The NBA in some ways is like Hollywood. It seems like at some point in time, everyone has found themselves working with everyone else. There is definitely a seven degrees of separation in the league, meaning if you name two players, regardless of when they played, you can connect the two through teammates in seven moves or less (this is actually a really fun game to play with your basketball nerd friends).
This link between players happens many different ways. Sometimes a team trades for an aging, overpaid superstar at the end of his contract in hopes of putting the team over the top, and then discard the player after the season. Other times, aging greats spend their final seasons playing the role of mentor to an up-and-coming star. Also, there are times when superstars just don’t know when to call it quits, and they end up bouncing from team to team at the end of their career racking up a bounty of teammates in the process.
With these crossing of paths inevitably happening every season, it is hard to pick the 15 best combinations of players who spent little time together. With that said, this list will shed light on some of the greatest combinations of superstar players that shared the court for only a short period of time. In a different universe, these 15 pairs of teammates could have changed the entire NBA landscape forever.
15. Allen Iverson and Marc Gasol
Allen Iverson had one of the more tumultuous endings to a great career in the NBA. Iverson was never able to find stability after leaving the Philadelphia 76ers in 2006. Iverson was a league MVP and was the sole reason for the Sixers 2001 NBA Finals appearance. Gaol has been a force for the Grizzlies since 2008, and in 2013 Gasol was the Defensive Player of the Year. Iverson and Gasol spent only three games together in 2009. The reason for such a short stint was Iverson, who left the team after only three games, citing “personal issues” for his departure, but widespread belief is that Iverson was not satisfied coming off the bench. Regardless of the reasoning, it was clear the addition of Iverson was not going to help the team in any way, so leaving the team quickly was ultimately a win for both parties.
14. Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury
If you remember the 2005 Knicks, you remember that Stephon Marbury was the team’s leading scorer. You may not remember that Penny Hardaway was the team’s lowest scorer. Penny and Stephon played three seasons together with the Knicks from 2004-2006. During their first season together in New York, Marbury and Penny helped lead the Knicks to the playoffs, with Marbury leading the way, averaging 20 points per game that season. The following year, the Knicks were still a solid squad but losing some key contributors meant Penny would have to increase his output, which he was unable to do.
By their third season together, Penny was a shell of his former himself. The Knicks would ultimately trade Penny to the Orlando Magic along with Trevor Ariza in exchange for Steve Francis. If Penny and Marbury could have teamed up in their primes, the NBA would have been a lot more fun to watch during the early 2000s.
13. Pat Riley and Jerry West
Two old timers make the list. These two pillars of the NBA were teammates for four seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. West and Riley actually won an NBA championship together in 1972. Obviously these two are a couple of the greatest basketball minds the game has ever seen, and apparently they were pretty damn good players in their day as well. Riley was a solid role player who could have flashes of all-star talent, the exact player a championship team needs to have. West, as you should know already, is the face of the NBA. No, literally, he is the figure in the NBA logo. West was a 14-time All-Star, and in 1969, he did something that had never been done before and has never been done since. He was named the NBA Finals MVP, while playing on the losing team (some people argue that Lebron James should have been the second person to accomplish such a feat in 2015). These two guys now battle it out in the front office as West works as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, and Riley is the President of the Miami Heat.
12. Rasheed Wallace and Carmelo Anthony
Two of the most diverse basketball players in the last 20 years, Melo and Sheed were teammates for part of the 2012-13 season. Rasheed came out of retirement in 2012 to join Melo and the rest of his New York teammates. Wallace played in 21 games for the Knicks before breaking his foot, causing him to miss eight weeks of the season. When his foot healed, Wallace played one final game, recording only three minutes before he re-retired. Wallace was a beast in his days with the Portland Trail Blazers, and later with the championship-winning Detroit Pistons. Wallace was one of the original stretch fours, helping pave the way for the new breed of shooting big men. We all know how talented Carmelo has been since his breakout rookie season in 2003, and paired with a healthy and hungry Rasheed Wallace, New York basketball would have been back on the scene in a major way.
11. Kevin Garnett and Spud Webb
It’s hard to find a couple of NBA legends that are more dissimilar than KG and Spud Webb. For starters, Spud is a 5’7″ mild mannered point guard. Kevin Garnett is probably the fiercest player in NBA history, and at 6’11”, he is over a foot taller than tiny Spud. Spud and Kevin spent part of the 1995-96 season together in Minnesota. Spud played the final 26 games with the T-Wolves before ending his career the next season in Orlando. Kevin Garnett, on the other hand, was just getting started. Garnett would ultimately become the greatest player in Timberwolves history before being traded to the Boston Celtics, where he would team with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on his way to an NBA Championship. Between the two of them. they stake claims to 15 All-Star Game appearances, one MVP Award, one NBA title and one Slam Dunk Championship.
