Almost every NBA champion in modern basketball history had at least two All-Star caliber players whom the team was built around. Some duos dominate for a decade or more while others are a flash in the pan. Nonetheless, it’s rare for a team to be consistently successful without a “Batman and Robin” dynamic carrying the load.
There are so many great pairings in NBA history that it’s nearly impossible to pick just a top-10. Depending on how you value greatness between two players, your list could look quite different from this one. Notable duos like John Stockton and Karl Malone or Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp may have had better chemistry than some on this list but they never reached the mountain top. Others like Moses Malone and Julius Erving were dominant for a short span but didn’t achieve the sustained success of some others. Some duos might have had a third-best player who was so good that it almost diminishes the greatness of the top two players, like with John Havlicek and Dave Cowans playing with Jo Jo White.
This ranking takes into account the individual skill of each player during the time they each played together, what they accomplished in that time and the length of their success. There are some truly iconic pairs left off this list, but there has to be a cutoff at some point. Anyway, here are the top-10 duos in NBA history.
Honorable Mentions (no particular order)
John Stockton / Karl Malone
Stephen Curry / Klay Thompson
Wilt Chamberlain / Jerry West
Julius Erving / Moses Malone
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Oscar Robertson
Walt Frazier / Willis Reed
Tim Duncan / David Robinson
John Havlicek / Dave Cowens
Wilt Chamberlain / Hal Greer
Hakeem Olajuwon / Clyde Drexler
Paul Pierce / Kevin Garnett
Dwyane Wade / Shaquille O’Neal
10. Kobe Bryant & Pau Gasol (2008-20014)
– Two Championships
– Three Finals appearances
– Best team: 2008-2009, 65-win and championship
The Lakers committed highway robbery when they traded for Gasol before the 2008 trade deadline. They only gave up Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie (who never played after 2007), the rights to a young and chubbier Marc Gasol, and their 2008 and 2010 first-round draft picks. Bryant was scoring at an absurd pace in the couple lowly seasons before Gasol’s arrival, and the Spaniard immediately brought the storied Lakers franchise back into title contention. The two would lead the Lakers to a Finals loss in 2008 and back-to-back titles in the two following seasons, with the 65-win 2008-2009 team marking the peak of their time together.
Bryant was the league’s MVP in 2008 and one of basketball’s top scorers alongside the extremely skilled Gasol. Bryant’s athleticism and shot-creating abilities meshed nicely with the finesse style of Gasol, and the two were able to run Phil Jackson’s triangle offense to perfection. The two made a combined eight All-NBA teams in their five full seasons together before Bryant’s Achilles tendon tear near the end of the 2012-2013 season ended the duo’s successful run. Their Lakers teams never had another All-Star on the roster, and although the supporting cast was deep and experienced, it was Bryant and Gasol who brought the historic franchise back to the top of the NBA. If not for Gasol, Bryant would have missed out on two rings and two Finals MVPs and likely would have had a diminished legacy. If not for joining Bryant, Gasol’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame perhaps would not have been solidified.
In their five full seasons together, Bryant averaged 26.8 points, 5.3 rebound and 5.1 assists per game with five All-Star selections, according to basketball-reference. Gasol averaged 17.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists while making three All-Star games.
9. Isiah Thomas & Joe Dumars (1985-1994)
– Two Championships
– Three Finals appearances
– Best team: 1988-1989, 63-win and championship
Thomas and Dumars anchored the “Bad Boy” Pistons of the late 1980s and led the franchise to three consecutive Finals appearances, winning back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 after losing to Magic Johnson’s Lakers initially. Both players could handle the ball, play inside and out, make plays for their teammates and lockdown the opposing squad’s two guards. They played off each other better than most for nine seasons and tormented Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the process.
Neither player tallied eye-popping numbers, but what earns them a spot on this list is not only their ability to lead an unlikely dynasty but also their sustained excellence for nearly a decade. Their championship Detroit teams didn’t sport many offensively skilled players or the best athletes. What they had was grit and teamwork, each of which was spearheaded by Thomas and Dumars. They each won a Finals MVP, combined for 12 All-Star appearances in their nine seasons together, most of which came in the middle years of their run when the team was clicking on all cylinders. Dumars took more of the scoring load as Thomas began to age and the team fell from title contention, showing that both players could fill up the box score when called upon as Thomas did earlier in his career.
In their time together before Thomas’ career-ending Achilles tendon tear in 1994, Thomas averaged 18.5 points, 8.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Dumars averaged 17.1 points, 4.7 assists and shot 38.2% from behind the arc.
