Moore: The History of the NBA Superstar Duo Model and What It Means for This Season


Photo credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Mural of new Los Angeles Clippers players Paul George and Kawhi Leonard displayed at Green Meadows Recreation Center

  • Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) looks at some of the best superstar duos in NBA history and what their relationships might mean for this year's title chase.

Go with me here.

With the Los Angeles Clippers the new consensus title favorites, and with an expansive list of superstar duos instead of trios in the league, I wanted to get a sense for how superstar duos had done throughout NBA history. But instead of working from the duos forward, I took the opposite approach and focused on the teams first.

I took a look at the best teams in NBA regular season history according to Basketball Reference’s SRS, a metric that evaluates point differential vs. strength of schedule. It cuts through some of the smoke and mirrors of the NBA regular season.

It’s a pretty short pathway to “which were the best teams?”

And when you look at the top-20 teams on that list through the prism of how they were constructed with their star talent, a pattern emerges.

There’s the best player — a top-level MVP candidate star — and a secondary player often capable of MVP-caliber play in his own right but who is willing to sacrifice the top level to win. The third man is always a role player, who typically does all the dirty work while being competent offensively.

It’s extremely easy to slip into describing this dynamic as the alpha and beta, but those words have been largely corrupted by toxic forces on the world wide web. So we’re going to use President and Vice President, only not in the political sense, because of, well, many reasons. Think of it as president of a company. He makes the most money, he gets the most decision-making power. (The CEO’s the coach or something. It’s not a perfect analogy, nothing is, work with me here.)

A fuzzy pattern emerged when looking at the players on these teams. Catch-all statistics are always going to be wonky and problematic; everything has to have context. But with a few very clear exceptions, one thing that helped identify Presidents and Vice Presidents was the Basketball Reference metric Win Shares. You’d often see only two players with Win Shares over 10, and it would help identify which two players contributed the most on the floor on both ends.

Again, there are issues with Win Shares, and this provided more of a lighthouse than proof of concept. Let’s look at those teams. Here’s the top 20:

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