Star NBA Duos Who Never Lived Up to Their Potential
Last summer, when the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis, it was immediately clear they had one of the most talented duos in the NBA.
Things generally don't coalesce as quickly and as well as they did for AD and LeBron James, though. In their first season together, they won the title. And both played at an MVP level, according to box plus/minus.
Just over one year after they came together, it's safe to say this duo has lived up to its potential. LeBron's play in 2019-20 suggests they should compete for a couple more titles before he slows down too.
For various reasons, other top-tier talents never seemed to jell or reach their peak.
From recent history, duos like Chris Paul and James Harden or Blake Griffin and Chris Paul come to mind.
The 1990s gave us John Stockton and Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, and Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. It's tough to fault those duos, though. They happened to peak in Michael Jordan's era.
The groups you'll see analyzed here are made up almost entirely of players who won MVPs and plenty of individual acclaim but could've done more together.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant
Timing, luck and roster construction worked against them, but failing to win a title in eight years together with this level of talent fits the description we're looking for.
As members of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both won MVPs (though Russ' came after they split). The former is 10th all-time in career box plus/minus ("a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference). The latter is 26th.
In 2011-12, they made it all the way to the Finals, but they didn't have quite enough basketball maturity to compete with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. The next season, following the infamous James Harden trade, they won 60 games and finished first in the West. But two games into that playoff run, an overzealous Patrick Beverley collided with Westbrook, who was trying to call timeout, and tore his meniscus.
Over the next few seasons, OKC's front office surrounded the duo with a supporting cast that could not provide adequate spacing. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, the Thunder were 19th in three-point percentage. Take KD's numbers out of the mix, and that mark drops to 26th.
Still, in their final season together, Russ and KD took a 3-1 lead over the dynastic Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Barring Klay Thompson's supernova Game 6 performance, they may well have had another shot against LeBron in the Finals.
Of course, the Warriors blew their own 3-1 lead in the next series. Durant joined Golden State the following summer. And the Russ and KD era was over.
During their time together, there was plenty of discussion about how well the two ball-dominant stars coexisted. The bigger problem may well have been how well the rest of the roster fit with them.
Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway
Early in his career, Anfernee Hardaway was supposed to be the next Magic Johnson.
"He makes it worse," Hardaway said of Magic making the comp himself. "I tell him to stop saying that, but he always says, 'When I look at Anfernee, it seems like I'm looking at myself in the mirror.'"
By his second season, Penny averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 threes. He made his first All-Star team and looked like the perfect exterior complement to teammate Shaquille O'Neal's interior dominance.
That season was Shaq's third, and he looked poised to take over the league alongside Hardaway. The big man put up a league-leading 29.3 points, to go along with 11.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.4 blocks.
In the playoffs, the duo made it all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
It felt an awful lot like the premature ascendence of Russ, KD and the Thunder. Sure, Orlando got walloped in the Finals, but Shaq and Penny were both 23. Multiple returns to the game's biggest stage felt like a foregone conclusion.
As long as these two stayed together, they were going to compete for titles.
Their partnership was short-lived, though. Shaq bolted for the Lakers after his fourth season in the league.
He addressed the move in 2015:
"It was all business. Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should've stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you've got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles]."
After O'Neal's departure, injuries wreaked havoc on Hardaway's career. Trips back to the Finals may not have been a given, even if Shaq had stayed. But there is an alternate universe in which Orlando could've had those hypothetical titles he referenced.
Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash
Thanks to the level they played at together, it felt like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were a duo longer than they were. Believe it or not, they only full-time starters together for the Dallas Mavericks for four seasons.
The team's offense during that stretch was off the charts. The Mavs weren't just first in points per 100 possessions from 2000-01 to 2003-04. The distance between their 110.5 and the second-place Milwaukee Bucks' 107.7 was about the same as the gap between second and ninth.
In those four seasons, Dirk averaged 23.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.7 threes, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals. Nash put up 16.5 points, 7.8 assists and 1.5 threes, while shooting 42.3 percent from deep. They were one of the most dynamic and entertaining offensive duos the league has ever seen.
The problem, of course, was on the other side of the ball. Dallas was 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions during that stretch.
Though defensive box plus/minus pegged Nowitzki as a plus on that end, he was never going to threaten for an All-Defense selection. And we can't even be that kind about Nash's defense.
Still, had they had a little more time together, it isn't tough to imagine this duo would've broken through for a championship. Both went on to win MVP awards. Nowitzki eventually secured a title when he was surrounded by gritty defenders like Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler.
A similar supporting cast may have been able to cover for the defensive flaws of one of NBA history's best offensive tandems.
Elgin Baylor and Jerry West
Elgin Baylor and Jerry West are two of the best individual players in NBA history. In Bleacher Report's top 50 from last summer, both made the top 25.
Baylor made 10 All-NBA teams and secured 11 All-Star nods. West had 14 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA appearances, five All-Defense nods and a Finals MVP.
When they were teammates, Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists. West went for 27.6 points, 6.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds during those years.
But they never won a championship together, even in an era when the league hovered around eight or nine teams. Baylor did receive a ring along with the 1971-72 squad, but he retired after just nine regular-season appearances.
Maybe we shouldn't hold the lack of titles against them. After all, they were at the peak of their powers during Bill Russell's reign over the league.
But they had six cracks at the Boston Celtics in the Finals. They couldn't get it done in any of those series. And they dropped one to the New York Knicks in 1970 too.
It'd be silly to pick nits from the individual careers of each member of this duo, but it certainly feels like they could've done more together.
The Big Honorable Mention: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
No, this duo does not fit the mold established in the first four slides of this piece. Shaq and Kobe Bryant won three titles together, but it's hard to imagine they wouldn't have competed for more had they stayed together.
By the time they completed their threepeat, Shaq was still on the right side of 30. Kobe was in his early 20s. Few players across history can claim the level of success these two enjoyed together, but there was time for more runs at championships. Both went on to win more without the other.
Together, they could've written a new GOAT narrative.
Had they been able to temper their egos a bit, these two could've challenged for success at the levels of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. How do we talk about either Shaq or Kobe if they had five or six titles as a duo?
By one formula, these were two of the top seven players in the NBA's three-point era. Having both at or near their peaks made titles virtually inevitable.
Though they were dethroned by the Detroit Pistons in their last season together, a roster adjustment here or there almost certainly would've had them back in contention in 2004-05 and beyond.