Ranking the NBA's Best Duos This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Best Duos This Season

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Ranking the NBA's best duos in any given season is not for the faint of heart. So let's live on the wild side, shall we?

    Hashing out a pecking order is an inexact process. Rooting out subjection entirely isn't possible. Success is open to interpretation.

    This hierarchy is based on this season only and exclusively on what's happened so far. We don't care about last season, the 2021 playoffs or future years.

    Sample size and team performance with every duo on the floor will be taken into account, but the individual talent of each player will also be weighted. A partnership, in this case, is both valuable because of the time it spends together, and because of either player's ability to carry lineups without his sidekick. Net-negative solo time will not be a defining factor. It is more like a tiebreak. The reps logged by every duo will invariably matter more than anything else.

    Tough cuts will be made. One-two punches populated by a pair of stars have the edge over dyads where the absolute best player is much better than his team's No. 2. Partnerships are meant to be equitable, or at least close to it, rather than one-sided.

10. James Harden and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 561

    Net Rating: 13.8

    Slotting James Harden and Kevin Durant outside the top three is solely a matter of volume. The 561 possessions they have logged together this season is dead last among every duo on this list by a mile—roughly half as many as the next closest dyad.

    It would be easier to ignore the court time if their partnership was more established. But Harden came over from Houston midseason. The nine games they've played this year are their first as teammates since the 2012 NBA Finals.

    There is a level of "who cares?" here. Durant and Harden make infinite sense alongside one another.

    KD is both one of the purest scorers and shooters the game has ever seen, the type of star who can glide his way to 30 points on or off the ball. Harden is likewise among the greatest from-scratch maestros of all time.

    His step-back threes, drives to the hoop and general one-on-one wizardry nudge defenses toward implosion, and any suggestion that he's too domineering of a presence falls apart when his playmaking is given consideration. He whips passes all over the court and has shown in Brooklyn he has no qualms table-setting first and foremost when surrounded by the requisite star power. He will probably lead the league in assists so long as the Nets' Big Three sticks together.

    Whether Harden and Durant will waltz their way to the No. 1 spot when they have the necessary availability is a matter of taste. Some might hold Kyrie Irving against them. Can they be as valuable beside another top-15 player? That's not up for debate here. The newness of Durant and Harden's reunion provided an out. I took it—knowing full well their long-term floor is likely third.

    Honorable Mentions: Trae Young and John Collins, Atlanta Hawks; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks; Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans; Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

9. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,466

    Net Rating: 4.6

    Barely putting Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the top will, to many, come across as an outrage and insult.

    They make up no worse than one of the three best defensive duos in this exercise. Butler is the rare perimeter stopper who can inform the identity of an entire defense; he will sneak his way onto some Defensive Player of the Year ballots. Adebayo is not a conventional rim protector, but that's only because he does everything else. He operates on a swivel from the outside in, busting up possessions as the helper, derailing drives from behind and neutralizing smaller ball-handlers with his size and light-speed footwork.

    Collectively, the Butler-Adebayo duo has more playmaking talent than all but maybe two or three other options. They can both power an offense from all over the floor. Adebayo brings the ball up, finds cutters, sprays dimes to shooters and helps make Miami's hand-offs go-round. Butler has reached a whole different plane of floor awareness. He is a threat to make every available pass, to any player. Defenses look helpless whether he's in transition, working from standstills or initiating in the half-court. His 7.2 assists per game—like Bam Adebayo 5.4—are a career high.

    Adebayo and Butler would have a stronger case to be higher if the latter didn't miss 15 games, or if the former's solo minutes weren't so touch-and-go on offense. More than anything, they have finite range between them. Adebayo conducts more business from mid-range, but he and Butler have combined for 16 made threes on just 76 attempts (21.1 percent)—a contributing factor, along with spotty roster availability, to the Heat's lackluster offensive standing (21st).

8. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,214

    Net Rating: 8.2

    This is one of those situations in which Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have reached the apex of their standing—or are incredibly close to it—without enjoying peak availability.

    McCollum missed 25 games while recovering from a fractured right foot, limiting the time he and Lillard have spent on the court. But he's also having the best season of his career, averaging 23.8 points and 4.8 assists while knocking down 41.1 percent of his triples. His watermark production—which includes exchanging long twos for more threes—offsets his absences.

    Any room for upward movement begins and ends with the phenomenon that is Lillard. His parking-lot range receives most of the acclaim. He leads the league in shots made from 28 feet and beyond, because of course he does, and is downing those looks at a 37.8 percent clip, because of course he is. But he still doesn't get enough love for his work inside the arc.

