Ideal Companions: The Most Perfect Teammate Pairings in the NBA
One man may not make a team, but sometimes two pretty good ones can.
From Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the greatest dynasties in recent memory started with teams of two. The Los Angeles Lakers understood just that when pairing Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to form one of the most dominant inside-outside combinations of all time.
Little has changed in today's NBA.
The best teams still start with two stars, sharing everything from scoring opportunities to leadership responsibilities. As Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire have learned all too well, a functional relationship requires more than talent alone. It also demands a chemistry that begins in the locker room and thrives on the hardwood.
Many a coach and general manager devotes the better parts of his days to discovering the blueprint for such seamless symbiosis.
Only a few get it just right.
Here are the twenty best teammate pairings in today's NBA. Whether any of them hold a candle to the all-time greats, at least two young duos appear primed to leave their own unique marks on this league's history of knockout one-two punches.
20. Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala–Philadelphia 76ers
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They may not be the most high-profile pairing, but Jrue Holiday and first-time All-Star Andre Iguodala have spearheaded the Philadelphia 76ers' surprisingly successful postseason push.
Holiday is a bit of a shoot-first point guard, but that's just as well with Iguodala around. The jack-of-all-trades small forward led Philly with 5.5 assists per game in the regular season, freeing Holiday to focus on his own offense.
It's hard to single out one or two players on a team that relies so heavily on its deep rotation, but Holiday and Iguodala stand out thanks in large part to their abilities to lock down the perimeter against would-be scorers. Holiday has uncanny length for a point guard, and Iggy remains one of the best on-ball defenders in the game even as his scoring role has diminished.
He's also something of a ball hawk with a career average of 1.7 steals and a motor that keeps him within reach of just about any loose ball.
As Holiday diversifies his offensive game and improves his efficiency, Philadelphia's prospects for success will follow suit. While Iguodala is already as much of an institution as you'll find on this roster, Holiday's best days are unquestionably ahead of him.
19. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari–Denver Nuggets
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Like other teams that thrive upon their depth, the Denver Nuggets don't have much of a one-two superstar punch–at least not yet.
After landing in Denver in 2011 as part of the ransom the Nuggets claimed for Carmelo Anthony, Danilo Gallinari quickly settled in as one of George Karl's best sharpshooters. Meanwhile, point guard Ty Lawson has improved dramatically in each of his three seasons, this year averaging a career-best 16.4 points and 6.6 assists.
The real selling point for this duo is its youth.
Both just 23-years-old, Lawson and Gallinari could become a Nash-Nowitzki sort of pairing if all goes according to plan. The 6'10" Gallinari is a versatile forward who would be unguardable with a more consistent jumper.
The lightening-quick Lawson may be breaking down defenses and setting Gallinari up for a long time to come. They're the perfect centerpiece for a run-and-gun squad that makes its living getting out into the open and firing at will.
And, as they proved in a six-game battle against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, these youngsters are more ready for the spotlight than you might think. With other promising talent like JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler in the mix, the Nuggets rank among the up-and-coming teams to watch.
18. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins–Sacramento Kings
As good a pairing as Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins have become already, the best is almost certainly to come–assuming Evans doesn't get traded first.
Though the young Sacramento Kings were a nightmare on the defensive end this season, Cousins and Evans continue to stand out as this franchise's best hope of emerging from the dregs of the Western Conference standings.
The ride hasn't been an entirely smooth one for these two. After butting heads with former head coach Paul Westphal early in the season, Cousins eventually settled in to become one of this year's most improved players in just his second campaign after being taken fifth overall by the Kings in the 2010 draft.
He averaged 18.1 points and 10.9 rebounds this season, with the added scoring owing much to a consistent mid-range jumper from the top of the key.
While Cousins spends most of his time at the high and low-post areas, Evans does his damage primarily as a fleet-footed slasher.
In just his third season, the 22-year-old has already spent time at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Despite shifting roles and changing coaches, Evans has remained a dangerous scorer and distributor–and an almost guaranteed two points in the open court.
Both Evans and Cousins have more than a few things to work on, but there aren't many duos around with this kind of upside.
17. Roy Hibbert and Paul George–Indiana Pacers
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Roy Hibbert and Paul George are only just beginning to discover their potentials as the Indiana Pacers' future core. Already, though, they're proving that a couple of guys don't have to score a ton of points in order to make a significant impact.
In his first All-Star season, the 7'2" Hibbert averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks per game. Those numbers may seem modest at first glance, but he does share shots with a number of very solid role players (and Danny Granger, of course).
