After the reorientation of the NBA’s balance of power over the summer, Big Twos are the new Big Threes, especially in the Western Conference. Marquee stars will always be the main drivers of team success, fan interest, and revenue, but in the post-Warriors landscape, teams have decided — or been forced, depending on your vantage point — to adopt a “dynamic duo plus depth” model of roster construction. The way these new star pairings will fit together (both on and off the court) has already been a matter of much debate, but nearly as important is how they will be complemented by the rest of their respective rotations.
Hence today’s mission: to get a sense of what to expect from the supporting casts of each of the new Big Twos in the West. To keep things simple, we’re only going to look at teams with a new face (or faces) at the very top of the roster, so contenders who mostly opted for continuity (like Denver and Portland) and ones who retooled (like Golden State and Utah, depending on how you feel about D’Angelo Russell and Mike Conley, respectively) won’t get the treatment in this exercise. For each team in question, we’ll list the complementary players we expect to see significant minutes — the very back ends of the rosters aren’t particularly important here — talk about the pros and cons of each group, and then give them a rating from 1 to 5 Horrys, Big Shot Bob being the most quintessential role player in recent NBA history.
Let’s get right to it.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Stars: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
The Supporting Cast: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Pat Beverley, Landry Shamet, Moe Harkless, Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Rodney McGruder, Jerome Robinson, Terance Mann
Pros: Depth, overall talent, continuity, supplemental playmaking, young upside, trade assets
Cons: Rim protection, maybe shooting
Despite the record haul the Clips sent away to unite PG with Kawhi, they are still left with an enviable amount of complementary depth and talent on the roster, a testament to the brilliant work their front office has done in pivoting away from the Lob City era and into this new window of contention. They’ll need the depth to keep pace early on in the daunting West. George is set to miss at least the first ten games as he continues to recover from surgeries on both shoulders in the offseason, and while there is no uncertainty about Kawhi’s ability — see the 2019 playoffs if you need a refresher — the question mark will always be how much his load will be managed to keep him fresh.
Most Western teams would have a tough time staying above water if their top two guys only play, say, 65 games apiece, but most teams with two stars don’t also have Lou Williams. The two-time defending Sixth Man of the Year is the linchpin to making this experiment work. For all of their two-way brilliance, neither Leonard nor George is a high-end playmaker. [Kawhi, for his part, has shown encouraging signs of improvement in this area during the preseason, which is genuinely scary. If his AI continues to evolve like this, the singularity (Kawhingularity?) can’t be far behind.] Sweet Lou is the perfect guy to fill in this one gap, whether or not the stars are on the floor. He was the primary engine of the 9th-rated offense from last season, and his unstoppable pick-and-roll chemistry with partner-in-crime Montrezl Harrell gives this team a secondary/tertiary offensive option better than some teams’ primary offense. Being able to deploy the Williams/Harrell PnR as a second-side attack OR use it as the primary play and have Kawhi/George attack a scrambled defense is going to be a devastating combination in crunch time. That the fifth spot can be filled by a 40-ish percent outside shooter (either Pat Beverley or Landry Shamet) is borderline unfair.
The rest of the rotation is filled with solid guys who won’t take anything off the table. Zubac will likely start at center in most matchups, and he will offer consistent, traditional big man production in an appropriate amount of minutes. He’s still only 22, so his upside remains significant, and he’s always been an excellent per-minute performer. [He sure would’ve been a useful piece for the Lakers, had they not foolishly given him away at the trade deadline last year for Mike Muscala, who made no discernible impact for the purple-and-gold and is no longer with the team.] They’ll be able to get spot minutes as either a traditional 4 or a small-ball 5 from JaMychal Green, who came over in a deadline deal with the Grizzlies last season for Avery Bradley, who, like Muscala, is no longer with the team who traded for him. [I’m telling you, it’s uncanny how the Clips keep winning every trade.] Green is an overqualified ninth man who does most everything well, and even offers some unexpected floor spacing (he shot over 40% from deep last year on 4.6 attempts per-36 minutes). Harkless and McGruder are solid, professional wings who aren’t standouts in any one area but can fill in a lot of cracks, especially when the stars are injured or resting.
