For years, the ‘Big Three’ concept was the best way to win an NBA Championship. The Boston Celtics are credited with starting it in 2007 when they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a team already featuring Paul Pierce and won their first championship since 1986. The Miami Heat brought it into the mainstream by combining LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade on their way to two rings. The Cavaliers sent No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins packing, bringing Kevin Love to Cleveland and winning a title alongside James and Kyrie Irving. And the Warriors hammered the idea home when they managed to add Kevin Durant to a team already featuring a ‘Big Three’ on their way to two more championships.
The philosophy was pretty simple: combine as many superstars together as possible – preferably at least three – and build a roster so flush with talent that’s nearly impossible to stop come June. It worked for years but it’s become a thing of the past. With player salaries increasing rapidly and luxury tax penalties becoming more severe after the latest labour agreement in 2011, it’s getting harder and harder to pull off a Big Three combo in today’s NBA. Plus, even if the money matches, that doesn’t mean the personalities of certain superstars will.
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Instead, we’re seeing a new trend take hold – the dynamic duo. Sure, there are duos in the East but it’s particularly evident in a loaded Western Conference with as many as seven or eight teams primed to compete for a title. With the new season one day away and the West as crowded as it’s ever been, TSN.ca takes a look at multiple superstar duos that could shape the conference’s playoff picture.
L.A.’s new movement
At 1:53 a.m. on July 6 (or 10:53 p.m. on July 5 L.A. time to get technical) the balance of power in the NBA shifted. Once the Clippers were able to secure Paul George in a trade, Kawhi Leonard opted to join them instead of signing with the rival Lakers and forming possibly the most talented three-headed monster in league history or electing for the familiarity and proven success of the defending-champion Raptors. His move to the Clippers changed everything.
Leonard’s choice – which we now know influenced George’s – puts them in prime positon to finish the work the Lob City Clippers couldn’t a few years ago and bring the franchise its first championship. On paper, Leonard and George seem like a match made in heaven. Both are elite offensive talents. They can guard multiple positions. Each of them hails from Southern California. And, maybe most important of all, they chose each other as running mates.
Combined with the experience of head coach Doc Rivers, defensive-guru Patrick Beverley, up-and-coming big man Montrezl Harrell and perennial sixth-man Lou Williams, the Clippers are going to be hard to stop. For a franchise that’s been to hell and back, this could be their time to shine. Then again, their roommates at Staples Center probably feel the same way.
Old guard, fresh twist
Speaking of the Lakers, they were the first ones to land a superstar this off-season as LeBron James (er, the Lakers) finally pried Anthony Davis away from New Orleans after months of rumours. The duo makes sense for a variety of reasons and gives LeBron his first true superstar teammate since Kyrie Irving’s departure in Cleveland.
Just like they were often in the Kobe Bryant years, the Lakers are the odds-on favourite to win the NBA title according to most sportsbooks. The thought of James and Davis – two practically un-guardable players given their skill and strength – on the same team is demoralizing for opposing teams. Each player averaged at least 25 points per game while shooting over 50 per cent from the field and led their team in rebounding. Throw in a little three-point shooting and elite defence that both are capable of playing and the Lakers become hard to stop. Now just imagine if Kyle Kuzma can develop into that third star the Lakers failed to land in free agency.
For now, L.A. still belongs to the Lakers. But they’ll have to be careful because the Clippers are coming.
Reunited in Houston
Before their stars burned as bright as they do now, James Harden and Russell Westbrook seemed like they would be backcourt partners in Oklahoma City for years to come. But after losing the Finals in 2012, OKC made one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history and traded Harden to Houston. Seven years later, they did the same with Westbrook.
This deal shouldn’t turn out like the last one. What it does do is give the Rockets their best chance of winning an NBA title according to general manager Daryl Morey, who also called the moved his biggest strategic risk as GM. He’s not wrong. Harden and Westbrook are incredible talents who have the pedigree to carry their team to a title. But do their play styles fit?
Both players are ball dominant, ranking in the top-15 in usage rate last season. Harden was third in minutes per game (36.8) while Westbrook was fourth (36.0). Both took more than 20 shots per game. Mathematically, that has to regress. Plus, Westbrook is notoriously ineffective from deep, shooting 29 per cent last year and 30.8 per cent for his career. In Houston’s offence predicated on threes, he’ll need to improve. Still, the former teammates insist it can work.
For Houston’s sake, it better.
Curry and Co.
Following the departure of Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors are no longer favourites to win the title for the first time in a long time. But the sky isn’t exactly falling and if the pieces fit like they have in the past, they could still be serious contenders. Just like they did in 2015, the Warriors will have to base their title-run off their sharpshooting backcourt duo. The issue is this year isn’t so straightforward.
Klay Thompson is expected to miss most of the season because of a torn ACL he suffered in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Both Thompson and the team said he won’t rush through his rehab in hopes of an early return. Reports indicate he will be out until at least the All-Star Break, and even upon his return there will be questions about his workload and explosiveness. In theory, he could return for the stretch run and be 100 per cent by the time the playoffs roll around. But that’s a lot to ask.
