Brother on Brother…
Welcome to Two-Man Game, The Turf’s newest NBA column! Each week, your gracious hosts will accompany you on a tour of the league’s biggest stories, touching everything from front office strategy and the latest player movement to statistical analyses of lesser-known utility men.
So who are we, anyway? We’re Danny and Steve Hayward, two big boys living in the big city. Two-Man Game is a brother thing, singletons need not apply. In our normal lives, we’re artists; Steve is a writer, while Danny is an actor. But most of all, deep down where it gets fuzzy, we love basketball. It’s the best sport in the world. It’s got literally everything: thrills and chills, hoops and swoops, Flat Earth conspiracy theorists, weirdos and normies, Jayson Tatum’s sweeeeet stroke, that commentator who says “WET!” after every three-pointer and, of course, Coach Pop’s gentle yet manly bedside manner. Sing it to me, Greg, sing it to me.
First, before we dive into today’s analysis, let’s get something off the table. We’re diehard Celtics fans, born and raised in the Boston area.
We bleed green.
We bleed for, and with, Marcus Smart.
We practice kaizen in our daily lives.
Steve’s actually read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Brad Stevens’ favorite book. We live and die by the growth mindset.
We’re green teamers, but that doesn’t mean we see the world through emerald-tinted glasses, though we do own a sweet pair. We love the NBA, pure and simple. Professional basketball. The big parquet in the sky, and that’s what you’ll get from Two-Man Game: the thoughts of two big boys, obsessed with the NBA. We’re treating this as a conversation or debate. Or we’ll change up the form every time. Who knows? That’s what’s great about the Two-Man Game; you never know what you’re gonna get.
The NBA is a fickle lover, but this year is going to be a little different. With Kevin Durant’s exit from Golden State, NBA league offices are transitioning from the traditional Big 3 model, in which three All Star players teamed up together on the same team, to a model centered around dynamic duos.
We’ve got Lebron and AD in LA, the reunited Harden and Westbrook in Houston, Paul George and Kawhi on the Clippers…you get the picture. It’s an experiment, really, one yet to bear fruit. Can two generational players catapult a franchise to the Championship? We’ll find out soon enough, but for now, we’ve got some thoughts on this year’s star pairings.
Kyrie Irving / KD – Brooklyn Nets
Danny: Though they won’t be allied on the parquet for some time, I think it’s important to throw some attention to Brooklyn.
As a Celtics fan, I have a strong opinion about Kyrie Irving. The dude can hoop, no doubt. It’s like he’s got feathers on his feet. I think he’s toxic on a team, however, and I can say that because he has hurt my feelings night after night in Boston. No, I’ve never spoken to the man, but between the way our boys have been referencing last season’s locker room dynamic (or dodging questions about it), plus Ky’s very strange comments about his involvement with the sinking of the Celtic ship, I think it’s safe to assume he’s a bit uncentered.
Ky clearly faltered at the helm in Boston, so seeing him try it again while Kevin Durant is out for the foreseeable future should be entertaining either way.
KD is another story all together. When he’s healthy, he could help catapult this team to an East Coast contender mighty quick. Without him, however, I fear the Nets will suffer a similar plight to the Celtics in 2018/2019.
We can already point to the first game of Brooklyn’s season as an example. Even when Kyrie grills, sautés, and flambays his way through 38 minutes of electrifying offensive play, his team still comes up short.
Some may argue, “But Danny, the Timberwolves only beat the Nets by one point!” I say a win’s a win, and a loss is a loss. Besides, he can’t go off for 50 every night. We’ll see if Kyrie can keep cooking and pull out some W’s, but without Kevin Durant, I fear the Nets will be serving up some hot plates of L.
Steve: I have serious doubts about this pairing in practice, in part because neither KD nor Kyrie have shown the sort of defensive fortitude necessary to secure a playoff series. Defense wins Championships; both of these men are turnstiles. When their teams have won in the playoffs, it’s despite, not because of, their tenacity on D.