While Hibbert has become a formidable scorer thanks to his soft touch and polished post moves, the 22-year-old George has already established himself as a legitimate perimeter threat.
The lanky-big guard averaged over 12 points and five rebounds a game in his second year, giving the Pacers another threat alongside Granger. For all of George's shooting ability, he's also a dangerous finisher who can throw it down with the best of them.
If the up-and-coming offensive abilities aren't impressive enough, Hibbert and George also add up to a formidable defensive challenge. George's length is a nuisance for most guards, and the massive Hibbert is a useful last resort when the defense breaks down.
Should Frank Vogel's Pacers remain near the top of the Eastern Conference standing, these up-and-coming stars will be a big reason why.
16. Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson–Orlando Magic
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Regardless of how much longer Dwight Howard remains with the Orlando Magic, we should at least appreciate the rare on-court dynamic he's shared with power forward Ryan Anderson.
Besides riding his hot outside shot to officially become this season's Most Improved Player, Anderson also helps Howard's cause on the offensive end of the floor. The "spread 4" leaves the paint to Howard, instead opting to patrol the perimeter.
It's a lot harder for opposing teams to crowd the paint with big defenders when Anderson's standing behind the three-point line, prepared to strike from long range. He made over 39 percent of those attempts this season, giving defenders the undesirable choice between letting Howard dominate inside and giving Anderson wide-open looks.
The 24-year-old forward is a restricted free agent this summer, and it's hard to imagine the Magic improving without him around.
It could certainly be argued that Howard has never shared the court with a legitimate "number two" option, but it's all too easy to dismiss Anderson's ability to spread the floor to the benefit of both Howard and Orlando's other spot-up shooters.
15. Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat–Phoenix Suns
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Steve Nash is one of those rare players who forms seamless relationships with anyone who winds up on his roster.
Center Marcin Gortat is no exception.
In his first full season with Nash, the 28-year-old came into his prime and averaged career-highs across the board–15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. He quickly became a reliable pick-and-roll partner for Nash and developed a consistent mid-range jumper to give his first-rate floor general yet another drive-and-kick target.
Of course, Phoenix's iconic point guard is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and there's no guarantee he'll remain with the Suns.
If he does stay in Phoenix, Gortat will almost certainly be one of the primary selling points. With so few quality centers in the league, the 6'11" up-and-comer is easily one of the best (and most underrated) big men around.
Though the Suns could certainly use some additional star power, Nash and Gortat would continue to form arguably the NBA's most skilled inside-outside combination.
Both Nash and Gortat approach the game with a rare combination of tenacity and finesse. It was no accident that Phoenix just barely missed the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference this season.
Between Nash's leadership and Gortat's workman-like approach, this club was better than advertised and a tough out for even the league's very best teams.
14. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings–Milwaukee Bucks
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The Milwaukee Bucks' addition of Monta Ellis in a mid-season trade with the Golden State Warriors instantly changed the face of a franchise looking to escape mediocrity.
Of course, the other half of that guard tandem is 22-year-old Brandon Jennings, one of the best–albeit streaky–young floor generals around.
Though some rumblings suggested Jennings might be on the trade block prior to March's trade deadline, the Bucks may be best suited holding on to him.
Ellis and Jennings are both young, versatile scorers who can shoot from all over the floor. Though Ellis' pairing with Stephen Curry in Golden State yielded mixed results, there's still ample time for the undersized shooting guard to develop a viable chemistry with Jennings.
If they can make the arrangement work, few backcourts would match their quickness and scoring potential. Jennings averaged over 19 points last season to go along with his 5.5 assists per game. In just 21 games with the Bucks, Ellis added another 17.6 points and 5.9 assists.
With their abilities to shoot, penetrate and pass, the two guards form a deadly drive-and-kick combination that could have defenders on their heels for years to come.
13. Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace–Brooklyn Nets
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While Deron Williams will be a free agent with plenty of suitors this summer, there appears to be a decent chance he'll remain with the refurbished Brooklyn Nets. The front office is also looking to hold on to small forward Gerald Wallace, acquired in a mid-season trade from the Portland Trail Blazers.
While the two veterans didn't have much of an opportunity to sync up this season, there's every reason to believe they could become a dangerous tandem going forward.
Williams is easily one of the league's most skilled and talented a floor general, and he's a good bit stronger than most opposing point guards. Its his superlative abilities to both score and distribute that make him such an ideal starting point for a team looking to contend.
Though less of a superstar, Wallace is the perfect behind-the-scenes teammate.
