The NBA departed from the “Big 3” formula of roster construction this season, leading to a slew of dynamic duos. The shutdown (and restart sans fans) means a financial crunch is coming; we could see this trend continue for the foreseeable future. So, let’s take a look at some of the top duos around the Association.
Duo Dynamics in the NBA
The King and Brow
We begin with the inspiration for this piece. Anthony Davis might be the best teammate LeBron James has ever played with. Perhaps you’ve heard, but James is in Year 17 of an illustrious career. His play, he’s averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and leading the NBA with 10 assists per game. It’s important to note James leads the NBA in assists because Davis leads the Los Angeles Lakers in nearly every other statistic.
It’s understandable, then, that some would take umbrage with James garnering the MVP consideration. How can James be the best player in the league this year when he “isn’t even the best player on his own team”?
Aside from the Lakeshow looking completely lost without Bron on the floor, you mean? Take Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets, for example.
With the Lakers clinching the 1-seed already, LeBron sat. Houston, though, was without Russell Westbrook (quad) too. This should have been a fairly even matchup, if not slightly in L.A.’s favor with Kyle Kuzma active and no comparable threat for the Rockets. Turns out, Kuzma certainly did his part to uplift the team in James’ absence. Davis, however, did not.
He didn’t have a bad game. 17 points and 12 boards is a solid performance for most guys. But it definitely wasn’t an ‘MVP’ performance against a depleted opponent. And it wasn’t befitting of the player deemed the heir apparent to the Lakers franchise.
Anthony Davis and LeBron James are the 1st pair of Lakers teammates to each record 20 30-point games in a season since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2002-03. pic.twitter.com/6J7iRkJ8Ux
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 31, 2020
This season, Anthony Davis has averaged 26.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game when he and LeBron are on the floor together (57 games). Without James (three games), Davis’ numbers take a hit, falling to 24 points and 1.7 assists. His blocks raise, but only slightly from 9.4 to 9.7 per game. Davis averaging fewer assist sans James is probably the most surprising stat.
When they share the court, James is putting up 25.2/10.2/8.1 per contest. James, by himself, is throwing up 27.6/11.4/7.6 per.
The disparity has been even more pronounced in the bubble. James started slow, averaging 19.3/10.0/6.3 in four games and sitting a fifth before playing against Indiana. Davis was 23.2/9.2/3.8 in that same span and the Lakers went 2-3.
It was LeBron with the 20-plus point performance while AD struggled (mightily) and the Lakers lost to the Pacers on Saturday. The margin was smaller than any of their other bubble losses, though.
James has a higher offensive rating and a lower (better) defensive rating. In fact, L.A.’s defensive rating is better with Davis off the floor. Without Davis, the Lakers are 6-2 and score 121 PPG. Without James, 2-2 at 110.5 PPG. Which brings us to James, at 35, having played in more games than the 27-year-old Davis. And when you consider Davis’ statistical advantages aren’t as great as some would have you believe, it’s not really that complicated.
The Process and Big Ben
Heading East, we find ourselves with two very polarizing players; both enigmatic in their own way. Joel Embiid might be the most dominant player in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal when he’s right; both physically and mentally. Ben Simmons is Magic Johnson-ish only bigger and faster. The lack of a jumper is a big hurdle for Simmons. For Embiid, it’s always a volatile mixture of health and focus.
Together, these two can be among the most fun to watch. But there are far too many moments of a lack of spacing due to Simmons’ defender sloughing off. And while Embiid has about as complete a game as you’ll find in the NBA, the most important ability is availability.
So who has been more important to the 76ers? The answer might surprise you if you didn’t answer “trick question”.
Like in the case of LeBron and AD, we see Simmons with a higher offensive rating but Embiid has a better defensive rating. But their records are very similar without each other, though this season it has certainly favored Embiid. Maybe these aren’t as good of indicators in this instance; or at least not in comparison to how they impact each other.
Embiid, in 165 games with Simmons, averages 24.9 points, 12.2 boards, and 3.4 assists. Without it’s 25.2/11.6/2.9; granted in a much smaller sample size of 10 games compared to 52 the other way. For Simmons, its 15.8/8.1/8.1 with Embiid and 18.3/9.0/7.5 without.
Joel Embiid on Ben Simmons
(@DanteBabyyy) July 30, 2020
Philly is 27-25 with Simmons but without Embiid and 6-4 when the opposite occurs. Again, the sample size is an issue with deciding here.
