Ranking the Top 10 Duos in the NBA
The buddy system is alive and well in the NBA. To prove it, we'll run down and rank the league's very best two-man tandems.
Statistics, with an emphasis on last season's numbers will be immensely important. We'll focus on player efficiency ratings and win shares amassed when considering that angle.
Of course, there will be other, equally important methods of analysis. These duos have to play well together, feature the kind of chemistry any great 1-2 punch needs and, vitally, represent the identity of their team.
In some cases we'll fly blind, guessing at the chemistry of a particular pair that hasn't yet played together. Those instances will be rare, though, confined to special circumstances in which excluding an untested duo would feel downright wrong.
If that's too cryptic, here's the deal: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, two guys who have never played an NBA game together, are featured here.
Otherwise, we've seen all of these duets play some sweet music together in the past, which means we can look at their track records to forecast how well they'll perform in the future.
Everybody partner up; here follow the top two-man tandems in the NBA.
*All PER and win shares statistics via Basketball-Reference.com.
Al Horford and Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
An unheralded, largely unproven pairing that played well in a very small sample last season, Al Horford and Paul Millsap simply don't have the reps to crack the top 10. They shared the floor for just 28 games and a total of 675 minutes in 2013-14 but managed to produce a net rating of plus-3.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, and a combined player efficiency rating of 41.8, per Basketball-Reference, which will top a handful of duos we'll get to shortly.
Horford and Millsap will get a chance to spread their quiet productivity over a larger swath of the season this year. Don't be surprised if they outshine a number of better-known duos.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
It's tough to find a more exciting tandem than Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, but the hidden truth about these two is that theirs is not a two-way relationship. Bledsoe falls apart without his Slovenian backcourt mate, per Grantland's Zach Lowe:
The Suns scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions when Dragic and Bledsoe played together, and just 100.7 when Dragic sat — a mark that would have ranked 25th among 30 teams over the full season. The team’s overall turnover rate spiked, and Bledsoe made more mistakes when he had to work as the lead ball handler.
Until Bledsoe proves he can handle things without a safety net, the Suns duo isn't quite ready for prime time.
John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
We've spent a lot of time on the numbers in this section so far, which is a good indication of how critical they are to judging the NBA's top pairings. It should come as no surprise, then, that John Wall and Bradley Beal don't quite measure up to their top-10 peers...yet.
Beal posted a PER of 14.3 last year—a below-average figure. So while he combines with Wall to satisfy the "it" factor and "cool" quotient of these rankings, the statistical production just isn't there.
Don't look at the numbers from the second half of last year; they're ugly, and they don't justify Paul George and Roy Hibbert earning an honorable mention here. Instead, consider the way the Indiana Pacers' two best players (again, until the second half of last year) anchored the league's top defense and took the team to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals.
George is a borderline superstar with room to grow, and Hibbert isn't so far removed from being one of the league's two or three most impactful defenders. If Indy can move past the collective malaise that sapped its mojo last year, these two will return to their previous potency.
10. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Combined 2013-14 PER: 38.2 (Gasol 18.2, Conley 20.0)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 13.8 (Gasol 5.6, Conley 8.2)
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are the perfect embodiment of the Memphis Grizzlies. Nobody appreciates them, their excellence doesn't always show up in the stats and every night, you can count on them giving opponents hell.
Gasol played just 59 games last season, which cut into his statistical contributions a bit. Nonetheless, he remained an elite defender and one of the best passing big men in the game. Thanks to his work in the middle, Memphis won 50 games (again) and finished 33-13 after he returned from a knee injury on Jan. 14.
All Conley did was enjoy a career year, featuring a PER of 20.0 to go along with the highest assist percentage (30.1 percent) and lowest turnover percentage (11.5 percent) he'd ever posted, per Basketball-Reference. Like any great partner should, Conley raised his game to make up for Gasol's absence. The Grizzlies point guard will head into the 2014-15 season as one of the league's very best.
And Gasol, well...if you care about things like genius-level defensive rotations and the ability to run an offense without dribbling, he should probably be among your favorite players.
Don't look for these two in the headlines. Instead, check the trenches.
9. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Combined 2011-12 PER: 42.6 (Rose 23.0, Noah 19.6)
Combined 2011-12 Win Shares: 15.0 (Rose 6.0, Noah 9.0)
The lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season seems like eons ago, but that's how far back we have to travel in order to get a decent sampling of what Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah can do together. Even then, all we get is a 39-game stint from Rose.
Still, anyone doubting the potential of these two to perform like one of the NBA's absolute best duos is crazy. Doubting their ability to stay healthy enough to do that is altogether sane, however. Rose has missed nearly two full seasons, and Noah is heading into his age-30 campaign.
Durability is a concern.
If the injury gods are merciful—and they certainly owe the Bulls a break—Rose and Noah will lead their team to the top of the Eastern Conference. It's that simple.
