Player combinations: what makes them great?

Recently Shaq said in a Paul Coro article that he and Kobe were “the best one-two punch in the history of the game”.  That got me thinking.  We need some definitions here.  For instance, is this for one season, or for a whole career?  How do you measure the career stat?  Most championships?  Also, what defines a great one-two combinations?  A point guard/center (5/1)?  Two forwards (3/4)?  A 2/3 combo?  Let’s look at some candidates.

Recently Shaq said in a Paul Coro article that he and Kobe were “the best one-two punch in the history of the game”.  That got me thinking.  We need some definitions here.  For instance, is this for one season, or for a whole career?  How do you measure the career stat?  Most championships?  Also, what defines a great one-two combinations?  A point guard/center (5/1)?  Two forwards (3/4)?  A 2/3 combo?  Let’s look at some candidates.

Jordan/Pippen – 6 championships – two very good defenders, passers, and rebounders for their position, which negated the need for a point guard, and lessened the need for a center.  All they needed was a competent to good power forward (Grant/Rodman) to become great.

Kobe/Shaq – 3 championships – prototypical center with an all-everything shooting guard, who could play the other three positions if he had to.  All this team needed was a steady but unspectacular point guard to hold turnovers down and make the stars happy (Derek Fisher).  I really believe these guys would have been better if they wanted to mesh their games more.  The word is PJ pushed them to get what he got.

Kareem/Magic – 5 championships – two freakish talent packages on one team.  Magic could play all five positions, while Kareem could play center or power forward, and even pass the ball.  Both revolutionized their positions.  All they needed was a hard working and steady supporting cast (Worthy, Scott).  I remember these guys because it seemed to me the suns were was always leading them or playing them close with about three minutes left in a half, and then the Lakers would ignite, and we were down by 15 before you could say basketball jones.

Bird/McHale – 3 championships – this is the aforementioned 3/4 forward combo. Bird really could play the 1/2/3/4, although he would suffer on defense with smaller players.  McHale’s long arms compensated for Bird’s defense.  Put these two together with strong defenders at the 1 and 5 (DJ and Parish) and you have the makings of a dynasty in any other decade but the 80s, where they constantly ran into the Lakers.  Went 40-1 at home one year.

Russell/Havlicek – 6 championships – a strange combination of 3/5 players, but not so strange when you consider that Russell had more of a power forward’s body, and Havlicek was adept at either wing position.  They  had a unique combination – The combination of Russell’s rebounding and defensive toughness along with Hondo’s indefatigable all around hustle made you know you had played the Celtics.  Add Heinsohn and the Jones boys, and the Boston teams were the prototypical example of defense feeding offense.  Their offense wasn’t the greatest, but the defense played at such a level that the results were not a fluke.  Those that think later teams would dominate the 60s Celts with athleticism overlook the demoralizing factor .  This team was the NBA version of Nolan Richardson’s ’40 minutes of Hell’.  Russell and Havlicek set the tone.  The Celts produced two other combos of note which were bridged by this memorable duo:

Havlicek/Cowens – 2 championships – again, a similar combination, Cowens being similar to Russell in playing style.  Phoenix played their hearts out in 1976, and the Havlicek/Cowens combo would not let them win.  Should have won 3 chips, but a playoff disaster ruined a 68-14 year.

Russell/Cousy – 6 championships – this was the first of some classic 1/5 combos.  The best thing about this duo was that the fast break was so devastation.  With Russell getting the rebound, block, or steal, and the outlet to Cousy at midcourt, the opposition found itself on its heels most of the game.  Cooz had led the team to the first 100 point a game average ever, but the defense and rebounding of Russell made the team lethal in its ability to demoralize an opponent.  I was hesitant to add this one since Cooz was a horrible hooter, but so is Iverson.  The difference is that Cousy melded instantly with Russell, something AI never did with anyone.

Alcindor/Robertson – 1 championship – for one memorable year, the generation’s all-everything triple double machine was paired with the new big man on the block.  For those who remember, Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was almost impossible to stop in those early years.  This team rolled through the league, winning 20 straight in a late season streak, and going 12-1 in the playoffs.  This combo featured a 5 and a 1,2, 3, or 4, depending on what Oscar chose to do that day.  The 6-5 wizard led the league in scoring, assists, and rebounding at one time or another, and his last few years with Alcindor/Jabbar were spent primarily in the backcourt as a point guard and second scoring option.