    Lillard is converting 52.4 percent of his twos, tying a career high he set last season. His 61 percent clip around the rim is the second highest of his career, and his in-between maneuverability keeps defenses on eternal tilt.

    Portland's offense runs smoother than a well-oiled machine when these two set up shop together. They are among the best square-one shot-makers in existence, with strengths that translate perfectly to high-stakes moments.

    Lillard's crunch-time heroics are well-documented. How could they not be? He's converting 68.8 percent of his twos (22-of-32) and 44.4 percent of his threes (16-of-36) in the clutch. He remains a perfect 43-of-43 from the charity stripe in those situations, too.

    McCollum is no slouch himself. He's hit 10 of his 15 crunch-time twos (66.7 percent) and arms the Blazers with another top-tier creator through which to run half-court sets when it matters most. Defensive limitations may cap where this duo lands now and overall, but they're two stars whose value will only be amplified when the playoffs tip off.

7. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,696

    Net Rating: 15.9

    Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers has tethered the minutes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together more tightly than his predecessor, Brett Brown, ever did. They rank fifth in total possessions played among the top-10 spots despite Embiid missing a huge chunk of time with a bone bruise in his left knee.

    Intertwining the fates of your two best players isn't a particularly complicated concept, but the idea that Embiid and Simmons aren't the cleanest match seemed to permeate the Sixers' thought process before now. Ignoring that (understandable) line of thinking has panned out quite well. Philly is obliterating opponents with its two stars on the court, the second-highest net rating among the top-10 finishers.

    Embiid's MVP push isn't propping up this placement, either. Simmons has cooled off since All-Star break. He's finding nylon on 55.7 percent of his attempts inside the restricted area during this time and attacking the hoop with visibly less pizzazz. But he was playing with more force beforehand. He hit 66 percent of his looks inside the restricted area prior to the All-Star break and has successfully wedged his way into the Defensive Player of the Year discourse.

    And yet, Simmons' limitations are part of this calculus. They're more responsible than anything for dragging the Sixers' superstar couple outside the top five. They've pieced together a healthy sample despite Embiid missing time, and they certainly boast the dominant collective returns.

    Simmons' solo minutes are still a killer, though. Philly is getting outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays on his own, with an offensive rating in the 19th percentile. A bunch of those reps have come alongside all three of Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris, so it isn't an issue of supporting personnel. It's a question of whether Simmons can float a league-average offense independent of a top-five MVP candidate annihilating defenses with his present arsenal of face-ups, jump shooting and work in the post.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 2,383

    Net Rating: 9.7

    Welcome to the very beginning of "this feels icky" territory, wherein every duo seems underrated and has a coherent argument to be placed among each coupling ahead of them.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton also just so happen to provide the first instance of intra-team controversy. Does Jrue Holiday deserve to be thrown in here over the latter? Maybe. His offensive responsibility isn't as scoring-centric, especially in crunch time, but he ferries the heavier defensive burden. Nobody on the Bucks has seen more time against No. 1 options, according to BBall-Index, a placement that is only partially owed to the position Holiday plays.

    Flip-flop the two if you want. It won't bring the Bucks any higher. Antetokounmpo and Middleton stack up against the very best. Either can run the offense. Antetokounmpo, in particular, has introduced more craft to his game. His passes are less the byproduct of the havoc he creates going downhill and more so show an improved vision and feel. He remains the most dominant scorer around the rim since Shaquille O'Neal. (Zion Williamson is coming...or is already right there with him.)

    Middleton is a veteran of Team Underappreciated. His multilevel scoring is for real. Yes, his game can stall out before the basket. Holiday is going to put more pressure on defenses from point-blank range. But his mid-range artistry is among the most deadly in the business, and his 42.7 percent clip on pull-up threes ranks third out of 62 players attempting at least two per game. He does not have Milwaukee's highest crunch-time usage rage rate by chance.

    This is also part of the reason Antetokounmpo and Middleton dip just outside the top five. It's at least a little awkward when a team's best player and leading scorer might not be its most important offensive weapon down the stretch of a close game. There is also the solo Middleton minutes to consider. The Bucks are getting spanked on defense when he plays without Antetokounmpo, though that likely says more about the top-heaviness of their roster compared to last season.

5. Chris Paul and Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 2,101

    Net Rating: 6.1

    Don't be fooled by the Suns' "modest" net rating when Chris Paul and Devin Booker are on the floor. They have forged a dominant and dynamic pairing.

    Granted, it took some time. They started the season indulging more your-turn-my-turn stuff as they learned to play off one another. That lack of familiarity was exacerbated by some fiddling with the starting units.

