Welcome to NBA Jam week on NBA.com where all week long we're celebrating the remarkable collection of star duos throughout the NBA and viewing the upcoming season through the prism of what these duos mean entering 2019-20.
The NBA is now dominated by duos.
An unprecedented offseason defined by the dispersal of stars from sea to shining sea has left in its wake the promise of a season shaping up to be competitive and entertaining from top to bottom.
Teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Rockets are building their runs towards championship contention around the belief that two supernovas can get the job done. Teams like the Jazz, Mavericks, Celtics and Pacers are hoping their new duos narrows the gap between them and the upper echelon. Teams like the Suns and Timberwolves feature high-ceiling studs dripping with potential that make them impossible to ignore. Even each of the top rookies are joining situations in which there's the potential for franchise-altering tag teams.
The preseason is the dawn of a new day, where every fan base (OK, maybe not EVERY fan base) views their teams as a glass half-full and gets swept up in day-dreaming about what could happen if things break just right.
This is a ranking of duos, but with the caveat that it's taking into consideration only the best-case scenario for this season only. It's not about what's most likely to happen, it's not about who will be the best in 5 years and it's not about who will be the best on opening night.
Take the rosiest of outlooks for each team's 30 duos and slot them accordingly.
Without further ado...
30. Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges
After watching franchise icon Kemba Walker leave for the Celtics in free agency, the Hornets are once again starting over from scratch. If there are two players to keep an eye on this season it's Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges.
Rozier has shown some flashes when given an opportunity in Boston in the past, most noticeably filling in for Kyrie Irving and leading the Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals. It might be unlikely but it's not outlandish to suggest that Rozier could flirt with an All-Star bid now that he gets time to shine in Charlotte.
As for Bridges, he's an elite athlete and probably has the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster. Although Bridges will be the first to tweet you that he turned in a somewhat underwhelming rookie season, anyone who can fly like this is someone worth keeping an eye on:
1. This DUNK from Miles Bridges 😲- NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 7, 2018
2. The reaction from Kemba 😂
3. The nod to Vince Carter with the "rev 'em up" celebration ... against VC and the Hawks 👀#Hornets30 pic.twitter.com/DnuelnxfOa
29. Kevin Love and Collin Sexton
The duo of the future in Cleveland is Sexton and rookie Darius Garland. But for as long as Kevin Love dons the wine and gold, don't get it twisted ... he's the best player in Cleveland.
Love is coming off somewhat of a lost season as he played in just 22 games thanks in part to a toe injury sustained just four games into the season. Because of that, Love and Sexton shared the floor for just 432 minutes last season.
At his best, Love is still a 20-10 candidate that can stroke it from deep. While he's battled injuries for three straight seasons now, he's still just 31-years-old and if healthy will be in the All-Star conversation.
Sexton scored in bunches towards the end of his rookie season and was the team's leading scorer in games he played alongside Love, pumping in 18.7 points per game on 47% shooting. If he can do it consistently, Cleveland won't be a pushover.
28. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon
This admittedly feels too low. If it were a ranking of how each team's top duo were likely to perform in 2019-20, Vucevic and Gordon would be higher.
To say that Vucevic struggled in the first round loss to the Raptors would be an understatement. But while that underwhelming performance may have left a bad taste, don't be so quick to let a five-game sample against the eventual champions outweigh an 80-game regular season in which the 28-year-old ranked among the 10 most impactful players in the entire league.
Fresh off a new $100M extension, there's every reason to believe he can do it again.
As for Gordon, he remains one of the league's most puzzling young talents. He just turned 24-years-old and there's a sense that he can take his game to another level. If you went high and low searching for the next relatively late-blooming star hiding in plain sight, you could do far worse than the 6-foot-9 Gordon, who even flashed some playmaking ability in Year 5. From December onwards, Gordon's assist numbers were right on par with the likes of Jimmy Butler and Paul George among others.
