With the free agency dust finally beginning to settle after a relentless barrage of Woj bombs, the NBA is in a very exciting place. There are new superstar pairings all over the map, and the 2019 free-agency shuffle has left the league with the kind of parity Adam Silver blissfully dreams of as his head hits the pillow. (Silver will never convince me he wants all 30 teams to be great.) So with all these partnerships forming on the court, let’s take stock of the freshly painted NBA and rank the new duos.
Up-and-Coming: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
I love when teams draft a big guy and a guard in back to back drafts. In my dream world, these two players form a fun partnership on the court, become best friends in real life, and eventually team up to save the city from a villainous plot. Or something like that. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but JJJ was really good last season! There were times when it felt like he was the best rookie in the league. He needs to clean up his defense and stop fouling, but I’m excited to see what Jackson can do with Ja Morant. Is Morant going to be a star? I have no idea! But I have my eye on these two as a potential duo in the making. Memphis getting a spiritual successor to the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol tandem would be a worthy consolation prize for all the years the Grizzlies played thoroughly-entertaining-but-not-quite-championship-level basketball.
Honorable Mention: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant
These guys aren’t a duo yet. If they made a Rush Hour 4 and kept Jackie Chan out of the movie until the post-credits scene I would demand my money back through my butter-stained teeth. Until we see Durant back on a basketball court, it doesn’t feel right to assess these guys. I would like to say, before all we have for a year is his Instagram, Durant was absolutely balling before his injury-riddled playoffs. He was better than Kawhi before his calf injury. Then he was smoking hot in his brief Finals stint before tearing his Achilles. We deserve to see that dude again. Hopefully Kyrie has more fun this season, too.
Somewhere in an Alternate Universe: Chris Paul and Steven Adams
It sounds like the Thunder will trade Chris Paul before the start of the season, which is a shame, because part of me wants to see Adams and Paul play bully ball for a year or two. Both are accomplished pick-and-roll players, and it’s possible Paul’s midrange shooting ability would make him an even better partner for Adams than Russell Westbrook was. One thing is for certain—these guys would compete hard every night, and annoy the hell out of opponents. Paul’s relentlessness and Adams’s toughness make them two of the most exhausting guys in the league, though in their own unique ways. Somewhere on Earth-616, these two guys are playing in a wildly fun second-round playoff series, and President Nadkarni is refusing to stay on for an unprecedented third term despite immense public pressure.
5. Heat: Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra
That’s right! In these rankings we will respect Erik Spoelstra! The Heat’s ceiling is somewhere in the second round this season, but if they manage to shock people and go any further, it will be because of these two. Butler gives Miami a much needed lead scorer, and someone who can finish close games who wasn’t drafted four years before the release of the first iPhone. (I miss you, D Wade.) Sprinkle in some of Spo’s magic CULTURE dust and the Heat are going to be a nuisance for many teams this year.
4. Jazz: Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell
Let’s not sleep on these two! There are some people on the Basketball Internet who will want to tell you that the REAL Jazz duo is Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert. (Okay probably not, but some people need to chill about the Jazz.) In any case, I think this backcourt pairing is going to be awesome. Neither guys have played with a guard as good as the other. Conley is going to feast on open catch-and-shoot threes, and Mitchell should see his efficiency increase with another creator on the floor. Conley can soak up pick-and-rolls from Mitchell, balancing both their workloads. Spida obviously isn’t on the same level of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but I think the Jazz are on a similar track to last year’s Bucks. They are surrounding their star with space and capable vets, and especially with someone like Conley in the fold, the remade roster should pay big dividends.
3. Rockets: James Harden and Russell Westbrook
Honestly, in a two-on-two tournament, I’d put these guys up there with anybody. In terms of sheer talent, Harden and Westbrook are an absurdly good pairing. The problem is how much they both command the ball, and Westbrook’s inability to harness his talent into efficiency. There are lots of questions surrounding the Rockets. How much is Westbrook willing to change his game for Harden? How will Houston compensate for Russ’s issues from three and the free-throw line? Will Mike D’Antoni—in the final year of his contract—be given the flexibility to change his offense? Those concerns give me a hesitation about this pairing. Russ is the better player than Paul in a vacuum, but his fit next to Harden is more cloudy—and CP3’s fit was questioned in the first place! I hope these two figure it out because that would make the league way more fun, but my hopes aren’t super high at the moment.
2. Lakers: LeBron James and Anthony Davis
Look, these guys are going to be awesome and I actually hate doing rankings for this exact reason—somebody gets shorted. The LeBron-AD partnership will almost definitely be filthy. James has never played with a big this versatile before, and that’s no disrespect to a kinda underrated Kevin Love. I’m pretty confident the Lakers will be at their most lethal when Davis is at center and LeBron is at point. Put some shooters around those two and LA could have a closing five that’s as good as any team in the league. In terms of raw talent, this is probably the best duo in the NBA.
But there are caveats. Was James’s first season in LA a fluke? Or a sign of things to come in his mid-30s? Are the days of LeBron’s body being indestructible over? Meanwhile, Davis has the talent, but his tenure in New Orleans was underwhelming, and that has to mean something. He never got past the second round, and while his teams were obviously never great, he really only had one monster, MVP-type campaign (in 2018.) So James and Davis get docked for that, but I cannot wait to see these guys play together in the fall.
1. Clippers: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
Two two-way beasts. Kawhi finished last season better than Bron. George was playing better than both until he hurt his shoulder. Leonard is the 2019 Finals MVP. George was a 2019 MVP finalist. These two are in their primes, coming off great seasons, and they complement each other very well. It just would make sense to rank anyone ahead of them at this very specific point in time. Does that mean I think Kawhi and PG will end the season as the No. 1 duo? Leonard still has to prove he can be durable after only one load-managed season back as the lead dog, while George has to prove he can sustain his hot three-point shooting from last year. Any regression from these two and their top spot will be up for grabs. But both George and Kawhi have the skill and recent accolades to be named the league’s best duo. And we get to watch them fight to defend that honor in what’s shaping up to be an incredible season.