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.
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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