The NBA’s Best Player Duos: Where do the Wolves rank?

The Timberwolves original ‘NBA Jam’ team. Things weren’t great.

NBA Jam was cool for many different reasons. The 1990s arcade NBA basketball game allowed players to jump up to the gym roof, for acrobatic dunks. If someone made a few threes in a row, he would catch literal “fire” with the ball surrounded by flames any time he touched it. Defenders with “turbo energy” at their disposal could shove opposing ball-handlers to the ground in order to steal the ball — there were no fouls.

Perhaps the coolest feature of NBA Jam was that it was 2 on 2. The games were played full-court style, but with only four players on the floor. Along with simplifying the otherwise-chaotic arcade basketball action, the 2-on-2 format forced game engineers to strip each team down to its essential core and decide who the best pair of guys were on each NBA team. Because of the game’s cultural significance among teens of the 90s, the NBA Jam rosters helped sear player-team identities into the collective fan consciousness. While most would have already known that John Stockton and Karl Malone played for Utah, not everybody would have linked LaPhonso Ellis to the Nuggets or Tom Gugliotta to the Washington Bullets. NBA Jam helped make that happen.

While the two-man rosters of NBA Jam were not a perfect predictor of real-life success or failure of a given franchise, they did a pretty good job. Having multiple star-level players is kind of the key to winning big in the NBA. To make a very generalized, probably inarguable point: teams that have multiple star players tend to win a lot, and teams with one or fewer star-level players, tend to lose a lot. Analyzing the top two players on every team, then, is a basic way to assess the landscape of the league at any given point in time.

This brings us to the Timberwolves, the offseason trade that Thibs made for Jimmy Butler, and the tandem that he now forms with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. When thinking about the Wolves and their potential new place in the league ranks, I find the Butler & KAT duo to be the clearest place to start.

Butler is an All-Star wing of the past three seasons. He is good at everything including defense, and many would rank him in the top 15 players in the league today. Towns posted insane numbers last year, especially after the All-Star break. His defense is a work in progress, but he has the physical tools to become at least “decent,” if not better than that. Offensively, KAT challenges Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins as the most talented in the game.

By running through a list of the league’s top player combinations, fans can get a sense of where the Wolves could potentially stack up when the season ends and playoffs begin.

A few quick notes about this list:

  • There is nothing scientific about it. I did not base choices on stats or any other consistent, objective basis. I just scanned the league rosters and picked the two players who seemed best from each team.
  • On many teams — especially the bad ones — there are a number of players with roughly the same value. I had to make a choice just like those NBA Jam engineers back in the 90s. Nitpick if you want in the comments section, but this post is really about identifying the relevant teams in the NBA, since that’s what the Wolves finally hope to be, this year.
  • In some limited instances, I chose a certain player because his team is inevitably going to feature him more than an established veteran who might be better on Day 1. See: Ball, Lonzo; Russell, D’Angelo.
  • I tried not to base choices on position, but simply on overall ability and present-day value. Some teams have two guards, like the Suns and Rockets, while some others have two bigs, like the Pelicans. Positional redundancy within a team’s core is relevant when ranking these two-man combos, but not because of how they would play as a two-on-two team; just because it means the team is not as balanced as it could be.
  • Kevin Durant is not on the list. Objectively, he should be, but I kept him off because any Warriors combination featuring Steph Curry or KD, along with Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, would be the best combination in the entire league. Steph and Draymond were the league’s best combo before Durant joined them, and they are still better than any combination that the other 29 teams can throw out there. Highlighting KD’s irrelevance after his Decision is an area where I’m willing to be petty. I wish he had not joined the 73-win Warriors. I digress.

Without further ado, the league’s best combinations in no particular order except the way ESPN.com lists them on their “teams” page:

East

Celtics: Kyrie Irving & Gordon Hayward
Nets: D’Angelo Russell & Allen Crabbe
Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis & Carmelo Anthony
76ers: Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid
Raptors: Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan
Bulls: Dwyane Wade & Zach LaVine
Cavaliers: LeBron James & Isaiah Thomas
Pistons: Reggie Jackson & Andre Drummond
Pacers: Victor Oladipo & Myles Turner
Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo & Khris Middleton
Hawks: Dennis Schroder & Kent Bazemore
Hornets: Kemba Walker & Dwight Howard
Heat: Goran Dragic & Hassan Whiteside
Magic: Evan Fournier & Nikola Vucevic
Wizards: John Wall & Bradley Beal

