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The Split Decision Facing the NBA’s Best Big Twos

Some of the league’s top contenders are maximizing their star duos by keeping them apart for long stretches. Is staggering the right approach? We dig into the data and ask some of the coaches making the calls.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Some years ago, as a high school upperclassman, I spent two years coaching my little brother’s basketball team. This was a rec league for elementary schoolers, so the playing time specifications were rigid. Every player on the 10-man roster needed to play two quarters exactly, so we used one lineup that played the first and third quarters together, and one that played the second and fourth. Little Michael might have been my leading scorer, but he could play only half the game, max.

As coach, I was confronted with a distribution dilemma: Should I pair my best players to try to dominate half the game, or should I split them, thus limiting the team’s ceiling in any individual quarter but maintaining a base level of competence throughout the entire contest?

This experience might seem frivolous, but it was actually a codified, low-stakes example of a puzzle that the coaches of the NBA’s best players face on a nightly basis. Frank Vogel is restricted not by rule but by common sense from playing his stars for an entire game, yet he has to fill 48 minutes somehow. So the Lakers coach must also debate whether to stagger playing time for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or join their powers as often as possible and hope the Lakers bench can remain afloat without a single star serving as ballast.

As the league’s top teams move away from a Big Three or Big Four structure to one defined by Big Twos, contending clubs across the league are experimenting with the lineups that work best. And in the case of the brightest, shiniest star pairings, a staggering approach is winning out.

Thus far in the season, the Lakers have played 96 percent of their non-garbage-time possessions with at least one of James and Davis, according to proportions derived from Cleaning the Glass data. Summarized LeBron, succinctly, last week in Chicago: “It works well for us.” It’s hard to argue with a 7-2 record and league-best net rating (9.5 points per 100 possessions).

In Houston, where James Harden and Russell Westbrook run the show, the Rockets haven’t played a single non-garbage-time minute without one of their two All-NBA guards (outside one game Westbrook missed for rest). When the Rockets traded for Chris Paul in 2017, coach Mike D’Antoni said he’d structure his lineups so that “for 48 minutes we have a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor.” The same devoted philosophy applies to Westbrook in Paul’s place.

Rockets’ Stagger in Action

Game # Opponent Minutes Without Harden or Westbrook Reason
Game # Opponent Minutes Without Harden or Westbrook Reason
1 Milwaukee 0 n/a
2 New Orleans 0 n/a
3 Oklahoma City 0 n/a
4 Washington 0 n/a
5 Brooklyn 0 n/a
6 Miami 8 Down 40 points in 4th
7 Memphis 11 Westbrook DNP
8 Golden State 3 Up 21 points in 4th
9 Chicago 3 Up 25 points in 4th

Yet for as obvious as it might seem to want star coverage for an entire game, the staggering approach is still limited to a few teams. As the new Big Twos diversify their lineups, other high-powered duos remain committed to spending as much time together as possible. This season, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have shared 88.5 percent of their minutes, more than any other team’s top two scorers. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum check in at 83.9 percent. No less a coaching luminary than Gregg Popovich has paired midrange mavens DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge for 86.9 percent of their playing time.

Staggering is a strikingly new approach for the league’s best players. On average, the highest-scoring two-main pairings this century (using the method outlined here) played 83 percent of their minutes together, per In Oklahoma City, Westbrook and Kevin Durant approached 90 percent as Scott Brooks famously opted not to separate his MVP talents.

High-Scoring Teammates Stick Together in a Rotation

Duo Team Shared Minutes
Duo Team Shared Minutes
Gilbert Arenas & Antawn Jamison Wizards 87.9%
Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook Thunder 87.5%
Paul Pierce & Antoine Walker Celtics 87.3%
Allen Iverson & Chris Webber 76ers 86.0%
Peja Stojakovic & Chris Webber Kings 85.7%
Carmelo Anthony & Allen Iverson Nuggets 84.1%
Kobe Bryant & Shaquille O'Neal Lakers 82.7%
Stephen Curry & Kevin Durant Warriors 78.6%
LeBron James & Dwyane Wade Heat 76.2%
Tracy McGrady & Yao Ming Rockets 74.7%

In comparison with those duos, Harden-Westbrook and LeBron-Davis are sharing considerably fewer minutes, at 64.2 and 70.3 percent, respectively. For the Rockets, at least, this split isn’t new—when both players were healthy, Harden and Paul shared the floor in only 60.9 percent of their minutes.