27. RJ Barrett and Dennis Smith Jr.
Could Barrett and DSJ light up Madison Square Garden? Both of them are relishing the chance to play for the Knicks and restore the franchise back from years spent in basketball purgatory.
Dennis Smith Jr. may not have worked in Dallas alongside Luka Doncic, but there's no doubt the high-flying point guard oozes potential and packs some serious punch. His final game with the Mavericks coincidentally came in Madison Square Garden and he finished with 13 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds.
Running over Blake Griffin. Throwing lobs off the backboard. He doesn't shy from the spotlight.
Barrett, meanwhile, is a pure scorer that's a good bet to lead all rookies in scoring. The most bullish on Barrett think that the college game simply held him back, that once out of the shadow of Zion Williamson and flanked by NBA floor spacers, he'll flourish from Day 1. Given he still managed to lead Division I's best conference in scoring despite those hurdles, Barrett might waste no time making his mark with the Knicks.
26. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
One is a box-score stuffing, rim-rattling, whirling dervish of a floor general.
One is a swat-blocking, sweet-shooting, rim-rolling modern big man.
MORE: Which NBA team has the best young core?
The future is bright in Memphis, where in consecutive drafts the Grizzlies seemingly nailed their franchise pillars for the future. The sky is the ceiling when talking long term, but what about this season?
Morant will have the ball in his hands a ton for a team that's not worried about winning as much as it is player development. That means a long leash, the freedom to make mistakes and the opportunity to put up truly eye-popping numbers.
JJJ offered up glimpses of impending superstardom. 36 points and three made 3s on the road against the Nets. His team's final 10 points to keep Memphis close in Boston. And of course, this dagger over the outstretched arms of LeBron James in a game he finished with 27 points:
Jaren Jackson Jr. hit a step-back three over LeBron to ice the game at Staples. ❄️#GrindCity pic.twitter.com/CJJ99dQgwq- NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 24, 2018
Can these become more routine? If so ... watch out.
25. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen
Coming off a year he set career highs in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage, Zach LaVine still has his doubters. Is he an inefficient stat padder or someone that can consistently deliver the goods for a winning team?
Bulls fans are hoping it's the latter on the heels of a campaign in which he finished second in the league in game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute. Naysayers will point out that Chicago won just 22 games and spent much of the season short-handed with LaVine's clutch stats a by-product of volume and opportunity. With Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. healthy, Otto Porter around for an entire season and veteran additions Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, there's a world in which LaVine is the leading scorer on a team that's in position to make a playoff run.
Speaking of Markkanen ... remember him? He missed 30 games last season, but tossed up an impressive 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. He's already ahead of where Dirk Nowitzki was at the same point of his career. Nowitzki didn't make his first All-Star team until his fourth season. Can Markkanen get there in his third?
24. Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant
This ranking probably has more to do with Thomas Bryant than it does Bradley Beal.
There's no denying that Beal is one of the handful of best shooting guards in the league. A knockdown shooter, capable playmaker and strong isolation threat, Beal's bag of tricks on the offensive end runs deep. If John Wall were healthy, Washington's duo would be much higher than the mid 20s.
But Wall is hurt, which leaves the Wizards in a tough spot with Bryant in all likelihood their second-best player.
How high is Bryant's ceiling? Is he a nice rotation player or key starter? Or can he become far more than that?
This is all about painting the rosiest pictures, so this feels like a good time to mention that Bryant led the NBA in 2-point FG percentage last season, ahead of Rudy Robert and Clint Capela. While those two are mostly rim runners living off lobs and put-backs, nearly half of Bryant's attempts came from outside of 3 feet. In addition to a legitimate mid-range game, he shot a respectable 33% on 99 3-point attempts. Neither Gobert or Capela attempted a single one.
There's no denying Bryant's potential is on the offensive end, but he's a shot-maker at a position where stretching a D has never been more in demand.
23. Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert
When Kevin Durant comes back, Brooklyn's finest will be among the NBA's finest.