Chamberlin/West – 1 championship – this combo would surely have won more had it been together longer.  It featured the Most dominant Ever, (with no apologies to Shaq) and Zeke from Cabin Creek, whose combination of sharpshooting and playmaking made him the ideal NBA player, so much so the league used his silhouette for their logo.  Wilt was a defensive presence, rebounder, and assist (?) man in his later years, but opponents knew he could still dial it up for 50 if they didn’t pay attention.  This team featured a 33 game winning streak, a streak that was ended by Alcindor/Jabbar’s  Bucks.

Chamberlain/Greer – 1 championship – this combo could have been with Chet Walker or Billy Cunningham as well, but Greer was the steady scoring guard that kept one of the greatest teams in NBA history on an even keel.  There were so many scorers, and with Wilt averaging a 20/20 in points and rebounds and leading the league in assists, it was difficult if not impossible for the opposition to figure out who to guard.  This was more of a team combination than a duo.

Duncan/Ginobli – 3 championships – The Big Fundamental and the helter-skelter Ginobli could not be more different in style, but the combination has proven troublesome for NBA coaches over the years.  This is an interesting combo in that Ginobli was not a starter in much of their time as teammates.  This is due to coach Greg Popovich’s style, which allowed him to limit the wear and tear on the frenetic Argentinean, while starting a defender with little or no offensive value (Bruce Bowen).  The plodding style of the Spurs during this era didn’t endear themselves to fans outside san Antonio, but I have no doubt the defensive toughness and boring efficiency of this team anchored by Duncan, could give fits to some of the best teams in history.

Reed/Frazier – 2 championships – this team was good enough to prevent Chamberlain’s Lakers from winning twice, as well as to stand toe to toe with the Bucks.  Willis Reed was a smallish center, but a bear to handle down low.  This combo is probably one of the most underrated in history.  Reed had a will to win that at least matched Russell and later, Michael Jordan.  Clyde, as Walt Frazier was known, was a defensive whiz who would pick your pocket and lay 35 on you in the same game, all the while keeping the shooters (Bradley, Barnett, and DeBuschere) happy with his passes.  This combo was the quintessential center/point guard combination, perhaps offensively what we would see if Nash and Shaq played together during their best years.  Walt Frazier is one player I could see giving Michael Jordan a problem.

Erving/Malone – 1 championship – the combo of a classic 5 with a prototypical 3 was very entertaining to watch, and would have won more is the opposition (Lakers/Celtics) hadn’t began their runs at the same time.  They worked well as opponents were mesmerized by Erving and simply outworked by Moses Malone.

Some combos that never won but were classic

Jerry West/Elgin Baylor – a 1/2 and a 3/4  that were splendid in combination, but could not overcome the Celtics (you have to have the ball to score)

Charles Barkley/Kevin Johnson – an unorthodox power forward and a do-everything point guard made the Suns devastating for a three year stretch, but defensive shortcomings, injuries, and a lack of chemistry doomed this combo.

John Stockton/Karl Malone – had the misfortune of meeting the Bulls twice in the finals, the classic 1/4 pairing was dominating and changed the game with their signature pick and roll.  Perhaps the best combo not to win a chip.

Shaq/Penny – this combination of brute power and smooth silkiness was headed towards multiple Finals visits when Shaq abruptly answered the call to Hollywood.  One disappointment here for basketball purists was that Penny was never the catalyst in Orlando that he was in college.  The Magic would have done better to pair Shaq with Chris Webber, whom they traded for Hardaway.

Please post what you think.  What makes a successful combination?  It appears that defensive toughness, leadership ability, and of course amazing talent are requirements.  Why a premium on defense?  I think the whole team is encouraged and inspired when stars play defense.  I heard someone say that if Majerle had half the talent of Amare, you have John Havlicek right there.  This brings me to a closing comment about the Amare/Nash pairing.  In some ways, they were right up there with the best, certainly their execution of the pick and roll.  But since both are bad defenders, they will never have what it takes to get on this list.  And with Porter de-emphasizing both, I don’t see it happening in the future.

Possible future names on this list:

LeBron/someone else