If anything is considered the pinnacle of a basketball career, it’s got to be winning an NBA championship. Setting aside the time-honored tradition of little boys shooting in the driveway, a ring on the resume of a professional can make all the difference between two cliches: the gritty gamers who do anything to win versus selfish ball hogs.
It goes without saying that these comparisons are unfair for this team game. Any championship run requires the perfect storm of savvy front office negotiating, tough coaching, and plain luck. You can do everything in your power to sign the right players and manage egos, but you still need to avoid injuries and make sure your players knock down clutch shots.
At the end of the day, every game has losers and winners. The greatest NBA players to never win a championship are the same ones who routinely wound up on the wrong side of history, facing dynasties like the Lakers, Celtics, and Chicago Bulls. That said, here are five of the greatest NBA players to never win a championship.
5. Patrick Ewing
The New York Knicks selected Patrick Ewing with the first overall pick in the conspiracy-laden 1985 draft. He was supposed to be the savior of the franchise. Instead he turned into fodder for the Chicago Bulls. After the Bad Boy Pistons, Ewing and the Knicks were arguably the toughest playoff out for the Bulls. As Pat Riley stalked the sideline, the Knicks attempted to replicate the Pistons’ physical style, with Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, John Starks, Xavier McDaniel, and Ewing taking direct orders to slow down the game and dole out hard fouls.
The Bulls, however, knocked Ewing and his Knicks out of the playoffs in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996. Ewing did get past the Bulls in 1994, with Michael Jordan temporarily on hiatus from the NBA. Sadly, the Knicks fell to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets that season. Although ringless, Ewing averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per game over his 17-year career.
4. Allen Iverson
At shooting guard, Allen Iverson gets the nod above both George “Ice Man” Gervin and Pistol Pete Maravich because of a deep postseason run and a Finals appearance to his credit. In the 2001 NBA Finals, Iverson ran into the middle of the Lakers’ three-peat, led by the formidable one-two punch of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
While Philly went down four games to one, Iverson carried on as the franchise’s sole hope, flanked by players like Eric Snow and an aging Dikembe Mutumbo. In any event, A.I. torched the Lakers for 36 points per game through this championship series.
Arguably the toughest man to play the game of basketball, Iverson stood just 6 feet tall and weighed in at a mere 165 pounds, but that didn’t stop his fearless drives to the hoop. A.I. never shied away from the contact and physical play of much larger forwards and centers. For his career, Iverson averaged 27 points per game after leading the league in scoring through four separate seasons.
Without a championship to his name, however, Iverson is often dismissed as a “me-first” man who famously refused to attend or even talk about practice. A petulant performer, Iverson largely wore out his welcome in Denver, Detroit, Memphis, and the NBA at large after his glory years in Philadelphia.
3. Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley unceremoniously predated the likes of Eric Lindros, Iverson, and Donovan McNabb as a superstars who led perennially competitive teams but failed to bring championship glory back to Philadelphia. In the City of Brotherly Love, Barkley averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per game while making six trips to the playoffs in eight years.
The Philadelphia 76ers, however, never had enough to get past the Boston Celtics and a budding Bulls dynasty. In 1992, the 76ers dealt the Round Mound of Rebound to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for spare parts, aka Tim Perry, Andrew Lang, and Jeff Hornacek.
During his first year in Phoenix, a rejuvenated Barkley racked up 26 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists per game while claiming MVP honors. That postseason, Sir Charles upped his per-game averages to 27 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists before facing off against Jordan in the NBA Finals. His Airness and the Bulls dispatched of the Suns in six games. For the series, Jordan went off for 41 points, nine rebounds, and six assists per game, as if he had a point to prove in schooling the reigning MVP.
By 1996, Barkley left Phoenix for Houston and teamed up with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, who both won championships during Jordan’s first retirement. In 1998, Drexler retired, and Scottie Pippen came on board in Houston. As a Rocket, however, a past-his-prime Barkley was often injured and failed to get past the Western Conference Playoffs.
2. Elgin Baylor
The Minneapolis Lakers drafted Seattle University’s Elgin Baylor with the first pick in the 1958 NBA Draft. For his rookie season, Baylor put up 22 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists per game before leading his team to the NBA Finals.
As a sign of things to come, the Boston Celtics swept the Lakers and took the 1959 championship. Then, two seasons after this Finals loss, the Lakers left Minnesota for the bright lights of Los Angeles. Baylor emerged as the face of the then one-sided rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics. For his career, Baylor made eight trips to the Finals (seven for LA, one for Minneapolis) but lost each time.
In all, Baylor and the Lakers lost seven championship series to the Celtics. Baylor, plagued by an assortment of injuries, retired early in the 1972 season. This decision was all the more tragic because the ’72 Lakers, which featured Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, went on to win an NBA title against the New York Knicks.
[Editor’s note: Because Baylor began the 1972 season with the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, there is an argument to be made for his exclusion from this list. He had a championship ring, after all, which he has since auctioned off. But as he was not on the active roster during the playoffs or during the majority of the regular season, he is routinely counted as not having won an NBA championship.]
1. John Stockton and Karl Malone
John Stockton and Karl Malone might have been hailed as the greatest ever at their respective positions — had they matched the championship moxie of Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan. Stockton, despite his choirboy looks and tight shorts, was a hard-nosed competitor out on the floor. He pushed, grabbed, and held on to frustrate opponents and draw fouls.
Meanwhile Malone, at 6-foot-9, was a physical specimen who dominated the low block. They were nearly inseparable on the court during their NBA careers. It doesn’t seem right to acknowledge one without the other, underscored by their 1993 All-Star Game co-MVP awards. For their careers, Stockton dished out a league-leading 15,806 assists, while the Mailman scored 36,928 points. (He was second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in total point output.)
During the ’90s, “Stockton to Malone” was more than a a recurring phrase; it was a mantra repeated for layups, mid-range jumpers, baby hooks, and hammer dunks. To keep defenses honest, Stockton would curl off solid Malone screens before rising up and burying a deep three-point bomb. As an individual, Malone claimed MVP honors for the 1997 and 1999 regular seasons.
The Jazz made two back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals through this run. Both involved Stockton and Malone in their prime. Michael Jordan, however, prevailed against this duo in the NBA Finals with his flu game heroics and fourth-quarter strip of Malone beneath the basket. With time winding down, Jordan buried the game winning-jump shot. He closed out the 1998 Finals in front of Byron Russell and a shocked Salt Lake City crowd.