One of the widely held beliefs in the NBA is that you cannot contend for championships without at least one superstar. But it has also been shown that a team usually needs more than just that. All the greatest teams, and their greatest players, have had a second best player on the team that was just as crucial of a cog to that team's success. That second player might not have reached the same prominence as the team's main superstar, or maybe they were just as good, but fit better into a secondary role, and complimented the superstar in a way that elevated both of their games. The best player was the guy who you identified with that team, who was often known by one simple moniker, while the second best guy was the player that helped the primary superstar take his team from being great to being a true contender, usually with the end result being deep playoff runs, trips to the NBA Finals, or even NBA dynasties. These are the 15 players who were the very best, “Second Best” players on their teams.
15 Peja Stojakovic Second Best To Chris Webber
One best and second best that never made it to the NBA Finals but came mighty close a few times was the Sacramento Kings one-two punch of Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic in the early 2000s. Webber was the superstar, the legendary college player, the number one pick in the draft, and an All-NBA selection for most of his years with the Kings who also finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2001. Stojakovic arrived in Sacramento the same year as Webber but did not break out until a couple seasons later. With Webber dominating the league and Stojakovic bombing three pointers and steadily providing around 20 points per game, the Kings came very close to making the Finals a few times, only to be eliminated by the eventual champs, the Shaq & Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, in three straight years.
14 Pau Gasol Second Best To Kobe Bryant
Once Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal broke up, partially because both refused to ever believe they would be the second best on the team, Kobe ended up with another excellent big man who fit in with his game and personality in a much better way. After Kobe’s first three-peat with Shaq, the Lakers lost O’Neal and sputtered in the playoffs the next few years, even missing them in 2004. In 2008 the Lakers traded a collection of players and picks for Pau Gasol. The addition worked out almost immediately as the Lakers went to the NBA Finals that year and followed that with back to back championships. As Kobe established himself as one of the best Lakers of all time, Gasol established himself as an All-Star and possible future Hall of Famer as the second best player on the Lakers.
13 Klay Thompson Second Best To Stephen Curry
The latest best “second best” in the NBA is probably Klay Thompson (to Steph Curry) for the Warriors. With two NBA Finals appearances already, including one championship, Klay and Steph are probably going to go down as the best shooting combo in NBA history if they are not already. Steph Curry was an electrifying jitterbug of a scorer in college at Davidson but did not really explode into being the Steph Curry we know until coming back from injuries after the 2011-12 season. That also happened to coincide with when he started playing more extensively with Klay Thompson, who the Warriors had selected in the 2011 NBA Draft with the 11th pick. Steph has been the leader for the Warriors offense with Klay being the second option that always has the potential to go supernova when he gets hot. With Kevin Durant joining Golden State, the one two punch might become a two-three punch or maybe something else. But for a few years there the best, second-best combo of Curry and Klay took the NBA by storm.
12 Kyrie Irving Second Best To LeBron James
In all of his years in Cleveland, LeBron James never really had a great, or even all that good, second best player on his team. It was not until he returned to Cleveland after they had drafted Kyrie Irving a couple years earlier, that he had a Cavalier teammate who was among the best players in the league and could be his ‘second best’ with the Cavs. During Kyrie’s first three years in Cleveland they hovered near the bottom of the league while he slowly established himself as a bona fide star. In his fourth year, LeBron James decided to come home to Cleveland from Miami and instantly made Kyrie the second best player on the team and the Cavaliers one of the best teams in the NBA. Kyrie fit well as LeBron’s second best, finishing second in points and assists as the Cavaliers lost in the NBA Finals to the Warriors. The following season his numbers went down but he showed his value went up, especially when he stepped up during the playoffs with multiple 30 point games and a 40 point game, not to mention the three pointer that he buried with less than a minute to go to win game seven, and the NBA Finals for the Cavs.
11 Joe Dumars Second Best To Isiah Thomas
The bad boys of the Bad Boys Pistons were of course Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer, but the best players on the team were the backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Thomas was the leader of the team, the number two pick in the 1981 draft from the Hoosiers, and a perennial All-Star beginning in his second year in the league. He had developed into the Pistons’ biggest star, and as point guard everything ran through him. Dumars was the crucial second best player as a shooting guard who put up at least 17 points a night and provided the lockdown defense on the oppositions best scorer during the Pistons run of glory. Together they provided the scoring and leadership to guide the rest of the Bad Boys to three straight trips to the NBA Finals and back to back championships.
