Appropriately, the answer to this double dose of bad news comes packaged in sets of two. After a monumental offseason in which eight reigning all-stars changed teams and the Golden State Warriors’ “superteam” went kaput, the refashioned title landscape is dotted by high-profile superstar pairings.
The Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis will do battle with the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Los Angeles. Former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook are reunited on the Houston Rockets. The Warriors return the healthy duo of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, the Philadelphia 76ers bring back Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Milwaukee Bucks will again turn to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Even smaller-market contenders such as the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers will be driven by two-man collaborations.
Commissioner Adam Silver has spent much of his tenure preaching the virtues of parity and competitive balance, all while Big Threes, Big Fours and even the Warriors’ Big Five beat up on the competition. This season boasts more uncertainty at the top than at any point since James joined the Miami Heat in 2010, finally turning Silver’s vision into reality.
The thrill of the NBA’s new world order derives not just from a more equitable distribution of talent, but from the stylistic intrigue of its fresh partnerships. There simply aren’t modern precedents for how the Lakers, Clippers and Rockets have chosen to build their flashy foundations, and all three teams will be must-see television as they explore uncharted territory.
James and Davis probably will prove to be the league’s headlining act. Their union was finally consummated, after months of public wooing and tampering allegations, by a risky June blockbuster that joined James, 34, with perhaps the most talented teammate of his 17-year career.
How often has a playmaker as talented as James been paired with a scorer as gifted as Davis? John Stockton and Karl Malone or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come to mind. But James and Davis share a combination of size, power and speed that makes them a one-of-one historic proposition.
The 26-year-old Davis is an amalgamation of James’s high-profile sidekicks and trusted confidantes from his championship days with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. Like Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, he is a proven lead scoring option. Like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, he is a versatile big man who can flow from the inside to the perimeter. Like Chris Andersen and Tristan Thompson, he is an authoritative finisher who will feast on James’s lobs and pick-and-roll feeds.
Athletically, Davis belongs in a category all to himself. The 6-foot-10 forward has such long arms that his toes nearly touch the ground when he hangs on the rim, and that wingspan has helped him lead the league in blocks three times. He pirouettes through the paint and spent significant time this summer working on his perimeter scoring arsenal, a la Kevin Durant.
In preseason wins over the Warriors, Davis threw down a variety of dunks in his debut and dished out eight assists in his closing appearance. James was left most impressed not by Davis’s physical feats, but by his mind and complete game.
“[Davis] is a very cerebral player,” said James, who will play point guard this season. “He’s seen multiple defenders for seven straight years in New Orleans. He’s able to read the defense and create for himself any time. He’s just a matchup problem. Score, rebound and pass: He does it all at a high level.”
In many ways, the Clippers’ Leonard and George are perfect crosstown foils for James and Davis. While the Lakers’ glitzy duo spent their summer filming “Space Jam 2,” the low-key Leonard engineered backroom conversations that culminated in the Thunder trading George to the Clippers.
Alley-oops from James to Davis are bound to go viral all season, but Leonard and George pride themselves on their two-way play. George, who finished third in 2019 MVP voting, said this summer that he and Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, practice a “lost art” by balancing their scoring responsibilities with high-level defensive commitment.
There have been some imposing wing duos in recent years: Durant and Klay Thompson won two titles together on the Warriors, just as James and Wade did on the Heat. Neither comparison feels quite right. George is a more accomplished all-around scorer than Thompson, and he is taller, longer and a better outside shooter than Wade.
In search of the proper archetype for Leonard and George, one NBA executive flirted with basketball sacrilege in July by evoking the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
“Doc [Rivers] went too far comparing Kawhi to Michael,” an NBA assistant coach said this week, referencing televised comments that got the Clippers’ coach fined for tampering in May. “No one is Michael. Not Kawhi. Not LeBron. Look it up, though: Paul had better numbers [last year] than Scottie ever had.”
The Rockets’ duo is so exceptional, meanwhile, that Harden and Westbrook can’t even be compared to the previous version of themselves. Seven years ago, the two star guards were teammates on a rising Thunder squad that reached the 2012 Finals. Harden started just two games that season and wasn’t yet on the all-star radar; Westbrook played second fiddle to Durant and didn’t register a triple-double all season.
As Harden and Westbrook have progressed through their primes, they have come to be defined by their eye-popping stats, individual awards and postseason shortcomings. Harden was named 2018 MVP and averaged 36.1 points per game last season, the most by any player since Jordan in 1986-87. Westbrook, the 2017 MVP, is the only player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double, and he did so in each of the past three seasons.
Remarkably, though, neither Harden nor Westbrook has returned to the Finals since their split. Now, they have been reunited by a trade that sent Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Westbrook.
While the two L.A. products have played up their friendship of nearly 20 years, their shared tendency to dominate the ball presents a central tension. Something — or someone — has to give, right?
“If you’re not on my team, I’ve only got one friend and that’s Spalding,” Westbrook said last month, in what might as well be Houston’s official slogan.
As recently as 2017-18, Harden and Westbrook ranked in the top two in usage rate and shots per game leaguewide. What’s more, the top two usage rates of all time belong to Westbrook in 2016-17 and Harden in 2018-19. Given those extremes, even incredibly top-heavy teams such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers from the early 2000s can’t serve as reasonable models for the Rockets.
For impartial viewers, Houston’s potential combustibility might be just as compelling as its championship prospects. The same can be said for the new pairings in Los Angeles.
The reworked NBA now hinges on this question: Which of these young marriages will prove too fragile, and which will last?