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The top duos in the spotlight for the NBA’s restart

Keith Smith
·9 min read
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For a while now, the NBA has been dominated by the concept of “super teams.” Anywhere from three to four All-NBA-level talents team up and try to chase down an NBA title. Due to player movement and injuries, the super team has gone on hiatus this season. In its place, the best teams have All-Star-level duos.

There are 11 teams with odds of 30-to-1 or better of winning the 2020 NBA Finals. Each of the 11 teams has a pairing that is at, or close to, All-Star level.

It’s a pretty clear dividing line, as many of the 11 teams that make up the bottom half of those resuming the season don’t have a clear twosome leading the way. They all feature at least one great player, but the second spot is up for grabs.

A breakdown of the most important duos that lead each title contender:

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, stands with forward Anthony Davis during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 117-105. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis form perhaps the NBA's best duo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Lakers

This one is probably pretty clear, as even the most casual of fans know LeBron James and Anthony Davis. James and Davis shared the floor for 1,317 minutes this year over 53 games. That’s nearly 25 minutes per game. In those minutes, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 5.9 points. That’s substantial, as it’s tied for second-place among the 11 duos we are looking at here.

James has submitted another MVP-level campaign. Davis has proven to be a perfect fit alongside him, with his ability to play at the rim as a roll man and also to step back and hit pick-and-pop jumpers. As long as Davis is able to remain healthy, this pair will have the Lakers in title contention.

Milwaukee Bucks

Pick almost any statistical category, and the Bucks probably feature prominently. It’s no different with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. In part due to Milwaukee’s dominance, the All-Star pairing has played together less than any other on this list at just 20.6 minutes per game. However, also speaking to that dominance, they lead all of the other duos by a wide margin in outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per game when they share the floor.

This season may very well end up in back-to-back MVPs for Antetokounmpo, while Middleton has become an annual All-Star. They lead a deep, balanced Bucks squad that is a heavy favorite to come out of the East.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers duo is pretty clear with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. However, due to injuries and aggressive load management, we’ve only seen them play together for 760 minutes over 32 games — the lowest numbers on this list.

On the other hand, L.A. has gotten exactly what it wanted in those minutes, as the Clippers tied the intercity rival Lakers at plus-5.9 points per game. The Clippers played the long game all season, as they remained focused on having Leonard and George healthy for the playoffs. Now we’ll find out if that strategy pays off.

Houston Rockets

The popular go-to for those who wanted to tear the Rockets down during the preseason was that James Harden and Russell Westbrook were each too ball-dominant to share the floor. Over 52 games together, the All-Stars were on court together for almost 26 minutes per game. Lending some credence to those who said the pairing wouldn’t work: Houston was just plus-3 points per game in Harden/Westbrook minutes, tied for ninth-place on this list.

That margin is influenced by the season’s early months, when the Rockets were kind of a mess. Once Westbrook stopped taking so many jumpers, and Harden took over more of the playmaking duties, Houston started to stabilize. In March, both Harden and Westbrook looked worn down, which has been a criticism in the past. Coming off a long break, with Harden’s weight loss and having figured out how to fit together, the Rockets are a team to watch.

Boston Celtics

At first glance, it might seem odd that Kemba Walker isn’t part of Boston’s leading duo, but that’s how good Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been this season. Due to some injuries, they’ve only played 46 games together — just under 1,100 minutes. The Celtics duo is right in the middle of the pack at sixth place at plus-4.4 points per game in the 24 minutes that Tatum and Brown share the floor. That feels right, as Boston is a rung below the best teams in the NBA.

Coach Brad Stevens has always shrunk his rotation come playoff time. Expect that 24 minutes a game to jump to around 28-30. With Tatum and Brown both having young and fresh legs, that’s a good thing for Boston.

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, right, and Joel Embiid talk during an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons make it work in the playoffs? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Philadelphia 76ers

The debate continues to rage: Can the Sixers win with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? While we can’t exactly answer the question here, the data doesn’t look very good. Because of injuries and rest, Philly’s duo played less together than any other on the list outside of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They were on the floor for just 789 minutes over 38 games. But dig deeper and that’s only 20.8 minutes per game. That mark is three fewer minutes per contest than the next lowest duo.

Even worse? The 76ers were slightly better than even when Simmons and Embiid shared the court at plus-0.6 points per game. That’s easily the worst mark on the list. After a long layoff, and with Simmons coming off a back injury, Philadelphia might not get any of the answers it desperately needs in these playoffs.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors duo of Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam is a fun one because it’s the most extreme pairing of a wily veteran and up-and-coming youngster. Toronto is also fun because it continues to be perennially underrated. The Raptors are tied with Philadelphia for the sixth-best title odds, despite clearly being the Eastern Conference’s second-best team all season.

And the numbers for the Raps’ duo tell us that it’s being overlooked. Lowry and Siakam play together more than any other pairing at 29.1 minutes per game. And they’re the fourth best at plus-5.5 points per game, behind Milwaukee and the two L.A. teams. Toronto is going to be a tough out in the playoffs, and Lowry and Siakam are major reasons why.

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray symbolize the Nuggets as a whole. They’re better than you think, but you still have questions. The duo outscores opponents by 4.6 points per game in the 27.7 minutes they share the floor. That’s good for fifth best.

Assuming he’s healthy, Jokic is the toughest center to defend in the field. He’s the best all-around offensive big man in the game. He can score from the post or the arc. He’s solid off the ball, and he can function as the primary playmaker, too. That allows Murray to do his thing coming off screens or running pick-and-roll with Jokic. Denver falls right where it should: Good, but just a bit behind the Lakers and Clippers in the West.

Dallas Mavericks

Because they’ve been exceedingly cautious with Kristaps Porzingis in his first season back from a torn ACL, the Mavs have played him and Luka Doncic together in only 41 games. But when they do play together, Dallas is 3.7 points per game better than its opponents. That’s better than the more-celebrated duos in both Houston and Philadelphia.

Doncic is a fringe MVP candidate, behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, who have set themselves apart. Porzingis took a while to find his rhythm but is back to being the unicorn everyone loved. This pairing is probably a year away from doing damage in the playoffs, but Dallas is set up great long term.

Miami Heat

When you think of all-around players, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo probably don’t immediately come to mind, but they should. Adebayo is behind only Nikola Jokic in terms of big men who can do it all. And Butler remains one of the best two-way wings in the league. They’ve played together for 28.2 minutes per game and Miami is plus-3.8 points in those minutes.

The Heat are in an interesting spot. If things go as expected in the restart, they’ll be the fourth seed in the East. That puts them on a collision course with the Bucks in the second round. That’s a matchup Miami will welcome, as it beat Milwaukee in both matchups this season. Butler and Adebayo are key reasons for the Heat’s confidence against the NBA’s best team.

Utah Jazz

When Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert take the floor together for the first game of the restart (against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans no less!) all eyes will be on their chemistry. After the season was paused, there were reports of Mitchell and Gobert having friction due to Gobert’s behavior around coronavirus guidelines. Recent reports indicate both players have moved on and all is fine.

What isn’t fine is their numbers on court together. The Jazz duo played more games and minutes than any other on this list at 61 and over 1,600 respectively. Utah is still good with Mitchell and Gobert out there together, at plus-3 points per game, but that’s tied for ninth place here. With Bojan Bogdanovic out due to injury, the Jazz will need even more from Mitchell and Gobert, and it’s unclear if they’ll have it to give.

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