The Step Back

Playing the “Would You Rather” game — NBA duos edition


Here at The Step Back, we love games. We also love the NBA. So we decided to bring those two things together and play a quick round of “would you rather” with some NBA pairings. 

Which big man duo would you rather have: DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap?

Matt Rutkowski (@MontaWorldPeace): Assuming the rest of each team is even instead of the rosters currently constructed, I think I would take Cousins and Davis by a hair. A very thin, barely perceptible hair. I’ve vacillated on this multiple times and changed the names in this paragraph more times than I can count because I can’t count past two.

It feels like cheating talking about things other than game or fit, but the calculus came down to age vs. contract length. Jokic and Millsap seem locked in for multiple years. Both Davis and Cousins could be gone before either Jokic or Millsap is. However, Davis is only two years older than Jokic, and Cousins is six years younger than Millsap. If this year goes well, there will be more years on the horizon, and as much as I love watching Jokic play and thinking about how Millsap plays in hypothetical terms, the Kentucky combo just fascinates me. It’s hard to get too excited by Cousins because it feels that excitement can turn sour at the drop of a reporter, but it could be magical. I like magic.

Jeremy Lambert (@jeremylambert88): Brow and Boogie. For the simple fact that I remixed Migos’ ‘Bad and Boujee’ the moment this trade went down and I don’t want my remix to go to waste. I’m very invested in this duo. My career as a Twitter rapper depends on them staying together long term and winning a lot of games together.

Andrew Tobolowsky (@andytobo): I hate Nikola Jokic. I do. And it is because I love Karl Anthony-Towns so much. So much that I don’t have room in my heart for anyone else. But people keep talking about Jokic even despite my personal feelings.

Still though, I’d probably say Millsap and Jokic. It’s weird because I think Cousins is better than either of those guys and Davis is the best of them all, but something just doesn’t feel right about the mix over there. When was the last time two dominant big men played well together anyway? Duncan and Robinson? So maybe Jokic-Millsap will be better cause they are worse?

Matt Cianfrone (@Matt_Cianfrone): Davis and Cousins but it took me a lot of time to get to that point. On offense things are pretty close. Jokic’s passing combined with Millsap’s shooting is going to create a ton of space. Davis and Cousins on the other hand should batter teams into submission on post-ups and pick-and-rolls.

Defensively though I lean towards the Pelicans duo. Millsap is the best defender of the four but Davis isn’t that far off. And while Cousins isn’t always perfect when he is locked in he can be at least above-average. Jokic doesn’t seem to have that ability. So edge New Orleans.

Bryan Toporek (@btoporek): I want to say Jokic and Millsap, if only because they seem to mesh better conceptually. But if Brow and Boogie figure it out, they’re going to be an unstoppable terror. If I had to win a game today, I’d take the Denver duo. If I was building a team for the next five years — and I didn’t care about my job security — I’d gamble on Brow-Boogie and surround them with shooters (aka, not Rajon Rondo) to make their lives easier. Once we lure Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis to my squad, the Warriors’ Death Lineup will be no match for my all-bigs bully-ball style of play.

Brandon Jefferson (@Jefferson_Hoops): Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and I don’t even have to think twice about it. Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap are going to help lead the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs next season while Cousins and Davis are going to be on the outside looking in once more. However, the talent wins out for me in this scenario. Boogie and The Brow are two All-Stars, both capable of playing inside and out and are complete match up nightmares for opponents. If toppling the Golden State Warriors is your franchise’s goal there aren’t two players that give the Warriors more fits than the Pelicans frontcourt duo.

Philip Rossman-Reich (@philiprr_OMD): Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap. I think both are selfless players and will keep others involved but will take over when they need to. Not to mention Jokic is a unique player in his own right and someone who changes the game and can play off-ball. If someone can mimic the traditional center of the 1990s in the modern game, it is Jokic. The question between these pairs is fit. And Millsap and Jokic fit together perfectly. Millsap and Jokic can both shoot 3-pointers and attack in multiple ways. I am not sold either DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis will ever extend to the 3-point line consistently enough to work well together.

Which new star pairing would you rather have: Paul George and Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul and James Harden?

Rutkowski: This one is less close for me. I want George and Westbrook. I can picture their fit without saying the word “can” as much.For example, Paul and Harden can be a great backcourt match if they can figure out their distribution of responsibilities. That’s two. George and Westbrook should be a better match from the start. That’s zero.

I’ll be watching the Rockets with interest and a slight bit of dread. There’s so much up and down to Harden, and so much down for them both in the playoffs, even though that feels like a cheap shot. I’m going to be watching the Thunder with excitement. I loved their games last year when it felt like they were hanging on to a quality record by will. This year, if drive matches their new talent, they could be exhilarating. Plus, I’m too emotionally invested in Harden’s beard. If things go badly for them, it would hurt more. I can’t handle it.

Lambert: I’m more fascinated by the pairing of Paul and Harden, but I would want the pairing of Westbrook and George. I know what I’m getting in the Thunder duo. Westbrook has played with a star small forward before, and while George isn’t as good Kevin Durant, they do similar things. Paul and Harden are a different story because we are looking at two of the three most ball dominant guards in the NBA. I think they’ll figure it out.