But all of that is career numbers, what about 2020? Joel is 5-2 without Ben while Ben is 9-7 without Joel. Many will want to give Joel the nod for the higher win percentage but, clearly, after reading the first entry, you know we won’t be discounting availability here.
Simmons was putting up 11.7/7.0/4.3 in three games before being shut down and having surgery for a torn meniscus. While Embiid has been a monster in the bubble averaging 30.0/13.5/3.3 and the 76ers are 3-1 in Orlando, the injury looms large. Simmons will obviously miss the rest of the season barring, perhaps, a Finals appearance.
The comparisons to Shaq aren’t just hyperbole for Emiid’s stature, demeanor, and dominance. It also refers to the need to have that guard or wing player to truly unlock his, and his team’s, full potential.
Of course, the simpler answer is that they need each other. Ben needs Embiid to be the wrecking ball and Embiid needs Simmons to operate the crane. Together they have a win percentage well above .600, separate we see talented individuals that are missing something.
The Beard and Brodie
The Beard and Brodie were polarizing together before they were polarizing apart, reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. But their lore has only since that time. Russell Westbrook won MVP on the strength of averaging a triple-double for an entire season (something he did two more times after) and is having his best scoring season since then.
James Harden is on his third-straight season scoring 30-plus points and actually won his own MVP the season after Westbrook. He has been vocal in his pursuit of another MVP and even went as far as to take shots at reigning (and likely repeating) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This one isn’t really a “who’s more important” (it’s Harden) as much as it is people might not realize how important Westbrook is to the Houston Rockets.
He had developed a pretty bad reputation as a guy who cared more about the stat sheet than the win column. For running off superstar teammates in Kevin Durant and Paul George (neither of which appears to be true).
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have surpassed Shaq and Kobe as the highest scoring duo in a season since the ABA-NBA merger
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 8, 2020
But Houston went out and traded for Westbrook; “rescuing” him from the doldrums that were sure to hit the Oklahoma City Thunder (but never did). That sent two messages. First, it signaled Harden’s willingness to adjust, even if only slightly to bring in perhaps the only point guard who would need the ball more than Paul, and was a worse shooter to boot.
The other message was that at least one organization outside of OKC felt he was the missing piece to the puzzle. If you don’t think so just look at the changes made to the roster following Westbrook’s addition.
Westbrook is shooting just over 25 percent from deep (yuck). He’s never been a great three-point shooter, save for one season when he shot 40 percent. Houston’s system is a percentages game where they only take threes or layup/dunks. They allowed some mid-range stuff when they acquired Paul but Westbrook provided the unique challenge of floor spacing.
Houston’s solution was to move center Clint Capela and run an offense where the tallest player on the floor at any given moment is 6-foot-7. Think Golden State’s death lineup but more concentrated.
That’s a lot to change just for a pice or someone you brought in to placate the face of the franchise. Clearly, they have a much higher opinion of him than that. We’ll see how it pays off.
A Fresh Pair of Jays
The youngest pair in our deep dive into duo dynamics across the NBA, Jayson Tatum entered the league with all the fanfare and continues to be the more publicized of the two. And perhaps that is rightfully so, but Jaylen Brown entered a year earlier and has developed into a very key piece for the Boston Celtics.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is another one where we’re more highlighting the importance of the “sidekick” than asking who is better. Though, the answer to that latter question might deserve more scrutiny than most realize.
Interestingly enough, they were both selected third overall. But the similarities don’t stop there. They were both taken after the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers picked first and second, respectively.
Taytum was in contention to be the first-overall selection in ‘17 before ultimately going behind Markelle Fultz and Lozo Ball; a mistake that probably haunts some in the 76ers and Lakers organizations to this day. Brown was never going over Brandon Ingram, let alone number one pick Ben Simmons.
Brown’s first year he averaged 6.6 points per game while mostly coming off the bench. Tatum started 80 games and scored nearly 14 points per as a rookie. Now it’s worth mentioning that Brown’s output jumped substantially with more playing time as a starter.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both scored 30+ tonight but what makes the game a little extra erotic is that 6 of Brown's 10 FG were assisted by Tatum … 5 in the 4th quarter. pic.twitter.com/vtPeE5VPI8
— Max Lederman (@Max_Lederman) August 2, 2020
More important about that season is it was Kyrie Irving’s first (of two) seasons in Boston but he missed the postseason allowing Tatum and Brown to shine on the biggest stage.