Both play every possession like it's their last. Both have hardware to prove their credentials (Rose's 2010-11 MVP; Noah's 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year award). And both know they have the power to propel Chicago to championship contention—largely because they did exactly that before injuries fouled everything up in 2012.
Bet against the shared tenacity and battle-tested skills of Rose and Noah next year if you want. Just don't be stunned if a healthy season ends with them in the Finals.
8. Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors
Combined 2013-14 PER: 41.1 (Curry 24.1, Bogut 17.0)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 19.9 (Curry 13.4, Bogut 6.5)
Stephen Curry pulls most of the statistical weight here (his 24.1 PER and 13.4 win shares last year), and his 2013-14 contributions are disproportionately responsible for the combined totals above. If numbers were all that mattered, David Lee probably would have been the better sidekick for Steph.
Bogut joins his sharpshooting teammate because he represents the perfectly dour yin to Curry's affable yang.
When the Dubs need beautiful, high-arcing finesse, Curry's handles it.
When somebody needs to be knocked over, Bogut obliges.
Bludgeoning isn't the only task on Bogut's game-night docket, though. He's also an elite rim-protector who anchored the Warriors' top-five defense last season. His interior presence lightens the load on all of the Warriors' perimeter players, as his ability to change shots forces drivers to either peel off or flip low-percentage floaters.
Maybe they lack a sufficiently splashy nickname, but Curry and Bogut are Golden State's two most important players. More than that, they're the perfect complementary pair.
7. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Combined 2013-14 PER: 41.0 (Wade 22.0, Bosh 19.0)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 13.5 (Wade 5.5, Bosh 8.0)
And then there were two.
Maybe this is too high for a pair of former sidekicks who haven't had to shoulder a superstar load in four years.
But then again, maybe not.
These two have 19 All-Star games between them, and each has been in the February exhibition for the past nine years running. Losing LeBron James is (understatement alert) not ideal, but it's not like these two will just completely fall apart without him.
There's pride in play here. Plus, if you're into numbers, expect the raw productivity of both Wade and Bosh to spike without a certain best player in the universe functioning as the alpha and omega of the Heat's offense.
There are a number of possible realities for the Miami Heat this year—one of which, admittedly, features a team falling flat without James. But that feels extreme.
Wade and Bosh are still ridiculously efficient, talented players. And both now have something to prove. Nobody's saying they're anything close to the league's best duo. The only contention here is that they're better than the ones already listed.
That's not so crazy, right?
6. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Combined 2013-14 PER: 40.4 (Aldridge 20.8, Lillard 18.6)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 17.1 (Aldridge 7.5, Lillard 9.6)
Who's up for some offense?
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were the main reasons behind the Portland Trail Blazers' fifth-ranked offensive rating of 108.3 last year, per NBA.com, and there's no reason to expect either of them to slow down in the future.
Lillard is a threat from anywhere on the floor, as his off-the-dribble jumper keeps defenders on their toes at all times. And though Aldridge's preferred area of operation is more confined—he loves the left block and mid-range—he remains one of the toughest one-on-one covers in the game.
Neither player is much of a defender, and Lillard, in particular, has a long way to go on that end before he has a right to superstardom. But both are so good offensively that their overall contributions justify a spot barely outside the top five.
You could argue that going forward, Noah and Rose or even Wade and Bosh could be more productive next year. But in terms of reliable production, these two are tough to top.
5. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Combined 2013-14 PER: 49.4 (James 29.3, Irving 20.1)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 22.6 (James 15.9, Irving 6.7)
You're probably asking yourself, "How in the world can a duo with numbers like those rank fifth in the NBA?"
The answer is simple: We have no idea how the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving pairing will work. Oh, we have a pretty good idea that things will go smoothly; after all, it's pretty hard not to play well alongside James. There are probably folding chairs in storage closets that could post a league-average PER if they got to play with King James, which means Irving, an extremely talented offensive player in his own right, should fare fine.
There'll be kinks to work out at first, and if James' initial year with the Heat in 2010-11 is any guide, he and Irving might struggle to find the proper scoring-distribution balance right away. Eventually, though, there's little reason to doubt these two will become one of the very best tandems in basketball—especially if James' influence creates some defensive urgency in Irving.
And if LBJ impresses the importance of leadership on his new pupil, all the better.
As a nod to the duos on this list that have actually, you know, played basketball together, it's just not right to rank James and Irving any higher. If that upsets you, feel free to check back next year—when they're battling it out for the top spot.
4. James Harden and Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Combined 2013-14 PER: 44.8 (Harden 23.5, Howard 21.3)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 20.8 (Harden 12.8, Howard 8.0)
To hear James Harden tell it, a two-man team consisting of himself and Dwight Howard is all the Houston Rockets need. "Dwight and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told The Philippine Star at a charity event in the Philippines (via Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com). "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We've lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we'll be fine next season."
