The NBA’s wild 2016 offseason featured talent shuffling all over the league. It makes for some talented, intriguing new partnerships that could change the complexion of both conferences. There is a slew of new duos that will create huge matchup problems for opponents and give their teams new dimensions.
Kevin Durant’s move to the Golden State Warriors formed one of the most highly-anticipated tandems in NBA history, but there are several other potent new combos.
After dissecting all the prolific new duos in the league, the following pairs emerged as the top five. The rankings are based on their projected statistical production and efficiency, how much they’ll impact their team’s winning efforts, and how well they’ll collaborate. For the sake of a league-wide look, we only allowed one duo per team.
Honorable mentions: Jimmy Butler/Dwyane Wade, Mike Conley/Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki/Harrison Barnes
5. Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks
Ages: 31 and 30
2016-17 Projected Combined Stats: 32.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 20.5 RPG, 53% FG, 34% 3FG (Millsap only), 57% TS, .345 WS/48
This isn’t the most hyped duo. Millsap isn’t an electrifying player, Howard’s last couple years in Houston were a mess, and he’s an overall downgrade from Al Horford. But I anticipate a modest uptick in effectiveness from Howard, along with Millsap’s customary two-way magnificence. They could form one of the most punishing frontcourts in the league.
Coach Mike Budenholzer will almost certainly find ways to maximize Howard’s strengths within the flow of Atlanta’s system. The big fella is limited to close-range hooks, pick-and-roll finishes and putbacks, but the Hawks will space the floor and share the ball enough to give him a healthy dose of offense and roughly 14-16 points per game.
While Howard and Millsap might be productive together on offense, they’ll be downright menacing on defense. Both are elite stoppers at their respective positions and are rebounding vacuums. Atlanta’s opponents won’t have many clean looks at the rim, and they also won’t have many second chances after hoisting jump shots. Don’t be surprised if Howard and Millsap are one of the top two or three defensive front courts in the league.
4. Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Ages: 30 and 27
2016-17 Projected Stats: 36.5 PPG, 9 APG, 11.5 RPG, 48% FG, 36% 3FG, 57% TS, .365 WS/48
Beantown finally got the star-caliber center it needed. Horford will supply post-up scoring, pick-and-pop shooting, pivot passing and top-tier rim protection. He may be toward the back end of his prime, but his footwork, skill level and instincts are still razor-sharp.
The former Hawk joins a man who’s coming off a career year and All-Star appearance. Thomas has become remarkably adept at weaving through opposing defenses and exposing soft spots. His ability to fill up the hoop from anywhere and keep foes off-balance in pick-and-rolls will be magnified with Horford in town.
Horford will also help diminish the effect of Thomas’ defensive limitations. The 5’9” guard often struggles to stop bigger slashers, but this year, Horford will help thwart rim-attackers better than Boston’s bigs have in the past.
3. Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ages: 27, 24
2016-17 Projected Stats: 44 PPG, 12.5 APG, 12.5 RPG, 45% FG, 33% 3FG, 53% TS, .375 WS/48
It’s hard to pinpoint this duo’s combined impact and collaboration. Westbrook and Oladipo might struggle to mesh and find the right balance for a while, or Oladipo could quickly flourish playing in a new environment with his most talented teammate yet.
How the Westbrook-Oladipo pairing plays out is going to determine so much about how good the Thunder can be. I could see 56-26 or 41-41.
— Adi Joseph (@AdiJoseph) August 4, 2016
Nevertheless, Westbrook’s overwhelming impact and versatility lifts this tandem into our rankings. If Oladipo figures out how to play off Westbrook, OKC could quickly have one of the best backcourts in the whole league. Both are shifty, explosive slashers who put tons of pressure on opponents with their athleticism and playmaking skills. Oladipo is just good enough as a jump-shooter to make this combo dangerous. Shooting efficiency won’t be the pair’s strong suit, but they will attack from all angles and draw bunches of fouls.
They also own a surplus of defensive speed and length. Westbrook is speedy and strong enough to check most 1’s and 2’s, and Oladipo has the agility and length (6’9.25”) to stifle both spots as well. Western Conference opponents will be in for 48 minutes of pain.
2. Kawhi Leonard and Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs
Ages: 25, 36
2016-17 Projected Stats: 34 PPG, 6.5 APG, 16.5 RPG, 47% FG, 37% 3FG, 56% TS, .400 WS/48
Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge still form the predominant duo in San Antonio, but Gasol and Leonard will be a fun new tandem. They offer a boatload of length, elite offensive instincts and a dynamic combination of inside-out skills.
Gasol is the opposite of versatile on the defensive end, so he made a smart move joining a team with the best defensive Swiss Army knife. Leonard will help compensate for some of Gasol’s deficiencies on that end. Meanwhile, they should complement each other exceptionally well, thanks to their vision and instincts as passers and cutters. I also expect them to combine for 16-plus rebounds, depending on Gasol’s playing time.
Their stats may suffer if Gasol hits a wall and starts a sharp decline. Fortunately, his game isn’t predicated on explosiveness, much like Tim Duncan. Expect Gregg Popovich to unveil creative ways to attack opponents with Gasol and Leonard playing off each other.
1. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Ages: 28, 27
2016-17 Projected Stats: 47 PPG, 12.5 APG, 13 RPG, 52% FG, 42% 3FG, 64% TS, .570 WS/48
They’ve hoisted the last three MVP awards, and they’re by far the most talented and fascinating new pair in the NBA. Curry and Durant are poised to bombard opponents with a blistering combination of scoring production, efficiency and playmaking.
Everyone remembers Curry’s astounding MVP campaign last season, and we won’t soon forget KD’s valiant effort to upend the Dubs in the Conference Finals. But sometimes we need to be reminded of how ridiculously efficient they are. Curry’s true shooting percentage was 67 last season, and Durant’s was 63 percent. Both had offensive ratings north of 120, and both had player efficiency ratings better than 28.
They’ll have to sacrifice touches and overall production, especially because Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are valuable pieces in their own right. However, the dual MVP’s will flirt with 50/40/90 seasons (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting and 90 percent free-throw shooting) and their lethality will empower the rest of the team. Durant’s defensive integration may take time, but he has the physical tools, agility and mind to adapt.