In this era of NBA super teams and Big 3’s, seemingly every NBA team is doing whatever they can to create their own power squad, When a Big 3 cannot be formed, teams attempt to at least have a dynamic duo in place; two superstars who can carry the load for the rest of the team. Some duos, like Magic and Kareem, were able to elevate their teams to greatness and players like James Worthy end up with championships and in the Hall of Fame as a result.
However, for every NBA dynamic duo that has worked out, there have been several others that have failed miserably. In some instances, the duos failed because the teams were caught in the buzz saw of another franchise that was able to dominate the NBA titles. In other instances, the teams failed because the duos just couldn’t get along. The two players were constantly at odds and the rift kept the team from reaching its full potential.
Whatever the reason, some NBA duos work and others simply do not. Here is a list of 15 duos that, for one reason or another, simply did not work out and were unable to elevate their teams to their full potential.
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15 Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway
The year after Shaquille O'Neal was drafted by the Orlando Magic, the Magic drafted Chris Webber, who the team traded to Golden State for the rights to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. The belief was that Shaq and Penny would be the second coming of Magic and Kareem. The first season came with a coaching change, from Matt Goukas to Brian Hill, and the team’s first playoff appearance.
The second season saw Shaq lead the NBA in scoring and the team lose to the Rockets in the NBA Finals, but the third season was the beginning of the team’s downfall. Shaq suffered an injury and Hardaway became a star in the league, but this caused a rift between the two players. The team made the playoffs again, but again they lost to the eventual champions and the battle between the two players for top billing made the relationship irreparable.
Shaq left for Los Angeles,and won three championships with the Lakers, while Penny played ten more injury-riddled seasons before retiring.
14 Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon
In 1983 and 1984, the Houston Rockets were the last team before the NBA began using the lottery to gain the first overall draft pick in consecutive years. With those picks, the Rockets chose two 7-footers, Ralph Sampson in 1983 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. The Twin Towers, as they were called, were supposed to revolutionize the NBA, because there had never been two 7-foot players with their type of skill who were on the court at the same time.
The duo only lasted for four years, but during that time, they knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs one of the only two times during the 80s that the Magic Johnson-Lakers did not make it to the Finals. However, during the other three seasons, the duo was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round twice, and in the second round in the other season. Sampson left for Golden State and Olajuwon would win two titles several years later, during the two seasons when Michael Jordan was playing baseball.
13 Michael Jordan and George Gervin
Following Michael Jordan’s rookie season, the San Antonio Spurs obliged George Gervin’s trade request and sent Gervin to the Chicago Bulls. Despite the greatness of Gervin and the opportunity for Jordan to learn from one of the greatest players of his era, Jordan was said to be upset about the trade, possibly because of the prospect of losing minutes and shots to The Iceman.
A few games into the season, Jordan suffered an injury and missed most of the regular season. Gervin stepped in and average 16.2 points per game, leading the Bulls made the playoffs, but the team only won 30 games, which was eight games fewer than in MJ’s rookie season. Jordan returned for the playoffs, and Gervin found himself relegated to the bench averaging 5 minutes per game. The Bulls were swept by the Celtics in the first round of the 1986 NBA playoffs, but Gervin’s last NBA game was Jordan’s 63-point contest, a playoff record that still exists. Gervin left the NBA following the season and the pairing of two men who between them won 14 scoring titles, ended with a fizzle.
12 Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning
The Charlotte Hornets were another team that was able to get top draft picks in consecutive years. Larry Johnson was first overall in 1991 and Alonzo Mourning was second overall in 1992, behind Shaquille O’Neal. Johnson and Mourning spent three years together and during their first season, they led the expansion team to its first winning record and first playoff berth. The team defeated the Boston Celtics with a Mourning buzzer beater in the first round, but was defeated in the second round. The duo made one more playoff appearance together, but friction between the two stars led the team to make changes.
After three seasons together, Mourning rejected a contract extension from the Hornets and the team traded him to the Miami Heat. One season later, Johnson was traded to the New York Knicks and the two players fractured relationship would culminate in a fight in a 1998 playoff game that is best remembered for Knick’s coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging on to Zo’s leg, as JVG tried to stop the fight.
