Which New NBA Duos Will Have Greatest Impact?

The biggest theme of the 2019 offseason was an unprecedented deluge of blockbuster trades and monstrous free agency moves.

Unlike some recent offseasons, this year’s shuffling produced a slew of new dynamic duos rather than trios or superteams.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, it’s time to examine exactly how impactful these new duos will be in 2019 and beyond. We based our assessments on each duos’ projected impact, and more importantly, on their respective postseason ceilings. Although some teams now have multiple possible elite duo combinations, we only allowed one duo per team.

HONORABLE MENTION: ZION WILLIAMSON AND JRUE HOLIDAY, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

Ages: 19 and 29

Short-term: This rookie-vet tandem has a chance to make a dent in year 1  because Holiday can facilitate for Williamson a bit. They’ll also be an exciting defensive pair who can each blanket multiple positions and aggressively clean up the boards. Their limiting factors in the early going are chemistry, shooting and the uncertainty of their supporting cast—though that part is also looking pretty decent on paper. They’ll be just good enough to keep New Orleans in the Western Conference playoff hunt, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Long-term: If Jrue picks up his player option in 2021-22, he’ll play with Zion for at least three years. By 2022, Williamson could be a top-10 player in the league and Holiday will still be in the back end of his prime. If either one improves his shooting, it will put loads of pressure on opposing defenses. Holiday is a middle-tier shooter (career 35.5 percent from downtown), and Williamson is entirely unproven from NBA range. If a couple of New Orleans’ newfound assets translates into top-shelf talent, the Pelicans could be a high-level playoff team.

This honorable mention is more a reflection of where they’ll wind up this season. Expect them (or someone else alongside Williamson) to be on the list for a long time going forward.

10. CHRIS PAUL AND STEVEN ADAMS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Apr 7, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) defends during the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ages: 34 and 26

Short-term: Both players are overpaid, and Paul might be shipped elsewhere midseason. However, they offer exciting pick-and-roll potential and defensive toughness. Last season, the Thunder were 28th in league pick-and-roll EFG% (52.0%), and this new quarterback-receiver duo could dramatically boost that mark. Adams doesn’t need touches to fill his role, and he’s perfectly comfortable with that, so they have a chance to click well early on. Assuming OKC’s core stays healthy, CP3 and Adams could help the post-Russ Thunder stay in the postseason picture. Ultimately, I think they’ll fall just short of the No. 8 seed.

Long-term: Adams is only signed through 2021, so it will likely be a two-year marriage or less. OKC’s outlook for the next couple of seasons is in flux, so it’s unwise to bet on a major run.

9. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS AND LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS MAVERICKS

Ages: 24 and 20

Short-term: It might take a bit for the Europrodigies to find their groove, and Porzingis will be shaking the rust off after missing all of 2018-19. However, they’re both quick studies and their playing styles complement each other. Doncic is a world-class playmaker for his age, and Porzingis is a natural when it comes to scoring from multiple spots. Dallas’ roster isn’t close to meriting playoff aspirations, however, so this tandem might put up a bunch of empty-calorie stats in year 1.

Long-term: This is why these guys made the list. Their future is blindingly bright. Both the Latvian and Slovenian are exceptionally talented shot-creators and shot-makers, yet neither player has reached his peak yet. Much depends on the supporting cast, but even if Dallas struggles to build a top-tier roster, Porzingis and Doncic will slowly pull the Mavs back to prominence.

8. MALCOLM BROGDON AND VICTOR OLADIPO, INDIANA PACERS

Ages: 26 and 27

Short-term: Don’t expect fireworks in 2019-20. Oladipo is still working to come back from knee surgery, and Brogdon is playing alongside a new set of stars for the first time in his career. And although their playing styles are a bit different, their skills and contributions as part-time scorers and part-time playmakers are similar. They’ll have to sort out touches and facilitating duties.

Long-term: Both backcourt studs have plenty of prime left. Not only are they exciting as slashers and creators, but they’re both defensive-minded competitors who can check 1’s and 2’s as big, strong guards. Opponents won’t have it easy because Oladipo and Brogdon (“BroLadipo”, anyone?) are interchangeable and can switch across the perimeter.

7. KEMBA WALKER AND JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS

Sep 30, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives to the basket while Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) defends during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Ages: 29 and 21

Short-term: With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford out the door, the Celtics need to replace their offensive production. Even if Walker and Tatum don’t collaborate seamlessly, they’ll combine to put up a bunch of shots in Brad Stevens’ offense. Neither player has a great defensive track record, so it will be tough for them to slow down some of the league’s top offensive attacks, though the supporting cast and scheme should alleviate some of that pressure.

Long-term: The optimist in me says Kemba has enough passing and playmaking skills to make this work. The pessimist in me says both players love to dribble the ball, so it will be tough for them to build optimal, championship-caliber chemistry. Walker was second in the league field-goal attempts after seven-plus dribbles (8.0) last season, so we’ll see if he cuts that down to a healthier level now that he has more talent around him. Walker and Tatum will reach the second round of the playoffs a few times, but they’ll need defensive help if they want consistent title contention.

