Some NBA players spend their whole career piling championships on top of championships ? that’s what worked for Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, John Havlicek, Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant. Some guys toil in the NBA wilderness for years until the right situation arrives ? that’s how it was for Hakeem Olajuwon, Oscar Robertson, Kevin Garnett, Clyde Drexler, and David Robinson. Some guys fight for titles year-in, year-out before finally, finally winning one ? that was Jerry West and Jason Kidd in a nutshell. And some guys manage to glom on as a bench guy to a championship team in their twilight years ? Mitch Richmond and Gary Payton both come to mind here.
But some guys are never that lucky. For whatever reason, some great players end their career never having won a ring. Sometimes this is kind of their own fault; they couldn’t get along with teammates or their specific games made it difficult to build a champion around them. Sometimes they just got unlucky at the worst possible times (for more than one of these guys, this bad luck involved having to face Jordan’s Bulls in the ’90s). And sometimes, truly weird things went wrong – like the time one of these dudes got hosed out of a title by a corrupt ref, or when another guy’s kidneys just stopped working.
Ground rule here: I’m not going to include any current players who could still feasibly win a championship, especially this year ? so Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook are safe, although Westbrook came the closest (for all his triple-doubles, his shot selection and his psychology make it unlikely he’ll ever win one). Also, a special honorable mention: some people might notice Allen Iverson isn’t on this list. Without spending the next 1000 words pointing out why, I’m just going to leave it at Iverson wasn’t good enough to make it. He spent his whole career being wildly overrated and it was blatantly clear he would never win on the biggest stage.
The 18 Best NBA Players To Never Win A Title
For some reason, when people bring up the best players to never win a title, they often seem to exclude the guy who I think is unquestionably number one on that list: Elgin Baylor. The originator of hang time, Baylor was one half of the engine that drove the Lakers to seven Finals appearances in nine years ? all losses to the Boston Celtics. But unlike the other half of that engine, Jerry West, Baylor couldn’t quite hang on long enough to finally win one; he retired 9 games into the 1971-72…then had to watch as the Lakers finally took home a ring. Baylor’s 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals are a mark that still stands to this day.
There may have never been a smoother scorer than “the Iceman.” Gervin had the same problem a lot of great scorers have ? they don’t really try on defense ? but in his case, he sort of had an excuse; opposing teams were allowed to just beat the crap out of him up and down the court. His San Antonio Spurs teams never had much talent aside from him, but they still came close to a championship, making three different conference finals during his career. But they could never quite get over the hump, and the closest they ever came was in 1979, when Bob Dandridge and the Washington Bullets ripped the Spurs’ hearts out in his only career game seven.
If there’s a competitor with Baylor for best player to never win an NBA Finals, it’s Barkley. “The Round Mound of Rebound” is on the shortlist for greatest NBA players of all time, an unstoppable fast-break monster who played much bigger than his 6’6″ height and whose advanced metrics are off the charts. Barkley’s closest shot at a title came in 1992-93, his MVP season with the Phoenix Suns, maybe the best team to never win a title…because they ran into the ’90s buzzsaw that was Jordan’s Chicago Bulls dynasty. There’s only one other player with 11 All-NBA teams who didn’t win an NBA championship, and he’s the second-leading scorer in league history.
Sid Moncrief is one of the NBA’s great tragedies. He’s a Hall of Famer with five All-Star appearances and two Defensive Player of the Year awards, but most people don’t even remember who he is. That’s partly a legacy of playing for the Milwaukee Bucks for virtually his whole career, but it’s far more due to his brief prime. Moncrief’s knees just gave out on him when he hit his late 20s; his last effective season was at 28 years old. But during the early to mid-’80s, maybe the most competitive era in league history, nobody wanted to deal with the Bucks in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Maybe you’d beat them, but their swarming defense ? led by their do-everything shooting guard ? would make your life hell in so doing.
You don’t become the league’s second-leading scorer by accident. Karl Malone has two MVP awards, 14 All-NBA teams, 4 All-Defense nods, and a Hall of Fame resume ? and it’s still hard to consider his career anything other than a disappointment. His Utah Jazz teams made two finals, both against Jordan’s Bulls, and it’s no surprise how those turned out. But Malone, who dominated every regular season, had an issue that afflicts a lot of guys ? he shrank in big postseason moments. A lot of guys who don’t play well when the game is on the line win multiple titles (Kobe Bryant is a great example), but they also didn’t have to deal with Jordan.
OK, sure, Steve Nash couldn’t play defense, and defense wins championships. It wasn’t his fault; man did he try, he just wasn’t any good at it. But offensively, Nash might have been the greatest offensive point guard in league history, a brilliant shooter and fast-break maestro whose “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns teams were appointment television. Nash’s Suns teams made the Western Conference Finals three times, but could just never quite get over the hump against Duncan’s Spurs or Nowitzki’s Mavericks.
Reggie Miller was a great player, but his game was never really going to translate to championships except under ideal conditions. You kind of had to build an offense around him to have success, springing him for picks to allow his prodigious catch-and-fire shotmaking to give you a chance at success. But it’s hard to argue he wasn’t a top-20 player in the NBA in one of the league’s most competitive eras, and he did get close once: 2000, when his Pacers got housed by the Lakers.
