Double Trouble: Ranking the Best 1-2 Punches in NBA History

  • 10. Moses Malone, Julius Erving

    Combining for 23 All-Star Games and four NBA MVPs between them, Moses and Julius were a force together in Philadelphia during the early 1980s. When Malone was traded to the 76ers in 1982, Philly went from an underachieving squad to an absolute juggernaut. That season they not only won the NBA championship, but they finished the year at 77-18, including the playoffs. It was a league-wide slaughter, and they nearly backed up Malone’s ridiculous prediction that the team would go “Fo, fo and fo” in the playoffs. That year saw Malone put up 24.5 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game while Dr. J added 21.4 points and 6.8 rebounds.

    At their best, they were nearly invincible. But the duo only played together for four years and after rolling through the league during their first trip to the playoffs, they repeatedly flamed out during the NBA’s postseason in the next three years.

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  • 9. John Stockton, Karl Malone

    Stockton and Malone played together in Utah for 18 years, pick-n-rolling their way right into the Hall of Fame. The point guard, Stockton is a 10-time NBA All-Star who leads the NBA in career assists and steals by large margins. Malone, the power forward, is second in career points and even won two NBA MVP awards. They changed the way the game was played, showcasing their patented two-man game that’d later become a staple in every team’s offensive sets in the modern era.

    With that being said, they never won a title and only made two NBA Finals appearances despite consistent playoff runs together. Malone was criticized for shying away in big moments, and Stockton functioned less like a star and more like the perfect team player.

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  • 8. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

    When these two stars teamed up in 2010, it didn’t even feel real. James was probably the best player in the world and you could make the case that Wade was the second-best. They were two of the game’s most athletic players and during their first year together, they combined for 52.2 points per game. Over their four years in Miami, the Heat made the Finals every single time, winning twice and nearly a third time after they went up 2-1 on Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals.

    LeBron eventually left for greener pastures, attempting to replicate what he had with Wade with younger players like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. To do that will take something special. This duo might’ve been the best wing tandem in NBA history, and certainly can make the case for most athletic.

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  • 7. Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain

    West and Elgin Baylor had already played many years together before Wilt Chamberlain arrived in Los Angeles for the 1968-69 season. With that addition of the most dominating player the NBA had and ever would see, the Lakers went to another level. They still lost a Game 7 in the Finals to Boston, but Chamberlain averaged a cool 20/20 and West put up nearly 26 points and seven assists per game.

    The Lakers were the jewel of the NBA once they finally won a title together in ’72. During their years together, Wilt wasn’t quite the player he had been when first arriving into the league. It didn’t matter, though. Two all-timers playing together? Nasty.

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  • 6. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker

    Do I really need to say anything? If you’re reading this article, chances are you know the credentials of these two Spurs cornerstones.

    A lot has changed over the last 15 years, but Duncan and Parker have stayed the same. Just continued to win, continued to balk at Father Time, continued to dominate. Since Parker arrived in 2001, they’ve made the playoffs every year in San Antonio. They’ve lost in the first round just twice. That’s unreal. They’ve also won four championships together. The perfect pair.

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  • 5. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale

    Bird and McHale are beloved in Boston. For good reason, considering they won the city three NBA titles during the 1980s. Playing a dozen years together, they helped form the greatest frontcourt the league has ever seen with center Robert Parish.

    McHale was routinely one of the league’s most underrated players and yet he still made seven All-Star Games. Charles Barkley still calls him the hardest player he ever had to guard. And then there was Bird, one of the five best players ever. A three-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star, Bird was probably the most skilled player in league history, averaging over 24 points six times, over 10 rebounds six times, and over six assists eight times.

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  • 4. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant

    What hasn’t been said about these two? The NBA’s greatest soap opera also doubled as the most dominating one-two punch in the modern era. When they were at their best, the rest of the league had no chance. During the 2001 Playoffs, as the Lakers rolled to a 15-1 record and a title, Bryant and O’Neal found a way to balance their games at a staggering level. Kobe went for 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.1 assists a game during those playoffs while O’Neal dropped 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. Then in the 2002-03 season, even though the team failed to win a fourth straight ring, the two combined for an absurd 57 points per game.

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  • 3. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy

    Cousy and Russell not only spent seven years together and won six titles, they changed the NBA forever. Cousy was the first player to really excel at ball-handling and he helped make it an art form, something fans were attracted to and would want to watch. Russell, on the other hand, was the best defensive player ever and the first big man to really impact the game without scoring.

    Yes, they played in an era conducive to dynasties, against a lot of teams that just didn’t have the same level of talent, but winning is winning. You can’t hate on dominance.

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  • 2. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    Magic and Kareem were the perfect duo, as their skills perfectly complemented each other. As part of the Lakers 1980s dynasty, they dominated during the golden age of the NBA, winning five titles during 10 seasons together. Johnson is now considered by many to be the greatest basketball player who has ever played. As for Kareem? He’s only the leading scorer in NBA history, having been voted to a record 19 All-Star Games. Incredibly, the Lakers made the Finals eight times during one decade with Magic commanding from the point and Kareem steadying the ship from the center spot.

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  • 1. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen

    Mike and Scottie ruled pro basketball for nearly a decade, and their legacy is still strong years later. Together, they were virtually unstoppable. Without each other? Jordan won a total of two playoff games in five years with first Chicago to start his career and then Washington to end it. Think about that. Without MJ, Pippen fared slightly better, but he lost virtually every big game he was a part of, including a devastating loss in Game 7 against the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

    However, when they were in Chicago together, releasing the Dobermans on the rest of the league, there was nothing like it. Pippen played the versatile point forward role while Jordan took care of the scoring. And on defense is where they really separated themselves, riding that unique skill-set to six titles during the 1990s.

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  • Julius Erving
  • John Stockton, Karl Malone
  • LeBron James
  • Jerry West
  • Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
  • Larry Bird
  • Shaquille O
  • Bill Russell
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen

I don’t think Shaquille O’Neal can go through a NBA on TNT segment without mentioning a “1-2 punch.” It’s his favorite cliche, probably in part because he’s the one who started it. No, no the idea, but the term.

During his prime years with the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal teamed with a blossoming Kobe Bryant to form one of the greatest duos the NBA has ever seen. They were perfect for each other…even as they weren’t. Bryant was a domineering, playmaking scorer who loved to handle the rock from the wing position. O’Neal was a physical force beneath the hoop with surprising skill. After Bryant earned a starting gig in time for the 1999 lockout-shortened season, the duo made the NBA their own over the next six years, advancing to four NBA Finals together, winning three of them.

Their partnership eventually fizzled out but Shaq’s constant claim that they were the best “1-2 punch” the NBA had ever seen didn’t fall on deaf ears. Nowadays, in this era of super teams, it’s more relevant than ever. Partnering up with other great players is an idea with deep roots in this league, but O’Neal was one of the first to consistently wax poetic about it.

It’s particularly relevant today because, tonight, the Lakers play host to the Chicago Bulls, who just so happen to have a reinvigorated Pau Gasol. Gasol was once Bryant’s running mate, the perfect second punch for a team that advanced to three straight NBA Finals.

Bryant and Gasol were good, but they weren’t that good. They won’t make this list. Shaq and Bryant, however? You’ll find them here, along with some of the best duos in league history.

In anticipation of tonight’s matchup — since we know L.A. is going to get waxed by Chicago — we’re Ranking the Best 1-2 Punches in NBA History.


Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney

image via Paul Buck/Getty Images