Ranking the Greatest NBA Duos of Every Era

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2020

Ranking the Greatest NBA Duos of Every Era

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    The NBA transitioned from big threes and superteams to power duos this summer.

    LeBron James and Anthony Davis joined forces on the Los Angeles Lakers. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up on L.A.'s other team, the Clippers. James Harden and Russell Westbrook found themselves reunited on the Houston Rockets. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned the New York Knicks for the Brooklyn Nets.

    And that's just the tip of 2019's player-movement iceberg.

    But this isn't the first time teams have built with this blueprint. The league has seen plenty of elite duos over the course of its existence. To determine the best of all time, the following steps were used:

    • Compile a list of all-time-great duos solicited from readers.
    • Pit those duos against each other in randomly generated matchups, with each vote driving the duo further up the list.
    • Find the combined win shares (regular season and playoffs) of each member of the duo during the time they played together.
    • Find combined win shares per year together.
    • Find the "championship points" of each duo. If a duo won a championship during a year in which the NBA had 30 teams, they get 29 championship points (for being better than 29 teams).
    • Find championship points per year together.
    • Rank the duos in each of the five categories listed above, then sort them by the average of their ranks from those categories.

    The full exercise can be found here, while the analysis for individual duos is below with the results broken down by era.

Honorable Mentions

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    Given how difficult it is to compare players across eras in the NBA—the changes in the game over the last 60-70 years are immense—you'll find a top 10 of duos that played the bulk of their minutes before the three-point era, followed by top threes for the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.

    That means plenty of duos barely missed the cut for their respective era or decade. Here are a few that stood out:

    Without further ado, let's get into the order itself.

Pre-Three-Point Line

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    10. Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan

    Pettit and Hagan won the 1958 title together, with each receiving points in the MVP voting.

    Over their nine seasons together, Pettit averaged 27.1 points, 16.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Hagan averaged 18.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists through the same span.

    9. Dave Cowens and John Havlicek

    Cowens and Havlicek played eight seasons together and won two titles. During the 1972-73 season, when Cowens won MVP, Havlicek finished fifth in the voting.

    "The one thing I tell people all the time is, 'All you guys talk about Larry Bird and all these other guys, but I'm going to tell you: If I had to pick, I'd pick John Havlicek No. 1.'" Cowens told the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett. "'If it's my team, and I have to win a ballgame, I'm going to pick John Havlicek.'"

    8. Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer

    Wilt and Greer won a title together in 1967. Wilt averaged 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists and won his third MVP award, but he got plenty of help from Greer on the way to the championship.

    In the playoffs, Greer's 27.7 points per game led the Philadelphia 76ers.

    7. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier

    Reed and Frazier won two titles together and were one of the game's best one-two punches in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    Over their seven seasons together, Frazier averaged 19.2 points, 6.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds. Reed put up 18.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

    6. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West

    Baylor described the competitiveness that drove West to CBS Sports' James Herbert:

    "As a teammate, Jerry is probably, well, pretty much like Wilt [Chamberlain]: probably two of the most competitive guys I ever played against and with. It's winning -- they're just so competitive, it's just unreal. They take a loss, it's so unbelievable -- at the end of a game, Jerry would just go ballistic. Nuts. Russell was pretty much the same way. I enjoyed playing and being around guys like that."

    As teammates, Baylor and West combined for 55.0 points, 19.1 rebounds and 10.9 assists per game.

    West didn't win his one and only title until 1972 after Baylor had retired earlier in the regular season. Though he didn't appear in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers commissioned a ring for the legendary forward.

    5. Bill Russell and Bob Cousy

    During their seven seasons as teammates, Cousy won one MVP award while Russell won four. More importantly, they won six of the seven available titles.

    Russell was the defensive centerpiece who led the Boston Celtics to a defensive rating that ranged from 4.9 to 8.5 points better than average during those years. Cousy, meanwhile, piloted the offense with 17.7 points and 7.9 assists per game.

    4. Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West

    Of course, Wilt's and West's time together overlapped with that of West and Baylor. This isn't the only time you'll see that.

    But this duo was the one that led to the 1972 championship. That postseason, West and Chamberlain combined for 37.6 points per game, with West leading the team in assists (8.9) and Wilt leading in rebounds (21.0).

    3. George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen

    Mikan and Mikkelsen won four titles together. During that stretch, the former led the NBA in win shares, while the latter was fifth.

    2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson

    Kareem and the Big O weren't together long (just 1970-71 to 1973-74), but they certainly packed a punch in those four seasons.