He's made his name with hustle, defense and a toughness that winning locker rooms can't get enough of. Wallace scores most of his points without the aid of plays being called for him, and he's got a combination of quickness and strength that can flat out stop scorers in their tracks.
Even if Dwight Howard never does come to town, the Nets have the start of something promising in these two assets: An offensive mastermind running the show on one end of the floor and a defensive stalwart taking care of business on the other.
12. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love–Minnesota Timberwolves
We were only beginning to scratch the surface of the relationship between Kevin Love and Rick Rubio.
Those 41 games of instant chemistry told us plenty about what the Minnesota Timberwolves can expect from their star duo in the future.
The 21-year-old Rubio proved to be a well-rounded gem of a find, averaging 8.2 assists and over four rebounds a game in his first taste of big-league action. While his shot still needs some work, the electricity and flair are in this kid's DNA.
And what better way to complement a blossoming point guard than with arguably the league's most skilled young power forward?
Kevin Love's game has steadily improved in each of his four seasons, but he definitively established himself as a force to be reckoned with this year with 26 points and 13.3 rebounds a game. There isn't a dominant rebounder in the game who can out-shoot this guy on the perimeter, and it's scary to think what the 23-year-old will be capable of over the course of the next decade.
Minnesota has been through a rough time since Kevin Garnett left town, but it's hard to argue this team's future has ever been brighter.
11. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry–Dallas Mavericks
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After all is said and done, free agent Jason Terry may still wind up in a Dallas Mavericks uniform next season.
Either way, there's no question his eight seasons with Dirk Nowitzki were a resounding success.
Together, Terry and Nowitzki form arguably the best jump-shooting duo in the game. Dirk creates his shots with his size and craftiness while Terry relies on superlative quickness and a willingness to shoot from just about anywhere.
Without a wealth of offensive weapons in their supporting cast, these two shooters have taken Dallas' scoring burden upon themselves time and time again.
They've never been the most impactful defenders, but their jobs with the Mavericks were always clear: Take open shots (and more than a few contested ones as well).
The Mavericks' 2011 title wouldn't have been thinkable without both Terry and Nowitzki taking the lion's share of Dallas' shots. While they're both far too consistent to be labeled "streaky," there's no question these two are nearly impossible to contain when at their best.
10. Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol–Memphis Grizzlies
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The Memphis Grizzlies' starting unit is about as much an ensemble cast as you'll find in the NBA. But among the well-balanced lineup, small forward Rudy Gay and center Marc Gasol stand out as especially indispensable contributors.
In his six seasons, Gay has become a model of consistency thanks to his reliable perimeter game and ability to attack the paint with long strides and plenty of finesse. He's averaged close to 20 points in each of his last five campaigns and remained a dangerous defensive presence thanks to his length and guard-like quickness.
Meanwhile, Gasol has come to epitomize the well-rounded big man. He scores efficiently, intimidates shots and passes as well as any seven-footer in the game. His willingness to do the dirty work frees his multifaceted colleague to focus first and foremost on scoring.
While the Grizzlies came up short in the first round a year after upsetting the first-seeded San Antonio Spurs in that same round, the future still looks bright for Memphis. Gay and Gasol are just entering their prime years, as are Mike Conley and sixth man O.J. Mayo.
Whether Gasol and Gay improve much individually, they're inside-outside dynamic should continue to make strides the longer this team stays together.
9. Josh Smith and Al Horford–Atlanta Hawks
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Despite a closely-contested, six-game defeat to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2012 Playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in each of the previous three seasons.
A front line anchored by center Al Horford and Josh Smith had a lot to do with that.
In fact, it was Horford's return from a three-month long shoulder injury that gave the Hawks an unlikely chance to hang around with the Celtics in a series that could well have been a quick sweep.
When Horford was on the floor for an entire season in 2010-11, he and Smith combined for 37.8 points and 17.9 rebounds a game, forming one of the league's most productive combinations of big men. With Horford sidelined, the high-flying Smith rose to the occasion this season with 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds a game.
Smith may best be known for his picturesque shot-swatting abilities and equally exciting dunks, but he also has a solid post-game and a sometimes consistent mid-range jumper. Horford, meanwhile, brings a skilled, workman-like approach to the paint–along with an even-keeled consistency this roster desperately needs.
8. Carmelo Anthony and Jeremy Lin–New York Knicks
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With Chauncey Billups cut free in order to make room for Tyson Chandler's signing, the Carmelo Anthony era in New York got off to an uncertain start. Even with veterans Baron Davis and Mike Bibby in the fold, there was a conspicuous void at the Knicks' starting point guard position.