10 Dwyane Wade Second Best To LeBron James
Although LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were known as the NBA's latest version of the “Big Three” during their time together with the Miami Heat, Bosh was sometimes an ill-fitting piece of the puzzle, especially in their first year together when they lost in the NBA Finals to the Mavericks. The obvious second best to LeBron while he was with the Heat was his good friend Dwyane Wade, who fit better, and was more productive compliment to LeBron. After his years in Cleveland, where he had to carry the team himself while never really having another player who was in the upper echelon, LeBron took his talents to South Beach so he would have a ‘second best’ to help him pursue his goal. Wade was that player and more, providing big games in the playoffs and NBA Finals to help the Heat and LeBron to capture their rings.
9 Penny Hardaway Second Best To Shaquille O'Neal
One of the great what-ifs in NBA history was what could have been if Shaquille O’Neal had stuck with the Orlando Magic and Penny Hardaway had not been plagued by injuries. In back to back drafts in 1992 and 1993 the Magic turned their first overall picks into Shaquille O’Neal by drafting him, and then into Anfernee 'Penny' Hardaway by selecting Chris Webber and trading him for Hardaway, instantly turning the Magic into a juggernaut in the expansion team’s fifth season of existence. Shaq was obviously the superstar, a transformational, once in a generation big man who would dominate the next two decades in the NBA. Penny was a 6 foot 7 inch point guard seen by many as a combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. In their first year they won 50 games and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. In just their second year together they went all the way to the NBA Finals only to be swept by the Rockets. Despite Michael Jordan and the 72-win Bulls reestablishing their dominance in the league, and eliminating the 60-win Magic the following year, it appeared it would only be a matter of time until Shaq and Penny would form a dynasty and dominate the NBA for years to come. Instead Shaq ditched to the Lakers, and Hardaway’s injury struggles began the next season. Penny could have been the second best player in the entire league for years next to his teammate Shaquille O’Neal, but it was not to be and the NBA missed out on one of the most amazing second bests that ever could have been.
8 Clyde Drexler Second Best To Hakeem Olajuwan
Although he was never able to get himself a ring in Portland, despite leading the Trailblazers to two trips to the NBA Finals, once Clyde Drexler joined his college teammate from the University of Houston back in Texas with the Rockets, he finally won an NBA Championship. Olajuwan had actually won a championship the year before, taking advantage of year one without Michael Jordan in the NBA, as they defeated the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. Drexler joined the Rockets midseason in 1994-95 and the Rockets snuck into the playoffs as the six seed. While Olajuwan dream-shaked his way through the playoffs, Drexler provided the extra scoring punch on the wing through three tough Western Conference playoff match-ups before the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Drexler and Olajuwan continued to provide a one-two combination, making it to the next two Western Conference Finals together until age and injuries started to slow them down in the late 90s.
7 James Worthy Second Best To Magic Johnson
The Showtime Lakers were led and defined by Magic Johnson. As the most versatile point guard of all time, who just so happened to also play every other position on occasion, including center, Magic is the most iconic Laker ever. Despite joining a team with one of the greatest players ever in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic quickly became the top Laker after being drafted with the number one pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. Once the Lakers drafted James Worthy with the number one overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, the Kareem and Magic combination that dominated the early 80s NBA, slowly changed to the Magic and Worthy combination through the rest of the decade. In seven trips to the NBA Finals, Magic and Worthy led the Lakers to three NBA championships. Despite never being the iconic go to player for the Lakers, James Worthy was one of the best ‘second-best’ players ever, and the perfect fast break running partner for Magic.
6 Moses Malone Second Best To Julius Erving
Even though it was Moses Malone who won the MVP Award two straight years, once with the Rockets and then with the 76ers in the year they won the NBA Championship, Malone was still only the second best guy during his years with Philadelphia. The iconic, best player on the Sixers, was (and probably always will be) Dr J, Julius Erving. Dr J. took the Sixers to three NBA Finals in his first six years with the team. Once they got Moses Malone, who proved to be just as important as Erving, Philadelphia finally broke through and claimed their first NBA Championship since the days of Wilt Chamberlain. They made it to the conference finals one more time before Malone was traded away and Dr J retired.
