The NBA Playoffs are underway, a time that, in many cases, defines players’ legacies. Who can forget Dirk Nowitzki’s run with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, or either of the last two Finals meetings between the Warriors and the Cavaliers?
Of course, a handful of superstars have never been fortunate enough to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy, a “but” that, rightly or wrongly, follows them throughout every discussion about their careers.
Here are the 10 best players who never got a ring, all of whom deserved better.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
10. Russell Westbrook
Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-present)
Career stats: 22.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.7 SPG
Rule of thumb: If you have averaged a triple-double for a season, you have cemented yourself as an all-time great. Westbrook did that this year, and though the Thunder are a No. 6 seed in the Western Conference whose best title chances appear to have passed them by, their point guard is too young and too good to not be in a position again to win one at some point in his career.
9. Allen Iverson
Philadelphia 76ers (1996-2006, ’09-10); Denver Nuggets (2006-08); Detroit Pistons (2008-09); Memphis Grizzlies (2009)
Career stats: 26.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 2.2 SPG
Where do we begin? The fact this guy literally carried Philly to the Finals in 2001 — and had one of the most memorable shots in Finals history in Game 1 — is amazing. The fact he became a cultural icon isn’t lost on anyone, either. But more than anything, the 6-foot combo guard left it all out there every night, becoming the shortest MVP (2001) in NBA history and always making Sixers’ games a must-see event.
8. George Gervin
Virginia Squires (ABA, 1972-74); San Antonio Spurs (ABA, 1974-76); San Antonio Spurs (1976-85); Chicago Bulls (1985-86)
Career stats: 25.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG
About the only bad thing that comes with the greatness of this generation’s Spurs is that Gervin’s greatness sometimes tends to get overlooked. And the Ice Man sure was great, winning four scoring titles behind his signature finger roll after coming over from the ABA.
7. Dominique Wilkins
Atlanta Hawks (1982-94); Los Angeles Clippers (1994-95); Boston Celtics (1994-95); San Antonio Spurs (1996-97); Orlando Magic (1998-99)
Career stats: 24.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.3 SPG
The Human Highlight Film was one of the best shows on the planet during his prime, leading the Hawks to four straight 50-win seasons in the 1980s. Of course, there were a couple of other stars owning the NBA spotlight at that time, too, so Atlanta never broke through to the Finals.
6. Kevin Durant
Oklahoma City Thunder (2007-16); Golden State Warriors (2016-17)
Career stats: 27.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG
The consensus projection is that Durant will be removed from this list next year, as his controversial move to the Warriors has paid off so far, with Golden State finishing with the league's best record for the third straight year. Durant’s best chances before this season came last year (obviously) and in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in five games. He is already a four-time scoring champ.
5. Patrick Ewing
New York Knicks (1985-2000); Seattle SuperSonics (2000-01); Orlando Magic (2001-02)
Career stats: 21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.4 BPG
Arguably the greatest Knick ever, Ewing, like many on this list, made the mistake of being born at the wrong time — the same time as Michael Jordan. The Bulls eliminated the Knicksin the playoffs three straight years from 1991-93. Ewing fell to the Rockets in seven games in the 1994 Finals, and he was hurt for New York’s miraculous Finals appearance against the Spurs in 1999. It could be argued that Ewing more than anyone else was hurt by the circumstances around him, as the Knicks never gave him a second star in his prime.
4. Steve Nash
Phoenix Suns (1996-98, 2004-12); Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004); Los Angeles Lakers (2012-14)
Career stats: 14.4 PPG, 8.5 APG, 0.7 SPG
Nash is one of four retired MVPs to never win a ring, and one of two two-time MVPs to not win one (Karl Malone is the other). Nash’s best teams with the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns came up short of the Finals, but darn if he and the rest of that crew weren't fun to watch. Nash had amassed an NBA-record four seasons of shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 90 percent from the foul line. He retired third all-time in assists, too.
3. Charles Barkley
Philadelphia 76ers (1984-92); Phoenix Suns (1992-96); Houston Rockets (1996-2000)
Career stats: 22.1 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Sir Charles’ best chance came in 1993, when he won the MVP award and led Phoenix to the NBA Finals, where the Suns fell in six to the Bulls despite having home-court advantage. They blew big series leads to the Rockets in each of the next two years, and Barkley’s own run with Houston ended just shy of the Finals in 1997.
2. Elgin Baylor
Minneapolis Lakers (1958-60), Los Angeles Lakers (1960-72)
Career stats: 27.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 4.3 APG
Baylor's numbers were insane, as was the fact he was named All-NBA first-team 10 times, and was an 11-time All-Star. The fact he missed out on a title is even more insane considering he was a Laker — and considering he retired due to injury nine games into the 1971-72 season... when the Lakers ended up winning it all. (He received a ring, but still.)
1. Karl Malone and John Stockton
Malone – Utah Jazz (1985-2003); Los Angeles Lakers (2003-04)
Career stats: 25.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Stockton – Utah Jazz (1984-2003)
Career stats: 13.1 PPG, 10.5 APG, 2.2 SPG
OK, we cheated here by naming two. So what? You can’t say one name without the other. It’s impossible to think of a more iconic duo, at least among the non-title-winning crowd. Stockton and Malone took their Utah show on the road for nearly two decades, coming up short to the Bulls in the Finals in 1997 and ’98, and making several other deep playoff runs, too. Malone — not Jordan or Kobe or Wilt — is the second-leading scorer of all-time. Stockton has the all-time assists and steals records. They deserved better together.