    In addition to winning a title, Kareem averaged 30.9 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.5 blocks and led the NBA in win shares during that span. Robertson, meanwhile, put up 16.3 points, 7.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game during the twilight of his legendary career.

    1. Bill Russell and Sam Jones

    Russell and Jones ran the NBA during their 12 years together. They won 10 championships. Russell secured five MVPs. They were second and ninth, respectively, in win shares during that stretch.

    Russell averaged 22.6 rebounds, 15.1 points and 4.4 assists. Jones went for 17.7 points per game while somehow becoming the Boston legend who may not get the respect he deserves.

    "During their glory years, Jones was the Celtics' best scorer," Jay King wrote for Bleacher Report. "He could fill it up from any angle—a kiss off the glass, tear drops over big men's outstretched hands, pull-ups in transition, you name it—but still has never been granted the respect and admiration bestowed upon most Celtics greats."

    Jones' offense, combined with Russell's defense, made the Celtics a nearly unbeatable force for over a decade.

1980s

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    3. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars

    Depending on where you break up NBA decades, one of the two titles Thomas and Dumars won together (1989-90) may have been in the '90s. But this star-studded backcourt still did the bulk of its damage in the '80s.

    As part of the Detroit Pistons' fabled Bad Boys era, Dumars and Thomas helped establish a defensive identity that carried the team to plenty of success over the back half of the decade. On that end, they attacked perimeter matchups in a way few others did.

    "When you think of Bad Boys you automatically think about [Bill] Laimbeer, [Rick] Mahorn, [Dennis] Rodman, [John] Salley, [James] Edwards, the bruising bigs," Marques Johnson, who played against the Pistons of this time, told Bleacher Report. "But without Zeke and Joe setting the tone out top, all you have is a collection of physical frontcourt dudes. The backcourt gave them their identity, with their ability to control the ball at each end."

    Offensively, Thomas was obviously the table-setter. He averaged 18.5 points and 8.8 assists (fifth in the league) during the years he played with Dumars. The 2-guard, meanwhile, averaged 17.1 points and 4.7 assists and was 16th in the league in three-point percentage over the same stretch.

    In some ways, this was the grittier, more defensive-minded predecessor of today's star backcourts: well-balanced, effective and the engine of the team. But the toughness really set it apart.

    Eddie Johnson, who played against Thomas and Dumars in the '80s and '90s, told Bleacher Report, "If I had to pick someone to walk down an alley with, those two would be at the top of my list."

    2. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale

    Bird and McHale won three titles together in the 1980s. Over the course of their 12 mutual seasons, they were second and sixth, respectively, in the NBA for regular-season win shares (second and fourth in playoff win shares).

    Bird averaged a ridiculously well-rounded 24.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks during this stretch. McHale put up 18.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, often in a reserve role.

    "It was just spectacular to see [McHale] go out there every single night because every guy he played against was bigger, stronger, could jump higher and run faster. And there was Kevin out there just, 'Give me the ball. I've got a fish on me.' Right?" former teammate Bill Walton said of McHale's ability to dominate matchups he wasn't supposed to, per MassLive's Jay King.

    "And then Larry," Walton continued. "Larry was so wonderful as a basketball player. He was Mozart. He was Michelangelo. He was Steve Jobs. And he did things that I never saw anybody do. And he played at such a high level mentally. Larry loves to portray himself as the Hick from French Lick. Nothing could be further from the truth. The guy is an absolute genius on top of everything."

    There really was an artfulness to the way these two played.

    Bird's shooting has received plenty of praise over the years, but his passing and ball-fakes made him one of the greatest offensive players of all time. McHale, meanwhile, had footwork in the post you just don't see anymore. No one used the up-and-under more effectively.

    1. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    In the 10 seasons they spent together, Magic and Kareem won five championships and three MVPs (one for Kareem and two for Magic). They combined for 19 of a possible 20 All-Star appearances during the decade.

    During the same stretch, Magic was second in the league in win shares, while Kareem was fifth. They were first and third, respectively, in postseason win shares from 1979-80 to 1988-89.

    Their per-game numbers were predictably stout. Magic averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals. Kareem put up 20.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.

    Magic was the engineer of the Los Angeles Lakers' Showtime offense. Kareem was the elder statesman who was the last line of defense and had an unstoppable post move.

    James Worthy, Michael Cooper and others provided plenty of help, but this dynasty was mostly about the almost perfectly balanced point guard-center combo.

1990s

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    3. Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe

    There were several potential options to pair with Hakeem. In fact, Drexler and Olajuwon were part of the exercise, and that duo finished just behind Olajuwon and Thorpe.