For now, it's up to Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert to carry the Nets.
Irving is perhaps the most gifted one-on-one player in the world. He might not be the most efficient, but there's no denying Irving's ability to create for himself and come up big in clutch spots. There's not much left to uncover about Irving's game.
LeVert meanwhile becomes one of the NBA's most important players over the next 12 months. Can he become the third star that Brooklyn eventually needs to compete for a title once Durant returns? It was LeVert - not D'Angelo Russell - that was making an early All-Star push last season before a gruesome leg injury derailed what looked to be a breakout year. He miraculously returned in February and in their first round playoff series loss to the 76ers, was Brooklyn's best player.
Is there a world in which LeVert turns his five-game playoff sampling of 21.0 points per game on 49% shooting into a season-long norm? It would be quite the leap, but it's not beyond the realm of possible.
22. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond
It's hard to oversell just how great Blake Griffin was in his first full season with the Pistons.
An All-NBA performer that averaged career-high 24.5 points per game while playing in more games than he has in five years, Griffin carried the Pistons to the playoffs. On a team with no legitimate table setters in the backcourt, Griffin spent significant time moonlighting as a point guard of sorts, but not in your cute "run the offense through the high post" manner. He was literally Detroit's best option to create for others.
Drummond meanwhile remains the best rebounder in the NBA and turned in the best offensive season of his career, stretching out his range to flirt with becoming more of a complete threat. What if shooting the occasional 3-pointer becomes a regular habit? What if there's a Brook Lopez-esque leap in outside shooting? If he does that, it also makes Griffin's life considerably easier which makes this duo even more formidable in the Motor City.
21. Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari
When it comes to the future in Oklahoma City, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (and a boatload of draft picks) stands front and center.
But when it comes to this season?
It's first and foremost about Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari.
Who knows how long CP3 stays in Oklahoma City as Sam Presti could try to flip him in exchange for even more assets, but it's entirely within reason that he delivers a big reminder to the rest of the league that he's still got plenty left in the tank. Sports lllustrated's Preseason Top 100 pegged him as the 21st best player ahead of this season, in front of players like Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. So yeah ... there's still plenty of believers.
MORE: Why CP3 is in for a massive bounceback season
Gallinari is coming off a career year with the Clippers in which he averaged a career-high 19.8 points per game. He did that playing over half the season with Tobias Harris and the entire season with Lou Williams. Nobody in OKC, not even Chris Paul, will be hoisting that many shots, which means Gallo, who is on an expiring deal and playing for a big pay day next summer, is a strong bet to score in the 20s.
20. Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow
Two quick points as it relates to the version of Butler we're about to see in Miami:
- In 2016-17, his last season as THE GUY in Chicago, he made 3rd-team All-NBA
- In last year's playoffs, it was Butler - not Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons - that was Philly's most reliable player
He could be in line for a monster season on a team that suits his personality and in which he's the unquestioned top dog.
You could make a case that the other half of the duo in Miami should be either Bam Adebayo or Goran Dragic, but I think it's Winslow who could emerge as a jack-of-all-trades star.
He ranked 11th among small forwards last season in Real Plus-Minus, one spot ahead of Eastern Conference All-Star Khris Middleton. With his ability to handle the ball, knock down open 3s and defend at a very high level, there's some "next Andre Iguodala" potential for Winslow, who along with Butler should form an incredibly potent defensive duo on the wing.
19. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum
The hope in Boston is that Kemba Walker replaces 100% of Kyrie Irving on the floor while off the floor brings 0% of the drama that in part helped undermine the Celtics season in 2018-19.
In a league loaded with ridiculously talented guards, Walker nabbed All-NBA honours last season in Charlotte despite finishing out of the playoffs. There are fewer touches to go around in Boston, but another All-NBA campaign isn't out of the question.
