Back in December, ESPN's Tom Haberstroh wrote an article examining where the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson rank among the best single-season backcourts in NBA history, concluding with the following:
It's early, but an MVP and an All-Star sharing the same backcourt? That would be uncharted territory in the modern game. There's a chance we see it this season.
And here's the scariest thing. Curry and Thompson are under contract for two more seasons smack in the middle of their primes. It's possible the best has yet to come. Greatest shooting backcourt? Check. Greatest backcourt ever? Stay tuned.
Haberstroh narrowed his analysis to 20 pairs since the 1973-74 season, which allows for better statistical comparisons because possession data is available (offensive rebounds became a thing that were recorded). And it's an impressive set, littered with past champions and current Hall of Famers.
And as amazing as it is to think that Curry or Thompson has legitimately worked their way into a discussion of the best backcourts ever, the article was written well before Thompson was named as a starter: as I tweeted last week, the Splash Brothers are just the fifth backcourt pairing to start together in an All-Star Game in league history.
Regardless of whether All-Star appearances are a perfect measure for the quality of a guard duo, the very fact that so few have accomplished what they have (and so young) warrants the discussion about their standing in history and, as Mychal Thompson's believes, probably makes both a lock for the Hall of Fame if they continue at their current rate of production.
So I'm going to give away my conclusion at the beginning: if Thompson keeps up his All-Star caliber play -- I'm just assuming Curry will -- the Splash Brothers will without question end up being one of the top five backcourts of all-time, top three if they win a championship (and after that, we can haggle over statistics and how to reconcile the differences between eras). As Haberstroh suggested, part of that is just that the pool is surprisingly shallow )or maybe not so surprising given that the game was dominated by big men for so long).
Yet once we start going down the road of figuring out how much more this combo can do, the question of longevity also quickly becomes relevant to the discussion of All-Star appearances -- if we want to eventually move the discussion from best seasons ever to best backcourt ever, it's hard to ignore the elites that made multiple trips to the All-Star Game together.
The Real Challenge: Repeating as an All-Star backcourt
Without placing a statistical limit on things, Basketball-Reference generated 59 single-season pairings of All-Star guard teammates dating back to the 1951-52 NBA season. Out of those 59 instances, there were just 35 unique backcourt teammate player pairings -- in other words, some backcourt teammates pulled off the joint All-Star trip more than once, which could be a point to include in this discussion about best backcourt tandems if we're using All-Star status as a primary filter.
So as impressive as it is to pull off the feat, do those who did it multiple years and led their team to multiple Finals appearances or championships deserve "extra credit" in the discussion of best backcourt duos?
Klay Thompson emerges from Stephen Curry's shadow
•SBNation.comKlay Thompson is proving to the world that he's not just Stephen Curry's backcourt mate. Motivated by his teammate's success, Thompson has become a star in his own right.
Once you break things down to the same pairs repeating, it's something that only one or two teams pull off per decade (it has yet to happen in this decade). As it turns out, there are just 12 backcourt pairings in NBA history who have made multiple appearances in the All-Star Game together: nine made a Finals appearance together and five won it all at some point. It's an elite group -- one that the Splash Brothers have yet to join but certainly have the potential to.
That raises the bar on the evaluation of Curry and Thompson's standing, shifts the focus to one of outcomes as much as talent, and (perhaps most significantly) forces us to include comparisons to very different eras when the pace was higher (as Haberstroh noted about Jerry West and Gail Goodrich's case), there wasn't a three point line or adequate statistics, or all of the above. But if we're going to start making lofty historical arguments -- and the reality is that Curry and Thompson now warrant that -- we're going to have to sacrifice simplicity somewhere.
So what's the standard a Curry-Thompson backcourt would have to aim for to earn the title of best ever if we look at longevity instead of (or in addition to) single seasons? The following are a few of the top multi-season All-Star backcourt pairings to help further that discussion (years listed are for the actual games) -- to keep a long story short, a championship (or two) and a few more All-Star appearances would really help the Splash Brothers' historical case.