For this season’s new Big Twos, a staggered structure allows for specific advantages. In Houston’s case, the Rockets can let each guard play to his individual strengths, frustrating opposing game plans: For instance, Houston plays much faster with Westbrook alone and takes many more 3s with Harden alone. Individually, each player takes more shots and collects more assists when given free rein to create by himself; they both receive so many opportunities to initiate offense that concerns about “only one ball for two players” are, as always, overblown.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Together and Apart

Player PTS per 75 Possessions AST per 75 Possessions USG%
Player PTS per 75 Possessions AST per 75 Possessions USG%
Harden w/ Westbrook 30.3 6.9 35.6%
Harden w/o Westbrook 40.4 8.7 44.1%
Westbrook w/ Harden 18.5 5.6 25.5%
Westbrook w/o Harden 24.8 11.5 33.5%

For the Lakers, both James and Davis have ample experience shouldering an offensive load by themselves, so their span across all 48 minutes helps mask a relatively short bench. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have been outscored by an unimaginable 53.3 points per 100 possessions without either of their two stars on the floor. Those numbers come in an extremely limited sample, but they underscore how dire L.A.’s situation might become if forced to lean on non-star lineups for too long.

Two trends complicate the notion that a staggered strategy is definitively correct, however. Employing a Big Two instead of a Big Three adds wrinkles to this process. It’s much easier to, say, rest LeBron and Dwyane Wade together when Chris Bosh can commandeer the offense in his teammates’ time off, as opposed to a whole group of bench players.

Teams have also generally lessened the minutes load their best players are required to shoulder. Some stars are missing entire games for load management, while others are simply playing fewer minutes. The top 10 players in minutes per game last season averaged only 35.8 minutes, the lowest on record, and the five lowest such averages in league history come from the past five seasons.

Nor can staggering work as a universal philosophy—like, say, shooting more 3-pointers. Basketball players are humans, not mere numbers on a spreadsheet, so hard-to-quantify factors like rhythm for shooters and personal preferences—Durant famously likes to rest just once per half—can scramble best-laid plans. “There is two components to it,” Steve Kerr told The Athletic in 2017 about deciding whether to stagger Durant and Steph Curry. “What you’d like to do on paper and what makes the players the most comfortable.”

In this vein, one potential negative to a star-splitting plan is that some ostensible top options can’t actually carry a lineup by themselves. The Trail Blazers, for instance, rarely separate Lillard from McCollum; that might be the case because in the past five seasons, the Blazers have been outscored when McCollum plays without his fellow guard.

Another complication is that some star pairings’ skill sets are optimized when playing with one another. This season, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have shared a higher percentage of their minutes than any other top-scoring duo, as Denver benefits from the pair’s unique, invertible pick-and-roll magic. When Murray screened for Jokic last season, a delightful bit of positional heterodoxy, the Nuggets averaged 1.30 points per possession according to ESPN, tied for the best mark in the league.

Third, a bench lineup might grow accustomed to relying on one player to generate offense, so a rotational scramble due to injury, load management, or foul trouble would leave the group unprepared to score by itself.

This scenario confronted the Lakers in Chicago last week. Trailing by 13 points at the start of the fourth quarter, Davis had been tagged four fouls while James, who had played the first 11 minutes of the third quarter, was “exhausted,” Vogel said after the game. “Both those guys needed to stay on the bench.”

Against the Bulls, the gamble paid off. Led by Kyle Kuzma, the bench lineup—or the Bad News Bears, as member Dwight Howard calls them with his particular brand of convoluted logic—scored 14 consecutive points to take the lead in an eventual Lakers win. “That’s what we have our depth for,” James said after the game.