Though he may not have made the quantum leap many assumed would follow last season on the heels of a remarkable postseason as a rookie, Jayson Tatum still has star potential and could flirt with an All-Star berth in his third season. There aren't many young players as polished as Tatum on the offensive end and while he still has yet to connect the dots, spend five minutes watching him with the ball in the half court and you'll quickly see someone who certainly looks the part as a potential future scoring champ.
18. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton
Booker's a legitimately talented scorer who just finished seventh in the league in scoring as a 22-year-old, one spot ahead of Kevin Duant. He did it while also moonlighting as a point guard and tasked with the responsibility of setting the table for everyone else.
Now that he finally has a true point guard in the form of Ricky Rubio, Booker can get back to focusing on doing what he does best: get buckets. There's a world where Booker lights up the league to the tune of 30 a game.
"He's Hall of Fame good."
That was ESPN's lead NBA draft analyst Jay Bilas in raving about Ayton prior to the 2018 draft when he was taken No. 1 overall. Absurdly skilled and coming off a 16-10 rookie season, Ayton was a wrecking ball last year and now has the benefit of playing for Monty Williams, who coached Anthony Davis for three seasons and spent last year as an associate head coach with the 76ers and Joel Embiid.
It's hard to think of a better match when it comes to big man pedigree and knowing what it takes to develop a future MVP candidate big man.
17. Trae Young and John Collins
Trae Young averaged over 23 points and nine assists per game from February onwards and routinely drained pull-up daggers from way beyond the 3-point line at a clip only matched by in-their-primes Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.
So yeah ... he's got some game, even if he might have been the worst defensive player in the league as a rookie.
MORE: Will the Hawks be a playoff team?
Collins meanwhile could have made the All-Star team were it not for an early injury that caused him to miss 15 games. He very nearly averaged 20-10 despite barely cracking 30 minutes a night and was every bit as good as Amar'e Stoudemire was at the same age.
At the age of 22 and in his third season, Stoudemire made his first All-Star team.
Collins is now 22 and entering his third season.
If the Hawks make significant improvement in the wins column, it's not insane to consider the possibility that both of their young studs could make the All-Star team in 2020.
16. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins
The best-case scenario for Karl-Anthony Towns is that he makes a leap to top-5 MVP candidate. Minnesota won't come close to winning enough games for him to seriously threaten winning, but he's beyond talented enough to challenge the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert for 1st-team All-NBA.
That's how good he is and he's closer to realizing that potential under Ryan Saunders than he was under Tom Thibodeau, who never featured Towns in ways that best showcased his immense offensive arsenal. After Minnesota's coaching change midway through last season, Towns closed out the season averaging 26.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per game.
For Minnesota to reach its potential, the hope is that Wiggins can return to elite scorer status that he showed in his third season back in 2016-17 when he averaged over 23 points per game. Even if Wiggins doesn't fully deliver on the rest of his vast potential in other ways, there's tremendous value in wings that can pour in points at a high clip.
Even if "All-Star Andrew Wiggins" isn't walking through that door, he's still young enough (24) and explosive enough to play a strong second fiddle alongside KAT.
15. Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon
It wasn't that long ago that many were wondering if Indiana actually got the better of the Paul George trade, if Oladipo was actually the better player. This was, after all, an All-NBA guard in 2016-17 and card carrying member of 1st-team All-Defense. If you're a believer in that narrative from two seasons ago while also acknowledging the fact that George himself just finished third in MVP voting, then a fully healthy Oladipo is a bonafide, no doubt-about-it, take-it-to-the-bank superstar.
MORE: From Mumbai to the NBA Finals? Don't sleep on the Pacers.
Of course, he's still out and won't be back likely until somewhere in December and January. Reasonable to expect superstar production out of the gates? Probably not. But it's not crazy to think he'll be back to his suffocating two-way play in time for Indiana to make some serious noise come playoff time.
Speaking of playoff time, remember when Malcolm Brogdon for long stretches served as Milwaukee's second-best player in last year's postseason?
