Nuclear bombs and horseshoes: The best “almost” duos in NBA history

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Which NBA duo was the best in league history, that never won the title while playing together? 

We’re talking about two basketball players, on the same team, who were or are all-timers by most anyone’s discernment. Two players who ran into some type of roadblock on their way to a championship, whether that stumbling block was another great team or in-house conflict… or both.

Let’s not bother with a countdown. You could just scroll down and see who’s #1 on those type publishing… so I’m going to put my #1 first. 

Which was the best "almost" one-two punch in NBA history?
  • Stockton-Malone 100%, 1 vote
    1 vote 100%
    1 vote - 100% of all votes
  • Westbrook-Durant 0%, 0 votes
    0 votes
    0 votes - 0% of all votes
  • Penny-Shaq 0%, 0 votes
    0 votes
    0 votes - 0% of all votes
  • Payton-Kemp 0%, 0 votes
    0 votes
    0 votes - 0% of all votes
Total Votes: 1
December 16, 2017 - January 15, 2018
Voting is closed

#1-John Stockton and Karl Malone. These two Utah Jazz players were the model, the definition, of consistency

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1998 NBAE (Photo by Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images)

and efficiency.  The pick and roll would not be at its current stage of basketball evolution without them. Says Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics, who with Shawn Kemp might be an honorable mention on this list, “[Stockton] was more of a challenge to me than guarding someone that would talk back to me. John was one who wouldn’t say nothing and you couldn’t figure him out. He’d keep going in the pick and rolls and he and Karl Malone would score a big bucket…  he was just a smarter basketball player than us.”

Stockton and Malone were so clockwork that most high-flying NBA fans considered them boring and vanilla. Part of that perception was the fact that they played in Salt Lake City, which is considered vanilla on more than one level by almost everyone. Even those of us who have never been there. But, white people jokes aside, opponents had to be on point to beat these two. “With Malone’s and Stockton’s best years coinciding with the reign of [Michael Jordan’s] Bulls, they never won an NBA title, losing the final in 1997 and 1998 to Chicago,” says Sports Reference.

Between them, they hold the all-time records in six of the major NBA statistical categories (though I doubt either of them would care to know that they rank 1 & 2 on all-time turnovers…), says the JazzFanatical website.

Nick Van Exel, on defending the Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll:
“Yeah, I got a way to defend it. Bring a bat to the game and kill one of them.”

Did you know?: There is actually a young player whose first and middle names are Stockton Malone. Kinda funny, and kinda sad at the same time. 

There are debates out there about what one of them would have been without the other. Irrelevant, because that didn’t happen. Stockton as a starter played just a handful of games without Malone. They are hip-locked.

#2-Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Maybe they could have be considered as the best NBA tandem ever, had they played together for longer. But the circumstances of the league dictated that they split up after a handful of amazing seasons together. 

What kind of circumstances? First, the existence of the game-changing Golden State Warriors of the mid-2010’s. Westbrook and Durant were at the threshold of putting the three point-nutty Warriors away during Golden State’s 73-win season. They blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals and that was the jump-off point to end their partnership.

You think that Russ and KD were somewhat glad that the Warriors blew the same lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals? Schadenfreude is real, homie. Golden State’s loss also made Durant’s decision to move out there more of an easy decision. After all, he and Westbrook seemed to be at best coexisting, and at worst feuding. Search engine their names together, and most of the images and stories are about their public arguments. Being happy with each other was probably more important than finding a way to win together.

Russ and Durant were more athletic and probably more talented all-around than Stock and the Mailman. But we’ve got to account for the latter duo’s mental steadiness and court IQ. How much different would this relationship had been, if OKC closed out the Warriors? “They were RIGHT THERE,” say fans, not just in that playoff season but a few others, including 2012’s meeting with the Miami Heat. But almost only counts in nuclear bombs and horseshoes.

“The Thunder acquitted themselves, and they proved they belong. They just don’t have anything to show for it,” wrote ESPN after OKC gagged beneath the Warriors.

We would be asking a lot for Durant and Westbrook to have the same kind of longevity as Stockton and Malone. If that OKC tandem had stayed together fifteen-plus years?… wow. Goes to show that it takes more than raw talent to go from all-timer to all-legend. You also need not just basketball IQ; you need a mental flexibility and toughness that these two simply do not have. But the ridiculousness factor sure helps for entertainment purposes.

Related: Grant Hill: WouldaCouldaShoulda

#3-Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. Penny was “nice” in the street slang sense when he began to find his footing as an NBA player. He had the ideal set of skills and point guard size that made him difficult to defend. 

At the same time, Shaq was a force on the level of, or surpassing, Wilt Chamberlain. That much was obvious before O’Neal even left LSU–he had court speed, sense and strength in a combination we’ve never seen before. I still remember the first few times Shaq made my  eyes bulge as he led full-court fast breaks, playing the point man. Would he pass or would he two-hand swing on the rim? Man, just get out of the way!

Shaq: We got lost in the shuffle as one of the greatest one-two punches in history. We wanted to make sure people didn’t forget. People talk about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, Penny was in that category before he got hurt.

Penny: We felt like the story needed to be told. We were one of the forgotten teams. –GQ interview

The dominance of Shaquille meant that any tandem including him would be one of the best. That is unquestionable, because we saw the evidence of that when he teamed with Kobe Bryant and did win the NBA title. In that way, Shaq-Penny was superior to Russ-Kevin. Why? Because of all these “almost” duos, Shaq is the one unstoppable player. 

However, there were ways that Shaq-Penny was a precursor to Russ-Kevin, in that the partnership ended with a thud. “Lack of communication,” Shaquille observed of the OKC situation. He would know. Like Durant, O’Neal didn’t bother to level with Hardaway when he left the Orlando Magic. Penny was reportedly “blindsided.” That is obviously why the Magic were “lost in the shuffle.” Not because people are amnesiacs, which in our tech-infotainment-addled lives we largely are… but because of some decisions that aborted what could have been an incredible run. Don’t forget that before O’Neal left for L.A., an admittedly-overconfident Orlando team got swept by Hakeem’s Houston Rockets.

To borrow a phrase from The Undefeated, Penny and Shaq were, like Russ and KD, “a team talented beyond belief but one that could never escape fate.”