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NBA Daily: Ranking The Best Duos In The East

Newcomer Ariel Pacheco discusses the Eastern Conference’s top pairings heading into the 2020-21 NBA season.

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As with the start of every NBA season, rankings come along with it. Whether you love the classic tag teams or root for the pairs with a little more creative ingenuity, there’s really no wrong answer. But with proceedings more up-in-the-air than ever, we’d be remiss not to dive in for our own sake. Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re ranking the best duos in the Eastern Conference. 

Honorable Mentions:

Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook – Washington Wizards
Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors

Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook may be one of the more talented duos in the Eastern Conference, but their ceiling is still probably a first-round exit. Beal projects much better as the No. 2 or No. 3 option on a championship team rather than a No. 1. Westbrook will continue to put up great numbers but his impact on winning is still a question mark. Expect the Wizards to at least make the play-in game, but anything more would be a stretch. 

Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam also have championship resumes – proven winners responsible for the success the Raptors had even after Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Expect Toronto to be highly competitive, but the only drawback is that this duo simply doesn’t have the upside the ones ranked above them do. 

5. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

While the fit of the two can be debated, their talent level can’t. Simmons and Embiid are two of the best defensive players in the NBA. Elsewhere, Simmons is an elite level passer and high-IQ player; while Embiid is unguardable in the post and can stretch a defense out to three-point range. 

But their on-court pairing has always been a little clunky. Both mainly want to score their points at the rim and Simmons’ inability to shoot is still a huge worry. The 76ers have experimented with playing Simmons and power forward and at point guard, but still seem unsure where the two best play together. This season will be huge for this duo, with Simmons coming up in Harden rumors.

Philadelphia will hope that the added spacing can be just what they need to take the next step – but if not, then this entry could get dicey.

4. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

First things first, it’s difficult to put Butler and Adebayo at No. 4 when these two just brought the Miami HEAT to the NBA Finals. Butler and Adebayo both are premier defenders, great playmakers and some of the fiercest competitors in the league. What they were able to accomplish was special and they deserve all the credit in the world. 

Still, this duo lacks shooting and shot creation. Worse, Butler also has a long injury history along with a ton of minutes played. It would not be shocking to see some sort of decline from him or, at the very least, he’ll sit out games to rest. The man in the middle is a stud, but he still has room to grow offensively – but multiple All-Star appearances should be on the horizon.

It’s tough not to see their performance in the bubble as the best-case scenario of a Butler-Adebayo pairing, which is not a knock on them. The three entries ahead all have players that realistically could win the MVP award this season. Their ranking on this list is not meant to be a slight, but is representative of the talent level in the conference right now.

3. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

An argument can be made that this spot should belong to Butler and Adebayo off the strength of their performance in the bubble alone. However, Tatum and Brown are both on the rise – even better, they’re younger than 24 and have been to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in the past four years. 

Tatum is quickly becoming one of the best wings in the league, scoring at an elite level and continuously improving as a playmaker. Brown has also improved from year-to-year, specifically on his jump shot. Both players should see added responsibility this season due to Kemba Walker’s injury and the up-and-coming team will see the next step in their developments.

These two have a chance to be a tandem that stays together for a long time – and that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks

Off the strength of Antetokounmpo alone, this could rank as the second-best duo in the Eastern Conference. The phenom is the reigning back-to-back MVP and blossoming Defensive Player of the Year. Antetokounmpo is unquestionably a top-four player in the league at worst and any team that employed him would become an immediate title contender. The questions that surround his jump shot and effectiveness in the playoffs remain to be answered, but there are few players in the league that have his type of impact on a game. 

However, dismissing Middleton would be disrespectful to one of the most underrated players in the league. Middleton was percentage points away from putting up a 50-40-90 season last year while averaging 20.9 points per game. The All-Star posted one of the best performances of the playoffs last season when he scored 36 points along with 8 rebounds and 8 assists in an elimination game against Miami.

1. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving – Brooklyn Nets

There is no other duo in the Eastern Conference as proven and accomplished as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Between the two, they own 11 All-NBA appearances, 16 All-Star berths and three championships. In the 95 mins they’ve shared the floor together this season, the Nets have outscored their opponents by 64 points in that span.

An argument can be made that they are both the best scorers at their respective positions. Through three games, Durant is averaging 26.7 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 69; while Irving is averaging 29.3 on a true shooting of 76. They both look healthy and engaged, scoring at a high volume on high efficiency – and unlike any of the other duos on this list, these two have proven that they can win as the No. 1 or 2 option. 

The only question ponders if they can remain healthy for the full length of the season. Kyrie Irving has only played more than 70 games twice in a season. Kevin Durant has been durable throughout his career but missed the last 18 months due a torn Achilles. If the duo can remain healthy, expect the Nets to make a deep playoff run. 

They certainly still have a lot to prove in the postseason, but there’s no doubt that they will continue to contend in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. Between Boston’s Jays and the newcomers in Brooklyn, there’s plenty of challenge to the Milwaukee and Miami conference throne.

While it’s still incredibly early in the 2020-21 landscape, these are the eye-popping pairings that the media will focus on as the season develops.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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