The second-most valuable player on an NBA contender holds a vital and often tricky role. They must be comfortable living in the shadow of the top dog while typically catering to his preferred playing style.
When called upon, they must carry the team when the premier star is having an off night.
Who are the top sidekicks in the Association right now? We based our rankings on their projected value throughout 2019-20, not necessarily an overreaction to the first handful of games. It’s more than just how productive the sidekick is; It’s about how much he complements and empowers the top banana toward a winning effort.
Due to major injuries sidelining some of the top duos in the league for large portions of the season, we’ve omitted standouts such as Klay Thompson (Stephen Curry), Malcolm Brogdon (Victor Oladipo), Bradley Beal (John Wall) and Kyrie Irving (Kevin Durant).
10. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (Pascal Siakam)
Projected Total Points Added: +120
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .144
Toronto’s most beloved champion deserves a mountain of credit for his two-way value and playing style. He brilliantly served as Kawhi Leonard’s sidekick for most of last season, and he’s now poised to be Robin to Pascal Siakam’s Batman this year.
While Lowry won’t be the most statistically-productive Raptor in 2019-20, his calculated assertiveness on both ends will continue to set the tone for the whole group. He brings physicality and savvy at the point of attack on defense, along with a true dual-threat skill set on offense. His timely assistance for Spicy P will be a huge reason Toronto remains in the Eastern Conference contender mix this spring.
9. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets (James Harden)
Projected Total Points Added: +135
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .124
Westbrook is still figuring out how to optimally complement The Beard as a second-in-command for the first time since Kevin Durant left the OKC Thunder a few seasons ago. That’s totally understandable after operating for so long as the clear-cut alpha dog. However, despite the hiccups, Westbrook’s sheer productivity and competitiveness help him crack this list.
I’m not sure whether Russ, Harden and the rest of the Rockets will unlock championship-level synchronization. Combining for nearly 45 field-goal attempts per game is a tough recipe for victory. However, I’m projecting that Westbrook will be active and creative enough to serve as one of the league’s best 1-B options, even if staggering his minutes with Harden proves more productive than a “dueling banjos” approach on the court together.
8. KHRIS MIDDLETON, MILWAUKEE BUCKS (GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO)
Projected Total Points Added: +98
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .140
While the talent/versatility dropoff from Antetokounmpo to Middleton is significant, they complement each other superbly. Middleton has grown into a top-tier shooting wing by spacing the floor and feeding off the Greek Freak’s drives. His three-point shooting has always been solid, and over the past couple of seasons, his mid-range game has blossomed.
Can he serve as the second option on a championship team? His underwhelming athleticism and unexceptional shot-creating handles raise some concerns, as does the fact he’s merely a solid defender. However, if he continues to fill his role at an elite level, Giannis’ stardom and the rest of the supporting cast should click enough to make a worthy trophy pursuit.
7. JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS (KEMBA WALKER)
Projected Total Points Added: +163
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .147
Even before his game-winning jumper against the New York Knicks Friday, Tatum looked the part of a dangerous sidekick for Kemba Walker.
His all-around efficiency still isn’t great, and he needs to get to the free-throw line more often. However, Tatum has started the season scorching from three-point range (18-of-37, 48.6 percent). Even if he cools down to the 40-percent range, that kind of floor spacing will work wonders for Walker. Once he improves his slashing and stop-and-pop consistency, he’ll climb a lot closer to his ceiling. There’s a lot of season left for Tatum to raise his game.
6. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard)
Projected Total Points Added: +177
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .179
Lehigh’s finest has carved out a prolific NBA career by being a lethal second option for the Blazers. He’s scored 20-plus points per game in 70-plus contests for four straight seasons, and there are no signs of him dwindling. McCollum is cagey off the dribble, is an elite shot-maker, and can facilitate for teammates when Lillard’s resting.
His level-headedness and silky-smooth playing style echo the tone that Lillard sets. McCollum doesn’t get sped up, doesn’t get flustered, yet remains locked in with a high level of competitiveness. Just ask last year’s playoff foes, who he torched for 24.7 points, 3.7 assists and 39.3 percent three-point shooting.
5. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks (Luka Doncic)
Projected Total Points Added: +198
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .156
If the first five games are any indication, the Luka-KP era in Dallas will be a blast. The European youngsters are off to a strong start, collaborating craftily to spearhead the Mavs’ 7th-ranked offense. Doncic is the catalyst who creates most of the opportunities, and Porzingis has deftly converted those chances and generated some of his own offense as well.