Here’s where it gets interesting because Tatum got all the hype for his 18.5/4.4/2.7 and, at just 19 years old, deservedly so. But Brown was no slouch. He came in just behind Tatum with 18.0 points, 4.8 boards, and 1.4 assists of his own. Brown was even the high-scorer for Boston, with a 34-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round; a series Boston won in seven games.
We also have to consider Brown’s defense. It’s Tatum who has the better Defensive Real Plus-Minus, but it is Brown who regularly draws the tougher assignment. That is both in terms of individual talent as well as variety.
Tatum’s maturation into a two-way player should not be overlooked by any means. But context is key and if we are going to praise one for realizing his potential on both ends of the floor, Brown might need to get those roses first. So far in the bubble, Brown is putting up the better line, but that is largely due to a horrendous first game from Tatum. Minus that game, they’re within a point.
Again, this one isn’t about who is better. Just, whenever we mention how stellar Jayson Tatum has been, we need to be sure to mention how important Jaylen Brown is and how far he’s come.
It won’t get nearly the same attention as the tv special, but LeBron James’ rejection of the NBA’s attempt to raise social awareness is the 2020 version of ‘The Decision’. From the moment it was announced the NBA would allow players to replace the names on their jersey’s with messages about social justice we have waited with bated breath to see what they would be.
LeBron Rejects NBA’s Social Activism
Speculation met reality when we got the list of approved messages last week. They were about what one would expect, “Black Lives Matter”, “I Can’t Breathe”, “Vote”, etc.
Some players have begun announcing what they have chosen. Milwaukee Bucks forwards Giannis Antetokuonmpo and his brother Thanasis have chosen “EQUALITY” for their message. Others have been a lot less enthusiastic about the whole thing.
Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown was vocal in his displeasure with the league. He said the pre-approved list was an example of the “limitations” the NBA is putting on players.
“I think we should be able to express our struggle a little bit more… I was very disappointed in the list as well… Hopefully, maybe, we can get some more names on that list or some more things to add.” – Jaylen Brown per Masslive.com
The ‘Not’ Heard Around the World
Over the weekend, Shams Charania of the Athletic tweeted out that James had decided against putting one of the messages on his jersey; choosing to stick with his name, ‘James’, instead. Even with all the dissatisfaction from others out there, the backlash was almost instant.
“I actually didn’t go with a name on the back of my jersey,” James said on a video conference call with reporters. “It was no disrespect to the list that was handed out to all the players. I commend anyone that decides to put something on the back of their jersey. It’s just something that didn’t really seriously resonate with my mission, with my goal.” – LeBron per Dave McMenamin/ESPN
LeBron’s critics were seemingly waiting for a moment like this. Not too long ago, they ran with his response to Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong. At the time James said Morey spoke on a subject he didn’t know enough about. The detractors were swift to point out James, who is very outspoken on social justice issues, was choosing to side with China. How can he claim to want justice for all while citizens in Hong Kong were being teargassed?
Supporters had a couple of choices of rebuttal. First, James is vocal on issues that affect the Black community, of which he is a member. Second, he is vocal about domestic issues of which he is educated. No matter how sound the counterpoint, though, the vocal naysayers had all the ammo they need.
It’s not like their charges are without merit. After all, LeBron was leading the charge to restart the NBA; saying players could still fight social injustices on the court. He also has started the “More Than a Vote” initiative and has long had “More Than An Athlete”. The latter is a direct response to those that would prefer athletes to stick to sports; an argument that people only use when they disagree with the athlete.
He even tweeted ‘#FREEWOJ’ in support of ESPN basketball insider Adrian Wojnarowski; who was suspended for replying to a US senator using profanity via e-mail. All that did was invite the ‘#FREEHONGKONG’ replies.
“I would have loved to have a say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey. I had a couple things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process, which is OK. I’m absolutely OK with that. … I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to understand my mission or know what I’m about and what I’m here to do.” – James per McMenamin/ESPN
Marcus Smart shared similar sentiments, stating “A lot of guys are upset…” with the lack of input players had in the making of the list. But LeBron’s decision still looms as the largest.
Stand For Something…
As current and former teammates, black and white, take the opportunity and use the messages, social justice’s most-vocal advocate in the NBA seemed to punt. It is a relatively new “trend” for LeBron, but some will say his voice shrinks when the money is on the line.