The hope, of course, is that DeAndre Jordan, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert are enough to shore up that weakness, but I don’t know. Jordan’s production on the defensive end is on the decline; I suspect his best years are behind him. LeVert appears to be an offensive threat first and foremost, and his defensive numbers have stagnated over the two years since his rookie season. Allen is the wildcard; he showed great improvement on defense last year, nearly doubling his defensive rebounding rate. That may be sufficient to hide one negative defender, but two on the floor at the same time?
Don’t get me wrong; I think this partnership has a chance. As we all know, both players are generational talents who can score at will, but I can also see their personalities getting in the way.
This is a team sport, after all, and Kyrie isn’t an easy man to work with. Neither is KD. I don’t expect their personal friendship to suffer, but I think it’s entirely possible that the Brooklyn Nets as a team could.
In Boston, we’ve seen what happens when a mercurial, headstrong man of mystery takes the helm on a team of young guns; it didn’t work out well. Now Brooklyn is led by two of them. Is Kenny Atkinson up to the task?
Danny: Dirk is gone. He has ascended to the rafters of ValHalla and there he shall stay… immortal, beautiful, sacred. But with his departure comes a gargantuan opportunity for the Mavs.
Porzingis is on track to be an amazing player, injuries aside. It’s taken Gordon Hayward (yes, we are his two lost brothers) an entire season and two training camps to get back to what he calls “normal.” It’s safe to assume the same for ol’ Porzingy here. He’ll be back, and he will impress, but he will not play to his full potential.
Luka Doncic had a pretty great rookie year, though. I think the two of them could have an explosive dynamic further into the season. They can cover the floor well, and with the ball moving through Doncic, Rick Carlisle could run some very powerful and surprising plays. I’d be surprised if they could turn this season into a successful playoff run, but to have two guys who are this good and young to boot is a major sell for the future of the Mavs.
Steve: Agreed. This pairing makes an abundance of sense. Doncic is a terrific playmaker and creative passer. Porzingis has beautiful touch at the rim, serious length and can shoot the 3 like nobody’s business. With Dennis Smith Jr. gone, Doncic becomes the Mavs’ undisputed floor general, which is good, because he put up historic assist numbers last year. Those numbers should improve further this season, now that he’s dishing to Kristaps.
Porzingis opens things up for Luka on the offensive end; no longer will Doncic be pressured every night to score upwards of thirty points. Expect a lot of pick-and-roll from Rick Carlisle this year.
LeBron James / Anthony Davis – LA Lakers
Danny: Personally, I’m stoked to see how this plays out. Despite my personal feelings on LeBron (I hate him. I absolutely hate him.), they’re both elite players. Demi-gods, if you will. But with big talent comes big ego. I think this will ultimately be the duo’s downfall.
Though it’s not a particularly new opinion, they kind of stand to win every game by 20 points OR fall to better tested teams with more diversity in ability. They’ll be explosive scorers (if they can share the ball), but I don’t have too much faith they’ll compliment each other all that well where it counts. Even if the two alternate stints on the parquet, I don’t think the rest of the Lakers will back them up enough to pose a true threat against the opposition.
I could be wrong, though. They could mount a mighty throne comprised of their Western combatants’ skulls, however, and that would be damned entertaining too.
Steve: I like the Lakers’ chances this year. AD and LeBron are generational talents. That’s not news, but in the case of LeBron, we’re talking one of the five best players of all time. Though he lacks the titles to prove it, Davis isn’t far behind. In terms of raw talent, this is likely the season’s most potent pairing. What I really like about this partnership, though, is the flexibility it affords Frank Vogel. After the first five minutes, you can stagger LeBron and AD over the course of the game, ensuring that one elite talent is always on the floor.
To a certain extent, LeBron and AD mirror each other in skill-set; both players can back you down, both have the handling skills to dice through the lane and both can be explosive off the bounce. LeBron is a far better facilitator, but that should compliment AD’s prowess in the pick-and-roll. LeBron played ridiculous minutes last year, but now he doesn’t have to, which should leave him fresher going into the playoffs.
James Harden / Russell Westbrook – Houston Rockets
Danny/Steve: We’ve both been talking about this pairing for a long time.