We know he's a hyper-efficient 50-40-90 type with IQ for days and defensive chops, but what if he's more? What if his relative lack of voluminous production was more of a product of circumstance with the Bucks playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe rather than an indication of his own limitations? What if he comes out piling up the points and then some?
14. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry
What's the best case scenario on the heels of Toronto's best case scenario?
Playing with house money!
Look ... Kawhi Leonard isn't on the team anymore, so this isn't your typical defending champion. The Raptors will be playing with house money for the foreseeable future with little to no pressure.
Whatever Toronto has in store for an encore begins with Siakam and Lowry.
MORE: Will Kyle Lowry make the Hall of Fame?
For the former, the hope is that he takes on the mantle as a legitimate franchise player, someone who can be the leading scorer on a playoff team and bankable All-Star. Those flash in the pan moments that happened every so often last year become an every day type of affair.
Lowry is an NBA champion and has entered that "Denver Nuggets Chauncey Billups/Dallas Mavericks Jason Kidd" stage where any conversation about trusted veteran winner floor generals can't be had without his name.
MORE: Debating the Hall of Fame case for Kyle Lowry
He's made the All-Star team each of the last five seasons. Can he make it six in a row? Lowry and Siakam representing the Raptors at the 2020 All-Star Game only happens if the Raptors are winning enough to warrant multiple selections. Should that come to fruition, there would be nothing but smiles north of the border.
13. De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield
Let's play a quick game of take your pick:
- Player A: 19.8 points, 8.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 0.6 blocks
- Player B: 20.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks
You'd probably take Player A, right?
Well, that's De'Aaron Fox's per-36 production last year as a 21-year-old in his second season.
Player B? That's Derrick Rose's per-36 production as a 21-year-old in his second season. The very next year, Rose won the MVP award.
Now let's be clear ... Rose did it for a 62-win Bulls team that finished with the NBA's best record. The Kings are not doing that nor likely coming close. But it's not crazy to suggest that on an individual level, Fox is already ahead of where Rose was prior to making his leap into superstardom.
His backcourt mate might be the most underappreciated two-guard in the league. He doesn't have great size and he's not a great defender, but Hield can light it up at the other end. Guards to average at least 20 points per game while shooting at least 40 percent from the 3-point line last season: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving...
... and Buddy Hield.
In a perfect world, the Kings are so good that it's impossible to keep sleeping on Hield as a legitimate star shooting guard. Tall order? Sure. Impossible? Far from it.
12. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan
Is there a more dependable, consistent and low-key star than Aldridge? While everyone gets swept up in the youth movement and high-flying bigs that shoot 3s and mega-stars and next generation studs, Aldridge just puts his head down and keeps roasting everyone with his deadly in between game.
You know who doesn't sleep on Aldridge? His fellow players.
In last year's All-Star voting, he finished 13th in fan votes among Western Conference frontcourt players behind the likes of Kyle Kuzma and Clint Capela. He didn't receive a single media vote. But the players? They voted him sixth behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George and Nikola Jokic. That's the stratosphere that Aldridge resides in when it comes to game recognizing game.
DeRozan may have weirdly stopped shooting 3s in his first year in San Antonio - he made just one of them over his final 65 games - but he did evolve as a playmaker while still putting the ball in the basket at a high clip.
In all likelihood, the best case for Spurs fans is that both continue to fly under the radar while leading the franchise to their record 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.
11. Zion Williamson and Jrue Holiday
Zion Williamson is the most hyped prospect since LeBron James.
When The King entered the NBA back in 2003, he did so along with unfair and unrealistic expectations. There's no way he could possibly live up to them, right? Wrong.
James fulfilled every bit of that hype and then some. He didn't make the All-Star team as a rookie, but he probably should have. I mean c'mon ... look at this roster.
Williamson enters the NBA on a team stockpiled with talent across the board which not only relieves pressure, but accentuates his strengths. The most optimistic of outlooks is that Williamson wastes no time in establishing himself and becomes the first teenager in NBA history to make the All-Star team.
