Every week on NBA.com, we'll unveil a new bracket with daily matchups to vote on. By the end of the week, we'll crown a champion and determine a winner based on fan voting. Up next for this week? The best sidekicks in NBA history.
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What is the best season by any sidekick in NBA history?
We're onto the quarterfinals in our effort to answer that very question.
The idea of the sidekick is hard to quantify and in most cases, you just kind of know it when you see it. Performance AND perception matter. Rare is the case of the career sidekick, but while labels don't stick over the course of an entire career, it's a bit more manageable - though still not easy! - to pick out individual seasons.
And so that's exactly what we did.
We picked out 16 of the best sidekick seasons in NBA history and seeded them 1-16. From there, it's on you to help us sort through the matchups to determine the best sidekick season in NBA history!
The first round included several notable upsets and a couple of more close calls. Here's how it played out:
- 1 Julius Erving in 1982-83 def 16 John Havlicek in 1968-69: 89% of vote
- 2 Kobe Bryant in 2001-02 def 15 Pau Gasol in 2009-10: 65% of vote
- 3 Scottie Pippen in 1995-96 def 14 Manu Ginóbili in 2007-08: 64% of vote
- 13 Magic Johnson in 1979-80 def 4 Kevin McHale in 1986-87: 70% of vote
- 5 Russell Westbrook in 2015-16 def 12 David Robinson in 1998-99: 60% of vote
- 6 Penny Hardaway in 1995-96 def 11 Anthony Davis in 2019-20: 55% of vote
- 7 John Stockton in 1994-95 def 10 Dwyane Wade in 2010-11: 56% of vote
- 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984-85 def 8 Wilt Chamberlain in 1971-72: 64% of vote
On to the quarterfinals...
1 vs 9 - A combined 10 MVPs
Compare stats: 1 Julius Erving in 1982-83 vs 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984-85
It's wild to think that a tournament in search of the ultimate sidekick could feature a second round matchup featuring a pair of players that won a combined 10 MVP awards.
Before assuming second fiddle status upon the arrival of Moses Malone in Philadelphia, Erving himself won the 1981 MVP award after claiming three of them in the ABA. But with the arrival of Malone in his prime - and on the heels of winning the first of back-to-back MVP awards, the first coming as a member of the Houston Rockets - a 32-year-old Dr. J was clearly on to the Robin phase of his career.
Even as a sidekick, Erving still managed to finish fourth in MVP voting and help lead the 1982-83 76ers to one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history.
As for the six-time NBA MVP, the 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar had clearly passed on the torch to Magic Johnson by the time the 1984-85 season rolled around. Make no mistake: he was still cooking. He averaged 22 points and eight rebounds while earning All-NBA Second Team honours and finishing fourth in MVP voting.
5 vs 13 - Westbrook and Magic
Compare stats: 5 Russell Westbrook in 2015-16 vs 13 Magic Johnson in 1979-80
A rookie Magic Johnson pulled off the biggest upset of the opening round by taking out Kevin McHale's incredible 1986-87 season.
It speaks volumes about Johnson's popularity, but also the legendary status of his play as a rookie in the 1980 Finals. Although he may have been better in his second season, Johnson's rookie season includes one of the all-time sidekick moments as he started at centre for an injured Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. That performance alone resonates enough to warrant a spot here in what was otherwise still a very good rookie season in which he averaged 18-7-7.
MORE: Where do Westbrook and Durant rank among all-time duos?
In a vacuum, you could make the case that Russell Westbrook actually had a better season than Kevin Durant for the 2015-16 Thunder. Both made All-NBA First Team and Westbrook finished higher in MVP voting. But again... those were always Durant's teams while they teamed up even if this was as close as it ever got to a 1A/1B situation. Going strictly by the stats, you could make a case that Westbrook's 2015-16 season should have been the number 1 overall seed. Had the Thunder finished off the Warriors in the Conference Finals instead of blowing a 3-1 series lead and gone on to win the title, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
3 vs 6 - Reliving the 1995-96 season
Compare stats: 3 Scottie Pippen in 1995-96 vs 6 Penny Hardaway in 1995-96
It's fitting that we get Pippen vs Penny at the height of their powers.
