Even devout Laker-haters can't help imagining the brilliant basketball possibilities of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant in the L.A. backcourt. It's a little premature to put Nash and Bryant into the conversation of best guard duos of all time, but we'll start the chatter with our list of the top 10 combinations of all time.
The goal is to rank the most effective and electric pairings of a fairly traditional point guard and shooting guard.
A classic point whose main partner in crime was a forward or center won't make the list (see Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson, among others), nor will a supreme shooting guard whose offense wasn't keyed by a point guard (see Michael Jordan with Scottie Pippen as the Bulls' primary assist man). Nor will LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, even if at times they are a de facto point guard and shooting guard team.
Two extremely talented, smart, competitive, experienced/aging guards don't automatically create a superior backcourt combination. But if Nash and Bryant pull it off, it will be irresistible for NBA fans and irrepressible for NBA defenses. Until then, these are the top 10 guard duos in NBA history.
At least until you say otherwise in the comments below.
Thanks to basketball-reference.com for the stats.
Michael Jordan over John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek.
Take the NBA's all-time assist leader and pair him with a guy who could really shoot (career: 49.6 percent field goals, 40.3 percent threes, 87.7 percent free throws) and you get a formidable backcourt.
For the Jazz's two best seasons during the Stockton-Malone era, it wasn't too much of a stretch to say Jeff Hornacek was the third member of Utah's Big Three.
No doubt Karl Malone was the No. 1 option, but working with Stockton in the backcourt, Hornacek scored 14.5 points a game on 48.2 percent shooting in 1996-97. The Jazz won 64 games but lost in the NBA Finals to the Bulls. The next season, Hornacek averaged 14.2 points with the same shooting percentage. Utah won 62 games and, yes, lost in the finals to the Bulls.
Stockton, like Hornacek, took advantage of his shooting opportunities, making 54.8 percent of his shots in '96-97 and 52.8 percent in '97-98.
It's true that Hornacek and Stockton didn't win a title and didn't put up big scoring numbers, relatively speaking, but as complements to each other and Malone, they were just about ideal.
Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton.
The unquestioned leaders of the 2004 NBA champion Pistons, point guard Chauncey Billups and shooting guard Richard Hamilton were consummate teammates.
Billups, whose best trait might have been his defense, averaged 16.9 points and 5.7 assists in the '03-04 regular season. He was second on the team in scoring to Hamilton, who averaged 17.6 points and 4.0 assists.
They picked things up in the playoffs with Billups winning the NBA Finals MVP award and Hamilton averaging 21.5 points over 23 games. The Lakers of Shaq O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were their final victims.
Solid pros, if only occasionally spectacular, Billups and Hamilton epitomized a strong backcourt working for the greater good of the team, drawing comparisons to their Detroit ancestors Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
In a nod to the defensive side of the game, the Chicago Bulls' backcourt of Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan makes the list.
Synonymous with "hard-nosed," Van Lier and Sloan ganged up for four-plus seasons. For their careers, Van Lier made the NBA All-Defensive first or second team eight times; Sloan did so six times.
While it's true Sloan didn't really shoot well or often enough to be a "shooting" guard, he did average 12.2 points to go with 6.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals in the pair's best season, 1974-75.
Van Lier, at the point, averaged 5.8 assists to go with 15.0 points and 2.0 steals. Swingman Chet "The Jet" Walker led the team in scoring, though the Bulls lost a seven-game Western Conference finals series to the Warriors.
But Sloan, who'll go into the Hall of Fame for his coaching, and Van Lier make our top 10 for their legendary competitiveness. As Pat Williams, longtime NBA GM, told the Chicago Tribune upon Van Lier's death in February 2009:
Norm and Jerry Sloan were not the most talented guard line, but they led the league in charges, floor burns and diving into the stands for loose balls. Old-time basketball fans in Chicago will never forget the intensity and passion and fervor they brought every night.
Neither Maurice Cheeks nor Andrew Toney is remembered as a particularly great player, but each was perfect for his position on only the second NBA championship team in Philadelphia 76ers history.
Cheeks—famously underrated—was a point guard's point guard. Quick, efficient and smart, he kept everyone happy on a Sixers team that featured superstars Moses Malone at center and Julius Erving at small forward. He made the NBA's All-Defensive first team four times.
Toney was the shooting guard whose jumper could take over games. He came to be known as "The Boston Strangler," and the key for the 1982-83 Sixers was strangling the Boston Celtics, who had repeatedly frustrated Philadelphia's efforts to reach the league's apex.
The 76ers of Cheeks and Toney were always very good. But in '82-83, they were great, finishing 65-17 to win the division over Boston. Toney averaged 19.7 points and 4.4 assists while Cheeks averaged 12.5 and 6.9.
Philadelphia then rolled through the playoffs, winning 12 games and losing one, including a sweep of the Magic- and Kareem-led Lakers in the '83 NBA Finals.
In the early years of the 24-second clock and Red Auerbach's tenure as the Celtics head coach, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, each 6'1", thrived together as the first great backcourt duo.
