The National Basketball Association is a star-driven league. Each year in recent memory, the NBA Finals winner has two or more All-Star talents in their starting lineup. While the era of “super teams” is dissolving, there is still a prevalent trend among the league’s best teams: Having two dominant players.
Which duos are the best in the league? Does having the best duo give a team the best chance to win the Finals?
Read on as we rank the best five active duos still competing in the league’s 2019-20 season. Unfortunately, this excludes tandems like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the Golden State Warriors, as well as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, who have yet to play a game together on the Brooklyn Nets.
This top five ranks the most talented one-two punches in the NBA, out of the 22 teams participating in the league’s Orlando bubble. Duos are ranked on their overall quality, and the season at large is considered, not necessarily the player’s performances in the limited sample size of the bubble.
Additionally, while a duo’s chemistry can elevate them on this list, it is not the primary factor in these rankings. Having two great players, or in rare cases one outstanding player and an above average player, is enough to qualify for this list.
Falling just outside the two duos that can dominate the floor on any given night. The tandem of Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons has led the 76ers to some strong regular season finishes. While chemistry isn’t the biggest factor in these rankings, it is one of the reasons this duo lands outside the top five. Embiid often plays his best when Simmons is off the court, and vice versa. No elite duo should improve when only half the duo is on the court. The two 2020 All-Stars have combined for 39.9 points per game and a 46.7 player efficiency rating (PER). (Ben Simmons is slated to miss the rest of the regular season and most to all of the postseason. The duo was active at the start of the NBA’s Orlando bubble.
The other duo that narrowly missed the cut is Portland Trailblazers backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. On paper, they are more of a genuine duo than the ones I selected at the #5 slot. However, Portland’s electric guards are just a step behind.
Lillard and McCollum have combined to average 51.7 points per game and a 43.5 PER. Another factor, used more as a tiebreaker and less as a primary influence in this list, is Portland’s lackluster record this season. Their 33-39 record has them just a half-game behind the 8th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, but bigger things were expected from a team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals just a season ago.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
In the case of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, one player is one of the most dominant two-way players in the league, as well the reigning MVP. Antetokounmpo, who averages 29.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, contains an eye-popping 31.9 PER. Efficiency has been huge for the ‘Greek Freak’, as he’s doing so in just 30.8 minutes per game. If Antetokounmpo were to play 36 minutes per game, he would be on track to average 34.8 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. Antetokounmpo is the clear-cut primary option on the Eastern Conference’s best team, as the Bucks hold a 55-15 record.
Taking Antetokounmpo and putting any player next to him already creates a formidable duo, as not all 30 NBA teams have a true star. However, Middleton isn’t just any player. Making his name in the league primarily from his three-point shooting and defense, Middleton has evolved into one of the best two-way guards in the league. Middleton has been named an All-Star in each of the last two seasons, and this year he is averaging 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.
Together, Antetokounmpo and Middleton combine to score 50.9 points per game with a combined 53.3 PER.
4. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
When a healthy Kristaps Porzingis teams up with Slovenian 21-year old Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are a scary team to play against.
Doncic has taken the league by storm, becoming a top ten player and shoo-in All-Star in just his second year in the league. The phenom averages 29.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, threatening to post a triple-double on any given night. He has a 27.6 PER through 59 games.
Porzingis, the 25-year old Latvian power forward, is participating in his first season with the Mavericks after missing last season entirely due to injury. The former New York Knick is averaging 20.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 31.8 minutes of action per night. Porzingis was an All-Star in his last season with the Knicks, and while his scoring is down from 22.7 points per game that year, he’s on track for career-highs in rebounds and assists per game.
The duo has the Mavericks sitting 7th in the Western Conference at 42-30, but Dallas could finish as high as 4th or 5th in the West with a strong finish in the bubble. Together, Doncic and Porzingis score 49.2 points per game, and their combined PER is 47.6.
3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Love him or hate him, Harden is currently the most prolific scorer in the league. He is set to lead the league in scoring for the third straight year with 34.3 points per game. However, he’s not a one-trick pony either; tallying 6.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. Harden has averaged 7.4 or more assists per game for each of the last five seasons, including a league-leading 11.2 assists per game in the 2016-17 season.
