Friday, December 1, 2023

Ranking NBA superstar duos: Where does the tandem of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard land?

Remember when the “Big Three” was a thing? The dissolution of the Kevin Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving Nets may have signaled the end — or at least a hiatus — for the Big Three Era, particularly given the punishing rules the NBA has laid out for high-spending teams under the new CBA.

Instead, today’s league is chocked full of superstar duos tasked with the heavy lifting, surrounded by role players of varying degrees. With a brand new pair coming to the forefront over the past few days when Damian Lillard joined Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, we thought it was a good time to check in on the pecking order. And with that, here is the current ranking of NBA superstar duos.

1. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

The champs are here. Anyone who watched Denver’s dominant playoff run knows how devastating this duo can be. Jokic proved that he’s the best player on the planet, not just in the regular season but in the postseason as well, and Murray showed that he’s fully healthy following the ACL tear that temporarily postponed the Nuggets’ rise to the top of the league.

With Jokic’s passing ability and Murray’s absolutely elite shot-making, there is simply no defending these two when they’ve both got it going. So it’s not much of a surprise that the Nuggets outscored opponents by over 12 points per 100 possessions with Jokic and Murray on the floor last season, and that number rose to over 13 in the playoffs. There’s no duo more dangerous in a dribble hand-off scenario and while defense isn’t necessarily their strong suit, they proved in the playoffs that they’re more than capable of getting stops when needed.

2. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time paired with arguably the most dynamic two-way player in the league today, James and Davis have consistently bullied the league since they joined forces in 2019. Both have failed to stay on the floor consistently in recent years, but when they’re both healthy they create a devastating one-two punch of physicality and skill.

Davis joined the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon by putting up 26 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game last season. Meanwhile, at 38, James averaged 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. James and Davis truly shined, however, in the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference finals, outscoring opponents by nearly three points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor. 

3. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

We haven’t gotten too long of a look at this pair, but boy have they been impressive in their limited minutes. In eight regular-season games together, Durant and Booker led Phoenix to a whopping plus-15.9 net rating when they shared the floor, thanks mostly to an offensive rating of nearly 122 points per 100 possessions. (For reference, the Sacramento Kings just set the NBA record with an offensive rating of 118.6.) They were nearly as devastating in the playoffs offensively, despite being ambushed by defenses at every turn, as the Suns scored 119 points per 100 possessions when Durant and Booker were on the floor.

You’d be hard pressed to find two more complete, pure scorers in the NBA — and they’re on the same team. It will be exciting to see what they’re able to do together during a full season.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks

This duo could easily be No. 1 by the end of the season, but it’s hard to throw them at the top when they’ve yet to play a single game together. That said, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand how dominant Lillard and Antetokounmpo can be, particularly in a pick-and-roll scenario. Lillard has limitless range and is coming off the best season of his career, while Giannis will thrive in the space created by his new teammate’s gravity.

Defensively, Lillard has traditionally been a minus, so we’ll have to see how he fits into head coach Adrian Griffin’s scheme. But, he has plenty of backup with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez behind him. This is going to be fun to watch.

5. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

A generational offensive player paired with a generational defensive player, plus the benefit of 11 seasons of familiarity and camaraderie — Steph and Draymond are just a special duo. At 35, Curry has shown absolutely no signs of slowing — in fact, you could argue that he’s better now than he’s ever been. Same with Green, who has looked revitalized over the past couple of seasons with his all-world defense and playmaking.

On the surface it may seem like Green’s offensive game has slipped, but he shot a career-best 53% from the field last season while logging his highest scoring average since 2017-18. The Warriors outscored opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry and Green on the floor last season — nothing new if you’ve been following Golden State for the past decade.

6. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

The heart of Boston’s continued success over the last half-decade is the paring of Tatum and Brown, two absolutely dynamic two-way wings who can each take over a game when called upon. Tatum, who finished fourth in MVP voting last season, became the first player in the storied history of the Boston Celtics to average 30 or more points in a season. Meanwhile Brown posted a career-best 26.6 points per game while shooting 58% on 2-pointers. Boston scored an impressive 118.3 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the floor last season.

What stands out about this duo is that they also play defense, locking down opponents from the coveted wing position. While it seems like they’ve been around forever due to their consistently deep playoff runs, Brown is still just 26 and Tatum is 25, so they each have long careers ahead of them.

