Dynamic duos were the theme of the 2019-20 season, and while some have been doing it for years -- looking at you Portland and Washington -- a new crop of tandems entered the fray after some offseason player movement. There's still no word on if this season will resume due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so now's as good a time as any to analyze how these pairings did in their first season together.
Some lived up to the high expectations placed on them at the beginning of the season, others gradually progressed as they got more comfortable with each other. While none of these pairings outright floundered, there's still room for improvement for everyone on this list. Or at least boxes that still need to be checked off, like how they'll perform in the playoffs. Still, though, there's enough game tape to breakdown how these star duos fared in year one of being teammates, and what the outlook is for their futures.
Prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, many had high standards for the pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, considering the two are likely the best teammates the other has played with during their respective careers. However, no one could've predicted just how well this match was going to be in the first season. Their pick and roll chemistry alone has been terrorizing opposing teams.
Every trip down the floor, teams have to make a choice of who to stop between James and Davis. If they sink too far in expecting LeBron to use his strength to muscle his way to the rim, Davis could potentially be open on the 3-point line waiting. If they try to double Davis in the post, here comes a charging LeBron waiting for the dish to hammer it home or to kick it back out to Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing. There's no right decision in defending this duo because you'll likely get burned either way.
The two combine for 60.4 points per game, and when they share the floor together, the Lakers outscore opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, which is the eighth-best for any duo in the league. LeBron was able to be the orchestrator on offense more than ever this season, which resulted in him leading the league in assists (10.6) per game. Davis was on the receiving end of 169 assists from LeBron this season, which is more than double the amount of the next teammate on the list, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (73).
James and Davis' games complement each other so perfectly that it's not surprising at all that they found tremendous success in their first season together. They've checked virtually every box to prove this duo can work together, not just on offense, but on defense too where both players rank in the top 15 in the league in defensive box plus-minus. The next step is proving that this tandem can translate into the postseason, where Davis has only 13 playoff games to his name.
Trading Clint Capela at the Feb. 6 trade deadline did wonders for the Rockets, but especially for Westbrook and Harden. Prior to trading Capela, Westbrook was forced to adapt to the Rockets' 3-point heavy offense, the only issue is he was connecting at a 25.4 percent clip. Westbrook's always been at his most effective when he's attacking the rim, but with Capela taking up space in the paint, that was difficult. With Westbrook struggling to adapt, Harden had to put on an all-too-familiar herculean effort to start the season, to a point where he was creeping up on averaging 40 points a game.
This duo needed to find balance. One where Harden didn't have to shoulder the offense like he's done since he's been in Houston, and where Westbrook could be his athletic and forceful self driving to the rim. In trading for Robert Covington, a true 3-and-D wing, Houston fully bought into small ball. They removed a center who couldn't spread the floor from the roster, and gave Westbrook the space he needed to use his athleticism and attack defenders one-on-one.
It resulted in improved numbers across the board for Westbrook, and gave the Rockets a consistent No. 2 option when Harden's having an off night. The reformed offense didn't solely rely on Harden's offensive wizardry to be effective, so naturally, his numbers went down slightly, though they're still amongst the top in the league.
Westbrook BEFORE Capela trade
Harden BEFORE Capela trade
Westbrook AFTER Capela trade
Harden AFTER Capela trade
A perfect example of that is the Rockets first game after trading Capela on Feb. 6. Houston rolled out a starting lineup where not a single player stood over 6-6, and they came away with the win against the lengthy Lakers. Westbrook put up an efficient 41 points, and only took two 3s, while shooting 60 percent from the field. Harden only contributed 14 points on an off shooting night, but unlike before where that would spell disaster for the Rockets, Westbrook's presence saved Houston.
That might seem like both players still can't equally contribute together, however, just five days later both Westbrook and Harden went off for a combined 78 points in a win over the Boston Celtics. Of Harden's seven assists that night, four were to Westbrook. The Rockets used Westbrook's speed to get out ahead of opponents in transition for easy buckets off of perfect half-court passes from Harden.
These are small sample sizes to work with, however, that Capela trade opened up a wealth of opportunities for the Rockets going forward, whether this season continues or they implement this gameplan into the 2020-21 campaign.
If there's been one knock on Leonard and George's combined game this season, it's the lack of time they've spent on the court together. George was working his way back from an offseason shoulder surgery, while Leonard uses load management to his benefit in order to not overwork his body. Despite only playing 32 games together, though, the individual skillset of both players has been enough for the Clippers to remain one of the top teams in the Western Conference. However, the Clippers offense is more of a "you go, I go" philosophy between Leonard and George.