    Before Thorpe and Drexler were traded for each other in 1995, Thorpe won a title with Hakeem and the Houston Rockets. He averaged 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists during his six-and-a-half seasons with the Dream. He made one All-Star team and was 18th in win shares during that time.

    In the same stretch, Olajuwon averaged 24.9 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.9 blocks. He was sixth in the NBA in win shares over those six-plus seasons.

    Plenty of twin-tower frontcourts have gotten more attention over the years, but few were as consistently strong defensively. In each of their seasons together, the Rockets were able to post a defensive rating better than the league average.

    Of course, the buried lede here may be that Hakeem was as much of a one-man show as anyone else detailed in this article. He had plenty of great teammates—Thorpe, Drexler, Kenny Smith and Robert Horry, just to name a few—but this was almost a case of "Hakeem and [insert player here]."

    2. John Stockton and Karl Malone

    There are a bunch of places we could start with the legendary pick-and-roll combo formed by the Utah Jazz's Stockton and Malone, but let's go with longevity.

    "I played with them for nine years, and I thought I played with them for a long time," former Utah Jazz All-Star Mark Eaton told Bleacher Report. "And then they played for another 10 years after I retired...Who knew that both those guys, coming into a small market with relatively unknown backgrounds, end up being the all-time leader in assists and steals in the history of the NBA and the No. 2 scorer in the history of the NBA? I mean, come on. It astounds me, and I played with the guys."

    Stockton and Malone spent a whopping 18 seasons together. Their combined regular-season and playoff win shares over those 18 years: 477.5 No duo in this exercise sniffed that total. Second-place Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen totaled 331.1.

    During Stockton's and Malone's time together, Malone led the NBA in total points and scored over 6,000 more than second-place MJ. In the same stretch, Stockton's 15,391 assists were more than third-place Rod Strickland and fourth-place Gary Payton combined.

    Their per-game numbers over those 18 years were plenty impressive, too. Malone went for 25.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Stockton put up 13.5 points, 10.8 assists and 2.2 steals per contest with a 61.0 true shooting percentage.

    That level of production over nearly two decades is mind-blowing. That they weren't able to win a single title together is a testament to the decade's No. 1 finisher.

    1. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

    Jordan and Pippen were teammates with the Chicago Bulls from 1987-88 to 1997-98 (except for Jordan's dalliance with baseball). During that time, Jordan was first in win shares. Pippen was 10th. They were first and second in playoff win shares over that span.

    During those playoff runs that led to six titles, Jordan averaged 33.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.8 blocks. Pippen put up 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.

    On top of the championships, Chicago had the NBA's best winning percentage throughout those 11 seasons, averaging just over 58 wins per year. And, of course, the Bulls totaled a then-record 72 victories in 1995-96.

    The '90s Bulls were perhaps the most dominant team in league history, led by perhaps the most dominant player in NBA history. But Jordan didn't win those championships alone. Pippen is top-50 all-time in career box plus/minus. His defense and versatility made him the perfect complement to MJ.

2000s

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    MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    For 12 years from 1998-99 to 2009-10, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs combined for nine NBA championships. These two franchises ruled the 2000s. And if we extended this slide to include a top five, all five duos would come from those teams.

    Tim Duncan with David Robinson is second, TD with Manu Ginobili is third, and TD with Tony Parker is fourth. You can bookend the top five with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol at No. 5 and Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal at No. 1.

    3. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili

    This duo extended into the 2010s, but Duncan and Ginobili were at the peak of their powers in the 2000s. Over the course of their time together, they played more than 18,000 regular-season and playoff minutes. The Spurs were an absurd plus-11.5 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

    Duncan was the Big Fundamental with drill video-perfect footwork and defensive positioning. Ginobili was an improviser who had to break down head coach Gregg Popovich's rigid disciplinarianism during their early years together.

    "I don't know if it took six months or two-and-a-half years of whatever," Popovich said, per Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But that was the process because he's going to play a whole lot better without me nagging him, which has been proven."

    In just 26.3 minutes per game, Ginobili averaged 14.0 points, 4.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He was 16th in win shares over that stretch. While Duncan was his teammate, he averaged 17.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks and was fourth in win shares.

    2. Tim Duncan and David Robinson

    Prior to Ginobili's arrival for the 2002-03 season, the Spurs had another all-time duo in Robinson and Duncan.

    Over the six seasons they played together in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were first and sixth, respectively, in regular-season win shares (second and fourth in playoff win shares).

    In that stretch, they led what was a truly dominant defense. The Spurs' year-to-year defensive rating was no worse than 3.9 points per 100 possessions better than the league average from 1997-98 to 2002-03. Overall, they allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions during those years, a full 2.0 points better than the second-place Miami Heat.

