Since the dawn of the National Basketball League, there have been superstars dominating the game. Players who have a level of talent that is simply unmatched. Actually, we can go even further than that. If you try to imagine that first basketball game in Canada when James Naismith invented basketball, there was probably someone among his students who rose above the rest and dominated the game. And right below that superstar, but still far ahead of the others, there probably was another guy.
That second guy is the person whom we want to talk about. And that is because the role of the sidekick has not disappeared from the game of basketball as it evolved. As a matter fact, today there might be more great sidekicks in the NBA than ever before. Some of them enjoy playing the role, while others absolutely hate it. And yet, as we can see with most if not all championship teams in the history of the NBA, the role of a sidekick is perhaps the most important role to be played on a championship team.
Recently, the debate over this sidekick role has heated up after Kyrie Irving decided he did not want to play Robin to LeBron James’s Batman anymore. And with that, we have decided to make a little list and pick 15 guys who, whether they liked it or not, played the sidekick role even though they could’ve been superstars if they pulled a Kyrie and asked for a trade to go to their own team.
15 Russell Westbrook
It is no secret to anybody that Russell Westbrook absolutely hated playing Robin to Kevin Durant’s Batman. He might’ve been pissed off and complained about it social media when Durant decided to leave the Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, but deep down everyone knew how much Westbrook was happy that Durant had left town. After all, with no KD, OKC became Brodie town.
Westbrook is a guy who is as passionate about the game as anyone else. You would be lying to yourself if you said you could name five guys in history who played the game of basketball with more intensity and fire than Westbrook. And the thing is that his intensity was exactly why he was utterly unfit to play the role of sidekick. As “the man,” however, Westbrook has more than proven his value with an MVP season.
14 Clyde Drexler
The late 80s and early 90s were an unprecedented time in which superstars were appearing left and right in the NBA. One of those superstars was Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Clyde was a devastating scorer who could dismantle the most tenacious of defenses. And he did that as the head honcho while he played for the Portland Trail Blazers. During his 12 seasons in Portland, Drexler averaged 20.8 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.7 assists. For a small forward in the 90s, those are crazy numbers.
And still, when he decided for a change of scenery and went to the Houston Rockets, he unavoidably had to play the role of sidekick as Houston already had an owner, and his name was Hakeem Olajuwon. No matter how good Drexler was, The Dream simply could not be matched in Houston.
13 Amar’e Stoudemire
While younger folks might know Stat as an average player after he made his move to New York, this guy was nothing less than a superstar during his time in Phoenix. In eight seasons with the Suns, Stoudemire averaged 21.4 points per game and 8.9 rebounds. Those are superstar numbers regardless of where you play.
The one thing those numbers weren’t, however, was enough to deem Stoudemire as the man in Phoenix during his tenure there. And the only reason for that is that a guy named Steve Nash also played in town. Stoudemire averaged more than 20 points per game, but most of his scoring came from the ridiculous dishes he received from Nash every night. The only proof we need to agree that Nash was the captain of the ship was that he is the two-time MVP in this equation.
12 David Robinson
There was little doubt whether he deserved it or not when The Admiral, David Robinson, received his nod to join the ranks of the Hall of Fame. This man is a two-time NBA Champion, a one-time MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and a Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a 10-time All-Star. Those are not the kind of accolades regular players bring home when they decide to call it quits and retire.
Robinson was a force to be reckoned with, but it wasn’t until he agreed to play a secondary role that he won his first NBA championship. It was a graceful and smart move when Robinson accepted his sidekick role and got to watch as the best power forward in the history of the game developed in front of his eyes and helped him get his hands on some silverware. We don’t need to tell you that the name of San Antonio’s new big shot was Tim Duncan, right?
11 Dave Cowens
The Boston Celtics are the most successful franchise in basketball. Of course, over the years they had several superstars who took over games and helped them win a barrage of titles. But the secret behind the Celtics success has always been that one tenacious player who did not appear as much on the score sheet. The man who was the decisive factor in either victory or loss.
In the 70s, that guy was Dave Cowens. We talked about how Westbrook plays with unmatched fire in his eyes today, but decades ago that guy was Cowens.
He was not the best guy on his team, as players like John Havlicek and Jo Jo White competed for that title, but Cowens was the one jumping after loose balls and dominating the glass as they won two championships with the Celtics.
10 Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars is another big-time scorer who joins our list. Joe D averaged 16.1 points per game throughout his career while shooting 46 percent from the field. Not bad numbers for a shooting guard. He also played his whole career with the Detroit Pistons, where he won two NBA Championships. And the only reason why Dumars was never the top guy in Detroit during their championship seasons was that his backcourt mate was a Hall of Famer by the name of Isiah Thomas.
Now don’t be mistaken, Dumars is also a Hall of Famer. Still, it would be hard for anyone who played for Detroit in the 80s and early 90s to compete with Thomas to be the face of the franchise. The original baby faced assassin is undoubtedly one of the greatest little guys ever to play the game.
9 Billy Cunningham
If you were a basketball fan in Philadelphia in the 60s, you did not need much convincing to watch an NBA game. Every time you stepped into an arena to watch the Philadelphia 76ers play back then, was an opportunity to watch history happen. After all, there was a guy on that team who could literally explode for 100 points on a given night. Will Chamberlain was the boss while he played for the Sixers. For God sake, the guy averaged 50 points per game in one season. In his six seasons with the franchise, he averaged 41.5 points per game. You can’t match that.