This isn't a bad thing, as the Clippers have the third-best offensive rating in the league (112.9). Despite their high-ranking offense, though, they rank 20th in the league in assists per game (23.8), and 26th in passes per game (271.3). A typical Clippers possession consists of Leonard or George bringing the ball up and using a screen to create a mismatch and either pulling up for a jumper or drive to the rim.
They're both extremely effective at it, with both players ranking in the top 30 of the league among pick and roll scorers, but there's a lack of ball and player movement on the team because of it. When one has the ball in their hands, the other is usually just standing out by the 3-point line letting the other go to work. While Leonard is one of the most skilled isolation scorers in the league, ranking fifth among all isolation scorers, utilizing George's ability to come off screens and do damage (1.125 points per possession) would make this offense even more difficult to contain.
Still, though, when they're on the court together, the Clippers outscore opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions, and while the offense still needs time to develop, their pairing on defense has been the team's biggest strength all season. Their length and perimeter defense has worked seamlessly, combining for a 103.5 defensive rating when they share the floor. For the limited time they've spent playing together, this duo is still already off to a great spot, but more offensive fluidity between the two stars will only make them stronger.
As the youngest duo on this list, Doncic and Porzingis have the most long-term upside. Doncic turned 21 in February, and Porzingis is still just 24 years of age. This season was definitely a learning period for Porzingis as he not only was returning from a lengthy time off from a torn ACL, but was adjusting to not being the only source of offense for the first time in his career. There were glimpses of what this duo can become during the season, particularly in the last month before the season was suspended.
When the Mavericks slid Porzingis down to center in late January, it not only unlocked his game, but positively impacted his chemistry with Doncic.
|Doncic & Porzingis combined stats pre and post position change||PPG||OFF Rating||Net points|
Porzingis at power forward
Porzingis at center
Prior to the move, both players were most successful when the other was staggered in minutes, or missed the game entirely. When Porzingis was out for a stretch of games in December, Doncic was averaging 29.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game. Porzingis' numbers similarly skyrocketed (28.8 points and 10 rebounds) when Doncic missed seven games in early February. However, when Porzingis needed to step into the starting center role full time after Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles tendon, he and Doncic began to hit a groove.
Dallas began to use him in the pick and roll game with Doncic more without Powell, and it's been incredibly efficient as Porzingis can pop out for a jumper or 3-point shot, or roll to the basket for a dunk.
Dallas already has the most efficient offense in the NBA this season (115.8), and before the hiatus, Doncic and Porzingis began to flow better than they had all season. With both stars finally on the same page, it'll be intriguing to see what their offensive output looks like when they're in year two and three of this dynamic duo.
Outside of the several combinations of duos in Milwaukee, there isn't a more potent scoring pair than Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. When the two are on the floor together, they outscore opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, and have an offensive rating of 116.8, which ranks seventh in the league among all duos (min. 1000 minutes). Bringing in Walker to replace Kyrie Irving has done wonders for Boston's offense, but where he's impacted this team the most is in areas that can't be quantified in basketball statistics.
Whereas Irving was far more critical of his teammates, and quick to pass off blame to the younger players because of their lack of experience, Walker shares the blame in defeat and praises his teammates -- like Tatum -- in wins. In switching out Irving for Walker, Tatum's touches have nearly doubled from last season (45.3) to this season (68.5), and he's been given more freedom as an initiator on offense. Walker's shooting and scoring numbers may be down, but his impact from a locker room perspective has been a huge factor for the Celtics.
Walker's leadership, combined with Tatum's All-Star ascension has put Boston in the top five in offensive rating (112.3). While they don't have a pick and pop game like LeBron and Davis or Doncic and Porzingis, this duo's fared so well because Walker's allowed Tatum to shine and showcase his talents like Irving never did. If there's an area where this duo stands to improve, though it's Walker's production when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.
When he was in Charlotte, he controlled the offense every trip down the floor, and consistently ranked in the top five in the league in time of possession and touches. Now, in a system that uses multiple ball handlers like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and even Gordon Hayward, Walker's touches have dropped. Becoming more comfortable on offense without the ball in his hands will make the pairing of him and Tatum, and the rest of Boston's potent offense even more dangerous.