When you think of NBA duos, you usually think of the classic “big guy–little guy” tandem. Like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and John Stockton, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, etc. But in the modern NBA, which is so often position-free, that trope is starting to fade. So who are the best duos in the NBA now? Chris Ryan and Jason Gallagher take a look at LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in the debut of NBA Running Mates.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Jason Gallagher: When you think of LeBron, you think of him as a singular superstar — “The King,” “The Chosen One.”
Chris Ryan: Oh he’s definitely all of those things, but we live in a world where at the very least it takes two and LeBron couldn’t ask for a better teammate than Kyrie.
J.G.: What is it that makes them such a strong pairing on the court?
C.R.: Their biggest strength as a duo is their ability to play each other’s roles. Look, we know LeBron is a transcendent forward …
J.G.: And Kyrie is a top 3 point guard.
C.R.: Right but they’re just as good, if not better when they switch spots completely. LeBron is the only forward in the NBA other than Draymond Green to post point guard–like assist numbers, which gives the Cavs more flexibility in the half court and in transition.
J.G.: When you say “point guard–like assist numbers …”
C.R.: I mean of the top 20 assist leaders, 17 are point guards and three are forwards: LeBron is fifth in the league with nine per game.
J.G.: Wait. So what’s Kyrie doing, then?
C.R.: We know Kyrie is a ball-dominant point guard, but he’s become an elite off-ball shooter. Just look at his numbers when he shoots off the catch: Since 2014, regular season and playoffs included, Irving shoots 46.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per SportVU. This is huge for floor spacing when LeBron has the ball in his hands.
J.G.: What about the pick-and-roll?
C.R.: It’s unstoppable. When LeBron runs a pick-and-roll and Irving sets a screen, there’s almost nothing a defense can do. They’ll probably switch, which puts a guard on LeBron.
J.G.: Yikes. That can’t be good for the defense.
C.R.: It’s not. LeBron scores 0.9 points per possession on post-ups where he shoots, which is above average, but when he passes out of the post and a teammate shoots, it results in an average of 1.5 points per possession which is near the best in the NBA, per Synergy.
J.G.: So if the defense is Bron-watching, that’s gotta open things up for Kyrie, right?
C.R.: Yeah. The switch typically puts a forward on Irving, which gives him a distinct speed advantage. He’s one of the NBA’s best isolation scorers. He scores 1.22 points per possession [in isolation], according to Synergy.
J.G.: So he’s able to score against anyone, but he’s especially lethal against slower players.
C.R.: That’s right.
J.G.: So clearly they’re great running mates but answer me this: Does LeBron, “the Chosen One,” really need Kyrie?
C.R.: I mean, just look at the difference between the 2015 and 2016 Finals.
J.G.: But Irving only played one game in the 2015 Finals.
C.R.: Right and LeBron put up freakish numbers. LeBron was the first player in the league to average more points, assists, and rebounds than any other player on both sides of the court.
J.G.: He should have won MVP.
C.R.: A lot of people agreed with you. But now look at 2016. A Finals that featured LeBron and his running mate, Kyrie, against the best regular-season team of all time. LeBron was LeBron …
J.G.: The Block!?
C.R.: The Block! But remember the Shot. And the other shots. Kyrie’s superstar offense is what pushed Cleveland over the edge with his outrageous scoring output, averaging 27.1 points per game on a 51.6 effective field goal percentage.
Thanks to Kevin O’Connor for his research assistance.