Best NBA Duos of All Time
To fully digest all that goes down in an NBA Playoff series, we’d need to employ a seismologist. They can be a real shakeup, after all. These seismic shifts have formed some dynamic duos. The Lakers now boast the imposing tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis; the rival Clippers NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Though injuries will delay the alignment, Brooklyn’s roster will soon feature both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But will any of these new power pairings lead to an NBA title in 2019-20? And, when all is said and done, how will they measure up against the greatest of all time? StubHub highlights basketball’s top 10 on-court combinations ever.
1 | Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
Chicago Bulls, 1987-1998
• How does a walk-on at unheralded University of Central Arkansas become a seven-time All-Star, six-time NBA champion and live to see his number (33) hoisted high into the rafters? He teams up with the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan, that’s how. That isn’t to say Scottie Pippen wasn’t a talented player. In fact, he’s widely considered one of the greatest multi-dimensional forces ever to take the court. But he was most certainly in the right place at the right time in Chicago, with the former Tar Heel Jordan as his practice-court/in-game mentor; a motivating force who helped develop Pippen into one of the league’s premier young forwards. The Jordan-Pippen combo would turn the Bulls into a globally-revered brand, amassing title threepeats between ’91 to ’93 and ’96 to ‘98.
2 | Bob Cousy and Bill Russell
Boston Celtics, 1956-1963
• The old guard often gets short-changed when it comes to these “best of” lists, the accomplishments of yesteryear fading in this era of the Sports Center, 24/7 news cycle. But Cousy and Russell’s accomplishments with the Celtics in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Boston reeled off title after title, refuse to be muddled by time. Cousy, nicknamed the Houdini of the Hardwood for his uncanny ball-handling ability (he led the league in assists eight straight times), was the perfect complement for Russell, the forceful 6-foot-10 center who found success at every level at which he competed, from his years at the University of San Francisco to the Olympic Games to the NBA. Together, they won six NBA championships. In The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, author Gary Pomerantz observed, “The dynasty was born of a merger of two men more alike than they ever understood. Both outsiders, they were self-analytical and murderously competitive. They moved through separate worlds off the court, but on the creaky parquet floor of the Boston Garden they were interlocking pieces. They blended passing and shot blocking, dribbling and rebounding, offense and defense. They were white and black. They were Cooz and Russ.”
3 | Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-1989
• So captivating was LA’s run-and-gun style of the 1980s that it had a Tinseltown-appropriate nickname all its own: Showtime. Spearheading the fast-break approach were the supremely skilled point guard Ervin “Magic” Johnson and sky-hooking center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Waging a bi-coastal floor war with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, the Lakers would collect five NBA titles between ’80 and ‘88, with Magic and Kareem triggering the up-tempo attack. There were weapons aplenty during that stretch (think James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, etc.), but the Hall-of-Famers-to-be were the one-two punch that set the tone.
4 | LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Miami Heat, 2010-2014
• When King James bolted Cleveland the first time around (remember The Decision?), he did so in order to grab that elusive first NBA title, one that, at the time, didn’t appear to be in the cards for the Cavs. Dwyane Wade would help him get there. With his old jersey aflame back in Ohio, LeBron and his new teammate would begin building a championship caliber franchise. With Chris Bosh playing a major role, too, James/Wade would reach the NBA Finals in each of their four seasons together, winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. “You can't win in this league anymore really big with one guy. I don’t care how great they are,” said head coach Pat Riley, who hit the jackpot when James joined D-Wade in Florida in 2010.
5 | Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
Boston Celtics, 1980-1992
• Part of one of the most dominant frontcourts in the annals of the game (along with Robert Parish), Larry Bird and Kevin McHale would lead led the Celtics to five appearances in the NBA Finals, including title runs in 1981, 1984 and 1986, when the Boston vs. LA rivalry was as big as any in sports. McHale, initially a role player off the bench, developed into a perennial NBA All-Star, a power forward who was nearly unstoppable in the paint and could shut down the opposition on the defensive side of the ball, too. “The thing that I tell people that Larry had that was probably unmatched with anybody, he knew how to make his other players better,” recalled Lakers great Magic Johnson. “I think that still today nobody has surpassed him when it comes to that.”
6 | Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers, 1996-2004
• They may not have been best of friends — perhaps there was too much star power, too much ego for that — but what Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant may have lacked in warm-and-fuzzy cordiality they more than made up for in postseason prowess. Reluctantly sharing the spotlight between ’96 and ’04, the Shaq-and-Kobe duo was flat-out dominant, collecting back-to-back-to-back league titles between ‘00 and ’02, and reaching the NBA Finals again in ‘04. But this otherworldly pairing couldn’t last forever. Wrote head coach Phil Jackson in his book The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul, O’Neal got “tired of being a sidekick,” and was dealt to Miami in 2004.
7 | Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars
Detroit Pistons, 1985-1994
• They didn’t call them the Bad Boys for nothing. The Chuck Daly-skippered Detroit Pistons of the 1980s pushed, elbowed, hustled and simply annoyed their way to prominence, making three consecutive NBA Finals appearances between 1988 and 1990, winning it all in their second and third opportunities. Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, Adrian Dantley, Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson, John Salley and James Edwards all played key roles, but it was the backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars who called the shots. Thomas, who played under Bobby Knight at Indiana, was a natural leader on the floor, while Dumars was both a world-class shooter and defender. They would each earn NBA Finals MVP nods.
8 | Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant
Golden State Warriors, 2016-2019
• Like LeBron James, who left C-town in search of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Kevin Durant opted out of OKC in order to expedite his pursuit of basketball glory. Understandably so, it wasn’t a popular move with Thunder fans, who at one point boasted the trio of KD, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, yet had no title to show for it. The 6-foot-10 forward would find immediate success in the Bay Area, teaming up with one of the best shooters in the history of the game — Steph Curry — to claim consecutive crowns in 2017 and 2018, both coming at the expense of the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers. He was named NBA Finals MVP on both occasions. Though to outsiders he seemed an ideal fit alongside Golden State’s core of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Durant chose not to re-sign with the organization after his injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign, asserting that he always felt like an outsider with Steve Kerr’s club. A short-lived but fruitful partnership.
9 | David Robinson and Tim Duncan
San Antonio Spurs, 1997–2003
• From the moment the Spurs landed David Robinson with the first overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, there was a sweeping culture change in San Antonio. Upon completing his two-year active duty obligation, the Naval Academy grad took the team from a 21-61 finish to a franchise-best mark of 56-26 — then the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. For his efforts, he was named Rookie of the Year. The Admiral, as he came to be known, guided the team to the playoffs in each of the next six seasons. However, it wasn’t until the Spurs got their hands on another top pick — 1997 NBA Draft No. 1 Tim Duncan — that the team really put it all together. Like Robinson, Duncan was named ROY. Together, the Twin Towers would lead San Antonio to its first-ever NBA title in 1999, and another in 2003 before Robinson’s retirement.
10 | John Stockton and Karl Malone
Utah Jazz, 1984-2003
• Karl Malone still ranks second (to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 36,928 points. The Mailman owes many of those scores to longtime Jazz teammate John Stockton, a veritable assist machine who is viewed by many as the premier point guard of all time. Utah’s only two NBA Finals appearances — ’97 and ’98 — came during the Stockton/Malone years, though the team was eclipsed by Michael Jordan’s Bulls on both occasions.