Clyde Drexler & Terry Porter, Portland Trailblazers (1991, 1993)
Haberstroh considered the Drexler-Porter combo the one that had the best statistical case against the Splash Brothers, noting that they rank first in box plus-minus among the set he looked at. And Haberstroh has made his case for Drexler and Porter before: as Ben Goliver summarized at Blazer's Edge back in 2013, Haberstroh argued that the Blazers backcourt was one of the best of the Jordan era.
None of that should be surprising considering that they helped the Blazers make three consecutive Western Conference Finals, including two Finals appearances (and, almost as if Jed York was running the franchise, he was fired two years after making the Finals and replaced by P.J. Carlesimo, who the Warriors also...damn you, Cohan).
Without going much further, the trouble with this duo might be the extent to which Drexler carried it. As Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge wrote about the 1992 Finals team, "The problem was, as we said at the outset, this year's version of the Blazers wasn't as much a team as it was Clyde and Everybody Else. In the 1992 Finals it became clear that Michael and Everybody Else trumps anybody else and Everybody Else. " Drexler was still a force to be reckoned with who would probably give any other pair on this list fits by himself, especially since Michael Jordan isn't on the list (shout out to B.J. Armstrong for making the 1994 All-Star Game in Jordan's absence though).
Fun distinguishing fact: The only pair to make multiple All-Star appearances together non-consecutively.
Chauncey Billups & Richard Hamilton, Detroit Pistons (2005-2008)
The story you'll always hear about the 2004 Pistons is that they won a title without a superstar. Yet a question posed in an old post at FreeDarko.com perfectly sums up Hamilton and Billups: "Why does their (perennially) great-not-superstar backcourt (Rip/Chauncey) play like, um, superstars?"
So it is at once surprising and quite fitting that the Rip/Chauncey backcourt is one of the few to appear together in an All-Star game more than once: very few people would probably come up with their names as one of the best back courts ever and even Pistons fans might defer to the Thomas/Dumars backcourt as the best in franchise history.
However, the COUNT DA RINGZ! argument -- that I normally hate -- is probably legitimate here: they helped topple a heavily-favored, superstar-laden L.A. Lakers squad in one of the biggest Finals upsets in league history and returned the next year for a second shot. We can count on less than one hand the number of backcourt teammates who made consecutive Finals and All-Star appearances together at any point in their career: Bob Cousy & Bill Sharman, Isiah Thomas & Joe Dumars and Billups & Hamilton. That's it, folks.
Certainly, you'll be able to make an argument for the Curry-Thompson backcourt even if they never make consecutive Finals appearances and you could argue that Ben Wallace was the key to those runs whereas the Splash Brothers are clearly the identity of their team, but Billups and Hamilton can't be ignored either.
Fun distinguishing fact: Neither made an All-Star appearance until the year after their second trip to the Finals, despite Billups winning Finals MVP in 2004.
Isiah Thomas & Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons (1990-93)
(Full disclosure: The Bad Boy Pistons were my first basketball love and 11 (Isiah Thomas) was the first number i ever wore in rec league ball. I wore 10 (Dennis Rodman) the next year when that wasn't available. I'm biased here, but -- as someone who always wished he was a little bit taller -- I was taken with the Pistons' All-Star duo in a way that makes it impossible for me not to consider them in a discussion of best ever.)
I've always felt that Thomas and Dumars get lost in the shuffle because of who they were competing against, but really their competition should provide the context to help strengthen their case as the best backcourt duo ever: to win titles in 1989 and 1990, they had to knock off the Larry Bird Celtics before beating the Magic Johnson L.A. Lakers while doing their best to hold off Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls until eventually bending to the will of His Airness.
Haberstroh rightly notes that their numbers pale in comparison to those of the Splash Brothers, but winning back-to-back titles at that time was an absolutely remarkable feat that was, at least in part, predicated on the defensive play of Dumars, who earned multiple All-Defensive team selections and did about as well as anyone ever in containing Jordan.
And similar to that Billups-Hamilton pairing, the COUNT DA RINGZ! argument should come into play: taking home consecutive championships and All-Star selections in that era puts the Bad Boys' backcourt in rare territory. That it was Dumars who won Finals MVP in 1989 makes the combo all the more impressive, as described well by Curtis Harris of Pro Hoops History.
...the real threat to Thomas's claim to best player on these teams came from his young, stoic backcourt mate: Joe Dumars.
