There have been NBA legends that have dazzled and amazed us over the years, with their incredible skills, athleticism, and reading of the game we love so much. They did everything asked of them, from supplying teammates with endless assists, putting up huge numbers themselves at one end to preventing them at the other and everything inbetween. They stood up to be counted when it mattered most and were the epitome of hard work, dedication, and focus.
And they still couldn’t win a championship
It stands to reason. Not all great players can win championships, there just simply aren’t enough to go around. And the chances of winning are not just reliant upon one man’s, or even a team’s performances. There are other factors at play, ones that cannot be accounted for and drilled in training. How do you plan for losing players to injury or coming up against a team that plays better than they have all season against you when the chips are down? How can teams handle the inconsistencies of refereeing performances and decisions? We will stop short of being too accusatory in that particular example. Suffice it to say that the sordid, under-handed, deep-rooted details of the NBA betting scandal have left us with somewhat less than full trust in our officials.
Winning an NBA Championship is the crowning pinnacle of the season and is anything but easily achieved. It might be more predictable and something that teams could ‘grind’ their way towards if it were a case of the team that finishes top being the winner. But that playoff format throws regular-season consistency out of the window and the cat among the pigeons.
And we’re not complaining, we love the NBA Playoffs
It’s just an illustration of why it is so difficult and unlikely for any team to go all the way to the end.
So, the fact that the following players never managed to win is not a judgement of their prowess in our eyes. Just an interesting, somewhat sad side-note to some of the greatest players ever to take to an NBA court.
Not many fans would argue with the assertion that Steve Nash was one of the greatest point guards of all time. In his 18 years in the NBA, he was a sensational passer of the ball and an influential leader. He was awarded the NBA MVP twice during his career and led the Suns in particular to some of the best records in the Western Conference. They were so good with him on the team that they were the favourites to take the NBA Championship several times, but it was not to be. Steve Nash boasts some impressive achievements, even without the NBA Championship ring:
8 x All-Star
5 x assists champion
7 x All-NBA
2 x MVP
NBA 75th Anniversary team
Allen ‘The Answer’ Iverson is recognised as one of the most accomplished guards of all time and helped to keep hope alive in Philadelphia at a time when it was flagging badly. Famous for leaving nothing in the tank after each game, he was an outstanding offensive threat to any team and was virtually unstoppable in his prime. Sadly for Iverson, for most of his career with the 76ers, he had a distinctly average squad around him. And that might be putting it too kindly.
Iverson did manage to drag the team to one NBA Finals appearance during his career but was unfortunate to come up against a Los Angeles Lakers team including Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. A team widely considered to be one of the best in NBA history. The 76ers stood little chance of beating them and lost in 5 games. Iverson was a multiple-time All-Star, was named NBA MVP in 2001, and is now recognised in the Hall of Fame. His other achievements include:
11 x NBA All-Star
4 x scoring champion
3 x steals champion
7 x All-NBA
Rookie of the year
1 x MVP
NBA 75th Anniversary team
Iverson boasts some truly impressive statistics from his playing days and was surely unlucky never to add NBA Champion to the list.
James ‘The Beard’ Harden has had several opportunities to win a championship during his career, but always seems to fall short. His best chance was almost certainly with Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 when he shared the court with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. All three of them were destined to be named NBA MVPs at some point during their career but were not able to pull off the victory.
Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets the next season and 6 years later (Harden’s MVP season) had another decent run at the Championship, losing to the Golden State Warriors, featuring Stephen Curry. Nevertheless, his career is still ongoing and already boasts some impressive accolades:
10 x NBA All-Star
1 x assist champion
3 x scoring champion
NBA 75th anniversary team
7 x All-NBA
1 x 6th Man
1 x MVP
Karl Malone was not the only amazing player unfortunate enough to hit his peak years at the same time as Michael Jordan, but he was surely among the cream of the crop. Jordan and his crew of Bulls denied Malone and his Utah Jazz the Championship in back-to-back seasons. They were supremely unlucky in 1998 when they were leading at the end of Game 6 and Jordan hit one of the most incredible clutch shots in NBA history to take the Championship.