11 John Stockton and Karl Malone
John Stockton and Karl Malone combined for 24 All-Star Game appearances as members of the Utah Jazz, were both members of the first Dream Team, were both members of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, and have both been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, they also came through the NBA at the worst possible time for a pair of players as good as they were.
The duo joined the league in the mid-1980s, which placed them in the midst of the Magic-Bird era and it was virtually impossible for anyone else to win a championship then. As the two of them became two of the best players in the league during the 1990s, they found themselves falling victim to parity in the West and having to face the juggernaut Chicago Bulls. With their playing time together drawing to a close, the Spurs-Lakers era was just beginning and this would again deny their Utah Jazz the opportunity to win a championship. With only two trips to the NBA Finals as a duo, Stockton and Malone, as good as they were, were just unable to achieve at the highest level of the game.
10 Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony was drafted by the Denver Nuggets third overall in the 2003 NBA Draft that produced LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and others. Iverson was traded to the Nuggets a few months into the 2006-2007 NBA season. By the time the two players came together, Carmelo was a perennial top-10 scorer and Iverson had already lead the league in scoring four times and won a league MVP award. Unfortunately, during the two seasons that the two played together, the duo was not able to elevate the Nuggets.
In 2007, the Nuggets won the first game in a playoff series against the Spurs, only to be swept in the next four, meaning that the Nuggets had lost a first round series in five games for the fourth straight year. The following season, the Nuggets were swept by the Lakers, and at the beginning of the 2009 season, Iverson was traded to the Pistons. While they were together, Anthony and Iverson led the Nuggets to a single playoff win and multiple battles with league officials.
9 Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis
During the seasons that Monta Ellis and Steph Curry played together, the Golden State Warriors were a mess. The team averaged just 31 wins during the players two seasons together and there was constant player movement due to injury and inefficiency. Despite the fact that Ellis and Curry combined for 43 points per game, the Warriors continued to add guards like Raja Bell and Jeremy Lin to the roster.
The team would change coaches every season that the duo was together and the Warriors were never able to get out of their own way and continued losing. Oddly, despite the fact that Curry was injured and missed much of the 2012 season, the Warriors traded Ellis in order to create more playing time for rookie Klay Thompson. Fortunately for the Warriors, the move worked out and the Warriors became arguably the best team in the NBA, with Thompson and Curry rewriting the NBA record books with their shooting.
8 Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp
For seven seasons, The Glove and The Reign Man teamed together for the Seattle Supersonics. Under Coach George Karl, the duo made the playoffs in each of their seven seasons together, and was considered one of the best teams in the NBA. What qualifies this duo for this list is the fact that despite their regular season success, they were caught up in the parity that existed in the Western Conference during the 1990s and only twice did the team advance past the second round of the playoffs.
The one season that Payton and Kemp advanced past the second round, the Sonics lost to the 72 win Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. As his career continued, Kemp began to battle weight problems and after the 1997 season, he was traded to the Cavaliers. Though Kemp would not win a championship, Payton gained one with the 2006 Miami Heat. Though they were the one of the most exciting duos to play together, they were just not able to win it all together.
7 Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell
By the beginning of the 2003 NBA season, Kevin Garnett was beginning to reach his peak as a player. Before the start of that same season, Latrell Sprewell was traded to the Timberwolves, but unknown to everyone involved, Sprewell was at the end of his career. Sprewell was still a top player, but things did not work out for him in Minnesota.
Sprewell and Garnett led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals in 2003/04, but they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers team that featured Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Unfortunately, after the season, Sprewell would become upset with the team’s coaching, his salary, and literally everything else, and the team was unable to recapture the success that they had the season before.
Amidst all of the team’s turmoil, the Wolves missed the playoffs and Sprewell refused to resign with the Wolves. Garnett would eventually win a title with Boston and Sprewell’s last season with the Wolves would turn out to be his last season in the NBA.
6 Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire
Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire spent six years together in Phoenix. During that time, Stoudemire amassed five of his six 20 point per game seasons, while Nash had five of his seven career double figure assist seasons during the same period, and barely missed a sixth. The two of them were among the best at their positions in the league and Nash earned his two MVP Awards during this period.