Penny got the upper hand in the 1995 playoffs. Pippen got the upper hand in the 1996 playoffs. Both represented on the 1995-96 All-NBA First Team as superstar sidekicks to Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, the latter of whom missed about a third of the season.
Statistically, it's hard to argue against the younger Hardaway. He averaged more points, assists and steals. He shot a higher percentage from the floor. He holds the edge in PER, Win Shares, BPM and VORP.
MORE: An alternate reality featuring Penny and Shaq
About the only thing he didn't do more of is win, which of course, is a calling card of Pippen's. Pippen's Bulls not only finished 72-10 (comfortably ahead of the 60-win Magic), but also swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals to avenge the loss in the previous year's playoffs. He also played alongside Jordan who, unlike O'Neal, didn't miss any time which no doubt plays an important role in the context behind the stats.
2 vs 7: Buckets vs Dimes
Compare stats: 2 Kobe Bryant in 2001-02 vs 7 John Stockton in 1994-95
Kobe Bryant and John Stockton.
Both relentless competitors and yet it's hard to find any matchup featuring players with a larger contrast of styles. Bryant is unequivocally the best scorer of this bunch while Stockton is in another stratosphere as a facilitator.
There's a case to be made that Bryant was on enough of an equal footing with Shaq to not even qualify. But the combination of the Finals MVP sweeps and just the overall big brother, little brother dynamic places Bryant in the bucket of "supremely overqualified sidekick."
Stockton - like Pippen - is synonymous with the sidekick label. If you wanted to pick his 1989-90 season in which he handed out a patently absurd 14.5 dimes per game, be my guest. I'm rolling with the 1994-95 season in which he made All-NBA First Team and led the entire league in Offensive Box Plus-Minus and True Shooting Percentage.
MORE: Inside the unstoppable Stockton-to-Malone two-man game
Stockton's only All-NBA First Team nods conveniently came in the two years that Michael Jordan retired during the mid-90s. We sometimes think of Stockton being held back historically by Jordan when it comes to winning titles, but he's also a victim of bad timing when it comes to those First Team nods that become more important in legacy conversations.
The race for the top seed came down to three players: Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen.
All three made All-NBA First Team. All three won the NBA title. All three finished fifth in MVP voting.
If you value team legacy, it's hard to pick against Pippen who helped the Bulls to an NBA record 72-10 record.
If you value individual stats, it's hard to pick against Bryant who was the most prolific of the three.
That said, Erving himself was a megastar even beyond the likes of Pippen and Bryant at that point. This was the first season in which he truly moved on from alpha dog status which he ceded to league MVP Moses Malone. And though he finished fifth in MVP voting, Dr. J actually received more first-place votes than anyone other than Malone. That says all you need to know about his standing in the game even as a second banana.
|1.||1982-83 Julius Erving|
|2.||2001-02 Kobe Bryant|
|3.||1995-96 Scottie Pippen|
|4.||1986-87 Kevin McHale|
|5.||2015-16 Russell Westbrook|
|6.||1995-96 Penny Hardaway|
|7.||1994-95 John Stockton|
|8.||1971-72 Wilt Chamberlain|
|9.||1984-85 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|10.||2010-11 Dwyane Wade|
|11.||2019-20 Anthony Davis|
|12.||1998-99 David Robinson|
|13.||1979-80 Magic Johnson|
|14.||2007-08 Manu Ginóbili|
|15.||2009-10 Pau Gasol|
|16.||1968-69 John Havlicek|
- Each player could only count once. Was 1995-96 Scottie Pippen better than 1991-92 Scottie Pippen? That's a different debate, but one we had for each player selected.
- In cases of a true 1a/1b, we simply passed because it doesn't truly buy into the spirit of the sidekick. It's why you won't see either Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant from their time together in Golden State or Elgin Baylor and Jerry West from their run with the Los Angeles Lakers.
- We tried to limit overlap within the same team. So because we rolled with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a mid 80s sidekick to Magic Johnson, we didn't include James Worthy. Ditto with picking Manu Ginobili over Tony Parker.
- Winning matters. All-NBA selections matter. MVP voting matters. It all matters!
- We've got snubs for days. Some of the hardest omissions: Oscar Robertson on the Bucks, Shaquille O'Neal on the Heat, Kyrie Irving on the Cavaliers, Klay Thompson on the Warriors
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.