Jerome Robinson, a 6-5 shooting guard out of Boston College, didn’t get much of an opportunity last season after being drafted no. 13 overall, but the Clips (and other teams around the league) remain intrigued by his talent. Terance Mann is a 6-7 wing from Florida State who fell all the way to no. 48 in this year’s draft due to his age — he turns 23 this week — but he looked the part of an actual NBA player among the dregs at Summer League, and he could get an opportunity to crack the rotation should injuries mount for L.A. Robinson, Mann, and first-round pick Mfiondu Kabengele (also out of FSU) all represent appealing, low-cost trade assets if for some reason the Clippers decide they need further reinforcements, which could come in the form of veteran wing stopper Andre Iguodala. Adding Iggy, even at 35 years old, to the perimeter defensive trio of Kawhi, PG, and Beverley, feels like the recipe for a top-5 (at worst) defense, along with the aforementioned offense which will present opponents with nothing but bad choices. And that, my friends, is how you construct a championship-level roster.
The Stars: James Harden, Russell Westbrook
The Supporting Cast: Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, Tyson Chandler, Gerald Green, Danuel House, Gary Clark, Nene, Thabo Sefolosha, Ben McLemore, Isaiah Hartenstein, Ryan Anderson
Pros: Interior defense, floor spacing, experience, continuity
Cons: Age, wing depth, perimeter defense, certainty of production
Anyone who says they know what this team will be is trying to sell you something. It is nearly impossible to predict what swapping prickly floor general Chris Paul for chaos agent (stylistically and organizationally) Russell Westbrook will do to James Harden’s carefully curated ecosystem in Houston. Introducing some chaos into the “let Harden dribble for 22 seconds and then launch a step-back 3” offense could clearly have real benefits; Westbrook’s attacking style will give teams something else to prepare for in a seven game playoff series. But those benefits also come with the drawbacks of taking the ball out of Russ’s hands and potentially turning him into a bystander, or even worse, a spot-up shooter. [Westbrook is currently the single worst high-volume three-point shooter in NBA history, whereas CP3 is at 37.0% for his career.]
But enough about the fascinating interplay of the owners of the two highest single-season Usage Rates in the history of the game. How will the rest of the roster fit? Capela’s role shouldn’t change much (though his usage could decline a bit), and we more or less know what he is at this point. Gordon will slide up to the 3 at times to play alongside the two star guards (as he did with Paul in the mix as well), but he could be limited to a pure floor spacer in these lineups because of the anti-gravity of Westbrook. Tucker will do Tucker things, and old heads Chandler and Nene will be competent in backing up Capela on a limited basis.
So the Rockets have perhaps the best group of guards in the league, and veteran big men who will hold down the fort. All good, right? Not so fast. First, there is clearly value in having an experienced team — both in the institutional memory created over years of pattern recognition and the survivorship bias of talent — but at a certain point, “experienced” players simply become old ones, and the Rockets are toeing that line. Houston has nine players on its roster over 30, and while Harden should remain firmly planted in his prime for at least a few more seasons, any age-related slippage from the other vets (many of whom are now sporting extensive injury histories) which isn’t counteracted by internal development from young guys — hold that thought — is highly problematic in such a cutthroat conference. Nene and Chandler are both 37. Ryan Anderson is 31 and probably washed. Tucker is 34, and his physical style may not age well. Gerald Green, amazingly, is 33, and is now out for at least 2-3 months with a broken foot. Thabo Sefolosha is 35 and has been battling injuries for the last several years. Even Gordon and Westbrook are 30 and 31, respectively, with laundry lists of injuries in the rear-view, and Westbrook showing some early signs of athletic decline last season.
Time is beginning to bear down on the veterans, and it’s unclear if the more spry bodies on the roster will be ready when the void does require filling. Austin Rivers, for all the disrespect that’s been attached to his name over the years, has developed into a solid 3-and-D guard with just enough playmaking verve to be a threat. Gordon, as mentioned previously, can credibly slide up to the 3 for stretches because of his strength, but beyond those two, the depth and defensive acumen on the wing are big question marks. Danuel House and Gary Clark both looked like competent NBA players for portions of last season, but the jury is still out on whether either or both of them can be consistent performers over a 100-game season. Former lottery pick Ben McLemore was brought in to compete for a rotation spot, and his talent remains tantalizing, but at 26 and heading into his seventh season, it increasingly appears as though it’s never going to happen for him. They have a number of young bucks on the roster (Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ray Spalding, Chris Clemons, and Shamorie Ponds), all of whom remain unproven commodities until further notice. Will coach Mike D’Antoni, whose seat is clearly warming, be willing to light developmental minutes on fire for any of those guys? It seems unlikely.
