Throughout NBA history, few champions have hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy without one big thing: a dynamic duo.
The formula for an NBA championship has generally always started with a powerful 1-2 punch. With a few exceptions, particularly based on what the league was like at the time (looking at you, ’93-94 Houston Rockets), a spectacular pair of players has been what elevates a good team to a great team capable of winning a title, particularly in the modern era (which is where this analysis will mainly focus). LeBron’s Cavaliers teams, for example, have been good teams, but they haven’t had a good wingman for LeBron, so they’ve never been able to get over the hump.
This year’s Western Conference Finals features a duo that has already achieved greatness in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (“great” and “greatness” will henceforth refer to championship success). However, the more intriguing duo is in purple and orange. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire have now played together for six years and have come close to the Finals, but haven’t achieved greatness. So, obviously, the question is do they have what it takes?
To put this analysis in historical context, we’ll first take a look at a handful of the most successful duos in NBA history.
First, a few honorable mentions since we aren’t going into them all: Moses Malone/Julius Erving (Philadelpha 76ers), Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars (Detroit Pistons), Charles Barkley/Kevin Johnson (Phoenix Suns), Hakeem Olajuwon/Clyde Drexler (Houston Rockets), Tim Duncan/David Robinson (San Antontio Spurs), Dwyane Wade/Shaquille O’Neal (Miami Heat).
On to the the greatest. The first is fairly obvious…
Michael Jordan | Scottie Pippen
Six NBA Championships (Chicago Bulls)
Per game combined playoff numbers in Championship seasons: 51.5 points, 14.0 rebounds, 10.9 assists, 46.1 percent shooting
Many would argue that Michael and Scottie were the most potent duo of all time. Few would dispute it.
MJ and Scottie weren’t simply about numbers. Their chemistry was some of the finest of all time. Michael was the alpha dog and Scottie was OK with that. There was no question the Bulls were MJ’s team.
The way these guys complemented each other is hard to duplicate. Michael had the killer instinct and Scottie had the basketball intelligence to fill the voids where that instinct might run wild. The thing this duo had that no others will ever have was MJ’s unmatched need to win. Keep in mind also that this duo actually prevented other duos from achieving greatness (Malone/Stockton, Barkley/KJ).
Magic Johnson | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Five NBA Championships (Los Angeles Lakers)
40.5 points, 16.6 rebounds, 14.5 assists, 52.6 percent shooting
This duo was at times more about one or the other, such as when Magic helped win the 1980 NBA Finals with Kareem out with an ankle sprain. Additionally, it may have been the duo with the best supporting cast with this being the “Showtime” Lakers era.
However, the Magic/Kareem tandem was a force to be reckoned with for a number of reasons. The point guard/center combo remains one of the most deadly in the NBA, particularly if the point guard can run an efficient offense and score. That’s what these two had. Options on the inside and the outside. Defending such is a tall task.
Magic and Kareem were both incredibly gifted from a stats perspective. But the fact that only two of these titles came back-to-back is noteworthy and says that A) The league was really good at the time and B) The Magic/Kareem Lakers stayed good for an extended period of time.
The supporting casts changed a bit and were generally better than most others, but the core of these “great” teams was always the 1-2 of Magic and Kareem.
Larry Bird | Robert Parish
Three NBA Championships (Boston Celtics)
40.1 points, 20.8 rebounds, 7.9 rebounds, 49.3 percent shooting
Bird played with a lot of good players and it could be argued that his best wingman was Kevin McHale, but Parish was good in all three of Bird’s title seasons, while McHale was still improving through the first two. So for the sake of the argument, we’ll go with Parish and acknowledge that there is in fact a case for McHale.
It comes as a surprise to some that Bird only won three titles, but he played in an era that also featured the aforementioned Lakers teams.
Some of Bird’s best seasons were ones where we he actually didn’t win titles and it was unfortunate for him that he had to take on Magic and the Lakers so much. But the Bird/Parish duo was still one of the all-time best. Like MJ’s need to win, Bird’s swagger and pure will were the intangibles that put this duo on another level.
Kobe Bryant | Shaquille O’Neal
Three NBA Championships (Los Angeles Lakers)
55.6 points, 20.4 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 49.0 percent shooting
This duo has sparked more argument than most people cared to listen to. And the verdict was ultimately that neither would have won without the other (no matter how much Shaq wants to taunt Kobe that he was solely what made it happen).
Again, here we have a case of good outside guy, good inside guy. Shaq hit his peak during this part of his career and Kobe had just found his legs. Perfect situation for a powerhouse team to take three titles.
Really, one of THE best duos in basketball history. If they could have gotten along, there were probably at least three more trophies in it.