First things first: this has been tried before. We have a roadmap for this partnership; from 2009 to 2012, Westbrook and Harden played together on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those teams met with substantial success, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2010-11 and losing in the NBA Finals the following year.
In the intervening years, both players have changed considerably. Westbrook has become an elite passer. He put up career assist numbers in his last season with the Thunder, sacrificing his admirable talents as a pure scorer to prove once and for all he can facilitate for his teammates.
Meanwhile, Harden has been ensconced at the center of one of the NBA’s most potent offenses. The Rockets, for better or worse, are a machine built around James Harden. So we have two players who have both served as the central cog in an offensive dynamo, two men who have truly led teams. Both will be required to sacrifice for this to work. The question today is how seamlessly Westbrook can be slotted into the offensive system designed by Mike D’Antoni, an offensive system predicated on Harden’s unique skill set.
Again, we have doubts; both players are incredibly ball-dominant, but Harden, the undisputed ball handler on the Rockets, is far better than Westbrook off-the-ball. Westbrook should become the Rockets’ starting point guard, but we fear D’Antoni won’t have the courage to take the ball out of Harden’s hands.
Paul George / Kawhi Leonard – LA Clippers
Steve: Mark my words; this year, every team in the NBA will fear the Clippers.
Together, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George represent the league’s scariest two-way tandem. We all know what Kawhi can do. He’s the boss, arguably the best player in the league, a consummate scorer, exceptional defender and true 3-point threat.
George, basketball’s quintessential swiss army knife, possesses a similar skill set; the perfect wing, he guards multiple positions, attacks off the dribble and shoots the 3 above league average. With Lou Williams coming off the bench, George and Leonard should hold down one of the league’s best offenses, but considering the scrappy duo of Patrick Beverly and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers this season can truly make their name on defense. I’m high on this team; the Staples Center is going to rock this year.
Danny: I couldn’t agree more, brother bear. The Clippers are exciting this year. They’re one of the teams I’ve always liked, probably because it’s where our beloved husky-voiced Doc has continued his impressive coaching legacy since 2013. In the business of effectively coaching superstars, Doc Rivers is one of the best in the game. And Kawhi is one of the most thrilling superstars in the game.
If it’s a part of their masterplan, the Clippers’ front office could land another superstar in the seasons to come, and we could have the makings of another legendary Big 3 in LA. With Doc at the helm, who knows what they could accomplish.
I’m excited to see Paul George come back in November. The consensus is he’ll miss somewhere around 10-15 games, so if Kawhi can keep up the excellent work, the Clippers should be fine until then. What’s so exciting here is that PG is one of the most versatile players in the league. He’s notorious for being able to slip in and out of rotations, assisting like a guardian angel every step of the way. I think with the addition of PG, the Clippers will dominate the West.
TWO EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE:
Neither the Bucks nor our beloved C’s exhibit the dynamic duo platform this season, but we figured we should give them a nod in this article anyway. Personally, I fancy the Bucks as a modern rivalry for us in Boston, while Steve flatout can’t stand ‘em.
Giannis / Bledsoe / Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks
Danny: Here’s the deal: I like Giannis enough, I think Bledsoe is a machine, and I straight-up love Khris Middleton. These three exhibit Hulkish strength in their specific roles every game. They can turn it on when they need to, they have size, they have speed, and when locked in, they’re a warmachine. I completely understand why their team warcry is “Fear the Deer!” I get it all. And what’s more, they have the Lopez twins, who I love, holding it down under the rim. I like this team a lot, which I know is a little blasphemous to say as a hardcore Celtics fan.
In their first game of the season, they erased a 16-point deficit against the new Houston Rockets. And that’s without Giannis playing full minutes, mind you. It was impressive. This team has depth, they have versatility, and their consistent. I think this Bucks team can go very far this coming season. I see them succeeding against some of these teams with the dynamic duo platform that don’t have matched depth to the Bucks. Regardless, our boys in green are goin’ hunting this season!