This is a ridiculous argument given all that he has done with the I Promise School and all of his other initiatives, including his production company to give people of color opportunities they otherwise have trouble securing. He has put his own money, face, and words behind these projects.
His actions off the court will forever outweigh anything he has and will do on the court. The optics here aren’t great, nonetheless. Perhaps he has some pre-game attire or a message will be written on his shoes. For many, though, the damage is done. They will call LeBron a hypocrite among other, less-flattering things and say this is akin to Michael Jordan‘s “Republicans buy sneakers too” comments.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will be holding our breath that they can actually finish the season. Because, again, there is nothing LeBron can do on the court that will outweigh what he has and will do off of it. That includes placing a league-approved message on the back of his jersey.
What a start to the turn of a new decade, 2020 has been relentless. First, the sports world gets shook with a tragic helicopter accident killing nine people including Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter. Shortly thereafter the world is hit with a Coronavirus pandemic deemed Covid-19. An invisible menace that’s had us quarantined for the last three months and has claimed thousands of lives.
Then on Monday, May 25th, 2020 on Memorial Day, a day to celebrate our fallen servicemen and women, a police officer took the life of yet another unarmed black man named George Floyd. You can say my community’s collective breath was taken away in eight minutes and 46 seconds. Going into the sixth month of 2020, the second half of this year I’m sure we’re all wondering when will the director say cut!
Sports Can’t Breathe
This Is Supposed to Be About Sports
It took me a week to construct this piece because I was angry, upset, and didn’t want my emotions to completely take over my writing. You see, I’m a black man in my 40s, same as Mr. Floyd, and that could’ve easily been me. I’ve had my experiences with racial profiling from police and civilians.
To see a video of officers of the law who took an oath to protect and serve the community hold down a human being and kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes watching him die is one of the worse crimes to witness. The disturbing part is this was the third such incident in a month where a black individual was murdered. What those cops didn’t know is that George Floyd was good friends with former NBA player Stephen Jackson and he would be the catalyst in leading a global protest for justice.
I understand that this is supposed to be a sports column and I can assure it is. It will just be a little different approach on this one. Almost four years ago it was in a football stadium, 2016, that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick exercised his American right to protest. His peaceful protest was to sit during the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality of black people.
Even after people saw this as disrespectful to our military, he consulted with a serviceman and changed to more appropriate kneeling. Players began following Kaepernick in this protest and the message was interrupted by President Trump making this issue about respecting the American flag. The president even went to the lengths of insulting the players and the mothers of these exceptional athletes by calling them sons of b*****s.
NFL Had a Chance to Take a Stand
The NFL and owners had the opportunity to support its diverse players but instead decided it valued its bottom line more than human life. In the process exiling Kaepernick from the league who never received another contract offer. One of the most outspoken owners, Jerry Jones, had plenty to say about that protest in 2016. Fast forward to today, crickets. Countless mothers and fathers being taken away leaving children without parents with no repercussions just doesn’t seem American.
Now the NFL wants to make statements of support for the black community when it’s convenient and is the right thing to do. It comes off as disingenuous because it took protesting and rioting on a global scale to finally be heard as a community. The league and its owners could’ve done like their NBA counterparts and given support when it was uncomfortable to the very people that make this a billion-dollar industry. We’ve all heard the saying “get out of your comfort zone”. This is supposed to represent growth within one’s self. Time to get out of your comfort zones.
How Can Sports Make an Impact
One thing we’ve learned since March 11th, 2020 is how important sports are to our way of life. We can see that from the most-watched documentary in history, “The Last Dance”. In this instance, though this issue shouldn’t just be blanketed by the restart of the NBA or any sporting event for that matter. Instead whenever the NBA starts all the players should refuse to play, same for when the NFL starts.
This stance may not happen but a more feasible impactful statement could. The NFL taking accountability for the lack of understanding of what Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was bringing attention to. Second, rectify this by teams offering Colin a contract giving him the opportunity, if he chooses, to exit the game his way. Lastly, at the start of any sporting event letting the clock run for eight minutes and 46 seconds with no movement and displaying the statement, “I can’t breathe”.
This would serve as a reminder that our country as a whole has a lot of work to do eradicating systemic racism and ensuring equality for all Americans.
On today’s Punching the Clock, Steven is joined by a good friend Julian Walters. He and I discuss what is really important in the world right now and that is that Black Lives Matter.