ego and entitlement, these two fit together on every level. James' advancing age (36) means he needs a do-it-all teammate with fewer miles to take over while he sometimes recedes into the sage setup role to which he's ideally suited. Meanwhile, James' guidance on and off the floor has already given Davis the perfect template for development.

    This is symbiosis at its finest.

    James and Davis already have a ring together, something no other tandem on this list can claim. On its own, that would give the Los Angeles Lakers' one-two punch a shot at the top spot here. That they're also the best fit and the most objectively talented puts them over the top without argument.


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