But that approach is risky because of the Lakers’ questionable depth. In L.A.’s next game, against Miami, Vogel tried the same tactic to start the fourth quarter, only to see a 12-point lead drop to seven within seconds, forcing a timeout to re-insert James.

The Lakers’ chief rival in both the Staples Center and the Western Conference might have an easier time deploying its two stars when Paul George debuts precisely because its bench can handle itself much more capably. The Clippers have enough secondary scorers—in particular, the trusty pick-and-roll partnership of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—that they can theoretically rest both Kawhi Leonard and George for large chunks of games without worrying too much about a lack of bench oomph. Given the two stars’ injury histories, which should result in ample load management, and Doc Rivers’s own history of not staggering his best players’ minutes, the Clippers have plenty of fail-safes in place to make ostensibly difficult decisions more comfortable.

For illustration, the Clippers’ two leading scorers at the moment are Leonard and Williams, who have shared the court for only 47.6 percent of their minutes (in games in which they both played). That’s the lowest figure for any team’s top two scorers.

Ultimately, however, playing the most talented players together might be the most effective goal for a coach to pursue. For as much as a group like the Rockets, with two lead guards who both need the ball to optimize their performance, might benefit from staggering star minutes, teams generally benefit from playing their best players together as much as possible. Just look at a chart showing the Lakers’ net rating per 100 possessions in a few scenarios this season, per Cleaning the Glass:

Lakers’ Stagger Splits

James On James Off
James On James Off
Davis On +19.5 -1.2
Davis Off +6.9 -53.3

With one star, the Lakers have been fine but not special. With both stars, however, they have been dominant. The “Zidane Clustering Theorem” in soccer explains that good players perform better next to other good players because they’re better suited to profit from their talented teammates’ abilities. This advantage may be compounded in basketball, which has so few players on the court at a time and so few elite players overall—when each star commands so much defensive attention by himself, the lineup improves exponentially. Vogel should want to maximize the time his team is in the top-left box of the grid.

To do so, he’ll need more confidence that the bench lineup won’t let the leads James and Davis collect slip away. Thus Kuzma becomes, perhaps, the Lakers’ most crucial player, as he works his way back into game shape from a foot injury that cost him the first four games of the season. “Having Kuz back and we’ll get Rondo back, we can allow [James and Davis] to rest more and find opportunities where they’re both on the bench,” Vogel said.

His hope is that Kuzma, who averaged 18.7 points per game last season despite subpar efficiency, can carry an offense for a few minutes each half. (Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played yet this season due to a calf injury, isn’t a scorer but would ideally help with initiating the offense when James isn’t in.) Then the Lakers could keep James and Davis together longer while weathering a star-less bench stretch.

The same is true to an extent in Houston as well, with Eric Gordon in the Kuzma role. In Chicago over the weekend, D’Antoni said he preferred to start Danuel House Jr. over Gordon to streamline his substitution patterns and ensure that two members of the Harden-Westbrook-Gordon troika are on the floor at all times.

Thus a Big Two transforms, in some ironic sense, to a Semi-Big Three. Improvement from Kuzma would make Vogel’s substitutions much easier to plan, as Williams will likely do for Rivers when George returns (possibly as soon as this week), and someone like Caris LeVert might in Brooklyn next season, when the Nets navigate a star-splitting conundrum of their own with Durant and Kyrie Irving.

These decisions are tricky and sensitive to subtle changes in a team’s broader rotation. Ultimately, they might not even matter all that much for the most star-studded teams; the debate might reflect the related one in baseball, wherein lineup changes don’t matter nearly as much as all the attendant consternation would suggest. A franchise with both James and Davis healthy should win a lot of games regardless of how their minutes are dispersed.

Yet for as long as teams seek to pair top players, and for as long as stars seek to play together, this balancing act will continue to pose philosophical and corporeal concerns. So many variables are involved that there’s no one right blanket answer. But at least for now, the newest experimenters in Los Angeles and Houston think they know that extreme staggers, unprecedented in recent NBA history outside the last experiment in Houston, are the best way to go.

Stats through Saturday’s games.

An earlier version of this piece contained a chart that incorrectly stated the Rockets’ minutes without Westbrook or Harden against Memphis.