The NBA is about to undergo a seismic shift. Current powers are set to topple while newcomers will emerge for a shot at a championship
Free agency begins in the NBA on July 1.
Players around the league will change teams, and thus, the outlooks of those teams. The right move could land you squarely into contention for a title, while the wrong signing can set your franchise back for any number of years.
It’s kind of a big deal.
With that, let’s take a look at some pairings for this crop of free agents, particularly those commanding max (or near-max) money.
None of these have been mentioned as even a remote possibility, but we won’t let that stop us. The goal is to create a duo that would be both fun to watch and have a legit chance at sustained success.
Conspicuously omitted from the festivities is one Kevin Durant. The forward would be no worse than the number two (and most likely the top) target on the market and a fun piece to pair with another star for this exercise.
That is if he weren’t set to miss most if not all of next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles.
Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton
Mirror mirror on the wall, this is a pairing of two players with similar abilities.
Both Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton are thought of more as off-ball, glue guys than true superstars in their own right. That could be beneficial against opponents defensive gameplans; who do you key on?
Conventional wisdom says that Thompson will be maxed by the Golden State Warriors and rehabs his torn ACL before returning around February. He averaged 21.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists on a .467/.402/.816 shooting line in 2018; just under his career-high in points and matching his high-mark in rebounds.
That same line of thinking would suggest that the Milwaukee Bucks do whatever it takes to max Middleton. He averaged 18.3 points, 6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and slashed .441/.378/.837.
They need to in order to keep their Eastern Conference finalist team intact and to keep a certain MVP happy and, ultimately, in town.
Klay took 80.1 percent of his shots off an assist, canned 42 percent of his catch and shoot opportunities, but also hit 44 percent of his pull-ups. Middleton had the ball more; over 57 percent of his makes came unassisted. He dropped 41.2 percent of his pull up attempts and generated nearly as many points per catch and shoot attempt (4.0) as he did per drive (4.4).
All of that and we have not even covered their defensive chops yet.
Middleton was top-20 in the NBA in defensive win shares while Thompson’s 108.5 defensive rating (and first appearance on an all-defense team) belies the defender he is. Separate they have been the ideal complementary pieces. Together they would be a coach’s dream.
Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris
What the previous pairing offers is to two-way ability, the pairing of Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris is to the offensive end. Put simply: they get buckets. They won’t provide much defensively, but they combined to average 45.6 points per game in 2018.
That would have been 11th among the top-two scorers on any team and Harris appeared on two of those teams.
Walker has been doing all the lifting for the Charlotte Hornets since 2011.
The three-time All-Star made his first All-NBA team with 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game on .434/.356/.844 shooting. The points and boards were both career-highs while earning All-NBA honors means he is supermax eligible.
But it is not inconceivable that the Hornets let him walk.
Harris has been a hired gun (without the hired part) his entire career.
Never scoring less than 11 points per game after his rookie campaign, he has been traded five times, including draft night. Harris split 2018 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers but still averaged a career-high 20 points to go with 7.9 boards with a .487/.397/.866 slash line, all career-highs.
Putting the two professional scorers together would not hinder either player.
Walker is ball dominant (over 71 percent of his makes were unassisted in 2018), but Harris was equally adept off as on, sporting a 49.9 to 50.1 assisted/unassisted ratio. Walker got most of his points off of drives (9.1 per game) and pull-up jumpers (10.5) and Harris (5.8 on drives, 5.0 on pull-ups, and 4.3 on catch & shoot) scores, period.
Together this max pair would give defenses all they could handle. Both of their 2018 campaigns featured numerous career-high marks, hinting that their best ball is ahead of them. Their ideal situation would be on a defensive-oriented team where they could be the primary generators of offense.
Their pick and pop would be borderline unfair.
D’Angelo Russell and DeMarcus Cousins
2018 was wonky for different reasons for this potential max pair. D’Angelo Russell broke out and led the Brooklyn Nets to their first playoff berth since 2014. DeMarcus Cousins spent most of his 2018 recovering from a torn Achilles (shout to KD), appearing in 30 regular season games with the Warriors to end the season.
Russell’s path to success was…bumpy.
Traded from the Los Angeles Lakers for off the court reasons, he put up career-highs across the board averaging 21.1/3.9/7 and shot 43.4 percent from the floor and 36.9 from deep, both personal bests. Rumors of the Nets not-so-secret pursuit of Kyrie Irving could mean Russell needs a new home.
Cousins took flak for joining the Dubs to chase a ring, but he also did it to prove he could be a team player. He did that, returning from a quad injury suffered early in the playoffs to play in all six Finals games. Those results were mixed, but he averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 boards, and 3.6 assists in 2018.
Unfortunately, two straight years with leg injuries likely suppress his value.
Russell cut down on his turnovers and posted the highest player efficiency rating of his career. Boogie’s growth as a player and teammate is a bigger development than his down stats in what is a particularly unique situation with the Warriors.
If he is able to get a long-term deal in free agency, he would be wise to consider it regardless of where it comes from.
The immediate image that thoughts of this duo conjures is a deadly scoring combo that can do so from all three levels.
Cousins did not operate as a roll man much (8.8 percent) for Golden State (Russell ran the action nearly 50 percent of the time) instead being utilized most in the post (21.9 percent) and as a spot-up shooter (24.3 percent). Still, he is an adept passer and Russell hit 39.4 percent of his catch and shoot triples.
Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving
This max pair is probably best described as an enigma wrapped in a question.
Kawhi Leonard followed up a lost 2017-18 season to lead the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP for his efforts. Most thought that the return of Kyrie Irving would carry the Boston Celtics into the Finals, but they ended up being sent home a round earlier instead.
Leonard’s exit from the San Antonio Spurs was very public but very one-sided. He let his play do most of the talking averaging 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds during the regular season and 30.5 points and 9.1 boards in the playoffs; all career-high marks.
Now he is the big fish in free agency (shout to KD) and reportedly choosing between Toronto and the Clippers.
Irving was traded to the Celtics last year and put up 24.4/3.8/5.1 and shot 49.1 percent from the floor (career-high) and 40.8 percent on (a career-high) 6.8 threes per game. This year it was 23.8/5/6.9 on .487/.401/..873 shooting.
Rather than putting the Cs over the top, though, he was often the root of the problem; butting heads with many in the organization.
Fit should be of no concern on the floor, Leonard’s Raptors were a lot different from the DeMar DeRozan-led squads; three of the five playoff starters for Toronto were in their first year in The North. Despite Irving flopping as a leader in Boston, his having played (well) with LeBron James means he is comfortable being off the ball.
Both of these guys are savants at what they do.
Leonard is the only person keeping Klay Thompson from being the best two-way player in the NBA and Irving is a shot taker and maker with a flair for the big stage. Between this shot from 2016 by Irving and this gem from this year’s playoffs by Leonard, these two paired would be the cause of a lot of heartbreak across the association.