Tim Duncan | Tony Parker
Three NBA Championships
41.1 points, 16.1 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 47.6 percent shooting
This is one Suns fans know all too well and would probably like to forget. But for the moment, that demon has been mostly exorcised. This tandem features probably the best power forward in NBA history and a lethal point guard — another inside/outside (I’m telling you, with a few exceptions, that’s the formula!).
However, this is probably also the most boring duo of all time. I know, they are great fundamental players and that’s just the Spurs’ style. But they’re not thrilling to watch like all these others were. Ultimately though, they get the last laugh because they are probably one of the smartest two-man teams ever and have three trophies to prove it.
Duncan and Parker have had some pretty good supporting casts, but regardless, a truly great pair.
Now, on to the series at hand. Let’s first take a look at the Kobe/Pau pairing and how they fared on their way to a title last season.
Kobe Bryant | Pau Gasol
One NBA Championship (so far)
Once again, the Lakers put together a dynamic duo (Phil Jackson’s third), proving that Kobe can’t do it alone (and that’s not a knock on Kobe). Kobe and Pau combined in last season’s playoffs for 48.5 points, 16.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game while shooting a combined 51.9 percent. Those numbers are in range with the rest.
This duo does have the benefit of an extremely intelligent, experienced coach and a very good supporting cast (Bynum, Odom, Fisher), but on their own Kobe and Pau are dominant. The combination of Pau’s overpowering style and size and Bryant’s strong shooting, clutch ability and killer instinct (a la MJ) could run the league for a few seasons. The question mark is whether LeBron James can start winning titles and launch a Magic/Bird rivalry.
When Kobe doesn’t get it done, Pau will. The Lakers’ first-round clincher over the Thunder was the perfect example. And the important thing about their relationship is that it’s very much like Jordan and Pippen in that Kobe knows its his team and so does Pau. Nobody has a problem with that, so the chemistry is perfect.
Kobe is one of the toughest players to defend in the league. There’s generally no containing Kobe, you can only hope to limit the bleeding. Look for Grant Hill and Jared Dudley to get the call to try to stop the Black Mamba. Defending Pau may be the bigger challenge. His physical play could get Stoudemire in foul trouble, but Stoudemire has shown newly-developed defensive abilities this season.
Channing Frye, Lou Amundson and Robin Lopez become very important to reigning in Gasol. If Lopez can be at least 70 percent of what he was during the regular season, it will help a lot. Lopez is an asset simply by the fact that he is big and physical, but if his strength is there, limiting Gasol gets easier.
Steve Nash | Amare Stoudemire
Zero NBA Finals appearances
Stockton and Malone never won a title, but they made it to the Finals. Same with Barkley and KJ. Nash and Stoudemire haven’t done it yet, but this could be the time.
There’s no way to compare their numbers to Gasol and Bryant’s playoff numbers last season or the numbers of any other duo in a title season because the Suns don’t have one. However, Nash and Stoudemire have appeared in the playoffs together three times prior to this year. Stoudemire missed the ’05-06 playoffs with an injury.
Nash and Stoudemire’s numbers were in the range of all the others in ’04-05 when the Suns went to the Western Conference Finals: 53.8 points, 15.5 rebounds, 12.5 assists per game, 53.0 percent shooting. Those numbers may have gotten better the next season if Stoudemire didn’t get hurt, but we’ll forego the pain of thinking about a possible missed title.
Since the ’04-05 season, Nash and Stoudemire’s numbers have been declining in the playoffs. In ’07-08, they combined for 39.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists per game and a 47.1 shooting percentage. Their numbers so far in this season’s playoffs: 37.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists a game, 51.3 percent shooting. Gasol and Bryant’s: 47.1 points, 17.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 51.1 percent shooting.
So Gasol and Bryant win the numbers war, but Nash and Stoudemire have a good supporting cast with significant scoring options (Richardson, Hill, Frye, Dragic) this season.
Nash and Stoudemire don’t have the numbers that the great duos in history had and they may have peaked as a 1-2 punch five seasons ago, but they have developed into an elite duo within a very well-rounded team nonetheless. They both have the ability to be outstanding players, but they can also defer to role players.
Ultimately, Nash and Stoudemire are what take this team to another level, but they aren’t what would elevate the team to a championship level. The chemistry and supporting cast would be what does it (great example: J-Rich stepping up against Portland). But with that said, let me make it clear that Nash and Stoudemire are still THE guys that will be key for the Suns against the Lakers.
If the Suns can get past the Lakers and win a title, people may not remember it as the team that Nash and Stoudemire took to glory, but the pair will secure their position among the great duos to win an NBA championship.