6. MIKE CONLEY AND RUDY GOBERT, UTAH JAZZ

Ages: 31 and 27

Short-term: It’s easy to envision this pair jelling early on because they have well-defined roles. Conley is now the best facilitator the Jazz have, and Gobert is a vertical floor-spacer whose tasks are to score at the rim and protect it. With ample shooters and scorers like Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic surrounding them, Conley and Gobert could be potent on both ends. They could challenge for the No. 2 seed and be in the NBA championship conversation.

Long-term: Both Conley and Gobert are only signed through 2021. And Mitchell and Ingles might be free agents that summer as well. So the core of this team might only have a two-year window. But if Conley can stay healthy, they’ll be just as dangerous in year 2. 

5. AL HORFORD AND BEN SIMMONS, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Ages: 33 and 23

Short-term: Just as with Conley/Gobert, it’s important to remember we’re talking about new star duos, NOT existing ones (which is why Conley supplanted Mitchell with Gobert). That’s essentially also why we chose this combination because Horford will share the floor with Simmons a lot more than he’ll share it with Embiid. Horford’s 33 years old, but his playing style isn’t predicated on explosiveness or agility, so I don’t expect his impact to drop significantly. He and Simmons both see plays develop a step ahead of the competition, and it will be fun to see their brilliant collaborations. Based on their track records, I wouldn’t be surprised if they combined for 15-plus assists per game.

Long-term: Even if Simmons never substantially improves his much-publicized jump shot, he and Horford can thrive for at least the next three years. Adding Horford’s veteran savvy to an already-talented group will give them several cracks at the Eastern Conference title, and perhaps a few NBA Finals berths.

4. KYRIE IRVING AND KEVIN DURANT, Brooklyn Nets

Jan 26, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) works against Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) during the second half of a 115-111 victory by Golden State at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Ages: 27 and 30

Short-Term: Durant’s Achilles recovery puts this duo’s grand opening on hold.

Long-term: Assuming Durant comes back at 85-90 percent of what he was, Brooklyn will do a lot of winning in 2020 and beyond. That doesn’t mean it will be an easy transition or an ideal pairing. Irving and KD must learn how to share the rock and help get each other involved. I’m not worried about KD figuring it out. I am concerned about Irving occasionally disrupting the flow of the Nets’ offense with isolation endeavors, but that can be helpful at times and he typically found a good mix with the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. Overall, I think their talent level will churn out a boatload of offense, and Brooklyn will be a top-three seed through 2023.

3. RUSSELL WESTBROOK AND JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON ROCKETS

Ages: 30 and 29

Short-term: Over the past five seasons, either Harden or Westbrook has led the NBA in field-goal attempts. And now they’re on the same team. Needless to say, there will be an adjustment period when it comes to chemistry. However, The Beard and the Brodie remain friends from their OKC days, and they’re both at career points where a lot is on the line, so I think they’ll work hard to figure things out. They both need to put pressure on opponents by attacking the hoop rather than settling for jumpers. There’s just enough peripheral shooting in the lineup (thanks to Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker) to potentially make this work. Houston’s ceiling in 2019-20 is the No. 1 seed, but their basement is No. 7.

Long-term: While their chemistry might gradually improve, I’m wary of the Russ-Harden duo because of Westbrook. His effectiveness and impact are heavily based on power and athleticism, and that might wane in the next few seasons. I’m not sure whether he’ll fully adjust to playing with more finesse and fundamentals.

2. ANTHONY DAVIS AND LEBRON JAMES, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

December 21, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during a stoppage in play with New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) in the foreground during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ages: 26 and 34

Short-term: This duo’s immediate success depends on much more than Davis and James’ being in sync. There’s a whole new coaching staff in Tinseltown, along with a new-look rotation of role players. Fortunately, there are enough veteran defenders and floor-spacers in the mix to potentially generate a midseason rhythm. James and Davis can run a healthy dose of pick-and-rolls with James as the handler, and they can also take turns at the pinch-post. The No. 4 seed isn’t out of the question.

Long-term: James could opt out of the 2022-2023 season. But if this partnership starts off smoothly, L.A. could set itself up for a fun three-year venture. We don’t know when LeBron will finally slow down significantly, so until it actually happens, I’m not betting against it. His elite skill level and cerebral command of the game will allow him to be extremely impactful even if his body starts to fail him. The front office’s roster decisions could mean the difference between hoisting a banner in 2021-22 or fighting for home court in the playoffs.

1. KAWHI LEONARD AND PAUL GEORGE, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Ages: 28 and 29

Short-term: Two of the NBA’s top wings are joining forces at the apex of their careers. That’s a frightening thought for anyone who plays point guard through power forward in the Western Conference. George and Leonard will step on the floor and, in many cases, interchangeably stymie positions 1 through 4. Their defensive range and instincts will combine for some amazing lock-down stretches, and it might make a bigger impact than their offense early on. Kawhi is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and both were top-20 in defensive rating last season. They will feed off each other, and it will keep the Clippers at or near the top of the West all season.

Long-term: Both players still have several prime years left, and I’m hoping they both opt-in for 2021-22. My expectations for their offensive chemistry are modest because Leonard is somewhat of a ball-dominant weapon, albeit an efficient one. George will do a good job moving without the rock, however, and that will keep defenses honest. Since they both have each other to lean on, they could remain elite on both ends of the court for three straight years. 

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