Steve: Eric Bledsoe? More like Drew Bledsoe. Y’all know what time it is. Giannis is indeed a beast, but I think Bledsoe is past his prime, though he’s shown marked improvement lately in reducing his turnover rate. Khris Middleton, though, could well be entering his best years; I don’t think we’ve seen the height of his offensive production yet. At the end of the day, I think Middleton and Giannis are the two pillars in Milwaukee. The two work well in tandem; Giannis draws defenders like no one else, creating wide open lanes for Middleton to find his shot. All in all, I like the Bucks roster this year, especially given the acquisition of Kyle Korver, another reliable marksman who can benefit from Antetokounmpo’s drives. Robin Lopez is also a solid pickup at center, though he’ll only truly thrive on the Bucks if he can find consistent minutes.
Hayward / Walker , Peanut Butter / Jelly – Boston Celtics
Danny: Though we’re not considering the Celtics a member of the Duo Class of 2019 just yet, something very interesting could emerge between Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker, as well as with Jayson Tatum (PB) and Jaylen Brown (J). I’m not counting on either duo, though, because they’re both untested. I’m very much looking forward to how a fully healthy Gordon plays with a big gun like Kemba. The clubhouse has been buzzing with regards to Hayward’s ability in training camp and how strong he’s become, and if that first game is any indication, I think he’ll have a great year back in the grind. I have very high hopes for him this season, and it’s not just because he’s our third brother. I think Hayward’s improved shot output and confidence combined with Kemba’s Sherlockian ability to run plays could be explosive in the regular season.
My boys PB&J are the most exciting thing about the C’s for me right now. I love these guys and the way they play basketball. From Jaylen’s 90’s-esque short shorts and flattop (RIP) to Jayson’s euro-stepping and beast mode scoring, I think they have the potential to be an electric young duo. They’ve both turned in impressive report cards thus far, so hopefully with some better role models on the court they can keep learning and perfecting their two-man game.
The way I see it, if Jayson can pass a little more and work on his shot selection, he can be All-Star quality. This will come from a relationship with Gordon Hayward.
People may argue this, but Gordon Hayward is a technician. He knows when to pass, he knows when to shoot, and he can make decisions in a split second. Gordon is great under pressure, and I hope some of these skills can rub off on Jayson a little more this season.
Jaylen stands to learn a lot from Kemba. Though we didn’t see this in the first game of the season (a disappointing performance I’m chalking up to first day jitters), Kemba is explosive. His handles are specific and dazzling, and he can get to the rim with the best of ‘em. There’s a jedi-like quality to Kemba, and I think playing alongside him will clarify Jaylen’s offense too.
Steve: As always, I have high hopes for the Celtics this year, but I think our success will ultimately come down to Brad Stevens. Kemba Walker is not Kyrie Irving, and I think Brad’s job this year is to devise an offensive system tailored to Walker’s strengths at the point. While Kemba and Kyrie are both excellent in creating their own looks off the dribble, Walker doesn’t lead in transition at the same furious pace as Irving.
Kemba’s game is slower, probing, less reliant on outrageous skill, and perhaps a bit more thoughtful; last year, Charlotte ranked 20th in fast break points, while Boston was seventh. Arguably, Kemba’s playstyle (the slower grind) is more in line with Brad Stevens’ strengths as a coach; he’s a master of the ATO, a genius of the set piece. I can easily see Kemba developing into a true floor general, a point guard marshalling his forces on the parquet, allowing lines of play to develop.
But I fear this direction, too, because, in the burgeoning duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, we clearly see a partnership at its peak in the fast break. Brown and Tatum are best when they can run-and-gun; they are too fast, their athleticism too explosive, for opponents, a fact especially true for Jaylen, who has never been the most sure of ball-handlers. Perhaps the team reaches a balance – water, as Brad Stevens is wont to say, finds its level.
But I see two possible directions for Boston at this point.
One, centered around Walker, is deliberate and patient, a game in X’s and O’s. The other is rash and opportunistic, best exemplified in the persons of Tatum and Brown. I hope Brad can find a way to foster both of these strengths.
So that’s Two-Man Game. Welcome to the big show. We’ll be pumpin’ out fresh columns on the regular, so make sure to check back for more exclusive Two-Man content! Who do you think will turn out to be the NBA’s most dominant duo? Let us know what you think in the comments!
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