Rick Carlisle and Porzingis have tweaked the big fella’s priorities inside the arc. He’s relying more on close-range shots in the paint and mid-post than long two-pointers, which is an improvement from his Knicks days. In the Mavericks’ system, Porzingis is set up to be one of the best No. 2 options in the Association.
4. DONOVAN MITCHELL, UTAH JAZZ (RUDY GOBERT)
Projected Total Points Added: +219
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .175
The Stifle Tower has been Utah’s most valuable player for the past few seasons due to his two-way talent, and he’ll likely maintain that status in 2019-20. That makes Mitchell one heck of a “sidekick” for now, even as those roles may reverse in the near-ish future.
Through the first six games of the season, Mitchell is on pace to set career-highs in points, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. But he didn’t earn this ranking because of a few good shooting nights in October; He earned it because of how dynamic he’s played throughout the first two years of his career.
Mitchell landed in a great spot with the Jazz and Quin Snyder, and he’s rewarded them by maximizing his potential. Mitchell takes the shot-creating burden off Gobert while playing smart and keeping everyone involved.
3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid)
Projected Total Points Added: +289
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .177
As we found out on Wednesday, Simmons knows how to back up Joel Embiid in a skirmish. And when it comes to actual basketball, he’s an equally valuable wingman. Simmons could be the sole leader on many NBA teams, but with Embiid patrolling the middle, the Australian playmaker will have to settle for being one of the absolute best second-fiddles in the league.
Although he has yet to demonstrate jump-shooting consistency, Simmons may still improve his offensive stats in year three. He and Embiid aren’t 100 percent compatible offensively, but they’re plenty good enough to make a title run. The stellar duo will relish collaborating with Philly’s new-look rotation. Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle are just some of the new toys Simmons gets to wheel and deal with this season.
Simmons’ combination of size and speed also gives Embiid an elite athlete to partner with defensively. He racked up 353.1 net defensive points saved over his first two seasons, per NBAMath.com. He has the chops to hound opposing wings on the perimeter and also protect the paint against rim-divers. Although Simmons’ defensive stats slipped a tad from his rookie to sophomore season, he’s started year 3 as a stout post defender.
2. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard)
Projected Total Points Added: +312
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .238
George’s shoulder recovery has delayed his Clippers’ debut until mid-November. Thus, this ranking is based purely on the strong hunch that he will thrive as Kawhi Leonard’s running mate throughout the rest of the season.
We’ve seen George reach the Eastern Conference finals a couple of times as Indiana’s primary weapon. Then we saw him serve admirably alongside Russell Westbrook in OKC, even if the postseason results were disappointing. Given his flexibility to operate as an off-guard or generate his own buckets, he should thrive as Leonard’s assistant.
PG-13 has never played with someone as versatile as Leonard at the peak of their career. Their ceiling as a duo is astronomical for a host of reasons: They will feed off each other offensively, form an elite pairing defensively, and they’re surrounded by a deep group of role players that should complement them splendidly.
I’m most intrigued by a defensive unit that could include Patrick Beverley, Leonard and George on the perimeter. Good luck creating buckets or even finding room to breathe against that group.
1. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (LeBron James)
Projected Total Points Added: +338
Projected Win Shares/48 Min: .267
The Brow is the Lakers’ young star in his prime, but LeBron James reminded us Friday night that he’s still the straw that stirs the drink. Their roles could fluctuate, but for now, let’s call Davis the best sidekick in the league.
LeBron James is one of the best basketball quarterbacks ever, and Davis is one of the best receivers and finishers. Not only is he a great vertical target for lobs and post duck-ins, but he’s a smooth pick-and-pop threat. Davis can catch and fire smoothly on the perimeter, or catch and drive if defenders don’t adequately form a wall.
Davis and James are trying to establish chemistry early in the season. Nearly 42 percent of Davis’ passes are going to James, and nearly 30 percent of LeBron’s passes are to Davis. Although Davis isn’t shooting a great percentage off James’ passes so far (36.4 percent), his efficiency should climb throughout the season as L.A. finds its optimal playing style. The Lakers clearly still haven’t put all the pieces together schematically.
If LeBron churns out a vintage revenge season and Davis has an MVP-esque campaign as his sidekick, the Lakers could be in the Larry O’Brien hunt.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball