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NBA JAM Tournament: Which current duo is the league’s best?

What if NBA JAM — yes, the popular 90’s video game — actually happened with today’s NBA teams? Ponder no more! In this first post of our JAM series, we look at each team’s ideal roster.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The schedule has been released. Free agency, Summer League, and 99 percent of roster construction is complete. Most NBA stars are sitting out the FIBA World Cup. So, what the heck are we supposed to do until October 22?


That’s right. We’re filling the void with a hypothetical NBA JAM tournament! The video game that captured our hearts as kids is now going to capture our minds as adults. Since an actual, real-life, 2-on-2 tournament with the world’s best players would never happen, we’re going all-in on this hypothetical — constructing the best trios (2 + 1 sub) of each NBA team and assuming all players are healthy!

In this post, we’ll outline each team’s NBA JAM roster. Later on this week, we’ll rank each team and reveal the bracket. To help put this together, I’ve got Conor McCreery and Mitch Orsatti supplying their creative word-smithing (and also keeping me in line if my Raptors homerism takes over). Anything else to add, fellas?

CM: NBA JAM rules. It’s not a debate.

MO: I am nervous to see where you’ve ranked the Raptors because I know I’m going to have to tell you it’s too high.

CM: My brother and I once decided that all disagreements and confrontations must be legally and blindingly decided by games of NBA JAM on our Sega Genesis. It’s why I still shiver when I hear: “He’s Heating Up” and reflexively think I’m going to need to take the bus to get to the movies tonight.

It is an icon, an institution, and as someone who played it in the arcade when it came out, and on four different systems and counting (none made in this century), my knowledge and authority on JAM is supreme, so there will be no arguing with my selections in the comments. You hear me people? I have a fragile ego, and I just need you to accept these groupings as if they were chiseled onto stone tablets and left on top of a mountain in an AAU tournament.

(Full disclosure, I may have chosen Bismack Biyombo for a team, so, yeah, there’s room for quibbling.)

JR: Later on this week, we’ll rank the teams, throw them into a bracket, and run through the first round of the tournament. Without further ado, here are the squads!

Atlantic Division (CM)

The Atlantic Division features three really interesting JAM teams, one absolute all-timer, and the, uh, New York Knickerbockers.

Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka – The Raptors’ lack of a high-flying 3-and-D monster is even more apparent in NBA JAM than in real life. Still, this is a dark horse team. Siakam has got to be the quickest big in the game, and Ibaka, career-wise, brings enough three-point shooting to keep Toronto afloat on offense around Lowry’s dead-eye marksmanship. And on D? Expect to hear a ton of: “the bigger the love, the bigger the shove” from this handsy trio. (And yeah, yeah, I didn’t pick OG Anunoby — we all realize he hasn’t proven that he’s like, a good NBA player yet, right?)

Philadelphia 76’ers: Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson – Our first huge snub of the piece, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Philly has two modern centres, they just happen to play one at point-guard. I don’t think Embiid and Ben Simmons are a playable JAM combo. Richardson will rack up the steals, motor all over the court, and can enough threes to give the Sixers a viable “small” line-up with Harris.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker – I almost went with Jaylen Brown, but JAM has always been kind to their fading stars, so Hayward probably gets the better rating. This group is going to be fast and will fill it up from all over. They’ll also be soft on defense and on the boards – but who’s fixing that for NBA JAM? Can’t Play Kanter? The Time Lord? N’ah.

Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jarett Allen – Caris LeVert got some real consideration here, and for real basketball, maybe? But NBA JAM needs someone swatting and rebounding, so enter Allen (no, I do not see you anymore DeAndre Jordan). But who cares who the third player is? Irving and Durant will be an unstoppable shot-making duo, and in JAM the fact Durant is a NBA Defensive Player of the Year Candidate will make everyone else go home and cry. Tourney, Nets.

New York Knicks: Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox – Woof. The Knicks are the team NBA JAM throws out to you on easy mode that basically kicks the ball to you on every possession. There are so many flavours of M’eh here. Bobby Portis, Maple Mamba and Frankie Smokes? Sure, why not. Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Alonzo Trier? Cool. Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson and Reggie Bullock. Am I just starting to make up names now?