The team reached the Conference Finals three times, but never advanced to the NBA Finals. The Suns would be eliminated from the playoffs by the Spurs three times in four years and, in 2009, despite the addition of Shaquille O’Neal in 2008/09, the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time with Nash and Stoudemire on the roster. Stoudemire left Phoenix after the 2009/10 season and the duo’s legacy consisted of being a top team, but also a team that could not reach the top.
5 Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady
T-Mac and Vinsanity are distant cousins and the two of them were top players during their careers. However, during their two years in Toronto together, McGrady spent much of his time on the bench while Carter was one of the team’s top players. The Toronto Raptors were an expansion team that had not yet learned how to win consistently and, even with the two cousins, the team made the playoffs only once during their time with the team. Unfortunately, the team would be swept in the first round of the playoffs, leaving Carter and McGrady with zero playoff wins as a tandem.
McGrady, unhappy with his place on the team, left after the 2000 season and became a star in Orlando and with the Houston Rockets. However, his duo with Yao Ming would also not reach the top of the league. Carter also thus far has not been able to secure a title during his career.
4 James Harden and Dwight Howard
James Harden was a valuable reserve for the Oklahoma City Thunder before becoming the top man with the Houston Rockets. One year after Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets signed Dwight Howard, believing that the top center in the league, paired with one of the top guards, would bring immediate success. Unfortunately, as with many star guard/center tandems, shots and notoriety became points of contention for the duo.
Howard was upset because he felt that he didn’t get his due quantity of offensive touches, because Harden shot too much, while at the same time, even though Harden is not known for his defense, there was a belief that Howard would take plays off due to his being upset about his shots. In the duo’s three seasons together, they were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round twice, but managed to reach the Conference Finals once by coming back from a 3-1 deficit and from being down in game 6 against the Clippers in 2015. Howard would move on after the 2016 season and both men will attempt to win the elusive NBA Championship on their own.
3 Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain
Before Wilt Chamberlain arrived in Los Angeles, Jerry West and the Lakers had lost in the NBA Finals to the Celtics five times in eight seasons. With the best backcourt player in the league and the reigning MVP in Chamberlain, the Lakers believed that they finally had the formula to defeat the Celtics. The added bonus was the fact that Wilt had actually beaten Russell once to claim a championship. However, during the five years that Wilt and West played together in Los Angeles, it was more of the same for the Lakers.
Though the duo won a championship in 1972, they would lose in the NBA Finals in three of their four other seasons, once in Bill Russell’s final year with the Celtics and twice to the Knicks. Strangely, two of the greatest players in the history of the NBA were only able to win a single championship together, even with the mighty Boston Celtics out of the way.
2 Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
The eight seasons that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played together in OKC produced five scoring titles, six trips to the playoffs, and one failed trip to the NBA Finals. However, both players were so good that whenever one was down with an injury, the other could carry the team by himself, but the team was just not good enough to become champions.
For years, the Thunder would get into the playoffs, and except for 2013 and 2016, each time the Thunder was eliminated from the playoffs; they were beaten by the eventual champions. This should have made the team more determined, but at the end of the 2016 season, Durant elected to join the team that had defeated him in the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors. Many, including Westbrook, felt that since OKC had held a 3-2 lead over the Warriors before losing the series, the team should have tried to make another run together. However, Durant felt that since he couldn’t beat them, he would join them, not knowing how many more NBA years he would have.
1 Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant
In 1996, Jerry West gambled on the Lakers’ future and pulled off a small miracle. He traded center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to Kobe Bryant, with the belief that he would be able to sign Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando. The two of them, along with Coach Phil Jackson, won three NBA titles in four trips to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, the duo could have done even better if they had just been able to get along.
While Shaq felt that he was the alpha dog on the Lakers, he took offense to Kobe’s rising fame and success. At the same time, Kobe felt that if Shaq wanted to be the alpha, he should have constantly been in shape and should constantly have been working on weaknesses in his game. Because of the differing approaches to their profession, the duo split, with Shaq being traded to Miami, at the height of their collective powers. Each man continued to win championships separately, but one can only imagine what might have been.
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