Ranking the NBA's best duos in any given season is not for the faint of heart. So let's live on the wild side, shall we?
Hashing out a pecking order is an inexact process. Rooting out subjection entirely isn't possible. Success is open to interpretation.
This hierarchy is based on this season only and exclusively on what's happened so far. We don't care about last season, the 2021 playoffs or future years.
Sample size and team performance with every duo on the floor will be taken into account, but the individual talent of each player will also be weighted. A partnership, in this case, is both valuable because of the time it spends together, and because of either player's ability to carry lineups without his sidekick. Net-negative solo time will not be a defining factor. It is more like a tiebreak. The reps logged by every duo will invariably matter more than anything else.
Tough cuts will be made. One-two punches populated by a pair of stars have the edge over dyads where the absolute best player is much better than his team's No. 2. Partnerships are meant to be equitable, or at least close to it, rather than one-sided.
10. James Harden and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Possessions Played: 561
Net Rating: 13.8
Slotting James Harden and Kevin Durant outside the top three is solely a matter of volume. The 561 possessions they have logged together this season is dead last among every duo on this list by a mile—roughly half as many as the next closest dyad.
It would be easier to ignore the court time if their partnership was more established. But Harden came over from Houston midseason. The nine games they've played this year are their first as teammates since the 2012 NBA Finals.
There is a level of "who cares?" here. Durant and Harden make infinite sense alongside one another.
KD is both one of the purest scorers and shooters the game has ever seen, the type of star who can glide his way to 30 points on or off the ball. Harden is likewise among the greatest from-scratch maestros of all time.
His step-back threes, drives to the hoop and general one-on-one wizardry nudge defenses toward implosion, and any suggestion that he's too domineering of a presence falls apart when his playmaking is given consideration. He whips passes all over the court and has shown in Brooklyn he has no qualms table-setting first and foremost when surrounded by the requisite star power. He will probably lead the league in assists so long as the Nets' Big Three sticks together.
Whether Harden and Durant will waltz their way to the No. 1 spot when they have the necessary availability is a matter of taste. Some might hold Kyrie Irving against them. Can they be as valuable beside another top-15 player? That's not up for debate here. The newness of Durant and Harden's reunion provided an out. I took it—knowing full well their long-term floor is likely third.
Honorable Mentions: Trae Young and John Collins, Atlanta Hawks; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks; Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans; Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards
9. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Possessions Played: 1,466
Net Rating: 4.6
Barely putting Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the top will, to many, come across as an outrage and insult.
They make up no worse than one of the three best defensive duos in this exercise. Butler is the rare perimeter stopper who can inform the identity of an entire defense; he will sneak his way onto some Defensive Player of the Year ballots. Adebayo is not a conventional rim protector, but that's only because he does everything else. He operates on a swivel from the outside in, busting up possessions as the helper, derailing drives from behind and neutralizing smaller ball-handlers with his size and light-speed footwork.
Collectively, the Butler-Adebayo duo has more playmaking talent than all but maybe two or three other options. They can both power an offense from all over the floor. Adebayo brings the ball up, finds cutters, sprays dimes to shooters and helps make Miami's hand-offs go-round. Butler has reached a whole different plane of floor awareness. He is a threat to make every available pass, to any player. Defenses look helpless whether he's in transition, working from standstills or initiating in the half-court. His 7.2 assists per game—like Bam Adebayo 5.4—are a career high.
Adebayo and Butler would have a stronger case to be higher if the latter didn't miss 15 games, or if the former's solo minutes weren't so touch-and-go on offense. More than anything, they have finite range between them. Adebayo conducts more business from mid-range, but he and Butler have combined for 16 made threes on just 76 attempts (21.1 percent)—a contributing factor, along with spotty roster availability, to the Heat's lackluster offensive standing (21st).
8. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Possessions Played: 1,214
Net Rating: 8.2
This is one of those situations in which Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have reached the apex of their standing—or are incredibly close to it—without enjoying peak availability.
McCollum missed 25 games while recovering from a fractured right foot, limiting the time he and Lillard have spent on the court. But he's also having the best season of his career, averaging 23.8 points and 4.8 assists while knocking down 41.1 percent of his triples. His watermark production—which includes exchanging long twos for more threes—offsets his absences.