West

Warriors: Steph Curry & Draymond Green
Clippers: Blake Griffin & DeAndre Jordan
Lakers: Lonzo Ball & Brook Lopez
Suns: Eric Bledsoe & Devin Booker
Kings: George Hill & Buddy Hield
Mavericks: Harrison Barnes & Dirk Nowitzki
Rockets: Chris Paul & James Harden
Grizzlies: Mike Conley & Marc Gasol
Pelicans: Anthony Davis & DeMarcus Cousins
Spurs: Kawhi Leonard & LaMarcus Aldridge
Nuggets: Paul Millsap & Nikola Jokic
Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler & Karl-Anthony Towns
Thunder: Russell Westbrook & Paul George
Blazers: Damian Lillard & C.J. McCollum
Jazz: Rodney Hood & Rudy Gobert

When running through this list, exactly half of the league’s team pairings (15) can be dismissed as CLEARLY worse than Butler-Towns:

CLEARLY WORSE THAN BUTLER & TOWNS

Nets: D’Angelo Russell & Allen Crabbe (no explanation needed)
Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis & Carmelo Anthony (intriguing combination of players, but Zinger hasn’t hit his prime while Melo is past his)
76ers: Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid (crazy upside, but too young and unproven)
Bulls: Dwyane Wade & Zach LaVine (similar to Knicks situation, and LaVine is coming off an ACL tear)
Pistons: Reggie Jackson & Andre Drummond (solid players, but not stars)
Pacers: Victor Oladipo & Myles Turner (Dipo isn’t a star and Turner is still developing)
Hawks: Dennis Schroder & Kent Bazemore (two role players — next)
Hornets: Kemba Walker & Dwight Howard (if D12 was in his prime, they’d be really tough… but he isn’t)
Magic: Evan Fournier & Nikola Vucevic (nope)
Lakers: Lonzo Ball & Brook Lopez (Lonzo is 19 and Lopez isn’t quite a star)
Suns: Eric Bledsoe & Devin Booker (positional redundancy hurts them, and they just aren’t as good as Butler-Towns)
Kings: George Hill & Buddy Hield (Hill is solid, Hield is still developing)
Mavericks: Harrison Barnes & Dirk Nowitzki (Barnes isn’t good enough, Dirk is too old)
Nuggets: Paul Millsap & Nikola Jokic (best argument in this group; see below)
Jazz: Rodney Hood & Rudy Gobert (could go with Derrick Favors over Hood despite positional redundancy, but either way, the Jazz aren’t catching the Wolves in ‘best combo’ category)

I don’t think any of those are even arguably as good as the Wolves duo. A Nuggets partisan who is high-end bullish on Jokic might think they have a case, but even if you view KAT-Jokic as arguable – something few would do – Butler is better than Millsap at the current stages of their respective careers. That would break the tie in ‘Sota’s favor.

On the other end of the league spectrum are some combos clearly SUPERIOR to Jimmy and Karl. Those, I would say, are:

CLEARLY BETTER THAN BUTLER & TOWNS

Cavaliers: LeBron James & Isaiah Thomas
Warriors: Steph Curry & Draymond Green
Rockets: Chris Paul & James Harden
Spurs: Kawhi Leonard & LaMarcus Aldridge
Thunder: Russell Westbrook & Paul George

These five are better than Butler-Towns and I don’t think any reasonable person would argue otherwise. LeBron plus the person reading this blog post is probably a Top-5 NBA combo. Given that he’s paired with a guy who averaged 29 points per game last year, they clearly qualify. (Eds note: if IT4’s hip injury is as serious as some believe, the Cavs still make this list because they have Kevin Love.) As mentioned earlier, either Curry or KD plus either Klay or Draymond makes for the league’s best combo. That they have all of them is why the league’s playoff drama is FUBAR’d until further notice. The Rockets are better than the Wolves here because Harden was probably the league’s best MVP candidate last year and CP3 remains an All-Star level guard. The weakest combination on total talent is probably the Spurs – due to LMA at this stage of his career – but Kawhi is a top-five player in the league, LMA is a 5x All-Star, and they won 61 games last year, so I think they deserve to be in the league’s top tier without reasonable argument to the contrary. The Thunder’s combo is incredibly interesting for a lot of reasons. Here, the most important are that Russ was league MVP last season and PG13 is a two-way star. They’re better than the Wolves.

This leaves the Wolves’ duo ranked somewhere between 6th and 15th best in the league. Here is the remaining competition in the “reasonable minds could differ” tier:

ARGUABLY BETTER OR WORSE THAN BUTLER & TOWNS

Celtics: Kyrie Irving & Gordon Hayward
Raptors: Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan
Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo & Khris Middleton
Heat: Goran Dragic & Hassan Whiteside
Wizards: John Wall & Bradley Beal
Clippers: Blake Griffin & DeAndre Jordan
Grizzlies: Mike Conley & Marc Gasol
Pelicans: Anthony Davis & DeMarcus Cousins
Blazers: Damian Lillard & C.J. McCollum

I would first dismiss the Bucks. As great as Giannis is and as unbelievable as he should soon become, Middleton isn’t close enough to Butler or Towns to give Milwaukee the edge.