Dumars proved so valuable he snared the 1989 Finals MVP in a sweep over the LA Lakers. Put winning Finals MVP doesn't automatically catapult you to best player on the team. When it's all said and done, Isiah was the orchestrator of the Pistons's assault even if the disparity between himself and his teammates wasn't the chasm we like to imagine exists between a team's best player and the secondary pieces.
Fun distinguishing fact: Reggie Miller once claimed on Open Court that they had their own language -- not sure who else can claim that.
Of those 12 combos that made multiple All-Star appearances together, just two started together and won at least one title as an All-Star tandem.
Jerry West & Gail Goodrich, L.A. Lakers (1972-74)
(Related: West & Hot Rod Hundley, 1961; West & Frank Selvy, 1962; West & Archie Clark, 1968)
Part of me wants to say that we should just name any backcourt with Jerry West in it the best and end this conversation at that: no guard has gone to the All-Star game with as many backcourt mates as West (4), which has to say something about his impact on the floor as a teammate in addition to the quality of his teammates.
Bob Cousy & Bill Sharman, Boston Celtics (1953-1960)
(Related: Cousy & Sam Jones, 1962)
As long as the NBA maintains more than 10 teams, I seriously doubt we'll ever see a run of All-Star dominance from a guard duo quite like what Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman enjoyed with the Celtics. No pairing has even come close to the eight appearances that these two made together and the likelihood of that happening again seems so remote in the age of free agency and massive, multi-million dollar contracts that it almost seems pointless to wonder about.
Regardless of whether you consider them the best players, they were by far the most dominant backcourt ever relative to their peers.
It's nearly impossible to compare that era to the game we watch today, but among the thing that makes the Cousy-Sharman "era" interesting is that it included a number of radical changes in the game -- they sort of bridged 2-3 eras.
There was the addition of a shot clock, which ended a practice Cousy excelled at: "Get a lead and put the ball in the icebox." There was the Bill Russell-infused creation of the uptempo style of transition basketball after the shot clock that many have tried to employ today. Most of all, Cousy and Sharman are often credited as being the league's first modern backcourt, the pioneers that everyone else followed.
Bill Russell should rightly be credited with turning the Celtics into the dominant multi-title franchise they would eventually become (the franchise won its first title in 1957), but it's really difficult to overlook Cousy and Sharman's contributions to the game of basketball at a time when the league's survival wasn't even a given.
Fun distinguishing fact: As Haberstroh notes, if Curry wins the MVP award this year it would be the first time that a MVP and All-Star shared a backcourt since Cousy and Sharman did it.
Other notable pairings
The following are the rest of that group of 12 pairs that made multiple All-Star appearances.
Dennis Johnson & Walter Davis, Phoenix Suns (1981-1982)
(Related: Walter Davis & Paul Westphal, 1978-1980)
I don't know where to place the Dennis Johnson and Walter Davis pairing in a discussion of the best backcourts in league history -- Phoenix Suns fans might even argue that Paul Westphal's longer tenure with the team makes him more significant.
Nevertheless, I'm just going to throw this out there because it's pretty fascinating to me in light of the fact that there are only 11 backcourts that made multiple All-Star appearances together: in just three years together, Dennis Johnson and Walter Davis made two All-Star appearances together and posted the fifth highest win total in Suns franchise history (57) in 1980-81, which ranks behind only a pair of MVP Charles Barkley and MVP Steve Nash era teams.
Bob Davies & Bobby Wanzer, Rochester Royals (1951-54): The other pair to make multiple All-Star appearances, start in an All-Star Game and win a championship. They won the title the year before a three-year All-Star run.
Dick McGuire & Carl Braun, New York Knicks (1954-56): Another tandem to make the Finals before making their All-Star run.
Dick McGuire & Gene Shue, Detroit Pistons (1958-59): Along with those Phoenix duos, this pairing never made the Finals.
Hal Greer & Larry Costello, Syracuse Nationals (1961-62, 65): They won a title a few years after their All-Star run together once the franchise became the Philadelphia 76ers and, like Sharman & West, did so with the help of Wilt Chamberlain.
Click here for a complete list of all of 59 pairs, including "Splash Brothers, 2015".