8. Kevin Durant & Stephen Curry
– Two Championships
– Three Finals appearances, 2016-2019,
– Best team: 2016-2017, 67-win and championship
The duo of Durant and Curry is the most short-lived pairing on this list, but the fact that two MVP-caliber players in their primes were on the same team is too much to ignore. Durant’s move to join Curry’s 73-win Warriors made him the most despised player in the league amongst NBA fans because he simply made them unfairly good. The two won 67 games in their first season together as Durant integrated seamlessly in Golden State. That 2016-2017 Warriors team also went 16-1 in the playoffs and is regarded as one of the top teams of all time.
They did play with two other All-Stars in Klay Thomspon and Draymond Green which should lessen the validity of this duo’s inclusion on this list. Anyone who watched this pair, though, should recognize how amazing they were regardless of the pieces surrounding them. Two of the best shooters and scorers in the world who are both able to get theirs with and without handling the ball and are unselfish shouldn’t be allowed, but it was and it was arguably some of the best basketball ever played. Had Durant not torn his Achilles tendon in the 2019 playoffs, this duo probably would have gone three-for-three in the Finals.
In their three seasons together, each player made the All-Star team and an All-NBA team. Curry averaged 26.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Durant averaged 25.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game while also making great strides on the defensive end.
7. LeBron James & Dwyane Wade (2010-2014)
– Two Championships
– Four Finals appearances,
– Best team: 2012-2013, 66-win and championship
Like the previous duo on this list, James and Wade joining forces — along with Chris Bosh — was deemed unfair by followers of the league when James infamously made “The Decision” to join Miami in the summer of 2010. It didn’t end up being an overpowered team, but the duo was a force to be reckoned with during their four years together. As individual talents, these two should be higher on this list. Their abbreviated time together combined with some blemishes on their resumes lower them, however.
Although Wade and James needed time to gel, the two worked better than anyone could have imagined once they figured out their chemistry. They developed one of the most famous alley-oop combos in basketball history and showed a unique ability to pass and cut at the precise moment needed. Their full-court outlet passes were a sight to behold and they could both lockdown their matchup. Miami’s success helped James earn back-to-back MVPs in 2012 and 2013, and the two combined for eight All-Star games and seven All-NBA teams in just four seasons.
What brings this duo down on the list is their Finals loss in 2011 and Wade’s health issues in the pair’s last season together. James notoriously crumbled under the pressure in the 2011 championship against a lesser Mavericks team, while Wade’s knee issues in the 2013-2014 season held him under 20 points per game for the first time since his rookie year and to just 54 regular-season games, eventually making him a shell of himself when the Heat were blown out in the 2014 Finals by the vengeful Spurs.
Sandwiched in the middle of those two seasons were back-to-back titles and some of the most exciting basketball of the decade. In those four seasons, James averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.7 steals on 54.3% shooting. Wade averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.6 steals.
6. Tim Duncan & Tony Parker (2001-2016)
– Four Championships
– Five Finals appearances
– Best team: 2013-2014, 62-win and championship
The duo of Duncan and Parker isn’t the most talented or flashy on this list. What they are is arguably the most consistent pairing in NBA history. As individuals, especially in the second half of their time together, they weren’t spectacular and didn’t accumulate big numbers. They weren’t stat-padders, they were winners, and in their 15 years together they never won less than 50 games in a season. In today’s player-empowerment era, no pair will likely ever come close to that streak again.
The beautiful part of Duncan and Parker’s on-court relationship is that as Duncan began to transition from his superstar status, Parker elevated his game and took on more of the offensive load. Yes, they played with another great baller in Manu Ginobili, but both Parker and Duncan took turns manning the helm and were as unselfish of stars as there have ever been in the NBA. How they won four titles with their first and last being 12 years apart is incomprehensible. They did it anyway.
The two combined for three Finals MVPs, 18 All-Star games and 15 All-NBA teams. Duncan averaged 18.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, while Parker averaged 16.6 points and 5.9 assists. No two players will ever be as successful for an extended period as these two were.
5. Larry Bird & Kevin McHale (1980-1992)
– Three Championships
– Five Finals appearances
– Best team: 1985-1986, 67-win and championship
Bird and McHale’s Celtics helped define arguably the most important era of NBA basketball and did so unselfishly and spectacularly. They aren’t the flashiest or most athletic tandem on this list, instead, they are arguably the most fundamental and tough. Their battles with the “Showtime” Lakers, Malone and Erving 76ers and the “Bad Boy” Pistons were legendary, and Boston enjoyed their fair share of victories in those matchups.
These two did play with two other Hall of Famers in Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, as well as a sixth-man Bill Walton, but Bird and McHale were the engines that made the Celtics run. Bird’s singular ability to shoot the lights out and make passes almost nobody else could created a true team environment in Boston. McHale is perhaps one of the more underrated offensive players ever and routinely displayed some of the best post moves ever to be done on a basketball court. Charles Barkley even said McHale was the hardest player he ever had to guard.
If not for Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar’s elite Lakers teams and a string of injuries in the late 1980s, Bird and McHale might have even more rings and sustained success. Still, they’re two of the best to ever do it and truly maximized their potential.