They are great players, they are smart players, and they want to win. They’ll figure it out and it’ll be scary at times. But, maybe they don’t figure it out. Maybe they sulk and pout and yell and scream at each other because it was their turn to dribble the ball for 15 seconds before deciding what to do.

Tobolowsky: George and Westbrook. I think people are really underrating George for narrative reasons, which I also think is true for Davis, above. When there’s a guy who seems poised to take a leap and doesn’t, in George’s case because of a broken leg and then team turmoil. But George can do everything at a high level and, unlike Durant, is probably better served by not being the dominant scorer. I expect big things.

Cianfrone: I think George and Westbrook are going to be phenomenal together and the Thunder are going to win plenty. That said I think ultimately Harden and Paul are the two best players in this discussion so give me them. It may not look great at the start but these are two players who can excel both with and without the ball. It is going to be darn near unstoppable when they get comfortable.

Toporek: I’m echoing the crowd here and picking Westbrook and George. As much fun as Nightly Triple-Double Russ is, I’m also excited to see him have a star wing teammate again. While I expect Paul and Harden to figure out how to share the ball, I have fewer concerns about George and Westbrook meshing immediately. And while Paul remains an all-league defender, George is similarly strong on that end of the court and far more versatile. Whereas there are limitations as to who the 6’0” Paul can guard, George is capable of locking down opposing 2-guards, small forwards and power forwards—anyone from Devin Booker to Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James. If I’m building a team from the ground up, I want an elite wing defender to stifle an opponent’s top scorer, and George gives me the best chance of doing so.

Jefferson: I’ve seen a better version of George and Westbrook already when the Thunder trotted out Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Give me Chris Paul and James Harden. Lost in the multiple seasons of great play from both of these players, is the fact that offensively they offer the total package. Their recent roster situations have made it so they both need to play with the ball in their hands often in order to make teammates better.

That isn’t the case anymore. As the Point God, Paul has put together a Hall of Fame career already, but the black cloud of never getting past the second round hangs over his head. Harden has had two MVP-caliber seasons lost to once in a lifetime performances from one of his peers. Putting these two together–in a Mike D’Antoni offense–is going to open things up and allow both players to showcase their entire array of skills.

Rossman-Reich: Chris Paul and James Harden. I am going to be a similar theme here. I see both Harden and Paul as more willing passers and so they can better integrate each other and their teammates into the game. Now, Paul and Harden will still have to take turns dominating the ball. Paul will have to be a stronger spot-up shooter. But they are both so good at breaking players down off the dribble. They might be the two best players at doing so in the league. And they are both extremely skilled passers. They can dominate the ball with a high usage rate, but they will get others involved while doing so. As long as they take their turns, they have the shooters to be a dangerous duo.

Which 2016/2017 NBA Draft pairing would you rather have: Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz or Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball?

Rutkowski: It should be difficult to give the edge to Simmons and Fultz considering neither have ever played an NBA game, but it hasn’t been for me. I didn’t know Ingram well from college, and while I trust those who praise his potential, I haven’t had that lightbulb go off yet personally. Simmons fascinates me, and Fultz seems like a perfect person to fit right in the current makeup of the team. If it were two-on-two, I’d probably go Ball and Ingram. Since it’s two of five vs. two of five, I have to go the other way.

Lambert: How many NCAA tournament games did Simmons and Fultz win? Now, how many NCAA tournament games did Ball and Ingram win? This is an easy question. I want the guys who have won NCAA tournament games. The guy who has played in a NBA game. The summer league MVP. Forget the Process. I want the Proof.

Tobolowsky: Simmons and Fultz. I think the talent edge is pretty big. Ingram is the one guy who has played so far, and he hasn’t impressed, though of course young guys can make big leaps between years one and two. For Ball, he really impressed in Summer League but when I watch him I feel like he will struggle against NBA defenses. Fultz and Simmons seem to have it all. On the other hand, it is interesting that we’re having this discussion since the Lakers were never OFFICIALLY tanking and the Sixers did it so assiduously.

Cianfrone: Joel Embiid would be mad at me if I didn’t answer with Simmons and Fultz. So give me Simmons and Fultz.

(Also I worry about Ball’s ability to be a primary scorer due to his jump shot which means I think Fultz has a higher ceiling. I also think Simmons’ unique skills give him the higher ceiling than Ingram. So I would rather take the shot on the 76ers pair.)

Toporek: Ha! I’m not being a homer by choosing Simmons and Fultz! But seriously, the concerns about “Ben Simmons, point guard” are vastly overblown. Since when is it a bad thing to have multiple capable playmakers and ball-handlers? Ball already looks like one of the league’s most dazzling passers, but there is a difference between having a tall point guard and running your offense through a power forward. Few opposing forwards are equipped to guard a player like Simmons, which gives him the edge in terms of uniqueness. I do expect Ball and Ingram to help lead a Lakers revitalization. But the prospect of building around Simmons and Fultz is too enticing to ignore. (And no, it’s not just because I’m a Process truster.)

