When Kawhi Leonard picked the Clippers over the Lakers (and Raptors) in free agency (and managed to bring Paul George with him), and Kevin Durant left the Warriors for a new home in Brooklyn and a partnership with Kyrie Irving, they changed the NBA landscape. Now, instead of the Big Threes we’d become accustomed to over the last decade, the league is filled with dynamic duos. In L.A., LeBron James has been joined by Anthony Davis; the Steph Curry–Draymond Green partnership in Golden State is now entering its eighth season; Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are coming off a season when they earned the no. 2 seed in the West; Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have stood the test of time in Portland; Philly has its young duo in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; Houston has a new flammable backcourt in Russell Westbrook and James Harden; Mike Conley’s arrival in Utah gives Rudy Gobert a strong defensive partner; and in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are an inside-out 1-2 punch.
During a lunch with reporters last week, Clippers coach Doc Rivers addressed that shift away from three marquee players and explained part of the reasoning behind it. “The third guy has gotten the short end in some ways or made the sacrifice to win,” Rivers said. He listed Ray Allen on his Boston Celtics teams of the late 2000s, Chris Bosh on the LeBron and Dwyane Wade Heat teams, and Klay Thompson on the Warriors as examples. Now, as duos sweep across the league, the “third guy” on each team won’t be asked to sacrifice, but rather be forced to step up and be the difference-maker.
With that in mind, here are the 11 most important players trying to fill that third guy role on contenders this season:
1. Tobias Harris, 76ers
The Sixers are a strange case in this exercise. They have the greatest number of possible “third guys” on their team, but more than anything, that brings up questions of how they will all fit together. One thing is clear: For Philly to reach its full potential, Embiid and Simmons have to be the two best players on the team. Al Horford is probably the most logical option to be considered the third guy, but perhaps no one will play a more crucial role for Philly than Harris. Harris is one of the better shooters on a team with questionable outside shooting, and he will be the weight that tilts the seesaw the right—or wrong—way. Now that JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler are gone, their 13.5 and 13.6 shots per game, respectively, will have to be redistributed. While adding Josh Richardson (who averaged 14.1 shots a game in Miami) should help fill that void, Harris is bound to see more attempts. And with that increase in usage, he’ll have to raise his 3-point percentage from the 35 percent he was averaging in the playoffs. Harris is a near-max player now—a $180 million man, to be exact—and the Sixers really need him to play like it this season.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
The Jazz are no longer sneaky contenders or under-the-radar darlings. Their potential is Claritin clear, and given their additions this summer—Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis—a Finals run shouldn’t be completely out of the question. The player who may matter the most in that equation isn’t a free-agent signing, though, but rather homegrown talent. Mitchell is heading into his third season with increased expectations. Conley and Rudy Gobert are, for the most part, known quantities. Mitchell is still on the airport runway and waiting to truly take off. We’ve seen flashes of greatness from him, but it still seems like there are plenty of rungs on the ladder for him to climb. His Team USA appearance this summer was supposed to be a step up, but he—like the whole team—struggled. Having Conley as a backcourt collaborator should lessen his burden, but when games go down to the wire, all eyes will still turn to Mitchell.
3. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Right now, Kuzma is out indefinitely with a stress reaction in his left foot. But even so, he still remains the third-most important player on a Lakers team with title aspirations. While L.A. will be driven largely by the brute force of LeBron and the star quality of Anthony Davis, Kuzma is one of the few players on this team who doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into being a role player. Jared Dudley has already recognized that. Speaking at Lakers media day last week, Dudley described Kuzma as “the key” to making this roster work and said he wanted to help mentor him this season, like he did with D’Angelo Russell in Brooklyn. If Kuzma can take a leap this season once he returns from injury and improve his shooting (he says he’s found a consistent form this summer), then the Lakers will be in even better hands than they are now.
4. D’Angelo Russell, Warriors
When the Warriors added Russell in a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant this offseason, he was initially looked at as an asset. There were immediate reports he could be a future trade piece. The Warriors have shot those reports down, but it is assumed that he’s their most movable player should they need to bail on this experiment. There’s also a chance, though, that he is exactly what the Warriors need to jump-start a different era. Steph Curry will take on plenty of that responsibility himself—he seems determined to win another MVP—and Draymond Green will always be Draymond Green, but Russell is the wild card. The former Nets point guard has a compelling and fun game, and could end up helping Curry carry this team until Klay Thompson returns from his torn ACL (likely sometime after the All-Star break). But the question of his fit within this roster remains. Russell doesn’t play with the kind of egalitarian mind-set the Warriors like to deploy, and even though the team will need a buoy like him to make the playoffs, he could also be the thing that sinks them. Until we see how these pieces work together the court, this union comes across as oil meeting water. Somehow, Steve Kerr has to get them to mix in order to stay afloat.
5. Eric Gordon, Rockets
Gordon continues to be one of the more underrated players in the league. He plays like a linebacker with a good outside shot, and that’s crucial in the Rockets system, which pushes everyone not named James Harden out to the 3-point arc. I couldn’t believe how many times Gordon pulled a game-changing play out of his back pocket during the Western Conference semifinals, either by hitting a catch-and-shoot 3 or driving to the hoop with no regard for who was in his way. Gordon is so unassuming he catches opposing players off guard, and this season, he’ll have even less of the focus on him given the combustible potion that Daryl Morey has cooked up adding Russell Westbrook to the Harden-led backcourt. Gordon will never reach a level of play that turns the Rockets into a team with a Big Three, but if his performance dips or rises, don’t be surprised to see Houston’s fortunes go along with it.