4. Bill Russell & Bob Cousy (1956-1963)
– Six Championships
– Seven Finals appearances
– Best team: 1961-1962, 60-win and championship
Boston fans have enjoyed some truly spectacular duos throughout the team’s history, but the original pair of Russell and Cousy won’t ever likely be topped. The NBA was much different back when these two dominated the league and they did have several other Hall of Fame teammates. That shouldn’t, however, take away from the fact that these two went to the Finals in all seven of their seasons together and lost only one. That won’t ever happen again.
Russell and Cousy’s skills complemented each other better than any two players in NBA history. Russell smothered opponents on defense and the glass with his relentless determination and elite instincts. He would then often quickly outlet the ball to Cousy and the point guard would run past defenders en route to a layup or dishing it off to a teammate. The two pioneered the fastbreak and showcased an array of plays and skills that players would emulate and improve upon in the decades to follow. Say what you will about their era and the quality of the league’s other teams and players. Russell and Cousy didn’t choose their opponents, they simply beat them time and time again.
In their seven seasons together, the two combined for 13 All-NBA and All-Star selections and a staggering five MVPs. Russell averaged 17.1 points and 23.1 rebounds, while Cousy averaged 17.7 points and 7.9 assists.
3. Magic Johnson & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1979-1989)
– Five Championships
– Eight Finals appearances
– Best team: 1986-1987, 65-win and championship
Being two of the consensus top-five players of all-time, it’s no surprise Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar rank so highly on this list. Their eight trips to the Finals are the most of any duo on this ranking, and they could have won more of each of their primes more closely aligned. Their 10 seasons together were some of the most productive in NBA history, as they won 60 or more games five times in that span. They did enjoy another Hall of Fame teammate in James Worthy, but he didn’t replace Abdul-Jabbar as the team’s second-best player until the latter stages of the center’s career.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar won the title in their first season together and got to the Finals in their last. Despite both players being more than qualified to be the leader of a team, these two co-existed better than almost any other tandem of two MVP-caliber superstars. As Abdul-Jabbar aged, Johnson assumed more of the scoring load and the team peaked during their 1987 title. Their battles with Bird and McHale’s Celtics helped reignite America’s desire for basketball and saved a dying NBA. Abdul-Jabbar being past his prime for most of their years together brings them down on this list. Although he was still one of the best scorers in the game, his rebounding and defense weren’t to the level of his play in the 1970s.
During their time together, the two combined for 19 All-Star games, 14 All-NBA teams and four Finals MVPs. Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.4 rebounds and two steals per game while Abdul-Jabbar averaged 20.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and two blocks.
2. Shaquille O’Neal & Kobe Bryant (1996-2004)
– Three Championships
– Four Finals appearances,
– Best team: 2000-2001, 56-win and 16-1 playoff record and championships
O’Neal and Bryant were the most talented pair to ever play together in the NBA, bar none. Their Lakers teams were the last to three-peat as champions, simply because no other team in the league had an answer for both the game’s most dominant inside force and best shooting guard. Ironically, though, O’Neal and Bryant were the most dysfunctional duo off the court on this list.
For as publicized as their feud was, the two still managed to dominate the league in their short time together. Had they been friends and each committed themselves equally to the game, they could have maybe won five or more titles in a row. Unfortunately for basketball fans, the two decided they could no longer co-exist after losing the 2004 Finals and O’Neal was traded to Miami. Both players won titles after playing together, which only shows how great they were as individuals in addition to their success as a pair.
The two combined for 14 All-NBA selections, 13 All-Star games and eight All-Defensive teams. O’Neal averaged 27 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 57.5% shooting, and Bryant averaged 21.8 points, five rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals.
1. Michael Jordan / Scottie Pippen
– Six Championships
– Six Finals appearances
– Best team: 1995-1996, 72-win and championships
You already knew which duo would top this list. How could it be another? Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls won it all in all six of their Finals appearances and defined basketball in the 1990s. Chicago’s popularity and dominance helped make the NBA a global phenomenon. They won six titles in a decade and Jordan essentially took two years and retired a year before the decade was over. That likely won’t ever be done again.
What truly makes these two the best pair in NBA history is their defensive prowess. Both Jordan and Pippen are two of the greatest perimeter defenders ever with the athleticism and energy to hound opponents for 94 feet. No two players could disrupt opposing guards like Jordan and Pippen, and then they both could take it the length of the floor and dunk on the guy they just stripped. It was truly a sight to behold.
Pippen was the ultimate compliment to Jordan’s extreme Alpha dog personality. Jordan did the scoring while Pippen was more of a passer, but as time went on, they both learned to trust their teammates and created a truly great team during their second three-peat. They combined for 16 All-Star and All-Defensive teams, as well as 15 All-NBA teams. Jordan averaged 31.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game. Pippen averaged 18 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.1 steals.