10. LeBron James and Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace was the anchor for the early 2000s Detroit Pistons teams that went to two NBA Finals. Wallace was the NBA Defensive Player of the year four times, tying Dikembe Mutombo for the most times having won that award. We all know the accomplishments of LeBron James, who is currently the defending NBA Finals MVP and leader of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Wallace and Lebron were only teammates for one season, in 2008-09. Wallace was a shell of his younger self and was only able to be a role player off the bench for the Cavs.
The Cavs were able to finish the season as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, but ultimately they were knocked out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Things would have likely ended up a little differently had Ben and LeBron both been at full potential that season.
9. Charles Barkley and Moses Malone
Moses Malone is often forgotten when basketball heads debate their all-time great players. Malone was one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history, and it is clear that Sir Charles was taking notes during his two seasons with the Hall of Famer. Barkley came into the NBA in 1984 and quickly made a name for himself as a great rebounder who could run the point forward position. During his 16 seasons, Barkley compiled quite the resume, including an MVP, 11 All-Star game appearance, and 11 All-NBA Team selections. Malone, however, makes Barkley’s resume seem somewhat pedestrian. Malone was a three-time NBA MVP, and was also NBA Finals MVP in 1983 when he led the Sixers to the NBA title. Malone also was selected to 12 All-Star games, and led the league in rebounding six times.
Both players also enjoyed Hall of Fame teammates throughout their careers. Malone shared the limelight with the great Dr. J during their championship run in ’83, and Barkley teamed up with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in Houston.
8. Gary Payton and Patrick Ewing
Two of the greatest defensive players at their respective positions, and personally, two of my favorite players of all time, Gary Payton and Patrick Ewing spent the 2000-01 season together with the Seattle SuperSonics. These two guys had similar paths in their NBA careers. Both spent the final few seasons of their career chasing a championship, with Payton succeeding in his chase with the Miami Heat in 2006. Payton and Ewing together in their primes would have been hell for opposing offenses. Together, Ewing and Payton combined to make 12 NBA All-Defensive Teams, and Payton was even named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1996.
Although Ewing was well past his prime, and Payton was clearly on the decline by the time they joined forces, the Sonics were still under-achievers in 2000, winning only 44 games, and missing the playoffs.
7. Vince Carter and Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeen and Vince are two incredibly gifted players. The two crossed paths during the 2001-02 season, when Hakeem did what many greats often do and played one too many seasons. Olajuwon is easily one of the greatest centers to ever play the game, and his “Dream Shake” is one of the most difficult shots to defend. Carter, on the other hand, was a freak of a different nature, once nicknamed “half man half amazing.” Carter was probably the greatest dunker to ever put on a pair of basketball sneakers. Hakeem is often a sought-after mentor for current players looking to improve their post game and footwork. He has worked with such stars as Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James. Hakeem’s resume is impeccable, and includes two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, and being named two-time Defensive Player of the Year, as well as 12 All-Star appearances.
Vince does trump Olajuwon in one category, however. In the 2000 Olympics, Carter literally jumped up and over Fredrick Weiss, the seven-foot center from France. That highlight alone is Hall of Fame worthy, and Vince will surely join Hakeem in the Hall as soon as he is eligible. If these two legends had found each other during their primes (which is impossible as Hakeem is 14 years older than Vince), they likely would have won multiple championships.
6. Steve Nash and Jason Kidd
Could you imagine how excited every other player on the Phoenix Suns was during the two seasons Nash and Kidd played together? During their time together, both guys were in their early 20s and still trying to prove themselves as superstars. Kidd emerged as a star earlier than Nash, but ultimately it was clear that there were just not enough minutes for both players to share point guard duties. The Suns ended up trading Nash to the Mavericks after the 1998 draft. In 2001, the Suns decided to move in a different direction. They traded Kidd to the New Jersey Nets in an attempt to focus more on the budding young stars, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion, as well as their coveted draft pick Amar’e Stoudemire.
