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The NBA may be on indefinite pause, but basketball is always on the brain.
While we dream of the day when pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos return to our lives, we’ll continue debating and celebrating the dynamic duos who make these simple plays works of art.
Bleacher Report asked NBA writers to choose which star (or future star) pairing they’d build around today with a three-to-five-year title window. Once two teammates were claimed, they were eliminated from consideration. No duplicates.
Among the notable absences are a certain Brooklyn Nets tandem, two Splash Bros and a pair of small-ball buddies in Houston. Zach LaVine and his quarantine companion, Grizzly, nearly earned consideration for their socially distant workouts, but they ultimately missed the cut as well.
In a league so recently dominated by Big Threes, it’s now time for dynamic duos to shine. If you get to choose from today’s twosomes, who ya got?
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It’s rare for a rookie to have a legitimate effect on winning beyond just putting up good numbers, and that’s doubly true for point guards. Heading into this year, the list of rookie ball-handlers in the last two decades who had a high-level impact right away was basically Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard.
Add Ja Morant to that group.
The Murray State product has already proved he can be the best player on a playoff-caliber team. If his first season is over, he will have led the Grizzlies to a 32-33 record, the eighth overall seed in the West by 3.5 games and the team’s first playoff berth since 2017.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is also an ideal modern-day stretch big who has blossomed as early issues with fouling too frequently have calmed down.
The Grizzlies’ front office has done a good job building a playoff-caliber around Morant and Jackson, and Taylor Jenkins looks like a terrific long-term choice as head coach. But the two young stars are the biggest reason why the future is bright in Memphis.
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Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may not be quite contenders yet, but they’re closer than many think.
Doncic is already on track to all-time offensive hub status. And lest you think that’s hyperbole, the 7.3 offensive box plus/minus he posted in 2019-20 is the best ever in an age-20 (or younger) season. LeBron James‘ 7.0 in 2004-05 is close, but the rest of the list is far behind Doncic.
The now-21-year-old Slovenian engineers possessions with poise most players never acquire. He always seems to see every action before it materializes. He routinely manipulates defenses and knows where all four teammates are when those defenders fall for his traps. Having him at the point virtually guarantees a top-tier offense. This season, his Dallas Mavericks scored more points per 100 possessions than any team in history.
Then there’s Porzingis, who’s also still on the right side of 25 and brings shooting guard skills to a 7’3″ frame. It took some time for KP to get his game legs back in 2019-20 after he missed all of the previous season to recover from a torn ACL, but he showed flashes of his absurd offensive talent.
Over 13 games from Jan. 31 to March 6, he averaged 27.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. If he gets a fully healthy offseason to work toward that level of production on a consistent basis, Dallas will have perhaps the game’s most dangerous offensive duo. Surround it with gritty defenders, and you have a championship contender.
In their first year together, they posted the fifth-best simple rating system in the league.
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It’s a bit of a risk to choose a 35-year-old for the purpose of this exercise, but even with Father Time looming, LeBron James remains one of the NBA’s most talented and impactful players.
One of the most cerebral and versatile superstars in league history, James’ intelligence, brute force and skill allow him to take over any game. He understands how to break down opponents’ schemes and has the championship experience required to reach the mountain top yet again.
Anthony Davis is the best combo pick-and-roll/pop threat in the league, and he’s also a reliable go-to isolation scorer in his own right and a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber talent. These two top-10 players who perfectly complement one another have proved they can win at the highest level during the regular season.
With the right supporting cast, that should remain true in the playoffs.
Rounding out the roster with dynamic three-and-D wings will alleviate some of James’ defensive workload, and a dash of scoring juice can give the offense a boost. From there, James and Davis’ unguardable pick-and-roll combination can provide a quality look every possession down the stretch of a tight game and take advantage of whatever defensive scheme is thrown their way. That is the perfect foundation for a title team.
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Joel Embiid is a modern reincarnation of Hakeem Olajuwon. Ben Simmons is the first of his kind, a 6’10” playmaker who doubles as a five-tool defender.
That can be the backbone of a championship team in any era, even one as shooting-crazed as this.
Granted, they haven’t looked great this season. The Philadelphia 76ers have outscored opponents by only 0.9 points per 100 possessions in the 789 minutes with both All-Stars on the floor. But last season, they posted a contending-level plus-7.9 with both Simmons and Embiid. The year prior, it was a bulldozing plus-15.5.