Southeast Division (CM)

The Southeast Division is… what I get for picking last on which divisions I got to do. Go home serious NBA JAM players, there is no shelter here.

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Terrence Ross – A pretty decent NBA JAM collection. You get at least some shooting from all three guys. Gordon and Isaac can rack up blocks. Ross is, still, an athletic marvel. All three are fast. They might not have as high a top-end as other rosters, but they’re that super-weirdo Phoenix Suns team that took you six times to beat in the original game.

Charlotte Bobcats: Terry Rozier, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo – What to say about the Bobcats? Uh, Terry Rozier has the irrational confidence that makes him a fit for a player the computer will let shoot 11 for 39? I briefly thought of inventing a time machine, not to kill any one of a dozen of deserving dictators, but to go back when Nicholas Batum was good? I didn’t want to take Bismack Biyombo, but the other option was Cody Zeller? In the end, I just kinda bet on defense and hoped that you’d be so busy screwing around on the other end that I might only lose by eight.

Miami Heat: Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo – The Heat have a lot of options here. I thought about Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk as the “big”, since Butler isn’t a great three-point shooter, but I thought Bam’s edge on the boards and around the rim was more important. This is a good JAM team, especially if Dragic gets buffed based on his career, but like the Heat themselves, they’re less an elite squad, and more a mid-tier one.

Washington Wizards: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Thomas Bryant – This is the team that’s like tenth on the snake list when you play Campaign Mode and just keeps beating the shit out of you. Wall and Bryant are perfect for NBA JAM. All their strengths play up, and all their weaknesses are unimportant (I mean half the time, NBA JAM players are motionless without the ball anyways). Beal can scorch, Wall is a blur, Bryant will dunk, and board everything. Huh, so we finally found a basketball adjacent thing that the Wiz could win two rounds in $125 million for an NBA JAM elite eight appearance? Good job, Leonsis!

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins – The Hawks aren’t there in NBA JAM, any more than they are in the real L, but they are on the come-up. The third time Young beats you by going end to end for a lay-up, which you’re in position for a double block, but he does that weird “through the legs pass on the drive” to a wide-open Huerter who cans the three, you’ll discretely hit “reset” and hope the computer just forgets they exist. Or rage quit. Rage quit works too.

Central Division (JR)

The former home of MVPs Derrick Rose and LeBron James is now home to not-even-top-3-on-the-Pistons, Rose and Moondog the Mascot. Not a lot of noise-makers here and. similar to the Southeast, filled with First Round fodder.

Chicago Bulls: Zach Lavine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter – Among the many joys of a tournament like this is that every team has a puncher’s chance. Take the Bulls, for example. Fielding a team of three is much easier than debating whether Luke Kornet or Cristiano Felicio deserves starter minutes.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, Moondog (Mascot) – Disregard what I wrote in the Bulls paragraph. Who is their third best player? Jordan Clarkson? Cedi Osman? In this format, another big (Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr.) wouldn’t work. Maybe the Cavs mascot can provide some secret character special abilities, like Bill Clinton in the original video game! (Alright, let’s go with Osman)

Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond – Now you can disregard what I wrote in the Cavaliers paragraph, because, apparently, having two bigs in this format DOES work. Griffin’s got just enough point guard skills to make a Drummond tag team work, when needed.

Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis – It was very tempting to add Jeremy Lamb because wings that can score are going to be the keys to success in this tourney. But lefties unite... so Sabonis is in.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Kyle Korver – Even in a 2-on-2 setting, the prospect of not double-teaming the Greek Freak looms large. Leaning in the wrong direction can lead to a quick kick-out and even quicker Korver three-ball.