5 John Stockton Second Best To Karl Malone
Although they never won a championship, Karl Malone and John Stockton were one of the best one-two punches in basketball for much of the late 80s and early 90s. Stockton joined the Jazz first when they drafted him with the 16th pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Malone was drafted the following year with the 13th pick. Malone became one of the best NBA players of all time, finishing in the top ten all time in points and rebounds. A huge chunk of those points came from many of John Stockton’s 15,806 assists which is the all-time record. Malone was the anchor of the offense and the defense and lasted seemingly forever in the NBA. Stockton was the second best player on the Jazz who just happened to be the absolutely perfect match for the Jazz’ other superstar, the Mailman, Karl Malone.
4 Russell Westbrook Second Best To Kevin Durant
As we can now see since Kevin Durant scooted off to Golden State in search of an easier ring, Russell Westbrook is obviously one of the five best players in the NBA. The only reason he was ever a second best on the Thunder was because Durant is easily one of the three best players in the entire league. Durant was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics with the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. He proceeded to establish himself as a star immediately, winning the Rookie of the Year award and averaging over 20 points per game. The Sonics drafted Westbrook the following year with the fourth overall pick as the team became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Within three seasons, the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals, and the following year to the NBA Finals. Injuries derailed them for a couple of seasons but they began meshing better than ever in 2016 and looked ready to overcome the Golden State Warriors before stumbling and losing the conference finals in seven games. The fact that Durant is probably a better player than Westbrook, but Westbrook has more of the alpha-dog killer instinct to him, was probably the reason they did not fit together better, and why Durant ultimately departed, denying the NBA of what coulda been, shoulda been an epic rivalry between two teams with two of the best, and two of the best second-best players in the NBA (Klay & Steph, Durant & Westrbook).
3 Jerry West Second Best To Elgin Baylor
The man who IS the NBA logo was one of the best players of all time, but when he broke into the league in 1960 he was merely the second best player on the Los Angeles Lakers. When West joined the Lakers as a rookie, the team’s superstar was Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor who was dominating the league in every way, averaging close to 40 points and almost 20 rebounds per game. West quickly started putting up scoring numbers that were almost as impressive as Baylor’s and together they were able to lead the Lakers to five of the next seven NBA Finals, although with Bill Russell and Bob Cousy’s Celtics waiting there for them they never managed to win a championship in those years.
2 Oscar Robertson Second Best To Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The Big O, Oscar Robertson was the original triple-double machine, grabbing rebounds, dishing assists, and scoring points like nobody else has until Russell Westbrook this year. Robertson was easily one of the best players in the NBA but could not get his team to break through to the NBA Finals or a championship during his decade with the Cincinnati Royals. When he was finally dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks though, he joined the future Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, to form one of the most devastating one two punches in NBA history. Alcindor was a superstar right out of the gate, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1970 as he dominated the league and led the expansion Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals a year after finishing in last place, and just two years after coming into existence. As soon as the very best player in the league, Lew Alcindor, was joined by Robertson however, the Bucks burst all the way through with the best record in the league, a 20 game winning streak, and a sweep of the Bullets in the NBA Finals. With Robertson entrenched as the second best Buck, they went to the conference finals two more times and the NBA Finals once more before the Big O finally retired.
1 Scottie PippenSecond Best To Michael Jordan
For the first three years of Michael Jordan’s career the Bulls tried to cobble together a team around him that would help them get to the promised land and win a championship. They collected some good pieces but it was not until they acquired Scottie Pippen that the Bulls started on their way to becoming one of the best teams of all time. After Jordan scored a career high 37.1 points per game in 1986-87 the Bulls traded Olden Polynice to the Seattle Supersonics for Scottie Pippen, the fifth overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. By Pippen’s third season he was established as the Robin to Michael Jordan’s Batman and became the other key piece in their trip to the Conference Finals. After overcoming the Pistons in 1991, Jordan and Pippen were at the top of their games, the best player in the NBA, and a top five player in the league who was the second best player on the Bulls. They proceeded to win their first championship and ultimately three straight titles. Then, after Jordan’s two year hiatus, during which Pippen was only able to reach the conference finals, they reunited and did it all over again with another three-peat, before Jordan retired for the second time.