    Life in Phoenix has long since settled from that early awkwardness. The Suns have won 23 of their last 28 games, during which time they're outpacing opponents by 14.4 points per 100 possessions with Booker and Paul on the floor. Their partnership is now more automatic, more organic. Booker is a lot better at trailing Paul and doing more than camping out in the corner when he doesn't have the ball.

    Having two of the most dangerous in-between scorers alive is a boon for the Suns offense. Defenses are caught in perpetual limbo when Booker and Paul are dribbling around screens. Booker's assist numbers aren't as glittery post-Paul, but they're each making teams pay with their passes when showing two players and collapsing inward. Both rank between the 76th and 80th percentiles in scoring efficiency as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

    The capacity for Booker and Paul to exist separately is part of their mystique. Some seem reluctant to loop the Suns into the tippy-top of the title discussion when they have question marks in the rotation and a general lack of playoff experience. But Phoenix is winning the one-star minutes both Booker and Paul play by double-digits per 100 possessions. That will prove monstrous in the postseason, also known as "one star on the floor at all times" territory.

    Other twosomes are going to provide more defense, in both range and effectiveness, and higher-volume shot-making from beyond the arc. That matters. And, when you're playing the way CP3 and Book are, it also doesn't.

4. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,668

    Net Rating: 15.4

    The tone of conversation surrounding the Clippers does not align with their record. It is easy to forget they have the third-best record in the Western Conference. Concerns about their defense, ability to reach the rim and generate free-throw attempts and their crunch-time performance eclipse what is, by many measures, a serious contender.

    For the most part, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard exist a dimension above the worries. They are definitely not blameless. Neither puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the rim, and they're both posting true shooting percentages below 48 in the clutch. They must shoulder some of the blame. It comes with the superstar job description.

    Still, the Clippers' defining flaws nod to their roster construction more than their two best players. George and Leonard have never been full-on game managers or rim-assault virtuosos. The Clippers have extended their modes of operation, and both have responded fairly well.

    Looking only at the results turned in when they play together is grounds for an even better finish. The Clippers have an offensive rating in the 98th percentile and defensive rating in the 82nd percentile during their shared minutes. Both George and Leonard are leading net-positive lineups in their solo stints.

    Leaning so heavily on jumpers is hardly a cardinal sin when they're so proficient in them. Leonard is canning 48 percent of his mid-range looks (82nd percentile) and 39.3 percent of his treys. George has been slumping since his return from a nagging right foot injury, but he's still putting in 42.4 percent of his pull-up threes on the season—the fourth-highest mark among everyone launching at least two such attempts per game.

    Bake in their defensive interchangeability, and the Leonard-George coupling easily ranks among the league's most ideal one-two punches. A fourth-place finish may actually represent their floor.

3. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,045

    Net Rating: 17.2

    Injuries make placing the Anthony Davis-LeBron James partnership extremely difficult. Davis hasn't played since Feb. 14 while dealing with a right calf strain, and James is currently out with a high right ankle sprain. In the interim, as the sample sizes of others expand, they have nowhere to go but down.

    At the same time, this isn't a Kevin Durant-James Harden situation. Davis and LeBron have cleared the 1,000-possession benchmark and appeared in 23 games together—only four fewer than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

    Theirs is also a seamless pairing. LeBron's playmaking is a natural complement to Davis' play-finishing, and Davis anchors the defense in an all-encompassing way that both simplifies LeBron's role and emoldens his performance at the less-glamorous end. The dominant returns when they share the floor speak for themselves. Net rating isn't a perfect measurement of success, but they do have the highest of the top 10 without the safety net of a third fringe or actual All-Star behind them.

    Full disclosure: LeBron is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. Davis was hardly playing his best basketball when he suffered his right calf and Achilles strain, and his offensive game is not always conducive to carrying lineups without a high-end playmaker attached to his hip. The Lakers are losing the minutes he logs sans LeBron by 5.9 points per 100 possessions—a struggle stretch owed, it seems, to more tenuous defensive combinations around him than his demarcated offensive usage.

    LeBron, on the other hand, has no such problems. He has tallied more time without Davis than with him, through which the Lakers are a plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions. His orchestration needs no expanse; he is among the highest-IQ passers ever. In the face of lower volume at the rim, he has become must-guard from behind the arc. LeBron is shooting 36.6 percent on step-back threes and 37.4 percent on all pull-up triples.

    To be sure, this isn't about his body of work alone. He has forged palpable chemistry with Davis, and the combined star power between them is peerless. The Harden-Durant duo is the only other one that boasts two consensus top-10 players.

2. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 1,913

    Net Rating: 14.6

    Just as there is some reluctance to tab the Jazz as bona fide contenders, there's also a hesitance to mention Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the same breath as the NBA's marquee duos. It isn't so much measurable reluctance. It's more about what goes unsaid, or where the focus tends to lie: virtually everywhere else within this list.

    Maybe the implicit tug-of-war between Gobert and Mitchell is at fault. Every other one-two punch has a distinct, almost-reflexive pecking order. The Gobert-Mitchell dynamic is less defined. Gobert is the Jazz's best player, and their most important for at least 43 minutes of a game. Mitchell, by virtue of his skill set, seems more mission critical in crunch time and the postseason.

    Failure to recognize either one as a conventional All-Star is inexcusable. More specifically, there still seems to be a disconnect between the perception of Gobert and his actuality. He is an atypical star, but it's stardom all the same.

    Gobert shapes an elite defense without elite stoppers around him. Opponents are shooting 6.9 percentage points worse (96th percentile) at the rim and 7.1 percent less often (99th percentile) during his time on the floor—truly remarkable given how much he plays, and the degree to which Utah funnels action in his direction.

    And while he isn't someone assigned to superstar wings or ball-handlers, rival offenses cannot just scheme around him. Gobert leads the league in shots blocked between four and 14 feet, according to PBP Stats. Settling for longer jumpers is the only real way to escape him, and that shot-profile manipulation is huge.

    Gobert's impact does, in fact, extend to the other side. He is not a shot creator, per se. But his gravity is its own form of facilitating. Defenses react to his rolls, on which he's averaging 1.27 points per possession (80th percentile), and he has developed a knack for finding the Jazz's orbiting shooters. Utah's three-point accuracy increases with him on the floor, and the uptick is not an accident.

    This is not to downplay Mitchell's contributions. You still wish he did almost everything more efficiently, but his career-high 25.4 points per game this season have come on a personal-best 56.8 true shooting percentage. He remains a coin-toss finisher around the basket and a wild-card shot-maker in crunch time, but he's still more offensive hub than not. He's swishing 37.3 percent of his pull-up threes and leading units without Gobert and Mike Conley to net ratings in the green.

    Both separately and together, Gobert and Mitchell have grown. They've long been Utah's chief cornerstones, but this season is a manifestation of simultaneous peaks. And the Jazz have the league's best record because of it. 

1. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Possessions Played: 2,634

    Net Rating: 12.2

    No data dive will ever do the Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray duo justice. They are in Year 5 of their partnership, which is at this point more like a kinship.

    Jokic and Murray are hardwired to act in concert. They torch defenses with their hand-offs, and even the stingiest opponents can suffer death by a thousand back cuts. Jokic knows where everyone on the floor is at all times but seems more acutely aware of Murray's whereabouts than most. It isn't just understanding where Murray may be; he intuits where he's going.

    Murray, in turn, has a unique grasp of where Jokic wants him to be. You can sometimes see the two directing each other. On other occasions, there is no pointing, no nodding, no calls for the ball, no visceral form of communication. Murray just does it—it being whatever the right decision may be, whether that's cutting, relocating away from the ball, coming to the ball, etc. Jokic seems to have an internal alarm that goes off whenever Murray is in the corner. 

    Watching these two is basketball at its most fun. And this says nothing of their skill detached from one another.

    Solo minutes have not been statistically pretty. Denver is losing the time Jokic logs without Murray and vice versa. Some lineup and early-season blowout noise skews this a little bit. It is also a harbinger of how much the Nuggets prefer them together, and how many backup-heavy units they've deployed during either's me-time.

    Neither, though, is completely dependent on the other. Jokic sets up shots for everyone; he just happens to have assisted on Murray's buckets more than twice as often as anyone else's made shots. His scoring arsenal is deeper than ever and includes a lethal jumper, nifty floater, post game founded around force and finesse and difficult fades and face-ups that remain visually disarming.

    Murray is pretty much an expert in toggling between two existences. There is Murray, Jokic's co-star. And then there is Murray in takeover mode. Activating the latter is an imperfect science, and Murray has authored some wild swings and slumps. But he has been more of a steadying hand this season than not, an elite tough-shot maker who understands and embraces his functional duality.

    The end result is a staggeringly effective duo that moonlights as, perhaps, the NBA's most dangerous crunch-time twosome. And though the Nuggets continue to be painted as some mid-tier team this season—which, I mean, they're fourth in the West and 14 games over .500, so let's chill—it doesn't matter. Jokic and Murray have pieced together an incredibly effective body of work across the biggest sample size of the field. Their partnership is, right now, the league's standard-bearer.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Monday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.