Once you get over the lack of tact in Harden's comments (especially in light of the recent loss of Chandler Parsons), you realize he was essentially telling the truth.
Does culture matter? Sure.
Might it be better if Harden and the Rockets treated players more like humans than assets? Probably.
But the core duo of Harden and Howard, crass as it seems, actually is good enough to make the surrounding parts fungible. A little shooting, some floor-stretching bigs like Terrence Jones and maybe a defender in the backcourt (hi, Patrick Beverley) and you're pretty well set.
Objectively, Harden and Howard are a terrific combo. The former provides the offensive efficiency and shot-making, while the latter defends the rim and cleans the glass. It's a good match—so long as Howard doesn't press the issue on offensive touches such that he takes a bite out of Harden's game.
You can feel the sentimental tide turning against Howard and Harden after the Parsons situation, and they may well become the upcoming season's de facto villains.
All that aside, they're terrifically effective.
3. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Combined 2013-14 PER: 40.2 (Duncan 21.3, Parker 18.9)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 13.3 (Duncan 7.4, Parker 5.9)
Every duo in the top 10 amassed more combined win shares than Tim Duncan and Tony Parker did last year, which you might think would disqualify them from ranking this high.
But we all know (or should know, anyway) that the San Antonio Spurs' deep bench and equal-opportunity offense makes it tough for any one player to contribute huge numbers. Besides, Parker and Duncan represent the only number from last season that actually matters: one.
As in, the Spurs were the one team to win a ring in 2013-14.
You could probably substitute Kawhi Leonard in for Parker, but he and Duncan just don't have the same chemistry or ridiculously long history of mutual success. When we think of the Spurs, one of the first images that springs to mind is of Duncan setting a perfect screen on the wing for Parker that allows the point guard to get into the lane—at which point the Spurs offensive machine has already won the possession.
Harden can talk about cornerstones all he wants; Duncan and Parker are pillars—rock-solid, foundational monuments to greatness. The most incredible run of consistent success in modern NBA history does not happen without the two of them working together.
So, yeah, I'd say No. 3 on this list is a decent reward.
As a matter of face, we'd better just move on before I talk myself into ranking them No. 1.
2. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Combined 2013-14 PER: 49.8 (Paul 25.9, Griffin 23.9)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 24.4 (Pau 12.2, Griffin 12.2)
OK, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin do more than compose the league's best alley and oop, respectively. They also post silly efficiency ratings that both ranked in the top 10 this past season, and they also played the biggest roles in elevating the Los Angeles Clippers' attack to league-best status.
Plus, they taught us that time apart can help a basketball relationship, as Griffin blossomed into a fringe MVP candidate during Paul's time on the bench nursing a shoulder injury. During that stint, CP3 also got a chance to see his superstar teammate become a complete player, a revelation that led to even more trust between the pair.
That equality was on full display last season after Paul turned in a disastrous performance down the stretch in a gut-wrenching Game 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals. There was a time not so long ago when Griffin wouldn't have had the status to give his superstar teammate a pep talk.
But that changed last season.
"I told him that game is not on one guy, it’s not on him,” Griffin told reporters (via Chris Trevino of InsideSoCal.com. “We made plenty of mistake down the stretch. That idea that it’s on him, I understand what he is saying, but it’s not on him by any means.”
If the identical win shares didn't make it obvious enough, that comment from Griffin proves it: He and Paul are now equals—a rare distinction on this list, and one that makes the Clips tandem truly remarkable.
Remarkable, yes, but not quite remarkable enough. Paul and Griffin can't compete with the next pair.
1. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Combined 2013-14 PER: 54.5 (Durant 29.8, Westbrook 24.7)
Combined 2013-14 Win Shares: 24.4 (Durant 19.2, Westbrook 5.2)
What do you get when you combine the reigning MVP with one of the most ferociously competitive (and athletically gifted) talents in the NBA?
Well, the No. 1 duo in our rankings, for starters.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the league's top twosome, and it's not even all that close. Perhaps Paul and Griffin could give the Thunder pair a run for their money if you believe Westbrook's knee issues are likely to persist going forward.
After all, it's always a little scary when a player misses nearly half of his age-25 season because of three surgeries between May and December of 2013. Normal human beings don't typically bounce back from so much time spent on an operating table.
If Westbrook's aggressiveness and spring upon his return taught us anything, though, it's that he is not a normal human being.
From a personality perspective, these two are ideal foils for one another. Durant is cool, while Westbrook plays with fire. Durant is a model of efficiency, while Westbrook takes a more volume-focused approach.
There's no getting around the persistent narrative that both could be more, or somehow better, without the other. We dredge up that idea anytime Westbrook takes more shots than KD in a playoff game. But the numbers speak for themselves, and even a cursory viewing of an OKC contest reveals these two to be the most unstoppable pair in basketball.
Don't expect that to change any time soon.