There might not be a major team sports league on the planet that revolves more around its stars than the NBA. The league has always emphasised its larger-than-life leading men, and to great effect.
One interesting consequence of this state of things though is that fans tend to be acutely aware of individual accomplishments and accolades. Accordingly, there is a sharp divide in a lot of NBA fans’ minds between stars who have won championships and those who haven’t.
In this piece we’re counting down the 10 best of all time who never won (or haven’t yet won) NBA titles.
10. Russell Westbrook
This 10th spot came down to Dominique Wilkins or Russell Westbrook, and Westbrook just has slightly better stats and accomplishments. As much as people suddenly wanted to act like triple-doubles didn’t matter, the moment Westbrook averaged one for a whole season, we’d spent the previous decades appreciating the stat. And Westbrook has now achieved the average in three consecutive seasons. This, plus a finals appearance and an MVP award, makes him one of the best ever without a ring. Also, he now says he’s going to work on his shooting – one of his few weaknesses – so perhaps he’ll come back even better next season.
9. George Gervin
George Gervin consistently ranks among the most overlooked NBA stars. He was a multi-talented player who, more than anything else, could flat out score. Even now, Gervin is second only to the great Tim Duncan, on the San Antonio Spurs’ all-time leading scorers list. He just happens to have done all that scoring before the team started winning titles.
8. Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing was one of the most dominant big men of the 1990s, which wasn’t exactly a bad era for big men. He was, however – like so many players – cursed to play in the same conference as Michael Jordan in his prime. For that reason, as well as because of some less-than-timely injuries, Ewing never quite got all the way to an NBA championship. Still, he’ll go down as one of the best to ever play in a Knicks’ jersey.
7. Allen Iverson
There’s an argument to be made that, in a sense, Iverson had the best playoff run of anyone on this list. A few of these players made it to the NBA finals, but none did so with a roster as mediocre as Iverson’s 1999-2000 Philadelphia 76ers. Granted, the team lost in five games in the finals that year, but Iverson exerted a herculean effort in getting them that far. He also happens to have been one of the most entertaining players of the last 25 years, and was an absolutely devastating guard in his prime.
6. James Harden
This might seem a little high up the list for a shooting guard who’s still in his prime, but James Harden’s individual accomplishments are becoming difficult to ignore. And for all we know he’s still got a title in him too. At the time of this writing Harden’s Houston Rockets are locked in a series with the Western Conference favourite Golden State Warriors. Updated betting sites will show that the Warriors have fairly strong odds to win the series, but they’ll also indicate that the Rockets have some of the best odds at a title if they’re just able to win this series. It could happen – but for now, Harden is the best active player without a ring.
5. Steve Nash
Steve Nash was the driving force behind a Phoenix Suns team that helped to revolutionise NBA basketball. Under head coach Mike D’Antoni (who now coaches Harden in Houston), Nash and the Suns placed a heavy emphasis on quick transition play and a high volume of shots. It was a beautiful style, and one that had Phoenix knocking on the door of the finals for a few seasons. They ultimately weren’t able to get past the likes of the Spurs and Lakers, but they were still a highly impressive team, and none of it would have been possible without Nash’s brilliance as a shooter and distributor.
4. Elgin Baylor
Elgin Baylor played for the Lakers right up until they started winning titles in the ‘70s. Unfortunately he never got a ring himself, but he still left his mark to the point that he’s now mentioned often among the best players in the franchise’s history. That’s a fairly strong statement given that these players include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry West.
3. Karl Malone
A lot of people would have Karl Malone in the number two slot, or possibly even first on this list. Frankly, any order is fair among the top three. Malone’s argument would be that he was one of the most physically gifted players of his era, as well as that he wound up in second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (though he’ll likely be third once LeBron James is finished). Malone was an absolute monster, but I’ve kept him at third because he arguably wouldn’t have been quite as good as he was were it not for the incredible abilities of his own teammate – who happens to be the second player on this list.
2. John Stockton
There’s ongoing debate about who was better on the ‘90s Jazz: Karl Malone or John Stockton. We’re giving the slight nod to Stockton on the grounds that he was a uniquely gifted passer, is now overlooked as a defender, and managed a game as well as anyone we’ve ever seen. Stockton helped Malone to maximise his talents, and was perhaps an even bigger reason that this team came so close – on multiple occasions – to winning a championship. Unfortunately, there just weren’t a lot of rings to go around in the ‘90s for teams that weren’t the Chicago Bulls.
1. Charles Barkley
We’re giving the top spot to Sir Charles – one of the best to ever play in the NBA, and the one most bafflingly held without a championship. At just 6’6’’, Barkley averaged numbers better suited to a dominant big man (just over 22 points and 11 rebounds for his career, with 54% shooting). He also finished with an incredibly impressive career PER of 24.6. That’s not an all-telling stat, but for reference, Magic Johnson – universally considered a top-10 player of all time, if not top five – had a career PER of 24.1. It’s a dubious distinction to be arguably the best player who never won a ring, but we’d like to think of it more as an acknowledgement of just how great Barkley was.
All images are taken from Wikimedia.org.