For arguably the first time since the days of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the NBA will be without a true “Big 3” in 2019. But despite the lack of superstar trios in today’s Association — farewell KD and the Splash Bros. — we do have plenty of talented tandems worth pointing out.
Here’s the hierarchy we’ll be using as we categorize the NBA’s notable one-two combinations into tiers. The duos are ranked within each tier as well, meaning we think Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form the best tandem in the NBA.
*At Least One Bonafide MVP Candidate – At least one of the top players in this tandem has won the MVP award or is considered to be one of the top candidates to win the award.
*Two Established Players – Both players are established producers in the NBA. Some of these players might have the potential to win MVP, but they won’t be favorites.
*The Young Guns – These duos have shown enough production and potential to be great going forward, but still don’t stack up to the league’s top tandems.
*The Unknowns – These combinations haven’t shown the same level of production at the NBA level as “the young guns” category, but there’s time for them to prove their mettle. This is the only tier where order doesn’t matter.
*** – One of the two players in this tandem is out indefinitely or coming off a major injury entering next season. That player’s health will largely determine how the duo fares during the year. These duos will be slotted within the other tiers, but will have three asterisks to designate health as a determining factor in their ceilings.
At Least One Bonafide MVP Candidate
1. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – Los Angeles Clippers
George is recovering from shoulder surgery, but is expected to be healthy by the start of the season, while teammate and fellow MVP candidate Leonard is coming off one of the greatest playoff runs in recent memory. This duo is the premier pair in the NBA heading into this season.
2. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors***
Curry and Thompson form the best shooting backcourt in NBA history, but the latter will be out indefinitely with an ACL injury. Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell will pick up the slack, but Thompson is on another level. If he returns in mid-March, watch out for Golden State down the stretch.
3. LeBron James and Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
This is one of three duos in the league where both players could be considered MVP candidates. Davis fits well with James, and the Lakers finally acquired enough shooting to free up both players. The Lakers have championship aspirations — and the star players to lead them there.
4. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – Brooklyn Nets***
Durant is likely out for the entire 2019-20 season as he rehabs an Achilles injury. Irving will be flying solo this year, but if Durant was healthy this duo would be closer to the top. There’s no telling how the forward will recover from what is considered one of the worst injuries in sports, and his health will determine this duo’s ceiling in Brooklyn.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP and should enter next season as the best player in the league, while Middleton just got handed a hefty five-year, $178 million deal in free agency. This tandem should carry the Bucks to the top of the Eastern Conference once again, but Antetokounmpo will have to step up in the playoffs.
6. Russell Westbrook and James Harden – Houston Rockets
This is the third duo composed of MVP candidates, although Westbrook could see his numbers decline in Houston. The former Thunder teammates are looking to re-discover their chemistry, and while things could be rough for the first couple of months, expect both players to come alive by the end of the season.
Two Established Players
7. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard is one of the best leaders in the NBA and has a knack for big-time playoff moments, while McCollum is one of the top shooters in the league. Both players need to improve defensively for this tandem to challenge the top teams in the Western Conference.
8. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are suddenly one of the favorites to win the West after their run to the conference semifinals last year. Jokic could be an MVP candidate with his all-around offensive game, but Murray needs to develop consistency himself for this duo to go all the way.
9. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers
“The Process” is finally over. Both players have signed large extensions and must now prove they are worth the price. Embiid has MVP potential, but Simmons’ development will determine how far Philadelphia goes.
10. Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley – Utah Jazz
Utah also has Rudy Gobert, but this backcourt will command most of the attention. Mitchell is a rising star and Conley is the savvy veteran. This will definitely be one of the best duos in the league next year on both sides of the ball.
11. Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers***
Still recovering from his devastating knee injury, Oladipo is expected to be out until December or January, according to multiple media reports. Turner, who signed an extension last season, needs to prove he’s worth the money in Oladipo’s absence. The Pacers have the opportunity to surprise in the Eastern Conference, but they’ll need to stay afloat early.
12. John Wall and Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards***
Before the emergence of the Bay Area stars, this was considered one of the top backcourts in the NBA. Wall was the aggressive guard while Beal destroyed opponents from deep. Yes, there’s been tension between the two, but the production on the court is undeniable. Wall is also recovering from an Achilles injury, making his already questionable contract one of the worst in the league.
13. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors
Even with Leonard’s departure, the Raptors are going to be good. Siakam won Most Improved Player last season and should continue to grow as he becomes the focus of the offense. Lowry is still one of the top point guards in the Eastern Conference and had a great playoff run last year.
14. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – San Antonio Spurs
Aldridge is one of the most productive power forwards in the league and provides some spacing in the frontcourt. DeRozan’s midrange game is effective, but can limit how far the Spurs go against top tier teams. The duo can lead San Antonio to the postseason, but a championship run will depend on other players stepping up.
15. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have acquired enough perimeter players to make this duo dangerous down low, but does Drummond have another level to his game?
16. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
Tatum is a proven player, but needs to build on his past postseason success to become a star. Walker should be re-energized on a playoff contender after toiling away in Charlotte for eight years. Keep in mind that Gordon Hayward’s recovery and production could potentially put him above Tatum on this roster.
17. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic
Vucevic’s career season helped the Magic snap a six-year playoff drought, but with a four-year, $100 million contract now in hand, he’ll be expected to duplicate his 2018-19 campaign. Can Gordon, one of the most athletic forwards in the NBA, take the next step as well?
The Young Guns
18. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis – Dallas Mavericks
Doncic displayed his potential last season, winning Rookie of the Year honors, and Porzingis provides the perfect fit for the young guard. Don’t be shocked if these two eventually become the NBA’s premier tandem.
19. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings
The Kings were one of last season’s surprise teams thanks to their dynamic backcourt. Hield was one of the top 3-point shooters in the NBA, while Fox showcased tremendous talent as the lead guard. This duo should fuel Sacramento for years to come.
20. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen – Chicago Bulls
After putting up 23.7 points per game last season, LaVine could be an All-Star candidate this year. Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game after missing time with an elbow injury. Both players provide a solid foundation for the Bulls to build on.
21. Trae Young and John Collins – Atlanta Hawks
Collins was a candidate for Most Improved Player and should be a frontcourt fixture in Atlanta, while Young is a dynamic guard who turned a corner during the second half of last season. With plenty of perimeter players surrounding this duo, the Hawks are ready to take off.
22. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
Ayton flew under the radar last year, but he put up one of the most dominant rookie seasons in league history. Booker is a perimeter star who’s capable of evolving into an all-around player alongside the center. Phoenix has a strong future with these two in place.
23. Darius Garland and Collin Sexton – Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are hoping this is the backcourt of the future. Sexton had a rough rookie season, but could benefit from Garland’s presence as a secondary creator. Cleveland is undergoing a rebuild, which tempers the expectations for both players.
24. R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox – New York Knicks
Knox experienced several fluctuating stretches during his rookie year, but was still one of the worst players in the league by advanced metrics. Barrett should be a solid scorer from Day 1, but will he be able to play with Knox? The Knicks are about to find out.
25. Miles Bridges and Malik Monk – Charlotte Hornets
Bridges is an explosive forward and Monk can shoot the lights out from deep. Without Walker, both players now have the chance to develop in Charlotte. Head Coach James Borrego comes from San Antonio, who has a strong track record of developing mid-first-round picks — can he do the same with Monk and Bridges?
26. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson Jr. is already looking like a dominant frontcourt player for the Grizz. He’s a floor spacer and rim protector anchoring Memphis’ starting unit, while Morant is a dynamic rookie who can elevate the players around him, but will he adapt to the NBA?