In 2004, the Suns realized they needed a point guard to distribute the ball to all their talented wing and post players so they signed Nash again. Nash would go on to win back-to-back MVP awards with the Suns, but they were never able to attain the ultimate prize of an NBA title. Kidd, on the other hand, helped lead New Jersey to an NBA Finals appearance, only to run into the buzzsaw that was the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. Kidd did finally get a championship in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks, when he helped guide a veteran group led by Dirk Nowitzki to a 4-2 Finals victory over LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
5. Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley
Making his second appearance on the list is Charles Barkley. Obviously Charles had some quality teammates in his career, but unfortunately for him, the timing was never right. Barkley and Pippen joined forces in 1999 when Pippen left Chicago and joined Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. The Rockets had three of the greatest players ever on their team that season, but it was about five years too late. The Rockets were a solid team in the strike-shortened season, finishing with a record of 31-19. However, a juggernaut Laker team eliminated the Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs that season.
Barkley and Pippen did their part to help the Rockets, as they combined for 30 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. It was clear from the jump that these two had chemistry, which was probably cultivated during their time together with the 1992 Olympic Dream Team that featured 11 Hall of Famers, including these two legends.
4. Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone
Even I could have averaged 10 assists per game if I played with these two scoring machines in their primes. Karl Malone is the second all-time leading scoring in NBA history, trailing only Kareem Abdul-jabaar, and right behind Karl on the list is Kobe. Yes, that is right, the 2003 Los Angeles Lakers had two of the top three leading scorers of all-time. This team was an interesting one because not only did they have Kobe and Karl Malone, who are shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame, but they also had Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton, two more first ballot Hall of Famers. It’s also worth mentioning that Phil Jackson was the coach. So how did they not go 82-0, right? Well they did go 56-26, and they even made it to the NBA Finals; many people forget that. They were over-matched by the Detroit Pistons, a team who optimized the expression, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
One of the major reasons this forgotten Lakers team was unable to capture a title was due to Karl Malone’s injury problems. He missed 39 regular season games, but was healthy for the playoff run. During their run to the finals, Malone was a key contributor on both ends of the floor; however, during the Finals, Malone sprained his knee and was forced to miss the final game of his career, a finals game no less.
3. Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan
We all remember the shot Ray Allen hit in the 2013 NBA Finals against the Spurs in Game 6 with under 10 seconds remaining to give the Heat the break they needed which enabled them to win the NBA Championship right? Of course! Well, go back and watch the footage of that series, and you will find Tracy McGrady suited up with the Spurs. McGrady joined the Spurs specifically for the playoffs that season, though he did not play a single regular season game with the team. McGrady actually didn’t see many minutes in the playoffs either, only appearing in six games during the Spurs run to a seven-game NBA Finals defeat. However, T-Mac and Duncan will forever be able to say they were teammates once upon a time. During the 2000s, there was no better player in the NBA than Tracy McGrady, and had it not been for injuries, he could easily have become one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time.
As for Tim Duncan, what is there to say? The Big Fundamental was the ultimate silent assassin during his 19-year career. During his almost two decades in the NBA, Duncan won five NBA Finals, capturing MVP honors three times. These two superstars dominated the NBA during the early part of the new century, and if they could have been paired together from the get-go they could have really been something special.
2. Michael Jordan and George Gervin
Michael Jordan has become one of the “coolest” basketball players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. More than likely, Jordan learned some of his style from “The Iceman” George Gervin. After two seasons in the ABA, Gervin came to the NBA in 1974 and joined the San Antonio Spurs as one of the ugliest parts of the NBA/ABA merger. Gervin was the centerpiece of a solid Spurs team throughout the mid ’70s and early ’80s. His incredibly underrated career came to an end in 1986 after he spent his final season with an up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team, featuring the fresh out of college Michael Jordan.
The Bulls were a solid team with Jordan and Gervin; however, Gervin was at the end of his career, and Father Time had done a number on his body. George played sparingly but it was clear that the future was bright for that young Jordan kid. That kid would go on to win six NBA Championships, and be the Finals MVP all six times. There are rumors that Gervin was unhappy during his last season, in part due to injuries, and in part due to having to give the limelight to Jordan and the other younger players in Chicago. In any case, there is no denying that this duo is the “coolest” on the list.
1. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James
Arguably the two most dominant players at the respective positions ever, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal have owned the league for collectively the last two decades, so it is no surprise to see them at the top of another list. What is surprising, however, is that they were teammates for a season with the Cavaliers. In 2009, the Cavs traded for Shaq in what was later seen as a last ditch effort for the Cavs to get LeBron to stay home. When the Cavs traded for Shaq, they thought they were getting a player close to that of the 2006 Shaq, the guy who helped carry D-Wade and the Heat to the title. Instead, they got a worn-out big man. Shaq averaged career lows in all major statistical categories in his lone season with LeBron and after the year was over, both Shaq and LeBron decided to move to new teams, though Lebron’s decision made slightly more headlines.