MORE: Fact or fiction... Zion will be the NBA's best player in five years
With the increased exposure thanks to the arrival of the rookie phenom, it will also enable the casual fan to recognize that Jrue Holiday is a bad, bad man. The leader of this team and one of the best defensive guards in the league, Holiday continues to be slept on as a certiable stud.
New team president David Griffin earlier this summer touted Holiday as a potential MVP sleeper and while even that's probably a bit too far for even the most optimistic of New Orleans fans, it's not far-fetched to imagine Holiday taking his seat at the All-NBA table alongside the Stephen Currys, James Hardens, Damian Lillards, Kyrie Irvings and Kemba Walkers of the world.
10. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
Before ever hitting publish, I ran this list by several co-workers.
One consistent theme? "Why so much disrespect for Dame and CJ?"
I love them both. I love that they own the moment.
I love Lillard's dagger to bury OKC...
Our all-access look at Damian Lillard's epic game-winning buzzer beater that sent the @trailblazers into round two of the #NBAPlayoffs! pic.twitter.com/jIWj7k3c3M- NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2019
I love McCollum's Game 7 masterpiece to send Denver packing.
👏 @CJMcCollum pours in 37 PTS and comes up clutch late, helping the @trailblazers take Game 7 and advance to the Western Conference Finals! #RipCity #NBAPlayoffs- NBA (@NBA) May 12, 2019
Game 1: Tuesday (5/14), 9pm/et, ESPN pic.twitter.com/1g447gru2n
I love that every year people like me find ways to write off the Blazers. I love the omnipresent chip on their shoulders.
The best case is that in a wide open year, Lillard and McCollum show that last year's trip to the Conference Finals was no fluke and they lead the Blazers to the NBA Finals. We've seen what a favourable draw can mean for making an extended run and as we just saw with Golden State, there's no guarantee that every team makes it to the end in one piece. And before you mention that they got swept, just know that the Blazers actually led for more minutes in that Conference Finals. A few high leverage possessions go a different ways and that could have had a much different outcome.
MORE: Q&A with Blazers star Damian Lillard
Lillard's capable of uncorking an MVP-caliber season. He's already proven capable of seizing a 1st-team All-NBA spot during the prime years of Curry and Harden, who might go down as two of the best seven guards of all-time. Why not take it up another notch?
McCollum is certainly right in the conversation for "best current players never to make an All-Star team" so why couldn't he finally get the nod, especially with Klay Thompson out until spring?
And yet they're 10th on this list, because I can't shake the sneaking suspicion that we've already seen how far these two can ultimately take the Blazers.
9. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
When I started laying this piece out, the Utah duo written down was Mitchell and Mike Conley. The latter's arrival in Utah could be what elevates Mitchell into superstardom and what elevates the Jazz from "frisky team that plays hard but isn't ever really taken seriously" good into "OMG these guys are frightening and could win it all" good.
And then Rudy Gobert dump trucked the United States in the FIBA World Cup.
Disrespect is a common theme among the stars and fanbases who routinely feel slighted. It's nothing new for Gobert, who was once again denied a spot on the All-Star team even though he went on to claim his second Defensive Player of the Year award.
The best case isn't that Gobert improves and finally earns the recognition he already deserves. That would indicate he hadn't done enough to warrant love from the masses. The best case would be to keep on keeping on and watch as the rest of the world finally comes around to the idea that Gobert belongs in the same breath as Embiid, Jokic, Davis and even Towns.
It might be easier to day dream about Mitchell than almost any other young player. Could he make a 2006 Dwyane Wade type of jump? Could he threaten to win the MVP? Could he deliver to the Jazz what Malone and Stockton never could?
The answer is, of course, yes. "Could" being the key word.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton
Let's get one thing out of the way: Giannis Antetokounmpo's ceiling is somewhere between the Asteroid belt and beyond the outer reaches of the Milky Way.
He just won the MVP and still doesn't know how to shoot.