Northwest Division (JR)

There are as many FIBA World Cup participants on the Jazz (2) as there are represented from the remaining four teams in the division. I’m not sure what that means — only that I’m still bitter the Canadians listed were among the declines.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap – Last season, Jokic assisted on 147 field goals by Murray, good for 11th in the NBA. Not far behind in 17th, Murray assisted on 123 field goals by Jokic. Denver’s cornerstones are really building something special and providing hope for a bright future in the Mile High city. Their camaraderie should take them far in this tournament.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington – Wiggins and KAT just finished their fourth season together. That’s already the 3rd-longest tenure of any other Western Conference duo with their current team. That chemistry has to count for something, right? Right?!? I hope so, because this franchise could sure use any kind of positive news.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams – Just two years ago, the Rockets paid a hefty price to acquire CP from the Clippers. A week later, the Clippers used a portion of that haul to get Gallo from the Nuggets. CP and Gallo never got a chance to play with each other at Staples, but now find themselves leading the Thunder rebuild. Adams’ size will come in handy with the right matchup.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic – Harkening back to the original NBA JAM roster for Portland (Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter), we’re going with an all-guard lineup. There’s a ton of “He’s-On-Fire” potential with this duo.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley – Honestly, a Conley-Gobert pick-and-roll should lead to a basket nine times out of 10. But Conley’s been underrated his entire career, so this seems on-brand to bench him in favour of Spida/Spider/Still-Not-Rookie-Of-The-Year Mitchell.

Pacific Division (MO)

I thought I would be cute by picking the two best NBA JAM divisions first when Jay came to us with this idea. Let me just say, it was the right move, because the Southeast makes me want to gouge my eyes out.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green – Leave it to the Warriors to give you the best of both worlds when you need it. If this squad goes up against a team with a dominant big, throw Draymond in. If not, let two of the best five shooters of all time cook ‘em until they’re burnt.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams – Sweet baby Lou is going to be glued to the bench as the third sub here, and these Clippers still might have a shot at winning the whole tournament. In reality, though, are the Clippers actually going to be good in the actual NBA? I swear I’m not salty over Kawhi leaving (I will love him forever) but look at that whole roster and then look me in the digital eye and tell me that’s a championship team. I’ll wait.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins – You’ve gotta love the big time flexibility that the NBA JAM Lakers bring to this tournament. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where LeBron would move to the bench for Boogie, but I would love to see the Boogie and Brow steamroller show.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr. (I guess) – So, basically the real-life regular season Phoenix Suns. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III – Did you know that the Sacramento Kings have two players on their roster that are third of their name? I would like to provide more encouraging facts for why Fox and Hield (and Bagley when called for) can make some noise in this tournament, but I’m really not seeing it. Will there be a 4-point shot like in the Big 3? Maybe that might do it?

Southwest Division (MO)

A whole lot of spice in this division, but a lot of it might be surface level. No matter how you season it, though, there is an NBA JAM title contender in this division.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Boban Marjanovic – I want all the best things in the world for Luka and Boban. I feel less the same about Kristaps but here he is, along for the ride as the incredibly talented, also giant man on this roster. The Mavericks need a better third player in real life and in this tournament.

Houston Rockets: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker – Normally, I would slot a big into the third rotation spot in order to counter the big in other team’s third rotation spot, but P.J. is a beast on his own. If for some reason the Harden and Westbrook tandem doesn’t work out (seriously, pick a reason), then the Rocket’s JAM team will be just fine with Tucker splashing corner 3’s and decimating his opponent on defense.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas – If there was a team in this tournament that is going to sneak up and punch you in the mouth for a surprise victory, it’s this Grizzlies team right here. JJJ is extremely solid and extremely underrated and Ja looks like he’s going to be a tremendous player for a long time. If they hit the young-gun wall, then they’ve got the steadying presence of the big man in the middle.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram – You could talk me into any of the Lakers ex-pats here, but I think Ingram offers the best matchup flexibility for the Pelicans. Furthermore, I think Zion might be the most NBA JAM like player in the entire NBA at this moment. LeBron doesn’t have the burst like he used to and Westbrook can’t shoot for shit, so it has to be him, right?

San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray – Look, we all love the Spurs, but this is like every single All Star Game their players have ever played in - they’re just not suited for it. Chalk up a first round exit and put me out of my misery, already.