Top Five Emerging NBA Tandems
The current NBA champion Dallas Mavericks are the ideal example of the team concept.
Admittedly, they have a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s been one of the top players in the league for years. The difference in 2011 was a complete, united and versatile roster that flourished with the addition of center Tyson Chandler, the emergence of J.J. Barea and the steady play from Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion.
Winning with balance isn’t the only way to win a title. History has seen teams can be driven by a dynamic tandem of players . . . a duo whose performance together can trump a deeper five.
The most obvious recent example would be the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers run at the beginning of the century that led to three championships. Later O’Neal teamed up with Dwyane Wade in Miami to win a title. Both teams had solid role players but there’s no question they heavily relied on star power.
Perhaps the most famous tandem would be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen . . . although it’d be a disservice to the Chicago Bulls to denigrate what were two sets of very strong players each separate three-peat).
The Showtime Lakers were built around the duo of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but then they were also loaded with talented parts like James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Byron Scott, Bob McAdoo and Mychal Thompson.
The San Antonio Spurs won their first title built around Tim Duncan and David Robinson but it wasn’t until a few years later when they picked up Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that they became a major force as a title winner.
Ultimately it takes more than just two but as far as star power, a dynamic duo can carry a franchise.
Looking at the current crop of NBA stars, five tandems stand out as emerging forces:
Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook
The Oklahoma City Thunder have two of the most explosive young players in the league in Durant and Westbrook. Both will hit just 23-years old before 2012 but already they’ve led their team to the Western Conference Finals.
While the Thunder lost in five games to the Mavericks, it was anything but an easy out for Dallas.
Small forward Durant averaged 30.1 points per game two seasons ago as his team made their first postseason bid in his third year. Through 17 playoff games this past season, Kevin put up 28.6 nightly.
Durant is a feared late-game scorer. Extra attention to Kevin just gives more room for point guard Westbrook to work with.
There are very few players in the league (if any) with Westbrook’s combination of speed, strength and athleticism.
Point guard Westbrook is coming off a career-high 21.9 points per game last season while dishing 8.2 assists per game. Through the postseason he averaged 23.8 points but his assist number dipped a bit to 6.4.
OK City can boast solid players like Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and the emerging pair of James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Harden has begun to develop into a true third option while Ibaka with Perkins and Collison make up a formidable defensive front line.
What else do the Thunder need? Other than a backup point guard or further growth from Eric Maynor, not much.
Health and experience are about it . . . the Thunder are a dangerous, dangerous team but there are two areas to watch looking ahead in Oklahoma City.
Sometimes Westbrook calls his number too often . . . sometimes more than sometimes. Russell was notoriously benched late in a playoff game for Maynor (the only game the Thunder won in the series). Chemistry between Durant and Westbrook is imperfect but at this point, far from a significant problem.
The other is the basic economics for what is a small-market team in Oklahoma City. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which has yet to be written, may help eventually but Durant starts his contract extension this coming season.
Westbrook is due for a big raise started in 2012. Harden and Ibaka come up in 2013.
Can the Thunder keep this duo together along with the young core around them?
Blake Griffin & Eric Gordon
Los Angeles forward Griffin was easily the unanimous Rookie of the Year. He was the breakout star in the NBA with his forceful array of in-game dunks.
Blake averaged 22.5 points a game on 50.6% shooting while pulling down 12.1 boards nightly. Although his contest-winning dunk over a Kia was impressive, it was his throw-down over then-New York Knick Timofey Mozgov that quickly ushered Griffin to the NBA forefront.
That was early in the season when the Clippers were searching wins, transitioning from the old guard to what would be the team’s future.
In addition to Griffin, who played all 82 games after missing what was supposed to be his rookie year with a knee injury, Gordon emerged as one of the top shooting guards in the league.
Eric averaged a career-high 22.3 points per game along with 4.4 assists. Beyond the stats, he began to develop into a true fourth-quarter closer.
Unfortunately injuries impeded his development (wrist, finger, shoulder, etc.) and he played in just 56 games.
Gordon still has to improve his ball-handling. More than once he’d lose the ball with a secondary defender swiping in on a drive.
What the Clippers need is health, stability and some additional outside shooting to provide both Eric and Blake with the proper space they need to dominate.
Picking up guard Mo Williams over Baron Davis made sense with Gordon taking over the duties as closer. Baron was best with the ball in his hands but had struggled to make the right decisions and/or shots on the floor with the Clippers (with the game on the line).
Williams is the better shooter and he’s much more comfortable playing off-guard when needed.
The goal is to build around the duo of Griffin and Gordon. The Clippers would like to add another piece, ideally a small forward to better balance their lineup.
Looking ahead, LA has cap space, the Minnesota Timberwolves 2012 pick (unprotected), Chris Kaman on an expiring contract and other assets that might be appealing around the league.
Gordon is going into the last year of his deal and Griffin has just two but the Clippers fully expect to extend both beyond their rookie deals.
With that in mind, the Clippers have some urgency to not only make the playoffs but to make an immediate impact.