Next, I would take out Lillard and McCollum. Butler is better than both players overall, Towns might soon also be better if his defense picks up, and Portland’s positional redundancy has to count against them at least a little bit.

From there, Dragic and Whiteside lose to Jimmy and KAT. Miami made this category because of what they were able to do in the second half of last season, but neither player is as good as Butler. If Towns improves defensively (you’ll notice this factor is repeated throughout this section of potential Wolves outcomes) he’ll also be better than both Heat players.


After this, I have a hard time saying that – right now – Butler-Towns is better than any of the remaining duos.

In Boston, Kyrie is an All-Star who has shined brightly in the NBA Finals and Hayward is a really good two-way player who was on last year’s West All-Star Team. I’d give them a slight edge over the Wolves even if we project moderate defensive improvement from Towns.

In Toronto, Lowry-DeRozan has been the 1-2 punch of the East’s second-best team in recent years. Both are All-Stars and they’ve proven capable of winning big.

In Washington, Wall is a better than Butler, Beal is probably worse than both Butler and Towns overall, but they get an edge because of KAT’s question marks on D and Wall’s superstar status. This is a really close one for me.

In LA, the Clippers bigs are both All-Stars and All-NBA players who have won big for many years. If you project a huge dropoff after the CP3 trade (not unreasonable) and a downward trajectory for Griffin as his athleticism wanes (ditto), I then see a persuasive argument for Butler-Towns… but not yet. At this point, the proven Clippers duo deserves the benefit of the doubt.

In Memphis, Conley and Gasol have just had too much success for me to put them behind the Wolves new duo. Conley is the easy answer for league’s most underrated player because he’s always left off of the All-Star team in a loaded-at-point-guard Western Conference. Gasol is one of the best two-way bigs in the game; better overall than Towns right now, because of defense.

In New Orleans, the Pels have a Tier 1 superstar in Davis and an enigmatic star in Boogie. How they fit is an ongoing question, but on overall talent they are currently ahead of Butler-Towns. I could see the argument for the Wolves based partly on the Pels’ redundancy of bigs, but I think The Brow should win out here. He’s significantly better than anyone on the Wolves — if he had a better supporting cast, he’d probably be a legit MVP candidate, which cannot be said about Butler or Towns.


In a reasonable range of disagreement between 6th and 15th, I rank the Butler-KAT combo 12th in the NBA, as things stand today. Sports Illustrated just released a “Top 100 Players” rankings, in which Butler comes in at 11, followed closely by Towns at 14. On Towns’s defense, Rob Mahoney writes:

The worst that could be said about Towns is that the 21-year-old who played over 3,000 high-usage minutes wasn’t always completely committed on defense. He could be caught moseying back in transition, catching his breath at a time when the Wolves needed him. It’s clear Towns has more to learn about what goes into defending at a competitive level. It’s also clear that in all matters of basketball (including defense, in time), he figures to be an absolute monster.

I guess I would condemn his defense from last year a bit more than that, which explains my reluctance to rank the Wolves (and KAT, as of today) quite so high. If Butler is really the 11th best player in the league with KAT at 14th, then the Wolves are much better than I have them ranked. But to get there, Towns needs to become more of a two-way player.

Whether that happens or not is one of the main issues that will determine how the 2017-18 plays out.

Who are your top duos and where do you rank the Wolves?

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. tinker says:

    Dang, this really makes me want to see a 2×2 tournament during the All-Star Break.

  2. Tom says:

    Interesting, but I’m not sure some of the teams you rank ahead of KAT and Buckets would in fact beat them. Paul and Hardin would never be able to defend KAT, who would basically score down low at will. They would have to hit threes at a very high rate to offset his size, outside shooting prowess and mobility. As for the teams with the big and small, I wonder if Kawhi is that much better than Jimmy and again would Aldridge be able to defend KAT?
    I also wonder given the duos you created, if Wiggins and Buckets would fare better, since they have the size advantage over five of the teams listed as competitive or superior to KAT and Jimmy and would pose a more deadly threat driving to the basket. Wiggins hasn’t proved his three point shooting can compete with guys like Hardin, Curry and others, but the point guards, would have a difficult time defending the other guy. Thomas guarding Wiggins, while LeBron guards Jimmy?
    As Tinker said, it would be a great show to have a 2×2 tourney, but I would like to see how many teams beat us three on three.

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