The way the NBA’s summer went, the 2019-20 season looked like it would play out almost biblically.
Two by two, they’ll march toward the end goal. In Los Angeles, there will be the one-browed big man and the King in one Staples Center locker room and a pair of rangy two-way wings in the other. In Houston, it’ll be the patient scorer with an offensive arsenal as full as his beard with the pedal-to-the-floor triple-double machine. Eventually in Brooklyn, the enigmatic guard and the tweet-at-his-haters forward will set upon their quest.
And with it, a new era in the NBA will be ushered in with pairs of stars leading their teams with the time of “super teams” and “Big 3s” shoved into the NBA’s storage locker.
Gone is Boston with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. See ya, Miami with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Peace, Warriors of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
The NBA spent the summer downsizing, with super teams giving way to super duos.
It’s been the story of the offseason, players going out on their own to orchestrate these couplings, demanding trades to make them realities. But is it really here for good, a new way executives will view team-building?
Nearly every NBA scout and executive who spoke about the topic had the same reaction: These teams all have two stars because they couldn’t have three … or four … or five.
“I think to make the argument the league is shifting toward two [stars] and putting two [stars] as a priority in front of three, I’ve yet to see a team turn down having a great third player,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “It’s not something that would make a lot of sense.”
If the two-star model isn’t going to revolutionize front-office thinking, it will define the upcoming season.
Anthony Davis forced a trade out of New Orleans to pair up with LeBron James and the Lakers. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned the Knicks to play for the Nets in Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard wanted to be a Clipper but only if Paul George was on board. With George out of Oklahoma City, James Harden and the Rockets decided to flip his old dance partner, Chris Paul, for a new one, Russell Westbrook.
And that all happened in less than a month.
A variety of factors pushed the league into this frenzy, executives said. The market was full of talent and desirable destinations had money to spend and assets ready to deal. The Golden State dynasty had just been toppled by Toronto, with injuries and Durant’s expected departure opening the title field in a way it hadn’t been since 2015 (when the Miami Heat big three disbanded).
Each situation is unique and each will be judged by whether it leads to a championship.
and Anthony Davis
A deal six months in the making, the Lakers gave up a haul — almost all of their best young players and almost all of their best draft picks — to push the deal across the finish line. It was a necessity.
By getting the deal done, the Lakers gave James the most talented teammate he’s ever had, a player better than Wade, Bosh or Irving. He’s a perfect pick-and-roll partner for James, and his all-around offensive game is underrated.
He can guard too, which is going to matter for the Lakers.
The plan is for Davis to eventually eclipse James as the focal point of the offense. First, he’ll have to re-sign with the team as a free agent next summer, though things would have to go pretty wrong for him to walk.
Davis wanted to be a Laker and now he is. Why turn your back on that?
and Paul George
One of the questions that general managers have been asking this offseason is a fun one: Would the Clippers have rather just signed Leonard?
On the night they pulled off the biggest acquisitions in franchise history, the Clippers vaulted into instant NBA title contenders by pairing Leonard and George with a team perfectly designed to incorporate a couple of superstars.
But the cost for George was higher than a lot of people around the NBA would’ve been willing to pay — all those picks and a player with as much promise as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
George is regarded as one of the league’s best offensive-defensive talents. The worry is that injuries (the latest surgeries to repair both shoulders) will keep the Clippers from getting a return on their massive investment.
This partnership looks great on paper — two guys who work hard on both ends and fit well with the no-drama culture the Clippers created a year ago.
But if the Clippers are empty-handed in two years when both players can become free agents, the trade’s skeptics will have been proved correct.
and Russell Westbrook
Of all the high-profile pairings this summer, this one feels like it makes the least sense and could be the most panicked. But like most of Houston’s fatal flaws, it probably won’t show up until the postseason.
Not having to pay Chris Paul a staggering $44 million when he’s 36 years old in 2022 is a big win for the Rockets; having to pay Westbrook $171 million over the next four seasons isn’t as much of a victory.
At his best, Westbrook plays with a game-changing energy, putting pressure on defenses whenever he touches the ball.
The issue is that when you play alongside Harden, you might not touch the ball that often.
In the regular season, the fix is fairly simple — coach Mike D’Antoni will make sure one of the two is on the court at all times, giving Houston two of the most difficult players in the NBA for people to defend.
But together, Westbrook’s shooting certainly will be a factor — his career mark from three-point range is 30.8%.
It’s a fascinating pairing for Houston, which continues to try to find the right pieces to put around Harden. But if it’s not Westbrook, what could possibly be next?
and Kyrie Irving
Of the new super duos, Irving and Durant are the only two who signed together in free agency. They’re also the only pair that won’t play together this season with Durant shutting down any talk of an early return from a torn Achilles tendon.
Maybe more than any of these other basketball couples, Irving and Durant seemed determined to team up, an interesting decision considering their pasts.
They have both had to share the spotlight with mixed results — Irving wanted out of Cleveland after the Cavaliers turned the team over to James upon his return from Miami, and Durant left the Thunder to win and the Warriors to prove that he doesn’t need Golden State to win.
Depending on the basketball people you ask, both personalities can vary from “misunderstood” to “enigmatic” to good old-fashioned “difficult.”
There are questions marks in Brooklyn. Will Durant fully recover from his serious injury? Who will emerge as the team’s dominant force? People around the NBA are eagerly watching because neither seems to enjoy working in the shadows.
There are still teams moving forward with more than two stars.
The healthy Warriors could have a lineup built around Stephen Curry with three former All-Stars, while the 76ers will send out three in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Al Horford plus Tobias Harris, who just got paid like an All-Star.
Whether it was just perfect timing during a crazy summer or a trend that’s emerging, the best NBA teams, especially in the West, will rely on superstar duos to try to reach the NBA Finals, setting the stage for what people expect to be one of the closest NBA seasons in recent memory.
“What Boston did was special. What Miami did was special. But I think it goes back to you have two guys that are the guys and you have a group around them that supports them,” George said.
“I think it’s a good thing for the league. It changed the league. … Everyone was looking for a big three and it didn’t work for a lot of teams and now, this is a new dynamic for the new generation of the league.”