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Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving among 5 duos facing a burning question

A handful of pairings around the NBA enter the 2020-21 season facing key questions about their viability.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Brooklyn stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are healthy and ready for their first season on the court together.

There’s a chance the 2020-21 season, much like last season, will show LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two much for the rest of the NBA once again.

While three stars are preferred among championship contenders, two is the norm, and nobody can compare with the Lakers’ pair if only because, well, they’re coming off a championship. Besides that, LeBron is an all-time great who just finished second in the Kia MVP vote at age 35, while Davis made All-NBA and impacts both rims.

Therefore, until proven otherwise, LeBron and Davis are the gold standard. Their success is rooted in talent but also compatibility. Place them together on the floor and all the boxes are checked: Shooting, passing, rim protection, half-court play, fast-break, intimidation and presence. Their personalities and egos coexist. More often than not, they come through in close games that call for a big shot or big play.

Maybe the best advantage: With LeBron and Davis, the Lakers don’t have a desperate need for a third star and can surround them with low-cost role players who enjoy open shots and other fringe benefits that make them better than they are.

Here are five other duos hoping to replicate LeBron and Davis in some manner, hoping for a big payoff in the postseason, but facing some questions and issues along the way:

1. What will be the
second impression of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?

Breaking down expectations for the Clippers in 2020-21.

Well, that first impression was a bit slippery, wasn’t it?

Let’s supply some context: There was no ill-will or a lack of chemistry between Kawhi and George; that’s not why the opening chapter of this anticipated pairing fell flat last season. Rather, they separated themselves from the team based on reports of favoritism, to the extent it alienated their teammates and caused some friction.

The Athletic reported Kawhi was often late to team flights because he sometimes commuted from his home in San Diego. Also, the two players dictated whether the Clippers would practice or not. And then former coach Doc Rivers recently suggested that holdover players from the previous season never warmed up to George.

It’s typical for stars to get special treatment yet in this case it backfired, and even Kawhi is admitting as much. He made a point recently to stress the importance of both players being healthy and available from the start; their tendency to play the load management card, especially Kawhi, also didn’t sit well with teammates last season.

Ultimately, success is about wins, and both players came up weak in the moment of truth, when the Clippers blew a 3-1 playoff series lead to Denver. Plus, the Clippers just made a massive commitment to George with that four-year, $190 million contract extension; Kawhi is expected to sign one as well, but hasn’t yet, and free agency is approaching next summer.

Their two-way skills are complimentary, their personalities don’t conflict and they share the ball. As a pair of athletic wings who impact games in multiple ways, Kawhi and George are a good on-court fit. But the price for them, both in salary and the assets it took to bring them to LA, was and is steep. Sure, their one season together is a small sample size, yet when is the payoff coming, if ever?

2. Will Chris Paul take Devin Booker’s game to another level?

The acquisition of Chris Paul should elevate the Suns.

It isn’t often when the Suns make a personnel move that gets almost universal applause, but this was an exception. Paul feels so right for Booker in so many ways, and the only shame is this union didn’t happen sooner; if so, Booker would have multiple playoff appearances right now, instead of zero.

Not only is Paul a proper mentor — you saw what he did with a young group in in Oklahoma City last season especially with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — but he also completely frees Booker from playmaking duties, allowing the young shooter to roam and do what he does best. This very well could be a First-Team All-NBA season for Booker, and if so, Paul will have a hand in making that happen.

Obviously, the bigger question is what this does for the Suns, who ran the table in the Orlando bubble, nearly made the playoffs and finished strong under new coach Monty Williams. Let’s just say the backcourt will be the least of their worries. Hopefully for Phoenix, this helps Deandre Ayton develop into a solid pick-and-roll player and enhances his value and impact. If Paul and Booker manage to gel, the ripple effect on the club could be substantial.

3. Are quirky superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving able to co-exist and dominate?

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will be an interesting duo to monitor.

The unveiling is finally upon the Nets and the possibilities should be glorious. After a one-year wait while both players recovered from injuries, the Nets get to reap the benefits of a pair of championship-tested stars still in their prime and prepared to make strong comebacks.

From purely a talent standpoint, there’s no question Durant and Irving place Brooklyn in contention for the East title and maybe NBA title. Durant and Irving have the skills to elevate teams to the next level by themselves. Together? Well, they can tag-team opponents into the ground, since both can create plays for themselves and others, and also take turns being the hero in tight finishes. Irving’s tricky ball-handling and Durant’s shooting are top-shelf in the NBA.

The only unseen evil is ego. Both players are quirky and Irving is off the charts. Remember, he’d had enough of being teammates with LeBron James; that alone tells you he’s … different. At least Durant willingly joined Steph Curry and the Warriors for a few years when he could’ve gone anywhere. Durant seems the least threatened of the two.

He and Irving plotted to make this happen, so give them the benefit of the doubt regarding compatibility. But now it’s time to show it.

4. How will Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal operate as two stars with something to prove?

Can Russell Westbrook help the Wizards take the next step?

This is a basketball shotgun marriage made possible because the Rockets didn’t want Westbrook anymore and the Wizards weren’t willing to gamble on John Wall’s recovery. So now we have a former Kia MVP who needs an image cleansing and a 30-point scorer who needs the respect he craves.

Maybe this will work out and get both Westbrook and Beal what they’re looking for. After a fallout with Kevin Durant and failing to get anywhere special in short stints alongside Paul George and James Harden, Russ is desperate to find a co-star who clicks. He’s running out of options and time, so he’ll likely do whatever it takes to appease Beal. The best way is by becoming a facilitator because Westbrook’s shooting is vaporizing anyway. Westbrook can compete for the NBA assists lead if he looks to connect regularly with Beal, one of the game’s premier shooters.

Beal wasn’t always on the best basketball terms with Wall, so this is his chance to make things right, too, with his co-star. Beal didn’t make All-NBA last season despite posting big numbers and it was a sledgehammer to the ego. The best way to change that is by winning, and the Wizards will be in position to do so if this duo meshes early and often.

5. Will Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons survive a fresh restart?

How different will the Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons pairing be this season?

The classic big man/passer combination gets yet another chance to fulfill expectations, this time with a new coach and fresh approach. The Sixers are putting their faith and future into these two by investing financially and resisting any urge to break them up. And that’s probably for the better, since Embiid and Simmons haven’t even reached their primes yet.

The trick is getting them to hide their weaknesses and maximize their strengths under Doc Rivers. Can Embiid scale down his tendency to drift to the perimeter and shoot 3s? Can Simmons develop a trusty mid-range game by working with assistant coach Sam Cassell?

If so, the Sixers will flourish because Embiid and Simmons, from a skill-set and personality standpoint, are players who don’t clash or get in each other’s way. Now it’s up to new GM Daryl Morey to find the right pieces to place around them. The two-star foundation is there and intact; what the Sixers are waiting for are better results in the playoffs.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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