Nevertheless, a guy like Chamberlain could not win on his own. That’s where Billy Cunningham comes in. This is the man who did everything Chamberlain could not. Chamberlain was the star, but Cunningham was the glue that took the Sixers to the 1966-67 NBA title.
8 Kyrie Irving
It seems like he’s finally tired of being the number two guy in Cleveland. But until a few weeks ago, Kyrie Irving was undoubtedly one of the best sidekicks in the NBA. He might have actually been the sidekick with most scoring duties in the league. It is hard to be the number one guy when LeBron James is on your team, but if there is one thing Kyrie Irving did for the Cavaliers was shoot the ball.
James even caught a lot of heat because more often than not he delegated closing affairs to Irving. And you can hate LeBron or not, but if he did not delegate those tasks to Irving, there is a huge possibility that the Cavaliers would not have come back from their 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the 2015-16 finals.
7 Tony Parker
Another fantastic San Antonio Spurs player who endured almost an entire career playing in the shadow of the giant that was Tim Duncan, was Tony Parker. The French guard is one of those players who, despite having enough potential to be a superstar in their own, was fine with playing his role in order for his team to succeed. Sometimes, even on the rare occasions when Duncan wasn’t on the court, Parker was all right with delegating the scoring duties to Manu Ginobili. And that willingness of his was crucial to the Spurs winning four championships since drafting him.
But unlike several of the guys on this list, Parker is one of the few who at some point put his head out of the shadow and caught some sunshine for himself. Most specifically in the 2006-07 finals when he won the series MVP.
6 Wilt Chamberlain
Now, hold onto your horses before you start hating on this selection. Of course, Chamberlain is one of the greatest players ever to play basketball. But that doesn’t mean that he was always the top dog on his team. Yes, even a guy who got to average 50 points per game in a season can end up becoming a sidekick to another great player.
That was what happened with Chamberlain when he decided to go to the Lakers and joined forces with Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. Chamberlain was still a superstar and a major factor in taking those Lakers to a championship victory, but the guy who would go on to become the logo of the league was without a doubt the head honcho in LA that season.
5 Kevin McHale
Whenever there is a list of sidekicks, Kevin McHale is one of two guys who are always there. No one in their right mind would leave this 6’10” power forward from the University of Minnesota out of a list of guys who played in the shadow of a Hall of Famer. McHale is a Hall of Famer himself, but what can you do when you play on the same team as Larry Bird?
McHale was drafted into the league one year after Bird. And in his rookie season, Larry Legend averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. At the draft, McHale probably had already come to the conclusion he would always be the second guy on that team. Nevertheless, playing number two to a number one like Bird has its perks, as the two of them went on to win three NBA titles.
4 Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq is perhaps the most dominant center to ever play the game. Wilt Chamberlain might have scored more points than the Big Diesel, but watching a head-to-head between the two would’ve been nothing short of amazing. With that in mind, it is tough imagining a time when Shaq would ever play Robin when even while he was on the same team as Kobe Bryant he was always Batman.
Well, Shaq was more than happy to play Robin when he went to Miami to join forces with a young gun named Dwyane Wade. While common sense made people imagine that Shaq would walk into the Miami Heat training camp and tell everybody he was the new boss, O’Neal simply stepped aside and focused on making things easier for his new buddy “Flash.” It clearly worked out, as the Heat went on to win a title behind that dynamic duo.
3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Say what you say about the skills of guys like Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, or even Kevin Durant. Until someone scores more than 38,387 points in the NBA, the top scorer in the league will always be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. To this day, that skyhook might still be the deadliest shot in NBA history. But being the top scorer in the history of the league doesn’t mean that Kareem himself did not have to endure playing a good part of his career in the shadow of another man.
It is almost poetic that an injury that took him away from the finals would also be the reason why Kareem went from always being number one to becoming number two behind Magic Johnson.
Most people thought the Lakers would be lost after Kareem went down in the finals, but little did anybody know that what was happening was history.
2 Dwyane Wade
Wade had his time in the sunshine when Shaq agreed to play a secondary role to his in Miami. But when Wade decided to call his friend LeBron over to South Beach, he knew that his time as the number one guy in Miami would be done at least until LeBron decided to leave town. James’s arrival meant that the way Wade played would change a lot from what he had gotten used to in the past seven seasons.
And while that might have cut down the amount of time with the ball Wade had every game, James running the show also meant that Wade could go back to focusing on being a scorer rather than a facilitator. He gladly and efficiently played the number two role for four years, and got two championships out of it.
1 Scottie Pippen
There was never a more efficient and graceful number two in the history of the NBA as Scottie Pippen. A legendary small forward who could do it all, who could’ve been a star on his own if he wanted to, but one who knew that there was no place better to be than next to the greatest player to ever play basketball. Pippen knew he was in Jordan’ shadow and he sincerely did not care. While Michael was collecting MVP trophies and praises from everyone, Scottie was always there, filling his fingers with rings, and always being recognized for the work he did by being selected to All-Star games and All-NBA teams.
Pippen was the ultimate sidekick, and to whoever doubted that he could’ve been a superstar on his own, just take a look at the stats he had during the season Jordan skipped town to play baseball. Pippen led the Bulls in scoring, assists, and blocks with 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game.