    "They just covered up so many mistakes," teammate Antonio Daniels said of the twin towers, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "As a guard, you could pressure up and know if you got beat, Tim or Dave were going to be there. With that team, you always had complete trust."

    With two all-time-great defensive bigs holding down the back line, the Spurs were able to win two titles during those six seasons. They averaged over 57 wins per season.

    Duncan averaged 22.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.5 blocks. Robinson went for 15.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in a lesser role than he was accustomed to. The latter should be looked to as a model for how a superstar can age gracefully.

        

    1. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant

    Shaq and Kobe are undoubtedly one of the greatest guard-big combos in all of basketball history, not just in the 1990s. During their eight seasons together, they won three titles for the Lakers.

    Shaq led the league in win shares during those years and averaged 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks. Kobe was seventh in win shares and posted 21.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game prior to his ascension to the team's alpha role.

    In the playoffs, both were even better than those already gaudy numbers. During L.A.'s threepeat from 2000 to 2002, Shaq put up 29.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per outing in the playoffs. Kobe averaged 25.3 points and 4.9 assists. In those three Finals alone, O'Neal averaged 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.9 blocks.

    Few, if any, players in the history of the NBA were as physically dominant as Shaq, especially during that three-year run that culminated in three Finals MVPs.

    Kobe, his No. 2 at the time, was obviously headed for more himself. He was just 23 years old when this duo won its third and final championship together. Shaq had only just turned 30. Each would eventually win titles without the other, which might lead one to ask: How many could they have won together?

2010s

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    Much like the 2000s, the 2010s were utterly dominated by relatively few parties: LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors (with a dash of the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks).

    3. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson

    It would be hard to argue that a better shooting duo than the Splash Brothers has ever been formed.

    With plenty of years left to add to their totals, Curry and Thompson are third and 18th, respectively, in career threes made. Limit the sample to those who shot at least 40 percent from deep for their careers, and the Splash Brothers move up to second and fifth.

    And many of those threes came from mind-bending hot streaks that made the Warriors one of the most watchable teams of the decade. To this day, the highlights of Thompson's 37-point quarter are mesmerizing. Curry is first all-time in career 10-three games with 15, a total that is more than double...second-place Klay Thompson (whose six such games double third place).

    For years, there was a notion in certain circles that jump-shooting teams couldn't win it all. These two didn't just disprove that idea; they obliterated it.

    During their time together, Curry and Thompson have three NBA titles. Curry has averaged 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and 4.0 threes. Thompson has gone for 19.5 points and 2.9 threes per game.

    Of course, these two are still teammates. They may not be done. But what they've already accomplished in the 2010s makes them one of the greatest duos of all time. 

    2. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant

    Curry and KD were only together for three years, but they certainly made the most of their brief partnership. Two titles, three trips to the Finals and a combined net rating of 15.7 across all regular-season and playoff minutes suggest few in this exercise had a higher peak than this duo.

    Curry's outside shooting was breaking defenses long before Durant arrived. Opponents often had to send multiple defenders at him 30 feet from the rim. Forcing that kind of scramble with Durant on the floor made for one of the most absurd offenses in league history.

    Sort every team in NBA history by effective field-goal percentage and the three Warriors squads featuring these two are first, second and third (the 2015-16 Warriors are fourth).

    During that three-year run, Curry and Durant combined for 52.1 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 threes per game. Durant's true shooting percentage was 64.0, while Curry's was 64.3.

    Like Shaq and Kobe, it certainly feels like this duo could've given us even more.

    1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

    Maybe it's the fact that they were only together for four years on the Miami Heat, or that those four years were bookended by Finals losses to the Mavericks and Spurs. But whatever the reason, time seems to have suppressed appreciation of this duo.

    LeBron was at the peak of his powers during this stretch, in which he averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.7 steals with a whopping 62.2 true shooting percentage. He led the league in win shares during those seasons. Wade, meanwhile, put up 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game and finished that stretch with the eighth-most win shares.

    When they were on the floor together, Miami was plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions.

    There was a bit of an adjustment period for these two since each entered the partnership as a ball-dominant slasher. But once they figured out how to play off each other, they were about as close to unstoppable as any duo we've seen.

Top 5 Overall

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    For those who aren't averse to comparing across eras, this is how the top five shook out for the entire exercise:

    1. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
    2. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    3. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
    4. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
    5. Tim Duncan and David Robinson

    In total, 47 duos were stacked up against each other. The full results can be found here.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference, PBPStats.com or Cleaning the Glass.

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