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10 NBA Superstar Duos That Fell Short of Championship Dreams

Superstar team-ups are quite common in the NBA, and they certainly increase the players’ and teams’ chances of winning a championship. Some team-ups that were successful include the likes of the Big Three for the Miami Heat that saw Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh win two titles together. Others include the Boston Celtics, featuring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo hoist the NBA trophy.

However, having superstar team-ups does not always guarantee a NBA championship. With the recent elimination of the Houston Rockets that had two MVPs in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and the shocking exit of the Los Angeles Clippers that had Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the ongoing playoffs, it is a stern reminder that superstar team-ups does not automatically result into a title.

For this piece, let’s take a look at 10 superstar team-ups that never won a championship together.

Lebron James and Shaquille O’Neal – Cleveland Cavaliers

stephen curry, lebron james, shaquille o'neal, NBA

Season/s Together: 2009-2010

Lebron James is currently having an impressive run alongside All-Star big man Anthony Davis in the ongoing NBA Finals. However, outside of Davis and Kevin Love, James also had a chance to also pair up with Hall of Fame big man Shaquille O’Neal in one season with the Cavaliers.

In 2009, James was the reigning NBA MVP, as he was putting up spectacular individual performances. However, the Cavaliers were stunned by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. With James’ contract almost up, the management knew they had to support James with legitimate championship pieces in order to win a championship and to convince their MVP to stay. With this, the Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal in a trade with the Phoenix Suns.

On paper, this seemed like mean dynamic duo. Outside of James’ MVP presence, theoretically, the team now had a legitimate center down low. Shaq was coming off an All-Star season with the Phoenix Suns, as he averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. However, the duo of James and Shaq won’t be enough to give Cleveland its first championship.

James continued to produce MVP numbers, which earned him his second straight MVP trophy. Unfortunately, Shaq was no longer in his prime years, as he ultimately slowed down and started to encounter some injuries. The former Cavs center could only produce 12.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Although James and O’Neal were able to do enough to get past the Chicago Bulls in the first round, they faced a hungry Boston Celtics team in the second round that ended their playoff hopes in six games. This of course ended the partnership between Shaq and James, as it also led to James’ infamous signing with the Miami Heat.

Dwight Howard and James Harden – Houston Rockets

Season/s Together: 2013-2016

After failing to win a championship with the Orlando Magic and a disastrous stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, which we will talk about later, Howard teamed up with Houston Rockets standout James Harden. Harden was coming off an excellent first stint with the Rockets, as he proved to everyone that he was capable of becoming the leader of a franchise. Paired with a dominant big man in Howard and coached by Kevin McHale, it looked like a strong team that can contend for a championship.

The partnership lasted for three seasons, but unfortunately, the farthest they went was a Western Conference Finals appearance, where they were eliminated by the eventual champions the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Playoffs. For the majority part of the Harden and Howard duo, the Rockets would get knocked away in the opening round.

The team wanted to run their offense through Harden with pick and roll plays. Unfortunately, Howard wasn’t all too happy about this as he preferred to post-up more with his back to the basket style of play which diminished the duo’s relationship. Howard and Harden cited the lack of communication between them resulted into the duo’s failure to capture a championship.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Howard said “When I don’t like what’s going on, I tend to shut down, put my headphones on and ignore everything. I don’t talk about things. That happened to me in L.A. It happened to me again in Houston. I should have communicated better.”

With this, Howard eventually left Houston for the Atlanta Hawks.

James Harden and Chris Paul – Houston Rockets

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Season/s Together: 2017-2019

Dwight Howard wasn’t the only superstar that teamed up with the Beard in Houston. Aside from Howard, Chris Paul also had a chance to team up with the Rockets star. At first, it seemed like a promising partnership, as Harden was a scoring threat while Chris Paul was a talented pass-first guard.

However, the deepest playoff run they had was a stint once again in the Western Conference Finals, where they faced their tormentor the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets were actually close to dethroning the defending champions at that time, as they took a 3-2 lead in the series. Unfortunately, Paul suffered a hamstring injury which forced him to sit out games six and seven. Without the NBA All-Star guard, the Warriors reasserted their mastery over the Rockets and became eventual champions that year.

Chris Paul has been riddled with injuries, especially during the postseason. Other than that, the superstars’ relationship as teammates deteriorated just after the Western Conference Finals run. The two alpha dogs of the team had a dramatic off-court altercation that had to be dealt with by the Rockets management.

According to Yahoo Sports, a source said “There’s no respect at all, on either side. They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.”

With Paul demanding a trade and Harden issuing a “him or me” ultimatum, the management kept  Harden while trading Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook. It was a partnership that ended in ugly fashion.

Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire – New York Knicks

Season/s Together: 2011- 2015

The New York Knicks were one of the front runners to come out with a super team during the stacked 2010 Free Agency season. However, the only superstar they were able to land was Amar’e Stoudemire. Stoudemire was an explosive power forward that had a good career in Phoenix and was an acceptable catch for New York. Eventually, the Knicks were also able to get sweet shooting swingman Carmelo Anthony in a massive trade with the Denver Nuggets midway through the season.

Although it seemed like a pairing that could keep in step with the Heat’s Big Three at that time, the Knicks were hardly a winning team with their two superstars on board. In their first year together, they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round. The year after, wasn’t all too different, as they barely even made the playoffs. Their presence in the playoffs was thanks to the rise of Linsanity when Jeremy Lin made an underdog run. With Lin suffering a knee injury, the Knicks were defeated by the Miami Heat in five games in the first round.

The 2012-2013 season was the best season of the Knicks in recent memory, as it was their deepest playoff run in the 2000’s. The Knicks reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals during that season. Although it was the duo’s greatest achievement, Stoudemire for the most part of the season was rendered inactive due to injuries. The former Knicks big man appeared only in 29 games. During the postseason, he was a non-factor as he could only put up 3.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

The partnership is deemed a failure for a number of reasons. Playing alongside Carmelo, Stoudemire’s numbers took a dip. Because Melo is a heavy scorer, it meant fewer opportunities for the STAT to score. It also didn’t help that the Knicks were dealing with coaching changes and locker room issues. To make matters worse, the non-stop injuries that hounded Amar’e certainly prevented the duo from fulfilling their full potential.

With Stoudemire unhappy with his diminished role, he eventually took his talents to Dallas which ended the partnership between him and Anthony. Despite the presence of these two superstars, the Knicks hardly came close to a championship.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley (with Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen) – Houston Rockets

Season/s Together: 1996-2000

The Houston Rockets were on a hot role from 1993-1995, as they captured two straight NBA titles thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. With the Rockets management unsatisfied, the franchise decided to acquire Charles Barkley for four of their players in Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucks Brown, and Mark Bryant. It was a team-up that put together three of the top 50 players of all time. However, it is worth noting that there were a lot of questions surrounding the team such as Barkley’s locker room fit and whether or not these top players still had enough left in the tank, given their age at that time.

As a result, despite forming a super team, this Rockets edition failed to capture a championship together. Although they did show some promise in their first year together, as they reached the Western Conference Finals, they stumbled upon a formidable Utah Jazz team that defeated them in six games. Unfortunately after that, the team went on to become a regular fixture in the opening round of the playoffs for the next two years including a heartbreaking first round exit in 1998 at the hands of the Jazz once again when John Stockton nailed the game winning three point shot in Game 7. This actually broke the first edition of this team-up, as it sent Clyde Drexler into retirement.

Although Drexler left the team, the Rockets did manage to get another star in Scottie Pippen, who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls. This second edition was also considered a super team, but it was also an aging super team at that with Olajuwon at 35, Barkley at 34, and Pippen already at 33. Unfortunately, they faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1999 Playoffs and were dispatched three games to one. Afterwards, the team never made an appearance in the postseason again, as Barkley eventually retired while Olajuwon was shipped to the Toronto Raptors.

Russell Westbrook and Paul George (with Carmelo Anthony) – Oklahoma City Thunder

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Season/s together: 2017-2019

Paul George and Carmelo Anthony initially thought they can make their own version of the Big Three in Oklahoma when they joined Russell Westbrook. On paper, it seemed like a team-up that could replicate the success of Miami Heat’s own version of the Big Three back then.

George was coming off a spectacular career with the Indiana Pacers. On the other hand, Carmelo Anthony was looking for a fresh start outside of a relatively long career in New York. Combine these players with a triple double machine in Russell Westbrook, the Thunder seemed like it could give the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers a run for their money.

However, despite another triple double and MVP season by Westbrook, an All-Star season by George and a decent performance by Anthony, it didn’t result into a championship. In fact, the team only made it to the opening round of the playoffs, as they were defeated by the Utah Jazz, four games to two.

Even if Westbrook, George and Anthony were excellent on offense, the team was inefficient offensively as they only ranked 17th in the league when it came to Offensive Rating. A lot of the blame fell on the shoulders of Carmelo Anthony, who loved running isolation plays that led to ill-advised shots. Furthermore, Anthony seemed to be out of his comfort zone playing as the team’s third option, a role that Melo never handled.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, George said about Anthony “As much as I loved playing with Melo and having Melo alongside us, I understand the decision of both sides. It just didn’t work. It didn’t work.”

The initial edition of the superstar team-up only lasted one season, as Anthony eventually took his talents to Houston after just one season. On the other hand, George and Westbrook played together for another season. Westbrook had another triple double season, while George improved his numbers even further. But despite this, the Thunder were outclassed by the Portland Trailblazers in the opening round, as they conceded in five games.

The unsuccessful playoff campaigns prompted George to make an infamous move to the Los Angeles Clippers last year, while Westbrook was traded to Houston for All-Star guard Chris Paul.

Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire (with Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Grant Hill, and Shaquille O’Neal) – Phoenix Suns

Season/s Together: 2004-2010

The Phoenix Suns had a struggling season in 2003-2004, as they posted a 29-53 win loss record. However, their young talented core that had Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson was enough to convince Steve Nash to join the Suns. Individually for Nash, he reached new heights as he collected two straight MVP trophies. Furthermore, he led the Suns to a Western Conference Finals for two straight seasons. Stoudemire, a young power forward at that time, emerged to be great running mate in the front court for the Canadian playmaker. With Nash on board, Stoudemire increased his averages from 20.6 points per game to 26.0 points per outing, which earned him his first All-Star game appearance. However, injuries riddled Stoudemire during the 2005-2005 season, which prevented him from helping in the Suns’ playoff campaign that year.

Once Stoudemire recovered, the former Suns big man and Nash were instrumental for Phoenix, as they made the franchise a regular fixture in the playoffs. However, it wasn’t enough to bring them a championship. Eventually, the Suns decided to trade for Shaquille O’Neal which gave the team three superstars. On paper, it was potentially a dominant team that had a lot of star power.

Unfortunately, even the addition of O’Neal wasn’t enough to give the franchise and the duo its first NBA championship. Shaq was brought in for the so called “Amar’e Project”,which was to aid the development of Stoudemir, in exchange for the versatile Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks. It was effective at first, as Stoudemire averaged 25.2 points and 9.1 boards per game while Shaq put up 12.9 points and 10.6 boards per game. However, Nash just wasn’t used to playing with a center that was parked in the paint which negatively affected the passing guard’s playing style.  Furthermore, the superstar team-up just had to face the defending champions at that time in the San Antonio Spurs during the opening round of the playoffs.

As the playoffs unfolded that year, the Suns’ campaign was shockingly over when the Spurs dispatched Phoenix in five games. With a quick exit, one would expect the superstar trio to bounce back in the succeeding season. However, the Suns performed more poorly as they didn’t even reach the 2009 NBA Playoffs.

Some people would pin the blame on the exit of Mike D’Antoni and his replacement, Terry Porter, who tried to change the team’s culture according to his ways. It also didn’t help that STAT had to suffer an eye injury during the crucial segment of the Suns season.

Although Shaq was eventually traded to the Cavaliers in 2009, Nash and Stoudemire continued their partnership until 2010. It was arguably the last time the duo came close to a championship. In the 2010 Playoffs, the Suns ran through the Blazers in six games and swept the San Antonio Spurs to make an appearance once again in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, they faced eventual champions the Los Angeles Lakers led by the late Kobe Bryant.

After the playoffs, Stoudemire played for the Knicks and Nash continued to play for the Suns. The team-up never resulted into a championship ring. Individually, Nash and Stoudemire never won a championship individually either as players in their entire NBA career.

Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, and Pau Gasol – Los Angeles Lakers

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Season/s Together: 2012-2013

The Los Angeles Lakers arguably put up the most stacked team in franchise history when they signed Dwight Howard and Steve Nash as the team already had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace. It was obvious that the team was aiming for a championship with Howard not winning one in Orlando and Nash failing to win one in his entire career. Furthermore, Kobe was also looking to add at least one more championship in his ring collection.

The team definitely didn’t lack in star power. However with that great amount of talent in one team, there was no question that egos will eventually come to blows. One of the feuds that occurred in the locker room was between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, where the latter just disagreed with the leadership and culture set by Bryant.

The team put up a disappointing performance, as they opened the season with only one win in five games. Furthermore, the team barely made the playoffs. To make matters worse, multiple injuries to the team definitely dampened the team’s championship hopes including a torn Achilles’ tendon that sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season.

In the 2013 Playoffs, the injury-clipped Lakers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round to end their disappointing season.

Dwight Howard said about the wayward NBA team “I just think there were two big problems, injuries and ego. What would I have done different? I would say wait until I was healthy…At time, I think wanting to be selfish cost everybody on the team.”

There was no question that injuries and ego were indeed the main culprits of preventing the All-Star team from living up to its expectations.

Karl Malone and John Stockton – Utah Jazz

John Stockton, Karl Malone, Byron Russell, Jazz

Season/s Together: 1985-2003

Karl Malone and John Stockton are arguably one of the best duos that the league has ever seen, given that they were so deadly at running the pick-and-roll together. The partnership lasted for 18 years, when the Jazz drafted Stockton in 1984 and Malone in the year after.

In an interview, Pat Riley said about the dynamic duo “They are masters at getting into people’s heads. They are very well-drilled in the physical game. They are very physical at both ends of the court, and they have the experience of being able to play technically and tactically.”

Unfortunately, the fierce dynamic duo just never won at least a single championship during that stretch. Despite helping the Jazz reach the postseason from 1985-2003, the duo could only produce two NBA Finals appearances and five Western Conference Finals stints.

The duo came awfully close to winning a championship in the 1997 and 1998 Playoffs. However, the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen proved to be too much to handle on both occasions as they fell in six games for two straight years at the hands of the same tormentor.

Despite the duo’s dominance on the court, they go down as one of the best team-ups that never won a single ring together.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (with James Harden and Serge Ibaka) – Oklahoma City Thunder

Season/s Together: 2008-2016

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were no doubt a feared pairing in the league. They all the more looked scary with the addition of James Harden and Serge Ibaka. If you look at this team now, it’d be hard to believe that these players played together at one point in their careers, given that Durant, Westbrook, and Harden have a combed 27 All-Star game appearances and three MVPs.

There was no doubt that this group was a young and talented team. Durant and Westbrook first kickstarted their partnership in 2008, which wasn’t all too memorable, with exception to the fact that it was the franchise’s first season in the league, as that they only posted a 23-59 win loss record. However in the succeeding year with Harden and Ibaka coming on board, the team was no longer a pushover.

The team-up of these four players led Oklahoma City to the playoffs for a couple of years, including a Finals stint against the Miami Heat’s Big Three in 2012. It was the closest that the team ever got to a championship, as they took Game 1. However, the combination of James, Wade, and Bosh proved to be too much to handle for the young stars as the Thunder succumbed to the Heat in five games, losing four straight.

Unfortunately, this team-up never had another Finals run together again. Just after the Heat won the NBA championship, Harden took his talents to Houston in order to prove that he was capable of becoming a face of a franchise, unlike in Oklahoma where he was playing the role of the 6th man. Although the Thunder did come awfully close in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, when Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka helped their team build a 3-1 lead against the Golden State Warriors led by Stephen Curry, Durant and company surprisingly blew their opportunity to return to the NBA Finals’ bright lights.

The partnership between Westbrook and Durant would meet at an end when the latter decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors, which earned the ire of many Oklahoma City and NBA fans.