Any room for upward movement begins and ends with the phenomenon that is Lillard. His parking-lot range receives most of the acclaim. He leads the league in shots made from 28 feet and beyond, because of course he does, and is downing those looks at a 37.8 percent clip, because of course he is. But he still doesn't get enough love for his work inside the arc.
Lillard is converting 52.4 percent of his twos, tying a career high he set last season. His 61 percent clip around the rim is the second highest of his career, and his in-between maneuverability keeps defenses on eternal tilt.
Portland's offense runs smoother than a well-oiled machine when these two set up shop together. They are among the best square-one shot-makers in existence, with strengths that translate perfectly to high-stakes moments.
Lillard's crunch-time heroics are well-documented. How could they not be? He's converting 68.8 percent of his twos (22-of-32) and 44.4 percent of his threes (16-of-36) in the clutch. He remains a perfect 43-of-43 from the charity stripe in those situations, too.
McCollum is no slouch himself. He's hit 10 of his 15 crunch-time twos (66.7 percent) and arms the Blazers with another top-tier creator through which to run half-court sets when it matters most. Defensive limitations may cap where this duo lands now and overall, but they're two stars whose value will only be amplified when the playoffs tip off.
7. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Possessions Played: 1,696
Net Rating: 15.9
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers has tethered the minutes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together more tightly than his predecessor, Brett Brown, ever did. They rank fifth in total possessions played among the top-10 spots despite Embiid missing a huge chunk of time with a bone bruise in his left knee.
Intertwining the fates of your two best players isn't a particularly complicated concept, but the idea that Embiid and Simmons aren't the cleanest match seemed to permeate the Sixers' thought process before now. Ignoring that (understandable) line of thinking has panned out quite well. Philly is obliterating opponents with its two stars on the court, the second-highest net rating among the top-10 finishers.
Embiid's MVP push isn't propping up this placement, either. Simmons has cooled off since All-Star break. He's finding nylon on 55.7 percent of his attempts inside the restricted area during this time and attacking the hoop with visibly less pizzazz. But he was playing with more force beforehand. He hit 66 percent of his looks inside the restricted area prior to the All-Star break and has successfully wedged his way into the Defensive Player of the Year discourse.
And yet, Simmons' limitations are part of this calculus. They're more responsible than anything for dragging the Sixers' superstar couple outside the top five. They've pieced together a healthy sample despite Embiid missing time, and they certainly boast the dominant collective returns.
Simmons' solo minutes are still a killer, though. Philly is getting outscoredby 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays on his own, with an offensive rating in the 19th percentile. A bunch of those reps have come alongside all three of Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris, so it isn't an issue of supporting personnel. It's a question of whether Simmons can float a league-average offense independent of a top-five MVP candidate annihilating defenses with his present arsenal of face-ups, jump shooting and work in the post.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Possessions Played: 2,383
Net Rating: 9.7
Welcome to the very beginning of "this feels icky" territory, wherein every duo seems underrated and has a coherent argument to be placed among each coupling ahead of them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton also just so happen to provide the first instance of intra-team controversy. Does Jrue Holiday deserve to be thrown in here over the latter? Maybe. His offensive responsibility isn't as scoring-centric, especially in crunch time, but he ferries the heavier defensive burden. Nobody on the Bucks has seen more time against No. 1 options, according to BBall-Index, a placement that is only partially owed to the position Holiday plays.
Flip-flop the two if you want. It won't bring the Bucks any higher. Antetokounmpo and Middleton stack up against the very best. Either can run the offense. Antetokounmpo, in particular, has introduced more craft to his game. His passes are less the byproduct of the havoc he creates going downhill and more so show an improved vision and feel. He remains the most dominant scorer around the rim since Shaquille O'Neal. (Zion Williamson is coming...or is already right there with him.)
Middleton is a veteran of Team Underappreciated. His multilevel scoring is for real. Yes, his game can stall out before the basket. Holiday is going to put more pressure on defenses from point-blank range. But his mid-range artistry is among the most deadly in the business, and his 42.7 percent clipon pull-up threes ranks third out of 62 players attempting at least two per game. He does not have Milwaukee's highest crunch-time usage rage rate by chance.
This is also part of the reason Antetokounmpo and Middleton dip just outside the top five. It's at least a little awkward when a team's best player and leading scorer might not be its most important offensive weapon down the stretch of a close game. There is also the solo Middleton minutes to consider. The Bucks are getting spanked on defense when he plays without Antetokounmpo, though that likely says more about the top-heaviness of their roster compared to last season.