Opposing offenses will attack Houston relentlessly on the perimeter. Their guards are all strong but undersized, so big wings will look to exploit mismatches if Clark (6-8) and House (6-7) aren’t able to stay in the regular rotation. Harden and Westbrook are both physically capable but often indifferent defenders. It’s tough to plug all the holes in a defense where multiple guys are staring off into space away from the ball, even if you have the personnel, which the Rockets do not. The defensive burdens on Capela and Tucker are going to be enormous, and while they are mostly up to the challenge, it could take a toll as the season progresses.
It probably sounds like I’m dumping on the Rockets, but don’t get me wrong. This is still an elite team, and the Paul-Westbrook swap should eliminate most or all of the internecine squabbling which simmered just below the surface last season. [Whether any lingering effects from the ongoing Morey/China geo-beef or owner Tilman Fertitta’s somewhat erratic public behavior in its wake serve to offset those potential gains in chemistry remains to be seen.] Regardless of who the highly-paid sidekick is, questions about the rest of the rotation mean James Harden is going to have to be superhuman yet again in ways some of the other megawatt stars in the West will not.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Stars: LeBron James, Anthony Davis
The Supporting Cast: Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley
Pros: Shooting, interior defense
Cons: Lack of continuity, knucklehead factor, secondary playmaking, perimeter defense
I’ve already covered most of my concerns about the Lakers’ potential depth issues this season, so I’ll keep this one brief. If anything, those concerns have only intensified with Kyle Kuzma’s lingering injury and the sprained thumb Davis suffered over the weekend. The Davis injury appears to be nothing serious, but it shines a spotlight on how damaging any extended absences at the top of the roster could be to L.A.’s chances of making (or advancing in) the playoffs. The challenge in front of new head coach Frank Vogel is to integrate a group of flawed players and sometimes erratic personalities into a cohesive unit on the fly, while also dodging injuries to his two all-world mega-stars and the inevitable coup attempt from assistant coach/LeBron confidant Jason Kidd. Oh, and it’s all happening under a gigantic microscope. Otherwise, it should be a piece of cake. Let’s move on.
The Stars: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis
The Supporting Cast: Tim Hardaway, Jr., Dwight Powell, Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber, Seth Curry, Courtney Lee, Justin Jackson, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J. Barea, Boban Marjanovic
Pros: Stylistic flexibility, supplemental playmaking, shooting, mix of veterans and youth
Cons: Talent gap between stars and role players, defense
“Will Dallas be any good?” is a contentious question in NBA circles at the moment, and I’m here to tell you… I really don’t know, either. The fit between Doncic and Porzingis at the top of the roster appears to be snug, and they have a glut of competent role players to fill out the rotation, but the drop-off in talent from Porzingis to their third-best player (Hardaway, I guess?) is severe. Really good teams generally have overqualified role players (or at least properly qualified ones to complement their stars), but this edition of the Mavs could suffer from being a tad underqualified at a few spots. Guys like Powell, Brunson, Wright, Curry, Kleber, Finney-Smith, and Barea are all players most GMs would be happy to have on their rosters. They just wouldn’t want all of them at once.
Head coach Rick Carlisle has always been a genius at getting the most out of disparate parts, and the presence of a wunderkind 6-7 playmaker like Doncic and a 7-3 unicorn like Porzingis allows Carlisle to tinker with the other three lineup slots in a variety of interesting ways. They can run big, bruising groups, small, switch-y lineups, and shooting-heavy configurations, depending on what the matchup dictates. This flexibility will keep them in a lot of games where they otherwise wouldn’t stack up talent-wise, and the complementary playmaking they’ll get from Brunson (a candidate for a mini-leap in Year 2), Wright, Barea (who will still be roasting dummies in the pick-and-roll when he’s a septuagenarian like a Puerto Rican Uncle Drew), and perhaps even Curry will create off-ball opportunities for Doncic to shine.
Team officials say they like the roster they’ve constructed. They better, because this group is mostly locked in long-term. Barea and Courtney Lee expire at the end of this season (their contracts, not them, though they are both getting up in years), but if Hardaway exercises his player option for $19 million next year — a near-certainty — then the Mavs are two years away from any meaningful cap space, at which point they’ll presumably be preparing to throw a max extension at Doncic. They are also out two first-round picks from the Porzingis trade, so improving the roster externally is going to be a tricky proposition for the foreseeable future. Dallas has acquired its franchise players, so the hardest part of the rebuild is already done. But in the competitive landscape of the West in 2019, nailing down those tent poles is necessary but not sufficient. Like the Clippers, the moves around the margins also have to consistently hit, and at this point it’s unclear whether the Mavs have put together a whole greater than the sum of the parts, or just a bunch of random parts.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The Stars: Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday
The Supporting Cast: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart, Nicolo Melli, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kenrich Williams, Frank Jackson, Jaxson Hayes, Jahlil Okafor
Pros: Guard depth, upside, perimeter defense, supplemental playmaking
Cons: Lack of frontcourt depth, lack of continuity, inexperience
OK, so maybe this is cheating. But have you seen Zion in the preseason? I’m not sure it’s fair to lump in Zion and Jrue with these other star duos at this precise moment, but I’m also not sure it isn’t. Mostly I just wanted a chance to talk about this team, because it is going to be a blast.