Instead it will be D’Angelo Russell – the consolation prize in Durant’s move to Brooklyn – tasked with the role of sharpshooting guard alongside Steph Curry. Russell upped his three-point percentage from 32.4 in 2017-18 to 36.9 per cent last year while attempting nearly eight treys a night. Another step forward would do wonders. If Thompson makes it back in time, some wonder how he, Curry and Russell will share not only the court at the same time, but the ball. Lucky for them, they’ll have until at least February to figure it out.
They aren’t as accomplished as Harden and Westbrook. Or have as much star power as LeBron and Davis. But Canadian Jamal Murray and shifty big-man Nikola Jokic are two players in their early 20s who have shown considerable improvement in each season of their young careers. Who’s to say they can’t keep getting better?
Jokic’s agility helped him become one of the league’s best passing forwards as showcased by his career-high 7.3 assists per game last season. Murray is an excellent three-point shooter and is even better from the free-throw line. Both players’ arsenal fits the modern NBA nicely, which makes it beneficial they’re each under contract until at least 2023.
The Nuggets (54-28) finished second in the West last season and for them to repeat that (or improve) they’ll have to hope Murray and Jokic take another step forward. In an off-season where almost every contender re-shaped or re-tooled their roster, Denver elected for small tweaks hoping some combination of continuity and development will help them build off last year’s success. They’ve increased their win-total in each of the last four seasons. Building on 54 is tough, especially in a tight conference, and likely depends on how much brighter their star duo can shine.
Searching for a breakthrough
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been one of the best duos in the NBA for years. Both have averaged at least 20 points per game the last four seasons while leading the small-market Trail Blazers to the playoffs. Last year looked like the year in Portland after Lillard’s incredible shot to eliminate the Thunder in Round 1 and their Game 7 comeback win over Denver in the conference semis. But, like many Western teams over the past few years, they ran into a much better Warriors squad and were sent home. In fact, the Blazers have dropped 12 of their last 13 playoff games to Golden State.
Still, Lillard and McCollum brought the franchise further than it’s been in almost 20 years. They were rewarded with $100 million-plus extensions in summer and now have shot-blocking specialist Hassan Whiteside in the fold. Whiteside is one of six new players acquired by Portland in the summer, so while there’s continuity with their reliable backcourt duo, there are a lot of other pieces that are going to have to adjust on the fly.
Not one, but two Unicorns
The Mavericks made the playoffs every year except one from 2000 to 2016 but it’s been a different story the last three seasons. Correlating with the decline of franchise cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs went 90-156 over the last three years and performed below average in both aggregate offensive and defensive efficiency. In other words – they haven’t been very good.
That could change this year. Dallas has a new star in last year’s rookie of the year Luka Doncic and took advantage of a fractured relationship with the New York Knicks to land Kristaps Porzingis last season, giving Dallas their most exciting one-two punch since Nowitzki and Steve Nash in the early 2000s. Both players have flare to their game and are dangerous from deep despite their size. Dallas doesn’t just have one ‘Unicorn’ – they have two.
In his final season with the Knicks, Porzingis shot 45.5 per cent on all catch-and-shoot field goal attempts and 41.6 per cent from deep. That’s way above his career percentages of 43.7/36.1 and it stands to reason his catch-and-shoot numbers will only improve with Doncic feeding him the ball, who is a better passer and averaged more assists as a rookie than anyone Porzingis played with in New York.
The importance of health rings true for any team, but Dallas especially. Porzingis has not played a regular season game in 20 months and while the ACL tear he suffered in February of 2018 appears to be healed, it’s tough to know for sure until the grind of the regular season.
What about the rest?
Okay, so not every team has two stars. That doesn’t mean they can’t go deep in the playoffs.
Take the Utah Jazz, for instance. Quin Snyder’s squad is generally regarded as being a top-10 favourite to win the title by bookmakers but doesn’t have an All-Star on the roster. Their projected starting-five of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert is among the most balanced in the NBA. If there’s any group who could give the Jazz the breakthrough they’ve been looking for, it’s this bunch.
What about the New Orleans Pelicans? They transitioned from the Anthony Davis era about as well as any team with a disgruntled star could have and turned him into an impressive young core to surround Zion Williamson and Jrue Holiday. Their big free agent signing, J.J. Redick, has never missed the playoffs in his 13 seasons in the league and told Williamson he doesn’t plan to start now. Of course, it depends how much time the top pick is going to miss with his knee injury.
And don’t forget the San Antonio Spurs, who have not missed the playoffs since 1997 and only once since 1989. With a similar roster and the same coach behind all their success, there’s no reason history won’t repeat itself.
It’s tough to forecast because there are teams – probably several – in the Western Conference who will miss the playoffs despite having both talent and lofty expectations. In NBA.com’s annual pre-season general managers’ poll, six different teams got at least one vote to win the conference. The airtight gaps between teams will accentuate things. Highs will be higher. Lows will be lower. If the sky feels like it’s falling, maybe that’s because it is. As a dozen teams, maybe more, revamped or re-tooled their roster this off-season, the league figures to be as wide open and unpredictable in 2019-20 as it’s been in years. Especially out West. It will be unforgiving. It will be brutal. But it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun.