The 2000s resembled a different stage than the one we’re accustomed to in today’s NBA. Super teams were formed only in the dog days of a player’s career, instead solo acts lit up the association as franchises got used to the burden of their roster’s cap space.
It wasn’t often you saw multiple superstars on a team, because when it did happen it always led to chaos. Alpha dogs clashed, taking a game winner became a team’s biggest issue, and contracts never seemed to ever be able to please both parties.
The result was that some of the best players of the ’00s never had a chance to fulfill their true potential, while also not cementing their teams amongst some of the best in NBA history. Everything happens for a reason, but it’s still a shame that we never got to see these duos take full advance of their situation on their way to basketball immortality.
Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors missed their opportunity to become a force in the Eastern Conference when Tracy McGrady decided to sign with the Orlando Magic during the 2000 offseason. He would leave his superstar cousin, Vince Carter, for a chance to go and become the main option in his hometown state of Florida.
McGrady blossomed in Orlando, and would even go on to to become a 2-time scoring champion for the Magic. But even with his own individual success, he still regrets his decision to leave Carter and the Raptors right after they had just made their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
“In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto,” said McGrady. “There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often.”
After McGrady left the Raptors, their fortune would slip with Carter not being able to play over 75 games in any of his next 4 full seasons in Toronto. It would of given McGrady the opportunity to step into a superstar role, something he proved he was more than capable of doing with him averaging 33.8 points throughout the 2001 playoffs – the same postseason that the Raptors were just one-shot short of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Carter and McGrady would go on to combine for 17 All-Star appearances, but both haven’t been able to secure an NBA title throughout their careers. The Raptors had two of the most versatile and explosive players in the league, but unfortunately their own individual success mattered too much to their young egos at the time.
Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury – Minnesota Timberwolves
If there was ever a player that could of complimented Kevin Garnett’s versatile game in Minnesota, it was Stephon Marbury. Unfortunately, money became their biggest enemy after the Timberwolves couldn’t give Marbury the same amount they had given Garnett during the 1997 offseason.
With Garnett signing a monumental $126 million contract, a deal that forced the NBA to create a cap space and a lockout, Marbury expected to be equally compensated. In reality, Marbury was nowhere near as important as Garnett to the franchise, but the Timberwolves also couldn’t give him that much money because of their cap space. Marbury wasn’t pleased and didn’t feel appreciated, which resulted in the Timberwolves trading him to the New Jersey Nets during the 1998-99 season.
At one point, VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale summoned Garnett, Marbury and forward Tom Gugliotta to his office to talk about sacrifice and sharing the ball and submerging egos. KG nodded emphatically, but the message, says former Wolves point guard Terry Porter, might have been lost on Marbury. – ESPN, The Cruel Tutelage of the Wolves’ Kevin Garnett
Marbury’s talent was undeniable, with him averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 assists while being under 22 years old throughout his two and a half seasons with the Timberwolves. But he was never better than Garnett, who would go on to become the 2003-04 MVP and an eventual Champion with the Boston Celtics later on in his career.
Instead, Marbury’s desire to be the main option on a team in all aspects took away his own opportunity from being the sidekick to one of the greatest power forwards to ever play in the NBA. Marbury got his shot as a main option, even averaging 23.9 points in his first full season in New Jersey, but he would only be able to lead his teams to a pair of first round exits in the playoffs. On the other hand, Garnett’s potential wasn’t reached in Minnesota with his best sidekicks ultimately becoming an aging Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell on their way to a single Western Conference Final appearance.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
Of all the duos on this list, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are the only ones to actually win a Championship together. Even with them ultimately 3-peating to start the new millennium, it’s hard not to think of what could of been if they had stayed together for the rest of the decade.
Barkley is asking Shaq on @NBAonTNT how many total titles for Lakers if Kobe and Shaq stayed together beyond 2004. Shaq says five or six.
— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) February 7, 2014
To think the dynamic Lakers duo could of won 5 or 6 Championships seems just about right. After O’Neal was traded from the Lakers in the 2004 offseason, he would go on and win another Championship with the Miami Heat in 2006 playing as the second-option beside an emerging Dwyane Wade. Before O’Neal retired in 2011, Bryant would also go on and win 2 more Championships as the alpha dog on the Lakers.
O’Neal and Bryant were one of the best duos to ever play in the NBA, and their hardware is all the validation they need. But their egos were too big, especially with Bryant wanting a bigger role after working much harder than the dominating centre he shared the spotlight with on his way to a 3-peat. Constant arguments in the media, and eventually a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, would mark the end of the iconic Shaq and Kobe era.
Whether trading O’Neal was for the better or the worse is impossible to decide, since they both went on to win more Championships in different roles. But together they could of continued dominating the league, while building on their legacy as potentially the best duo of all time.
Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash – Dallas Mavericks
No other duo has more question marks surrounding them than Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Unlike any of the aforementioned duos, both Nowitzki and Nash were able to win an MVP after their disbandment, lead their teams to a Conference Final, but were never able to win a Championship of their own throughout the 2000s.
Nowitzki would go on to win it all in 2011 with a great supporting cast, one that might of never of formed with Nash still in Dallas. But their combined talent was still so great that it makes it hard not to image what could of been. Together they were able to make a single Conference Finals, but it still wasn’t enough for the Mavericks organization to invest in a 30-year-old Nash in the same way they had planned to with a 26-year-old Nowitzki.
After Nash signed with the Suns during the 2004 offseason, he would go on to prove the Mavericks wrong by winning a pair of MVP awards while guiding the Suns to a pair of Conference Final appearances. In that process he would also run into Nowitzki and the Mavericks throughout the playoffs. Nash was able to beat Nowitzki the first time, but he would lose the second time as he watched his former team make it to the Finals without him. Against the Miami Heat in 2006, it was obvious that the Mavericks were missing a point guard like Nash as they failed to secure their first NBA title.
“I think I played my best basketball from that point on,” said Nash. “Obviously Dirk was unbelievable and won a championship there, and I think it could have been something great, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it. But the arrogant cocky part of me is like, ‘Yeah, would would have won.’”
Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming – Houston Rockets
Before Yao Ming missed the entire 2009-10 season because of a foot injury, leading to an eventual Tracy McGrady trade, the Houston Rockets were one of the most promising teams in the league. With a pair of All-Stars in McGrady and Yao, they looked ready to deliver a Championship to the city of Houston for the first time since the glory days of Hakeem Olajuwon. Unfortunately, their health would be their biggest obstacle.
When they were healthy, they looked unstoppable at times; even guiding the Rockets to a 22-game win-streak throughout the 2007-08 season. But during those times there was also bad luck, with Yao suffering another injury throughout the late stages of that stretch; leading to him being out for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. McGrady couldn’t carry the Rockets by himself, leading to a first-round exit for the Rockets.
Them not being at full-strength seemed to be an ever lasting story ever since McGrady joined the team starting in the 2004-05 season. The 2005 and 2007 playoffs were their best shots, but they ultimately lost to the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz in 7 games in the first round. Throughout the 2005-06 season they missed the playoffs since both McGrady and Yao didn’t appear in more than 60 games. And for their final year of playoff contention in 2009, they were without McGrady – while Yao single handily guided the Rockets to the Western Conference Semifinals just to suffer another injury of his own.
Their talent made them a great inside-and-out combo, with McGrady finishing his career in Houston averaging 27.7 points throughout the playoffs, and Yao averaging 19.8 points. Shaquille O’Neal has come out saying that Yao could of been a top-5 centre of all-time if he stayed healthy. Mixed that in with an unbelievable scorer in McGrady, and it’s tough not to salivate over how good they could of been at full-strength.
All stats for this article are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97