Jefferson: Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Yes they haven’t played a game in the NBA, but they have both shown how easy the game comes to them. There are questions about their games, but whereas we saw Ingram struggle as a rookie and the jury is still out on what Ball’s NBA skill is going to be beside passing, the Sixers duo have shown that they won’t have trouble adjusting to the NBA. Fultz’s ability to get to the spots he wants are unprecedented for a rookie and the fact that he can score from all three levels makes it even more taxing to deal with. Simmons dazzled us last summer with his court vision, like Ball, but unlike LaVar’s son, he’s a 6’10” lefty. Right now these two are second banana to Joel Embiid that’s one hell of a sidekick for The Process.

Rossman-Reich: This one is really tough. And I do not take Joel Embiid into consideration? Hmm… I think I am going to stick with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. The whole passing thing again. I think Fultz is going to be a legitimate scorer and Simmons is a unique player with his size and passing ability. I take that unique factor over everything else in picking this.

Which young big/small pairing would you rather have: Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel or Frank Ntilikina and Kristaps Porzingis?

Rutkowski: We know what we have in Porzingis. An emotional twenty-one-year-old who can’t give Phil the respect he deserves for doing good things for a different team at some point in the past and skips the most important moment in an NBA season: an exit interview. You can’t trust someone like that. I think it’s because he’s a millennial. Unfortunately, everyone else here is a millennial too, so I’m going off menu and picking Phil Jackson and Phil Jackson. If one Phil Jackson is great, how amazing would two of them be? Probably super amazing. I’d count his rings, but again: I can’t count.

Lambert: Porzingis is by far the best player in that group. I like Smith Jr. more than Ntilikina (never trust a man with that many I’s in his name), but Noel isn’t going to be anywhere close to what I expect Porzingis to be next year. Unless Smith Jr. becomes an elite point guard and Ntilikina is out of the league in five years, I have a hard time not seeing Ntilikina and Porzingis being the better duo. Mainly because of Porzingis, who will ignite Twitter debates on whether or not he is a top 10 player this year. Unless Carmelo Anthony stays.

Tobolowsky: As Dennis Smith Jr showed in summer league, he’s now the greatest player in the NBA. Kristaps is good, but he’s no Dennis Smith Jr. Meanwhile, Nerlens over Frank just ‘cause there’s no way to rank Frank (woo!) until we see him on an NBA court. Stay tuned. But not that tuned.

Cianfrone: This ultimately comes down to if you trust Ntilikina to be at least a solid rotation player. If you do the answer is easily the Knicks pairing as Porzingis is already clearly a franchise player. But if you don’t, then the superstar possibility with Smith Jr and the really good if healthyness of Noel is the right choice. Based on all I have read and heard I think Ntilikina is good enough to be that. So give me the Knicks pair.

Toporek: As one of the world’s biggest Noel stans, it pains me to choose Porzingis and Ntilikina here. Assuming the Mavericks finally #PayNerlens and don’t piss him off to the point of him taking a qualifying offer, he and Smith are going to be a devastating pick-and-roll combo for the next half-decade. Noel also touts All-Defensive-caliber chops, both as a shot-blocker and with the defensive IQ and hand speed to thwart passing lanes to create turnovers. Unless he developed a three-point shot this summer, though, Porzingis’ unicorn upside is impossible to ignore. If he and Ntilkina didn’t play for the Knicks, I’d feel far more comfortable about projecting greatness for them. But hell, KP has demonstrated that upside even while playing for the Knicks. If he can overcome the dysfunction of the Garden, what can stop him?

Jefferson: No disrespect to Nerlens Noel or Frank Ntilikina, but for me this question comes down to whether I like Kristaps Porzingis or Dennis Smith Jr. more. And that is one hard question to answer.

Porzingis has adapted to New York seamlessly and as a unicorn there haven’t been many players like him to grace the NBA stage. He also took a selfie with me after the 2015 NBA Draft (bonus points for Porzingis). Smith Jr. I have loved ever since watching his first YouTube highlight video. He tore through the ACC last year, but his team stunk. My heart won’t let me choose so naturally, as a millennial in 2017, I turn to Twitter. Porzingis had the much talked about “LA Clippers [blushing emoji]” hack that wasn’t scandal. Meanwhile, Smith Jr J let his famous tweet stand on it’s own two legs until Mark Cuban to delete it. The edge goes to Smith Jr. and Noel. The “I got hacked” defense is played out.


Rossman-Reich: Ntilikina and Porzingis. Here, I have to take by far the best player of the group. Kristaps Porzingis is the guy who moves the needle most of this bunch. He can do everything a modern big can do — protect the rim, hit 3-point shots and work the low post. And, while I love Dennis Smith, I think Frank Ntilikina is going to be better than people expect. Ntilikina has great length and should be a good defender. Against his peers, he dominated offensively and showed his 3-point shooting can improve. I do not think there is a huge difference between the rookie point guards to counteract how good Porzingis can be.

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