When we look back at the legacies of some of the greatest players to grace the NBA, we judge them on their individual talents and personal accomplishments, but inevitably, we judge them most on their team success. No amount of MVP awards and All Star appearances can replace the joy of winning a single championship ring.
Some great players – like Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Shaq – are justly rewarded for their individual talents with team success and go on to win several championships through their careers. And sometimes, not-so-great players find themselves making the most of a lucky opportunity, making great teams greater and going in NBA history books by winning multiple championships too, like Robert Horry or Derek Fisher. And then you have legends who strive long and hard year after year to get their hands on the trophy and are finally rewarded later in their careers with some silverware, like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton, and recently, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Kidd. Although he’s still in his prime years, 2012 champion LeBron James got a huge weight off his shoulders after winning his first championship in his 9th NBA season.
And then there are the unfortunate few, who for one reason or another, never got a chance to wear a championship ring. Whether their teams weren’t right for them to win or whether they weren’t right for a winning team, these greats achieved almost everything except winning the biggest prize of them all.
Here is my top-ten list of the NBA’s greatest players – past and present – without a championship. It’s unfair to judge the legacies of players if they haven’t even had a chance to compete for a long-enough period, so I’ve only included those who have spent more than seven years in the NBA. That leaves just one player in my list that is still active in the league.
10. Nate Thurmond: Never heard of ‘Nate the Great’? That’s probably because despite a stellar 14-year career in the NBA where he was an All Star seven times and won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, Thurmond never won a championship ring. The Center’s best years were played in the post-Wilt Chamberlain San Francisco/Golden State Warriors from 1963-1974, as he developed into one of the greatest two-way big men in NBA history.
9. Dominique Wilkins: ‘The Human Highlight Reel’ was All Star nine times, was an NBA scoring champion, made the All NBA first team, and on his best nights, could match the likes of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, but Wilkins always found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. For the majority of the 80s and the early 90s, he singlehandedly carried an otherwise mostly-average Hawks team. He played briefly for the Celtics in the mid-90s after they stopped winning and for the Spurs before they started winning. He retires as one of the greatest dunkers in NBA history.
8. George Gervin: The Iceman! One of the greatest players of the ABA and the NBA’s most lethal scorer in the mid-70s, Gervin won three scoring titles for the Spurs and was a regular in the All-NBA first team from 1978-82. But his teams – whether in the ABA or the NBA – were never good enough to challenge for a championship, and despite retiring as one of the most lethal scorers in NBA history, Gervin was never able to cap off his legacy with a ring.
7. Patrick Ewing: One of the greatest New York Knicks players of All Time, and part of the great 1992 USA Dream Team, Patrick Ewing got everything but the ring. He was an All Star 11 times, a rookie of the year, in the All NBA 1st team, and got a couple of Olympic Gold Medals too. He came closest to winning a championship in 1994, when the Knicks lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Rockets. In 1999, the Knicks returned to the Finals again with Ewing sidelined with injury, but they failed to win a ring for their legendary big man again.
6. Steve Nash: The only player in this list who is still playing in the NBA. Nash has won the MVP award twice and he made the mid-2000s Suns one of the most fun teams in NBA history. He’s 38 now, and even without a ring, he can retire as one of the all time assist leaders, one of the greatest shooters, and one of the greatest offensive point guards in NBA history. Luckily for Nash, he happens to be playing this season along with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol in the reloaded Lakers. Nash fans will be hoping that his name can be removed from this list in a year or two.
5. Allen Iverson: Can’t write about ‘The Answer’ without first calling him perhaps one of the most beloved players in NBA history. Few did for NBA culture worldwide like Iverson. And yet, despite all of his popularity, his mesmerising talent on the court, and his individual accolades, he never found ‘the answer’ to the championship conundrum. Iverson dominated the post-Jordan NBA, winning multiple scoring titles, All Star appearances, and NBA 1st team appearances with ease. He peaked in 2001 when he won an MVP award and took the lowly 76ers to the NBA Finals. He failed to beat the powerhouse Lakers that year, and didn’t return to the final stage since. A brief and mildly-successful stint with the Nuggets followed with forgettable stops in Detroit, Memphis, and even to Turkey came at the tail end of his career. Iverson could theoretically still return to an NBA team and win that much-desired championship, but the dream continues to fade away as more time passes.
4. John Stockton: Perhaps the greatest ‘pure’ point guard of all time, and a man who truly defined that position. Stockton always thought pass first: so much that he passed his way into history books becoming the NBA’s all time leaders in assists (and steals, too). Stockton played in two NBA Finals, both against the Chicago Bulls, both losses. He earned Olympic Gold Medals and double-digit All Star appearances on the way and led the league in assists an astonishing nine times. But despite a distinguished 19-year career – all with the Utah Jazz – he never tasted championship champagne.
3. Karl Malone: Where there is Stockton there is Malone, and vice versa. The recipient of most of those Stockton assists was legendary Jazz power forward Karl Malone, who retired as the second-highest leading scorer in NBA history. Malone won 2 MVP awards, went to the All Star game 14 times, and was in the All NBA 1st team 11 times. He was a great offensive and defensive player, but like Stockton, he just never had enough to beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1997 and 1998. Even a brief stint with the Lakers in 2004 didn’t change that, when he lost in the Finals again, this time to the Pistons.
2. Charles Barkley: I choose Barkley over Malone even though Sir Charles may have a slightly inferior-looking resume on paper. To Malone’s 2 MVPs and 3 Finals appearances, Barkley had just one of each. But I rate Barkley slightly higher because I feel he carried worse teams to almost equal success. Even at his shorter height, Barkley became one of the NBA’s greatest ever rebounders. A regular All Star with the 76ers, Suns, and Rockets, and one of the best players in the NBA outside of Michael Jordan in those times, Barkley almost did it all. Almost. Like Malone and Stockton, he was stopped by the same person – Michael Jordan – from his championship, too, when he reached the Finals with the Suns in 1993.
1. Elgin Baylor: Nobody’s ‘ringless’ story is more tragic than the man who stands number one on my list. 6 foot 5 Baylor was the NBA’s first perimeter-slashing superstar, the one who laid the foundation for the likes of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Baylor played for the Lakers for his whole career – from 1958 to the beginning of the 1971 season – but he never won a championship ring. This is despite playing alongside one of the most astonishing guards of those times – Jerry West – for the majority of his career, and with the legendary Wilt Chamberlain at the end of his career. This is despite the fact that he is one of the leading scorers in NBA history, who once scored 71 points in a game. This is despite his 11 All Star and 10 All-NBA first team appearances, or the fact that he averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds over his career. This is despite the fact that he led the Lakers into the NBA Finals eight times, and he lost all eight times! Nagged by knee injuries later in his career, Baylor finally retired from the Lakers nine games into the 1971-72 season. From the very next game onwards, the Lakers began a streak of wins that stretched to 33 total, the highest in NBA history. And by the end of that same season, the Lakers had finally won a NBA title, but Baylor wasn’t on the roster to collect his ring. He may count as one of the greatest players of all time, but more dubiously, he also counts as the greatest to not win a championship.
And what about the future?
Here’s the next generation: They hopefully have a long and successful career in front of them, but these are the best players in the NBA today without a championship: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. Which one of them will be the first to scratch his name of the list, and avoid being in the list above, of the Lords Without Rings?