6. Eric Bledsoe, Bucks
As soon as the NBA season turns toward the playoffs, Bledsoe seems to go through some Space Jam-like transformation in which all the skills that make him a stellar player during the regular season get stripped at the drop of a hat. It’s jarring, and it was especially distinct this past season when months after the Bucks signed him to a four-year, $70 million extension, Bledsoe ghosted in the postseason. In nearly every counting stat and efficiency metric, Bledsoe was worse than he was in the regular season. Bledsoe’s spotlight isn’t shrinking; by giving him the extension and letting Malcolm Brogdon go to Indiana, it creates the image that Milwaukee chose one ball handler over the other. The Bucks need Bledsoe to be their third-best player for the sake of Milwaukee’s future with Giannis. They can’t afford to waste Giannis’s prime by losing before the Finals again, and they really can’t afford to have their chances squandered because of Bledsoe.
7. Lou Williams, Clippers
Doc Rivers may say he doesn’t need a third star, but he’ll need Williams’s All-Star-level bench production to back up the Leonard- and George-led starters. Aside from someone like Andre Iguodala, whose strength is his defense, most impact bench players make their mark on offense. And no one does it better than Williams. Last season, Williams found a perfect partner in Montrezl Harrell. Both obliterated teams through a deadly pick-and-roll, and their pairing was so successful that it kept the 8-seed Clippers in their first-round series against the Warriors (even if it was for only a second). Williams and Co. won’t have to carry the Clippers this season. Instead, with Leonard and George leading the way, Williams will be a crucial piece on this team and a bit of a luxury. Of note: On a team led by two stars coming off injuries or load management concerns, Williams has been a reliable presence and played at least 75 games each of the past three seasons.
8. Marc Gasol, Raptors
A lot could happen in the East this season, especially for Toronto, which is right in the middle of the conference with a still-competent roster sans Kawhi. This is still a really good team, with Kyle Lowry leading the way and Pascal Siakam primed for another leap. Gasol rounds out the trio by being an anchor on both ends of the floor. The Spaniard is coming off an absurd run after winning an NBA title in June and a World Cup in September. Without Kawhi, Toronto will need Gasol to be more aggressive this season (he took a career-low 7.2 shots per game during his post-trade deadline stretch in Toronto last season), and it will be interesting to see if his defense can remain at a high level 12 years into his career. The margin for error is far more slim now.
9. Jaylen Brown, Celtics
No one wants to burn and bury the tapes of last year’s Celtics season more than Jayson Tatum and Brown. I imagine they could coauthor a book one day on everything that went wrong; after all, those two were the most affected by the team’s imbalanced chemistry in 2018-19. Now, the Celtics have a new, more grounded point guard in Kemba Walker, and both young players seem poised for a rebound year. Tatum has already shown himself to be the more naturally talented of the two, but Brown’s two-way ability is what makes him so important. He’s flexible on defense, able to defend multiple positions, and a positive addition on offense. If Walker raises the Celtics’ floor and Tatum raises their ceiling, then Brown’s role is to fill in the gaps—especially when Boston is still unsure of what it will get from Gordon Hayward.
10. Gary Harris, Nuggets
The reason Harris is in this position and not, say, Paul Millsap is because he regressed last season. The Nuggets won 54 games, earned the no. 2 seed in the West, and came within a couple plays of the Western Conference finals. But Harris’s usage rate fell in the regular season, and in the playoffs, his efficiency numbers dropped too. The Nuggets have found a successful formula in committing to their homegrown talent—see: Nikola Jokic’s ascension—but imagine what they could do this season if Harris takes a leap. There are similarities here to the Celtics; Jamal Murray is Jayson Tatum’s comp as the more talented no. 2 guy, and Harris, like Brown, will need to provide a reliable third presence while still performing in pivotal moments. To say Harris is the X factor for this team feels too on the nose, but as an impressive two-way player, he does have the potential to swing a series.
11. Zach Collins, Trail Blazers
One could say that Portland was ahead of its time in doubling down on the duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But really, the Blazers just never really found a reliable third option. Jusuf Nurkic had a career year last season and became the closest thing to rounding out the Blazers’ Big Three before he suffered a broken leg at the end of the regular season. That injury will keep him out for a good chunk of 2019-20, and while the addition of Hassan Whiteside will fill the most Snapchat stories, it’s now officially Zach Collins Time. Or at least it should be. Collins is still 21, and the Blazers drafted him in 2017 because he projected as a modern big man with great defensive instincts. So far, he hasn’t exactly lived up to that profile, but this season Portland will need him to go through basketball puberty and become more of an impact player on both ends. The team’s playoff spot—and ability to finally get over the hump—may depend on it.
An earlier version of this story misstated how much time Kyle Kuzma is expected to miss to injury. He is out indefinitely, not 10 to 12 weeks.