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 semifinals 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. You can skip down to see the entire field. From there, it's on you to help us sort through the matchups to determine the best sidekick season in NBA history!
The quarterfinals included a massive upset with the top overall seed - Julius Erving's 1982-83 season - falling to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a tight vote.
Here is how the entire round played out:
- 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984-85 def. 1 Julius Erving in 1982-83: 54% of vote
- 2 Kobe Bryant in 2001-02 def. 7 John Stockton in 1994-95: 68% of vote
- 3 Scottie Pippen in 1995-96 def. 6 Penny Hardaway in 1995-96: 80% of vote
- 13 Magic Johnson in 1979-80 def. 5 Russell Westbrook in 2015-16: 70% of vote
Unlike the NBA playoffs, we re-seeded the order to have the top remaining seeds on either side of the bracket.
2 vs 13: Laker legends
Compare stats: 2 Kobe Bryant in 2001-02 vs 13 Magic Johnson in 1979-80
Kobe or Magic?
It's an almost impossible decision to make for Lakers fans as they're arguably the two best players in franchise history who both started off as championship winning sidekicks.
Johnson was 12 years younger than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he entered the NBA, which set the stage for a natural passing of the torch that occurred sometime in the early 1980s as soon as Johnson's third year in the league. 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.
Bryant became teammates with Shaquille O'Neal as an 18-year-old, not quite ready for a starring role next to an established 24-year-old entering his prime. Even as Bryant came of age, that hierarchy never truly shifted even as Bryant became every bit as much of a star as his superstar big man, to the point where it's fair to question whether or not Bryant even qualifies as a sidekick. 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."
Both won titles with the Lakers in both roles - sidekick and unquestioned alpha. But which would you take as a sidekick?
3 vs 9: Dynasty sidekicks
Compare stats: 3 Scottie Pippen in 1995-96 vs 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984-85
Pippen won six titles as a sidekick while Abdul-Jabbar won at least three and potentially four depending on how you view the pecking order between he and Johnson in 1981-82.
Pippen entered the league just two years younger than Jordan, which meant his timeline never afforded him the opportunity to assume alpha dog status, save for Jordan's baseball sabbatical during the mid 90s. But with a complimentary game perfectly suited to succeed as a sidekick, Pippen did just that to the degree that he was voted one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history entering his 10th season and before winning his final two championships.
MORE: All of Pippen's defensive brilliance in one play
As for the six-time NBA MVP, the 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar had clearly passed on the torch to 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.
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
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.