MORE: Could Giannis become the best player ... ever?
So why this low?
Because it might be too much to ask for him to get all of the way there this season and it's unclear just how much better Khris Middleton can get.
Look, I don't have anything against Middleton. He deserved to be an All-Star last season, he's dependable in the playoffs, he's often Milwaukee's best crunch-time scoring option and he can lock down about 95% of the NBA. I'm just not sure there's much room for growth beyond what we've already seen.
7. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis
Forgive me for drinking the European kool-aid.
I can't get over the fact that Luka Doncic ran circles around the other 29 teams as a 19-year-old. Did you know that no player in the NBA made more game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final two minutes than Doncic did last season? Or that he shot 58% on those, which is better than what LeBron James has done in 14 of his 16 seasons? He can't legally purchase alcohol in the United States yet statistically might already be the best closer in the game.
And let's not forget that he's a "he did, WHAT?!?!?" passer already. And that his primary pick-and-roll partners last season were either Dwight Powell or Harrison Barnes.
Now it's Kristaps Porzingis.
We're looking at the best-case scenario so set aside for a minute the concerns over his recovery from a torn ACL suffered 18 months ago.
He can pop and hit 40% of his 3s. He stands 7-foot-3, so he can shoot over literally everyone. He can roll and dunk on anyone. He likes to run the floor. He is an elite rim protector. He doesn't need a billion touches.
He might be a modern take on The Dream.
In other words, it's hard to find a player whose skill set matches up more perfectly with Doncic.
This has the potential to be Nash-Nowitzki 2.0, but if Nash was 6-foot-8 and Nowitzki doubled as a shot-blocking menace.
Can somebody please turn on the AC?
6. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
Jokic might be the best passing big man of all-time and is coming off a postseason in which he averaged over 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists per game. After logging 65 minutes in a gut-wrenching 4OT loss in Game 3 against Portland, he came back on just one day of rest and casually tossed up 21-12-11 in a win.
If he takes that playoff production into the regular season, the Nuggets could finish with the NBA's best record, which means Jokic could win the MVP award. At which time the naysayers will probably say "yeah, but can he do it in the playoffs?"
Ummm ... he just did. If you're still doubting Jokic's abilities as a superstar and whether he can be the best player on a title-winning team, I'm not really sure what to tell you.
MORE: Odds to win 2020 NBA MVP
Murray is the bigger question mark and while not Denver's best player, might be Denver's most important player. He ratcheted his game up in the playoffs with no performance more impressive than in the fourth quarter of Game 2 in the 1st Round when he exploded for 21 points against the Spurs.
There's a world in which Murray becomes the Nuggets' end-of-game assassin, a playmaker with the ability to trade buckets down the stretch with the litany of other great guards.
5. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
It's April 19, 2020 and the 7th-seeded Warriors open the 1st Round on the road against LeBron James and the Lakers. Klay Thompson is back but has only played 9 games on a minutes restriction. Although Golden State squeezed into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, nobody is giving it a chance against likely MVP LeBron James and likely Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Davis.
And then it happens. Drip ... drip ... drip ... SPLASH. Thompson goes off for 18 points in the first quarter of Game 1. Curry buries six 3s in the second quarter of Game 1. Before you know it, the Splash Brothers are on a roll and making mince meat out of a Lakers backcourt that's no match for the best backcourt in NBA history.
After dispatching the Lakers in five, the Dubs just keep on rolling all the way to the NBA Finals, riding the hot hands of Curry and Thompson, the OG of current NBA duos. Three is greater than two and just like that, seven months of worrying about the Warriors feels remarkably short sighted as confetti falls in the Chase Center with Golden State claiming its fourth title in six years.
It could happen.
Do. Not. Count. Out. Steph. And. Klay.
4. James Harden and Russell Westbrook
This is the first backcourt in NBA history to feature a pair of MVPs.
They've already played with each other before.
They project to be far and away the best backcourt in the NBA ... seriously, it's not even close.