The lesson: They can dominate if given an appropriate supporting cast.
Give me these two centerpieces, and I’m virtually guaranteed an elite defense along with an unstoppable post scorer and a terror in transition. There are logistical spacing issues to tackle, sure, but I can process that problem with the rest of my roster.
Embiid is the most complete two-way big man in the NBA. Simmons is a turbocharged and super-sized floor general. They are 26 and 23 years old, respectively. We either haven’t seen their best yet (my guess), or if we have, we’ll keep seeing it for the next half-decade-plus (health permitting).
Put more complementary parts around them than they have in Philly right now, and we’re counting their ring collection, not wondering whether they can coexist.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
If we’re picking a duo to win the NBA Finals this year, LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be No. 1. If it’s a projection of the next 10-plus seasons, selecting a duo headlined by Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson would be most appealing.
But since we’re strictly talking about the next three to five years, the answer has to be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Leonard is the only active player still in his 20s to have already won an NBA Finals MVP. LeBron James (35), Kevin Durant (31 and coming off an Achilles injury) and Andre Iguodala (36) are the only other players that have won a Finals MVP and are still in the league.
Leonard, 28, is playing at an MVP-level this season, averaging a career-high 26.9 points and 5.0 assists per game while also grabbing 7.3 rebounds and racking up 1.8 steals, fifth-best in the NBA. He averaged 30.5 points per game throughout the 2019 postseason, leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history and his second title.
Paul George, 29, is the perfect No. 2 option, able to play the alpha role when necessary while also filling in all of the gaps on both ends of the ball. The NBA champion has been led by a dominant wing or guard for each of the past eight years, and the Clippers have two of the league’s best in their starting lineup.
Whether they need to come up with a defensive stop, crucial bucket or find an open teammate, Leonard and George form the perfect championship duo not only now, but for the next three to five years.
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Rolling with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton poses serious risk—and not just because the Milwaukee Bucks have routinely fallen short in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo’s supermax eligibility and potential foray into free agency during the summer of 2021 looms large in this discussion. He can bust up this duo after a year.
Let’s assume he stays, because, well, that is the most likely outcome. (Apologies to Raptors and Warriors fans.)
Milwaukee is threatening to turn the Eastern Conference into a one-team race for the foreseeable future. Yes, the Celtics, Heat and Sixers all have a stake in this discussion. The Nets and Pacers might join them next season. But the Bucks have the NBA’s best player.
Antetokounmpo fast-tracks Milwaukee for dominance. His game is easier to limit in the postseason when half-court defenses have more time to gum up the works, but he isn’t entirely solvable.
And when you have the best player in the NBA, you don’t need a traditional No. 2 to remain in championship contention. Fortunately, the Bucks have one.
Criticism of Middleton is overstated. He may not be the best second in command, but he’s a legitimate second option nevertheless. He’s a dependable from-scratch creator for both himself and teammates, and his offense has translated well in the playoffs.
Maybe the Antetokounmpo-Middleton pairing would be at a disadvantage if they played in the Western Conference. The East is more forgiving. No duo in the conference is inarguably better, which gives them a clearer path to the Finals each year. That recurring access is a huge part of the championship battle, and it positions the Antetokounmpo-Middleton partnership to hang more banners than most of the alternatives.
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It isn’t difficult to build a star duo around Zion Williamson. Pick any player with a pulse next to Williamson; the kid is that good.
Fortunately for the New Orleans Pelicans, they have an All-Star forward on the roster in Brandon Ingram.
Ingram came over to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. Ingram was a hesitant shooter from long range with the Lakers, taking only 1.8 attempts per game from behind the arc while converting only 33 percent in 2018-19.
Throughout the current (albeit truncated) NBA season, Ingram has shown tremendous growth, taking 6.3 three-pointers per game while hitting 38.7 percent. He was already gifted as a mid-range scorer and, with his long arms, a creative attacker at the basket. Ingram has become a more complete offensive player, providing Williamson with the floor space he needs to operate.
While Ingram is extremely skinny and lanky, Williamson is bigger and stronger than just about anyone in the league, even if he’s short by NBA standards at 6’6″. His 285-pound frame is the problem for opponents.
Despite his size, Williamson has amazing mobility and instinctual skill. It’s scary to think that he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
Give him some time with the Pelicans’ development staff. Had he gotten a full year on the court (he debuted in January after suffering a preseason knee injury) Williamson would have given Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant serious competition in the Rookie of the Year race.