7. Joel Embiid and James Harden (maybe?), Philadelphia 76ers

Nobody knows what’s going on with Harden, but if he does end up returning then he’ll rejoin Embiid — coming off an MVP season — to form one of the most dominant offensive duos in the NBA. They were nearly unstoppable in the regular season, scoring nearly 121 points per 100 possessions with a plus-nine net rating when they shared the floor — the elite of the elite.

Things didn’t go so well in the playoffs for Harden (again), which knocks them down a peg on this list, but there’s no denying that when both are fully engaged, the 76ers offense is in great hands.

8. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Clippers

Everyone knows the good news/bad news with Kawhi and PG at this point: Last season the Clippers had a plus-8.9 net rating with both of them on the floor, but they only shared the court for 995 minutes. (For comparison’s sake, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine played over 2,000 minutes together.) The Clippers have compiled a 96-46 record over the last four seasons when Leonard and George play, but those games have simply been too few and far between.

When healthy, the combination of scoring, playmaking, length and defense from the wing position is unmatched in the NBA. At this point, however, the idea of both turning in a complete season seems like a pipe dream.

9. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings

The Kings took the league by storm last season, putting up the best offensive rating in NBA history thanks to the pairing of Fox and Sabonis, two uniquely talented creators. Sabonis served as the hub of Mike Brown’s offense, reading dribble hand-offs, making perfectly timed passes to cutters and punishing mismatches in the post. He joined Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Nikola Jokic as the only players in league history to average at least 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in a season — decent company.

And then there’s Fox, a blur of a guard who blew away the field to win the league’s inaugural Clutch Player of the Year award. He continued his incredible play in his first postseason, putting up 27 points, eight assists and five rebounds per game in a seven-game series loss to the Warriors. 

10. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks

Time will tell with this pair — we didn’t get to see much of them last season — but the potential is there to be the most explosive offensive backcourt in the league. Even though their record wasn’t great together to end last season, Doncic and Irving led the Mavericks to 119 points per 100 possessions in nearly 450 minutes on the floor together, resulting in a plus-four net rating.

The defensive shortcomings are obvious, but it might not matter with the way that each of these guys can orchestrate an offense and take over games late. 

11. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

Perhaps no duo gives opposing offenses more frightening nightmares than Butler and Adebayo, two of the best and most versatile defenders in the NBA. They have a combined nine All-Defense selections, and have led the Heat to the NBA Finals in two of the past four seasons. We’ve all seen what Butler is capable of doing in a postseason scenario, putting the team on his back and taking his offensive game to uncharted territory when the games matter most.

In addition to once again being in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, Adebayo also boasted a career-best 20.4 points per game, raising that to nearly 22 per game in their most recent Finals loss to the Nuggets. This duo doesn’t necessarily compare to the others on this list offensively — until the playoffs, at least — but they’re right up there thanks to their incredible defensive ability.

12. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

There aren’t many better offense/defense duos in the league than Morant — one of the league’s most dynamic scorers and playmakers — and Jackson, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. To that point, Memphis held opponents to a stingy 102.6 points per 100 possessions with Morant and Jackson on the floor last season, while the offense notched an impressive 117.1. Jackson’s ability to stretch the floor make him and Morant a devastating pick-and-pop combo.

These two may be younger and less accomplished than the others on this list, but with both just 24 years old, they have the makings of a potentially legendary duo.

13. Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

One of the most dynamic offensive backcourts in the NBA, Mitchell and Garland are each capable of scoring and facilitating, and they played off of each other masterfully in their first season together. The Cavs outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions with the duo on the floor, thanks to a combined 50 points and 12 assists per game from Mitchell and Garland.

On paper, Cleveland’s defense could be hurt by having a pair of smaller guards, but they managed to hold their own and help produce the league’s best defensive team. Garland shot a career-best 41% from 3-point range while Mitchell knocked down 39%, posing a constant threat to opponents.

There are definitely some other pairs that would have enabled us to keep this list on going. The Knicks’ Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle; the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns; and the Hawks’ Trae Young and Dejounte Murray all come to mind, but we tried to stick with duos where both are at, or least very near, the superstar level.

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