Cousy was the extraordinary ball-handler, passer and leader, while Sharman was the sharpest of shooters. He set the standard for set shots and led the league in free-throw accuracy for five consecutive seasons.
The fifth season of that streak brought the first Celtics NBA title (1956-57) and the first of four titles that Sharman and Cousy—both Hall of Famers—would win together.
No doubt they had a lot of help in forming a dynasty, but in '56-57, Sharman led Boston in scoring with 21.1 PPG, while Cousy was second, averaging 20.6 points to go with 7.5 assists.
The Houdini of the Hardwood—Bob Cousy—is the only player appearing twice in our rankings, but leading a team to six NBA titles in seven seasons earns a Hall of Fame point guard some special recognition.
Sam Jones, also a Hall of Famer, became a regular part of Boston's backcourt for the 1958-59 season, and he and Cousy won five straight NBA championships from there until Cousy retired after the '62-63 season.
That final season was their best season. Jones, a versatile shooter who was perfect for coach Red Auerbach's offense, led those talent-laden Celtics with 19.7 points a game, making what was then a very high percentage of his shots: 47.6. As his mate, Cousy dealt out 6.8 assists a game.
Jones kept on winning with the Celtics—10 NBA titles total—and his guard pairing with K.C. Jones is another one of legend. But we'll cap our old-time Celtics combos at two.
Byron Scott over Jeff Hornacek in 1987.
Lakers legend Magic Johnson was more than enough backcourt for any defense to handle given his size and versatility on the break and in the halfcourt offense. Add Byron Scott at the ready to fill a lane or hoist a jumper at any time, and you had an ideal basketball brew.
The statistical peak for the two was the 1987-88 NBA championship season. Johnson averaged 11.9 assists on top of the 19.6 points and 6.2 rebounds on a balanced team. Scott led the Lakers with 21.7 points per game on 52.7 percent shooting (34.6 percent on threes).
If any of his current Cavaliers players need to know why they should listen to their coach, Scott's history with Magic in the stats book is all they need to know.
Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier.
With enough style points for a league's worth of guards and an NBA title to boot, Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe put on an inimitable show in New York City in the '70s.
Frazier was the top passer and scorer for the 1973 champion Knicks at 21.1 points and 5.9 assists per game. Monroe was one of many attractive options on a teamwork-focused squad, and he averaged 15.5 points.
But statistics don't tell the story for these Hall of Fame teammates. Stories are still being told about Frazier's fashion and lifestyle—as in this 2011 GQ piece.
The nickname became a full-fledged persona: the 6-foot-4 fella with the muttonchops, mink coat and the Rolls. Frazier was the epitome of cool. He endorsed a non-basketball shoe and partied with Broadway Joe. And while Willis Reed limped around the court, Clyde led New York to its last basketball title.
And the story of Monroe can be glimpsed through an excerpt from film director Woody Allen's Sport magazine ode to Monroe. Of his first impressions after seeing Monroe play in person, Allen wrote:
I immediately ranked him with Willie Mays and Sugar Ray Robinson as athletes who went beyond the level of sports as sport to the realm of sports as art. Seemingly awkward and yet breathtakingly graceful, with an unimpressive physique, knobby knees and the tiny ankles of a thoroughbred racehorse, Monroe in seasons to come would put on exhibition after exhibition of simply magical shot-making.
Gail Goodrich, Jerry West and their old teammate Pat Riley.
With 35-year-old Wilt Chamberlain willing to let others do the scoring (while he pulled in 19.2 rebounds a game), the 1971-72 champion L.A. Lakers got their offense from maybe the most lethal guard duo of all time.
Here was the trick: Jerry West played point guard. Indisputably one of the top five shooting guards in league history, West took the point for these Lakers, averaging a career-high and league-leading 9.7 assists per game. His SG was Gail Goodrich, who at 6'1" was a bit shorter than West.
Not that West didn't score—he averaged 25.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting—but it was Goodrich who just managed to lead the team with a 25.9 PPG clip, making 48.7 percent of his shots. The most important stats: 69 victories, 13 losses and an NBA-record win streak of 33 games.
The statistical pattern continued in the postseason as the Lakers went 12-3 on the way to their first NBA title since moving to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season.
For their combination of minute-to-minute thrills and sustained excellence over many seasons, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars top our ranking of the best 10 backcourt combinations in NBA history.
From 1986-87, when Dumars became a full-time starter in his second season, to 1991-92, Thomas' last full season, the Pistons went to the playoffs every year, winning three conference titles and two NBA Finals.
In their finest season by the numbers—1988-89—Dumars and Thomas led the Pistons to a 69-13 regular-season finish and an astonishing 15-2 postseason record. In the regular season, point guard Thomas posted 18.2 points and 8.3 assists per game. Shooting guard Dumars averaged 17.2 points, making 50.5 percent of his field-goal attempts (including 48.3 percent of his threes).
Currently serving as the GM of the Pistons, Dumars was the NBA Finals MVP in '89. He also made his first of five career All-NBA Defensive first teams.
Thomas and Dumars were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000 and 2006, respectively.