It seemed a nailed-on certainty that Malone would finally get his NBA Championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. Only for the Detroit Pistons to pull off one of the most shocking outcomes in NBA history and out-muscle the Lakers, defeating them in five games. Nevertheless, Malone was one of the NBA’s best big men ever and has some superb accolades:
14 x NBA All-Star
14 x All-NBA
2 x NBA MVP
4 x All-Defensive
NBA 50th & 75th Anniversary teams
Another player who found himself living in the shadow of Michael Jordan was Charles Barkley. He was certainly one of the greatest power forwards of all time but was unable to secure an NBA Championship. Barkley helped to carry the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals in 1993 (his MVP season), where they met the inimitable Chicago Bulls. They put up a valiant fight but could not prevail and lost the Finals in six games. Barkley has an impressive list of achievements in his 15-year NBA career:
11 x NBA All-Star
11 x All-NBA
1 x rebound champion
1 x NBA MVP
NBA 50th & 75th Anniversary teams
Throughout his 15 years in the NBA in the 1980s, Adrian Dantley was an unsung hero. Per game, he averaged:
Not only that but Dantley made seven playoff appearances, never managing to win a championship. He came within one game of achieving the dream in 1987/’88 when the Detroit Pistons lost the Championship in Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers
Wilkins led the Atlanta Hawks (Go Hawks!) to the NBA playoffs a total of eight times but was never once able to take them all the way to the title. In fact, when push came to shove, he never even made it to the Conference Finals. Per game, he averaged:
Centre Bob Lanier is revered by Detroit Pistons fans as one of the best to ever pull on their jersey. He gave his all to the franchise for 10 years and per game averaged:
1.1 steals per game
He finished his career with an impressive Player Efficiency Rating of 21.7
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Walt Bellamy was a phenomenon at centre but never managed to progress with any team beyond the Western Division Finals, which he did twice. Per game, he averaged:
2.4 assists per game
There are no records of his blocks as it was not a statistic that people paid attention to back then but it seems he made at least a couple per game
Despite being a multiple-time NBA All-Star named in several All-NBA first and second teams, McGrady was never able to transpose that prowess into an NBA Championship ring. Bizarrely, the closest he ever came was in the last year of his career when he was signed to the San Antonio Spurs only for their post-season run. They went all the way to the finals but were defeated by Miami Heat.
In 20 years of NBA brilliance, Vince Carter was an almost unstoppable force at times and was named as an All-Star 8 times. His athleticism waned as his career reached its latter stages but his vision on the court more than made up for it by then. None of this helped to propel Carter to an NBA Championship, in fact, he never even took to the court in a final.
Ten-time NBA All-Star, Hall of Famer, Reggie Miller was a force to be reckoned with in his heyday. He made it all the way to the NBA Finals in the year 2000 but had the misfortune to face a Los Angeles Lakers team containing Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and that was that.
11-time NBA All-Star Patrick Ewing would be considered by some as one of the most accomplished players ever to set foot on a basketball court. With the New York Knickerbockers for most of his career, Ewing made several All-NBA teams and eventually landed in the Hall of Fame for his efforts.
Clashing with the legendary Michael Jordan curbed Ewing's chances of reaching the very pinnacle and he just could not get past the Chicago Bulls. When Jordan swanned off to play baseball in 1994, Ewing had has best chance but the Knickerbockers baulked and lost the finals to the Houston Rockets.
10 x NBA All-Star John Stockton also made multiple all-NBA teams and All-Defense teams. He came close to winning an elusive NBA Championship ring with the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998 but they were yet another team thwarted by the rampant Bulls.
Mutombo made it all the way to the NBA Finals twice in his career but was unsuccessful on both occasions. As a player he was a true defensive force on the court and was named to several NBA All-Defense teams as well as getting multiple All-Star call-ups.
Of all the players on this list, none can have suffered more than Elgin Baylor when it comes to the anguish of reaching the NBA Finals but leaving without a championship ring. He stepped onto the court in finals on an astonishing eight separate occasions and lost every single one of them.
As with some of the players who followed and were unlucky enough to face the inimitable Michael Jordan, Baylor played at a time when it didn’t matter how good you were. The other team were simply streets ahead of you. That team was the Boston Celtics in the Bill Russell era and nobody was able to do any better. Baylor was an 11-time NBA All-Star but never went to sleep at night with a winners’ ring on his nightstand.
So there we have our list of the best players the NBA has ever seen that never managed to take their skills to the very pinnacle and win a championship ring. It does not diminish them in our eyes, it’s more that we feel for them as highly-competitive individuals who did everything in their power to reach the top but, perhaps through no fault of their own, were never able to do so.
And the fact Dominique Wilkins was never able to cajole the Atlanta Hawks any further than the early rounds of the NBA Playoffs is a particular stinger. We hope that the athletes we have mentioned here were able to get over their losses and near-misses and that they know they are still beloved and respected by an army of true NBA fans. Peace out
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