All the usual preseason caveats apply, but Jesus TF Christ, Zion. He’s averaging over 23 PPG while shooting 71% (!) from the field, and it appears as though legit NBA athletes are utterly unprepared for the combination of speed and power he brings to bear. His unique athletic gifts are unleashed by the pace and space of the NBA game in a way the college game could not approximate, and nothing about what he’s doing feels unsustainable. [Yes, I know he won’t shoot 70% for the season, but high-50’s seems like his floor.] It’s bonkers to think about what the prime, 26-year-old version of Zion will look like because that’s still SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW. I suspect by Christmas, the talking heads will be engaging in the “Is Zion already a superstar?” conversation, and if so, it obviously bodes well for the fate of the ’19-’20 Pelicans, let alone their future prospects. Suffice it to say, the dude is the real deal. I don’t want to burden him with unfair expectations, but when he goes toward the basket, he looks positively LeBron-like. And his 55-foot alley-oop from Lonzo Ball the other night was eerily reminiscent of Heat-era LeBron:
Lucking into the league’s next marquee superstar is fortuitous, of course, but the Pelicans have also done a terrific job in accumulating complementary talent. The number of quality guards head coach Alvin Gentry can deploy is staggering, to the point it may necessitate another trade to balance out the roster. Veteran sniper J.J. Redick was brought in over the summer on a two-year deal, and the combined offensive gravity he and Zion produce could prove unguardable. [Interesting tidbit: in his 12 NBA seasons, Redick has never missed the playoffs. On a related note, New Orleans’ over/under win total is chilling at 39.5 in Vegas. Do what you will with this information.] Lonzo Ball remains far from his ceiling, and some folks have already soured on him a bit. His defense, rebounding, and playmaking are already tangible assets, though, and if his shooting comes around, he still has All-Star potential. Ball and Holiday might make up the most fearsome defensive starting backcourt in the league. [Philly, San Antonio and a couple others may take umbrage with such a statement.] Moore and Hart are overqualified minutes-eaters. Rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker has looked phenomenal in both Summer League and preseason, and he will command real minutes right away, despite the logjam. I even kinda like Frank Jackson, though he may have a tough time getting much run.
The front line is a little less stacked (outside of Zion), but there is enough talent to make it work. Derrick Favors came over from Utah and, finally freed from the long shadow of Rudy Gobert, should slot in as the starting center. The fit with Zion hasn’t been airtight thus far in the preseason, and Gentry could look to employ more “Zion as small-ball 5” configurations as the season progresses, but there will certainly be a lot of matchups along the way where Favors’ elite rim protection keeps the Pels’ defense afloat. Brandon Ingram appears to have moved beyond the offseason blood clot issue which briefly threatened his career, and his continued development (or lack thereof) is a massive wild card in projecting the ceiling of this team. When he has excelled, it has been as a primary playmaker rather than as a spot-up shooter/secondary attacker. Unfortunately, with Holiday, Ball, and Williamson all in the mix, Ingram may be relegated to the latter role more often than he would like. He’ll need to continue getting stronger while also returning to the 39% three-point accuracy he displayed two seasons ago, but it’s hard to argue with having yet another potential top-50 NBA player in the rotation. The Pels signed 6-9, 28-year-old Italian combo forward Nicolo Melli to a two-year deal over the summer, and thus far he has looked like the best fit next to Zion up front. If he sticks, the front office will have conjured up a crucial rotation piece out of thin air. Kenrich Williams showed some promise in limited minutes during his rookie year, and the 6-7 twenty-four-year-old should get a little more run this year as a crack filler on the wing. Rookie Jaxson Hayes looked less raw than expected during Summer League, but still has a long way to go before he can consistently bang with grown-ass NBA big men. Jahlil Okafor is a person who exists.
There’s no way to know where this roster goes from here, but with a franchise-altering star, enviable depth, limitless upside, and all the future assets in the known universe, the sky is the limit.
Top Photo Credit: USA Today Sports