It's one thing for a past his prime Chris Paul to surgically operate against second units with staggered minutes opposite James Harden.
It's an entirely different thing for an unleashed Russell Westbrook, riding a streak of five straight All-NBA selections, to beat up on overmatched back-ups.
MORE: Is James Harden better than Kobe Bryant?
There haven't been two guards from the same team to make 1st-team All-NBA since 1958-59 when Boston's Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman did it in an eight-team league. If the Rockets blast off to hit 60 wins with Harden leading the league in scoring and Westbrook once again averaging a triple-double, it's not inconceivable that they could pull it off.
3. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid
If you're actually still reading (congrats for scrolling all the way down here!), you may have noticed by now that the best player for each team or at least the one with the higher ceiling has always been listed first.
Not unlike a movie poster, there's a reason certain names receive top billing even when in the company of greatness. You lead with your best foot forward.
The placement of Simmons ahead of Embiid is not an accident.
Is Embiid the better player right now? Unquestionably, yes.
Will Embiid likely be the better player this season? Unquestionably, yes.
But let's just say for gas and giggles that all of these Instagram videos of Simmons casually draining step backs and pull-up jumpers actually translates to what he does with the 76ers instead of open gym runs. If a 6-foot-10 All-Star point guard that can do everything except shoot suddenly shows up able to shoot off the dribble AND spotting up ... that opens up an entirely different realm of possibility.
Philly is absolutely loaded and Philly is absolutely monstrous.
There's no inside-outside duo with more defensive potential than Simmons and Embiid and that includes both sets of Hollywood stars.
MORE: What's in store for Ben Simmons in 2019-20?
If Embiid shows up in shape, he can be the most dominant inside force since an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal with enough staying power to make it through a postseason unscathed.
If Simmons shows up with any semblance of the outside game he flexed on social media, he's going to start looking a lot like young LeBron James. Everyone just kind of assumes that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the heir apparent as the next cheat code do-it-all star, but don't sleep on Simmons emerging from relegation out of the dark depths of the dunker spot to make his claim to the throne.
2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
The Clippers have the guy who just finished second in the league in scoring and third in MVP voting.
That guy is their second-best player.
MORE: Is this the next Jordan-Pippen?
There's really not much else that needs to be said. Leonard and George are among the best perimeter scorers in the league and they're probably the two best wing defenders in the league. Both will be cool sharing the spotlight, both are good with or without the ball and neither is above doing the dirty work once the rigors of the postseason arrive.
MORE: Is Kawhi Leonard the best player in the NBA?
The biggest question mark is health, but again ... this is about the best possible outcome. In that scenario, we're not talking about load management or shoulder injuries or lingering quad issues.
1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis
They haven't even played a game yet and Davis is already talking about his goal of not only winning Defensive Player of the Year, but also holding James accountable on that end.
It's something we don't always hear when it comes James, at least as it relates to others holding his feet to the fire. While he may have sleep-walked to 27-8-8 during his maiden voyage with the Lakers, it's no secret that his effort on the defensive end has waned over the last several years.
There's been lots of chatter about whether James will pass the baton to Davis or serve up a season-long reminder that he's still the best player in the world. If it's the latter then locking in and being held accountable on the less glamorous end could ultimately be what ignites another transcendent year as the four-time MVP enters his 17th season.
MORE: How does Anthony Davis fit next to LeBron James?
Davis also hasn't shied away from the pressures he knows comes with the territory of playing alongside James in Los Angeles. He's saying all the right things about embracing lofty expectations and accepting the challenge of winning. No matter what he does in the regular season up to and including a run at the MVP award, none of it will matter if the Lakers fall short in the postseason. It's a far cry from the bar in New Orleans where he won one playoff series in seven years.
This isn't hard.
James might be the most talented and gifted player in NBA history.
Davis might be the most talented big man in NBA history.
If they fire on all cylinders, they have the potential to be the single most dominant one-two punch in NBA history.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.