While that may not be out of the question, the team may still be missing a piece or two to make that possible. Retaining restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan is a must.
Amar’e Stoudemire & Carmelo Anthony
The New York Knicks finally found their way back to respectability last year in signing forward/center Stoudemire to a contract and trading for Anthony.
Certainly they’re not the young, emerging type like Durant/Westbrook or Griffin/Gordon but given a chance at a full season with some roster upgrades and the Knicks may be a serious force in the East.
Both Amar’e and Carmelo are straight-up scorers; New York is going to be in games on offense alone.
Would Stoudemire’s game tail off once separated from Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash? Hardly.
Last year Amar’e averaged 25.3 points per game, a shade under his 2004/5 career high. Anthony, through 27 regular season games with the Knicks, put up 26.3 nightly.
That’s 51.6 points together and the Knicks are going to be able to improve the roster over the coming years.
In the short-term, Chauncey Billups represents the third option and the experienced point guard to run the offense. At some point the Knicks are expected to make a run at Chris Paul or even Deron Williams.
If New York can add a solid center, capable of averaging about 10 efficient points and 10 boards . . . look out.
Last year Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups were all pretty banged up when they met the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. Healthy and even slightly upgraded, the Knicks will be far more formidable as an opponent.
Deron Williams & Brook Lopez
The New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets landed Williams in a blockbuster midseason deal. The Nets were out of contention when he came and Deron wasn’t entirely healthy (wrist).
Williams didn’t look great through 12 games as a Net but through the 53 he played with the Utah Jazz he averaged 21.3 points and 9.7 assists per game. His scoring dipped in New Jersey to 15.0 but his passing jumped to 12.8 dimes a contest.
Meanwhile, Lopez proved his to be one of the top scoring centers in the league at 20.4 points while playing in all 82 games for the second-straight year.
With the extended summer, Deron should be much stronger this coming season. He’s currently playing overseas in Turkey to stay sharp, improve his game and earn additional money in case the lockout doesn’t end on time. Williams has an opt-out, so he’ll return to New Jersey once (and if) training camps open.
Point guard and center can be the hardest positions to fill. The Nets have cap room but need to make sure they retain free agent Kris Humphries.
As strong as Lopez is a scorer, he’s not much of a rebounder and Humphries is a natural complement.
If the Nets can round out the roster with role players, the team may very well make a playoff run this coming season.
The big question moving forward is Williams who can opt out of the final year of his deal (and $17.8 million). If he doesn’t stay, the Nets may have some long-term problems.
Stephen Curry & Monta Ellis
This may be the most curious and/or iffy one of the bunch. Golden State Warriors guards Curry and Ellis are among the quickest at their positions.
Steph is a shooter and play-maker. Ellis is more of a straight-up scorer.
Together they’ve helped make the Warriors one of the league’s top offensive teams and yet Golden State won just 36 games last year.
New Head Coach Mark Jackson has been preaching defense since before he even got the job. If he can find a way to make it work with the diminutive but potent backcourt, the Warriors may end up the playoff team Jackson has already promised they are.
It’s not like Golden State needs to become a lock-down, mean and dirty squad that scrounges every point. If the Warriors can knock out 103 points a game, they just need to keep opponents to 102 or fewer (not last year’s 105.7).
Warriors’ ownership (and management) has gone through major changes. Executive Jerry West is now a part of the franchise and won’t be afraid to push for either Curry or Ellis to be moved if that’s what’s best for the team.
At this point Jackson has been very pro Curry/Ellis. The odds seem high they get the opportunity to prove that they can indeed play together . . . and win.
If not, as exciting as they can be together offensively, it may not be a lengthy partnership.
Others to Think About:
Before Brandon Roy developed chronic knee problems, he and LaMarcus Aldridge were the power duo of the younger generation. If Roy can overcome physical limitations, the Portland Trail Blazers tandem would easily be at or near the top of this list.
Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 points last season while shooting 41.7% from three. He’ll be joined by Spanish point guard, rookie Ricky Rubio, once the season gets underway.
If Rubio can quickly acclimate to the NBA, the Wolves may have an emerging tandem to keep a serious eye on.
The Utah Jazz have as solid a pair of big men as any team in the league with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Unfortunately the roster doesn’t have enough depth in other positions and the power duo isn’t always complementary.
Conversely the Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol pairing was huge for the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol is a restricted free agent but if he returns as expected, the Memphis duo may be the biggest omission to the top five above.
Andrew Bogut suffered a horrific elbow injury last April. While he was able to play last season, he wasn’t quite as powerful as in seasons past. If he can regain his form, the Milwaukee Bucks may have a strong tandem with point guard Brandon Jennings.
Finally, it’s difficult to put a timeline on the career of Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant. With time off to strengthen his knees, Bryant may still have years left on top.
The question down the road is will his number two be forward Pau Gasol or upcoming center Andrew Bynum? Certainly Gasol is more polished but he struggled through the postseason and Bynum, if he can consistently stay injury free, may eventually overtake him as the Lakers primary big man . . . and Kobe Bryant running mate.