Until the discovery of Jeremy Lin, that is.
After a year in total obscurity with the Golden State Warriors, the Harvard graduate averaged 14.6 points and 6.2 assists in 35 games this season. Though injuries limited the opportunities Lin and Anthony had to share floor time, there's little chance the deferentially disposed point guard will step on Melo's shoes.
Even without a robust sample size to measure their on-court chemistry, it's hard to imagine two players who better understand their wildly divergent roles. Anthony, of course, is one of the league's most prolific scorers while Lin is the consummate team-first professional.
At the end of the day, Anthony should be taking the lion's share of New York's big shots, and Lin will be perfectly fine with that.
For all the difficulty this franchise has had integrating Amar'e Stoudemire into an Anthony-center offensive scheme, this club could use a complication-free working relationship. Lin fits that profile, giving head coach Mike Woodson a pairing of guys with the kind of edge it takes to win in New York.
7. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah–Chicago Bulls
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There's a good argument to be made that first-time All-Star Luol Deng is the Chicago Bulls' second-best player. Even Carlos Boozer scores more than Joakim Noah.
But while former MVP Derrick Rose takes on his team's most monumental tasks, it's Noah that unfailingly does all the little things.
Contrasted against Rose's perpetually unflappable demeanor, Noah plays like he has energy drinks running through his veins.
The frenetic center goes at full-throttle in every facet of the game–running the floor, rotating on defense, setting hard picks and hustling to every rebound within sight. It's his quasi-religious commitment to controlling the paint that allows the rest of Tom Thibodeau's starting unit to worry about scoring all the points.
Though Rose's torn ACL in Game 1 of Chicago's first-round series ended this franchises immediate championship hopes, it may have been Noah's ankle sprain midway through the series that finally doomed any prospect of ousting the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rose's track-record obviously speaks for itself. Still only 23, he has asserted himself as one of the league's most unstoppable floor generals, a dual-purpose point guard who scores and distributes at will. He will be sorely missed during his protracted recovery from knee surgery.
6. Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett–Boston Celtics
It's impossible to discount the legacies of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, but Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett have given the Boston Celtics an edge they absolutely needed to remain competitive in this postseason.
Garnett enjoyed reduced minutes during his regular-season march, but he's averaged more than 37 minutes (and 19 points) through his first 10 playoff games. If the message weren't already clear, some 36-year-olds still have game–and lots of it.
But, Boston's old guard would be in trouble were it not for the 26-year-old Rondo. Excepting his lack of a consistent outside shot, there's no more versatile point guard in the game. He's averaged over 13 assists in the playoffs to go along with more than six rebounds and nearly three steals.
He's also a lethal scorer around the rim and from mid-range.
A free agent this upcoming offseason, Garnett might be well-served to remain in a Celtics uniform.
There's perhaps no one better equipped to extend his career than Rondo and his pass-first instincts. Whether or not this team has another title in its future, it should remain a force to be reckoned with so long as these two play at such a high level.
5. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin–Los Angeles Clippers
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Blake Griffin has established himself in just two years as a double-double machine and almost certainly the most explosive power forward in the game. But it wasn't until Chris Paul showed up that he became truly relevant.
Now the Los Angeles Clippers promise to be a regular postseason invitee, at least so long as Paul stays in town.
There's more to their collaboration than picture-perfect lob passes, but there's certainly truth to the "Lob City" label that instantly defined the Chris Paul era. No one throws better passes than Paul, and no is better prepared to finish the job than Griffin.
The MVP chatter surrounding Paul's season was no exaggeration–he averaged 19.8 points, 9.1 assists and 2.5 steals during the regular season and took games over on an as-needed basis. His ability to control the pace of a game and surgically impose his will has transformed a team with raw talent into a legitimate winner.
While the Clippers may still be the second-best team in Los Angeles, it probably won't be that way for much longer. With a full training camp together and a few tweaks to the roster, the Clip Show could be contenders for a long time to come.
Even if they aren't, these two superstars will be a thrill to watch.
4. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan–San Antonio Spurs
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While All-Star point guard Tony Parker justifiably earned much of the acclaim on behalf of the San Antonio Spurs' nearly flawless season, he had some help.
Of course, much of that help came from a supremely deep roster and Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich. The rest of that help came from the 36-year-old Tim Duncan. A two-time MVP and four-time NBA champion, the Big Fundamental has looked anything but his age in his push for one more title.
His per-minute production remains at elite levels, but it's been his timely passes, impeccable pick-and-roll play and first-rate interior defense that continue to set him apart from his peers.