Westbrook re-joined Harden as his teammate on the Rockets this season, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder after 11 years. To say Westbrook is a walking triple-double is an understatement, as the point guard has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons. This year, his numbers are slightly down as he cedes the spotlight to Harden, but they’re still elite nonetheless. Westbrook averages 27.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game this season, along with a career-high .472 field goal percentage.
The dynamic duo are stuck in the middle of the Western Conference’s playoff seeds, currently in the fourth slot with a 43-25 record. Whichever seed they earn, Houston hopes Westbrook can prove to be the missing piece in achieving playoff success.
Together, the once-again teammates score 61.7 points per game and combine for a 50.0 PER.
2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
After winning a championship with the Toronto Raptors last season, as well as his second NBA Finals MVP honors, Kawhi Leonard took on a new challenge: Bringing the Los Angeles Clippers to the promised land. He was joined by Paul George, who Los Angeles received from Oklahoma City with a lucrative trade package.
Leonard is part of an elite class of players, alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, that comprise the league’s best two-way forwards. Much like the rest of these players, pairing Leonard with any decent number-two option would be formidable.
By getting George at his side, Leonard is part of what is nearly the league’s most talented duo. George wasn’t named an All-Star this year due to limited availability in the season’s first half. In 45 games, the 30-year old is averaging 21.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game in 29.4 minutes per night. They’re not the most exciting numbers, but George is a key cog in a deep Clippers lineup. His defense can be measured numerically by his 1.4 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, but outside the numbers, he does things on defense that don’t show up in the box score.
Leonard, of course, is a defensive ace, capable of shutting down any team in the league’s best player on most nights. ‘The Klaw’ is averaging 1.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per game, but again, his defensive presence goes far beyond what statistics can measure. Offensively, Leonard scores 27.1 points per game, grabs 7.1 rebounds per game, and is dishing out a career-high 4.9 assists per game.
The Clippers are likely to finish with the Western Conference’s second-best record, currently with a 47-23. They defeated the Los Angeles Lakers twice in the regular season, once without George. While they dropped the next two meetings, Los Angeles was missing key players in Montrez Harrell and Lou Williams in their bubble matchup. Even then, the Lakers still needed a LeBron James game-winner to come out on top. In other words, the duo of George and Leonard has the Clippers are primed to compete for the Western Conference title come playoff time.
Combined, George and Leonard score 48.5 points per game, and their total PER is 47.9.
1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles has two basketball franchises, each with one of the best two duos in the entire league. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are a no-brainer pick for best duo in the league, as the two All-Stars dominated the Western Conference this season with their stellar play.
It is rare for two players from the same team to merit Most Valuable Player consideration. However, the case can be made for both James and Davis being among the league’s most irreplaceable players. While Antetokounmpo is likely to take home this year’s MVP honors, James and Davis should both see top five finishes as well. (James was named as one of the three finalists for this season’s MVP award, alongside Antetokounmpo and Harden.)
Simply put, James and Davis are two of the best all-around players, and they just happen to be playing for the same Los Angeles Lakers team. Consider this: After Michael Jordan (27.91), LeBron James (27.49,) and Anthony Davis (27.47) hold the second and third-best player efficiency ratings in NBA history. This is over the course of their careers, and at 35-years old, James may not be in his physical prime. However, it’s a testament to just how special and historic their pairing is.
Looking at just this season, James is averaging 25.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. In addition, for the first time in his career, he is set to lead the league in assists with 10.3 per contest. James also averages 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, and shoots 50% from the field in 34.8 minutes per game.
Davis, in his first season with the Lakers after seven seasons in New Orleans, averages 26.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. While we have established defensive prowess goes further than a box score, Davis has the numbers to prove his amazing defensive talent with his 1.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.
Each player could easily average 30 or more points a night as the team’s primary scoring option. Instead, the Lakers are a two-headed beast, and while opposing defenses might be able to slow down one of their two superstars, shutting both down on the same night is a tall task.
James and Davis have plowed through the regular season, clinching the Western Conference’s best record. As James and Davis enter the postseason for the first time together, the expectations couldn’t be clearer: Make the NBA Finals. A playoff exit at the hands of anyone other than the Clippers or Eastern Conference Finals representative will be considered a failure for the league’s best duo.
Together, James and Davis are responsible for 51.5 points per game with a combined 52.8 PER.