It’s a wild fact that the NBA’s all-time leader in steals and assists never won a title. To be fair, John Stockton was never going to have the sort of game that could lend itself to being the best player on a title team: he was a facilitator first, last, and always, a guy who never averaged more than 17 points per game in scoring because it just wasn’t his game. But there’s a reason his teams never missed the playoffs even once in his career, and it wasn’t just that he was paired with Karl Malone; Stockton’s skills lent themselves to winning. Just…not quite winning a title, though he was a two-time NBA Finalist.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to watch a young Patrick Ewing in his early years with the New York Knicks. He patrolled the paint like the Terminator, erasing opponents’ shots with merciless glee, and was an efficient high-volume scorer. Then steadily, slowly, his knees started to go on him; never enough that he missed significant playing time, but just enough to rob him of his athleticism by the time he hit his 30s. By the time he made his sole NBA Finals in 1994, he had lost just enough of a step that Hakeem Olajuwon soundly beat him for his own first NBA title.
“T-Mac” had all the tools to be a champion, but in some ways he was his own worst enemy. Not personality-wise; everyone seems to agree he was a good dude who teammates liked, and he was a far better passer and defensive player than he ever got credit for. But for all his picture-perfect jump shot (maybe the prettiest in NBA history), McGrady’s shot selection was, uh…not great. Part of the problem was growing up watching Kobe Bryant do the same thing, but part of it may have been the jump shot itself, which was so pretty it’s not hard to understand why McGrady himself fell in love with it. There’s a reason his Orlando Magic teams never made the playoffs, and his Houston Rockets squads never made it out of the first round with him as an active player.
Chris Webber might be the only guy on this list (other than maybe Steve Nash) who has a legitimate case that he got absolutely robbed of a title. It took a bit for Webber to figure out his career, but when he did, he had a hell of a run in Sacramento as the league’s premier power forward. The Kings were perpetual western conference contenders in the early 2000s, and in 2002, they finally had the better team than the hated Lakers ? but Tim Donaghy’s gambling addiction led to the worst-officiated series in NBA history, culminating with the Kings losing in seven games. There’s no question they would’ve won the title over the New Jersey Nets that year if that hadn’t happened.
When you’re a nine-time All-Star whose nickname is “The Human Highlight Film,” you know you had a memorable career. ‘Nique was one of the most unstoppable scorers in league history, with a fantastic jump shot and explosive leaping ability even Jordan couldn’t match. Some of this is down to teammates; during his prime with the Atlanta Hawks, his best teammates were a mostly washed-up Moses Malone, Kevin Willis, and Mookie Blaylock. But maybe ‘Nique was never going to win an NBA title for one simple reason: the guy just refused to play defense. He had all the tools to be a star defender, but for whatever reason, he just didn’t try.
Nate Thurmond is the forgotten man among all-time great NBA centers, and there might not be a more unfortunate NBA career. A defensive and rebounding terror and a seven-time All-Star, Thurmond was basically a moderately less-good Bill Russell but with far worse teammates. He only had one real season with Wilt Chamberlain before Wilt made his move back east with the Philadelphia 76ers, then two seasons of Rick Barry before Barry jumped to the ABA. Barry eventually came back, but by then Thurmond’s best years were behind him. To make matters worse, the Warriors dealt Thurmond to Chicago before the 1975-75 season ? the year when they finally won their first title in California.
No one in NBA history has ever been saddled with worse teammates than “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Maravich’s Atlanta Hawks teams had so-so teammates, but when he got dealt to the New Orleans Jazz, it got really, really bad. For three straight seasons from 1974-1977, Maravich didn’t have a single teammate who averaged even 15 points per game, the only such stretch I can find for a Hall of Famer in league history. The truly wild thing is it wasn’t because Maravich was a ball hog; in addition to being one of the greatest shooters in league history, he was also one of the best passers ever. Maybe he could’ve hung on for a late title with an ’80s team like the Celtics or Lakers, but that possibility was foreclosed when he detonated his knee shortly into his 30s.
Adrian Dantley was his own worst enemy. There’s a reason a guy who made six All-Star teams, won a Rookie of the Year award, and averaged over 30 points per game four times as a hyper-efficient post-up scorer never won a ring, and it wasn’t because he didn’t have the talent. Dantley just couldn’t get along with his teammates, which is part of why he played for seven teams in 17 seasons, never really sticking anywhere other than Utah. Dantley also holds the dubious distinction of being traded either before or during the season for two future NBA champions: the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons (both of whom probably wouldn’t have won the championship with him).
It seems impossible that Mutombo ? a guy who never caused locker room issues, never demanded the ball, and contributed positively for his entire career as one of the league’s best-ever rim protectors ? never won a ring, but man, was he unlucky. Whether he was in Denver, Atlanta, Philly, or the host of teams he hung on with as a backup late in his career, Mutombo never had competent management providing a team around him to win. The closest he came was 2001 on a 76ers team whose star was Allen Iverson ? aka the least efficient volume scorer in NBA history and a guy who was never going to win a title as a lead player. Take a four-time Defensive Player of the Year award and put him on a decent team and the guy should easily win a championship ? just ask Ben Wallace, the only other player to win the award four times.
The 1980s featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, and a host of other stars. So who scored the most points during that decade? None of them: it was Alex English, Denver Nuggets superstar, who dumped in the most buckets. English got there largely through freaky, almost metronomic consistency, never ever getting hurt and never averaging less than 25 points per game from 1981-89. Despite that, he only even made the Conference Finals once ? in 1985, when the Nuggets got housed by Los Angeles.
Alonzo Mourning was on top of the world after the 2000 season. He’d just won two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, he was a five-time NBA All-Star, and he was only 29. It seemed like a matter of time before his Miami Heat teams broke through to the NBA Finals. Then something went weirdly, horribly wrong with his body, maybe the strangest injury in NBA history: Mourning’s kidneys gave out on him. He made two more All-Star teams based on reputation alone, but his career was more or less done; he hung on for parts of seven more seasons, but his time as anything more than a role player was suddenly, mystifyingly done.