While Duncan may remain San Antonio's most irreplaceable all-around asset, Parker has emerged as the Spurs' most productive contributor. He's put together his best all-around season, averaging 18.3 points and 7.7 assists in the regular season and maintaining a similar pace in the playoffs.
More importantly, Parker's leadership, decision-making and success in the clutch have placed him front-and-center of discussions about the league's best floor generals. Even at 30, his quickness and ability to change speeds are at times unstoppable, enabling his arsenal of crafty layups, floaters and mid-range jumpers.
It's become yearly tradition to bemoan the Spurs' age and fading title hopes, but their veteran one-two punch is still about as good as it gets.
3. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum–Los Angeles Lakers
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Andrew Bynum may not yet (or ever) be a perfect replacement for Shaquille O'Neal, but he's the closest thing Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will find to one.
After a regular season in which Bynum alternated between displays of brilliance and inexplicable immaturity, his postseason performance yielded more of the same results. At his best, the seven-foot 24-year-old is imposing on both ends of the floor.
At this worst, he disappears almost entirely and fails to exert the kind of effort you'd expect from a superstar–especially a superstar for the always-contending Lakers.
Despite the mixed returns, Los Angeles has little choice but to rely on Bynum as Bryant's sidekick. There are precious few centers who impact the game like Bynum, and his best years may very well be ahead of him.
For the time being, though, this is still unquestionably Kobe Bryant's team.
The 33-year-old took the most shots per game he's taken in the last six seasons, averaging nearly 28 points in the process and leaving no doubt he's still at the top of his game. At over 38 minutes a contest, he also dispelled any concerns that he might be running out gas.
While their combined production amounted to over 46 points per game this season, Bynum and Kobe share more than a status as the league's most dangerous inside-outside threat. The legendary Bryant has increasingly taken Bynum under his wing in a mentoring role that just might be one of his most enduring legacies.
If the Lakers can return to the NBA Finals before their iconic shooting guard calls it quits, it may have as much to do with those off-the-court efforts as any of his in-game greatness.
2. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade–Miami Heat
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Chris Bosh may be essential to the Miami Heat's title hopes, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are still the NBA's second most dynamic duo. Three-time MVP LeBron James is perhaps one of only three players in the league for whom Wade would properly qualify as a "sidekick."
During the regular season, James and Wade combined to average 49.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 10.8 assists.
Based on production alone, it's impossible not to draw comparisons to the most elite pairing in recent memory (if not ever): Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
But, just as the Chicago Bulls' legendary one-two punch brought far more that gaudy numbers to the table, so too do James and Wade.
No two players run a more exciting fast-break. Both can make the flawless pass and spectacular finish alike. We all know what's bound to happen when Wade and James find themselves galloping down the open court.
They feed off each other's palpable energy, taking games over in unison when given even the slightest opportunity to build a head of steam.
The two stars' on-court chemistry also benefits from their off-court willingness to share the spotlight. With James having arguably his best year ever, Wade never hesitated to treat this as LeBron's team both in terms of his in-game decisions and public comments.
It goes without saying that South Beach's superstars won't truly warrant inclusion among the all-time greats until some championship success and a more sustained career of elite cooperation. If all goes according to plan, though, they could very well do just that.
1. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook–Oklahoma City Thunder
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There's a lot to like about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both as individuals and as a team.
They combined to average nearly 52 points a game during the regular season, sometimes totaling quite a bit more.
Their leadership helped return an upstart Oklahoma City Thunder club to the top of a competitive Western Conference after coming up short in the Western Conference Finals in 2011. And, it's hard to imagine two scorers doing a better job of dividing their touches and picking their spots.
But, the thing you really have to love about these two is that they're both still just 23-years-old.
For his part, Westbrook has already suffered through something of a basketball identity crisis. A scorer at heart, Westbrook has been tasked with running the point for an NBA contender. Coming off just his fourth season, he's passed the tests with mostly flying colors.
Head coach Scott Brooks has freed Westbrook to be the shoot-first point guard that he probably should be, and Durant has still managed to lead the league in scoring in each of the last three seasons.
Clearly something is working right.
Though both fond of scoring, Durant and Westbrook are anything but carbon copies of one another. While Westbrook electrifies crowds with his end-to-end speed and explosive finishing ability, Durant glides around the court with finesse and quiet grace of a ballerina.
Then he usually throws down a poster-worthy dunk or drains a timely three-pointer.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words, and that's just fine with Durant. Like any truly great teammate, he's more than happy to let his other half shine.