A popular debate among NBA fans — Who’s the greatest player to never win it all?
Miller? Ewing? The Mailman? Blah, blah, blah.
It’s a fun question, but let’s tweak it a little bit. Regardless of titles won, who’s the biggest underachiever in NBA history?
For example, a guy like Bill Russell would be on the opposite end of the spectrum. With 11 titles, Russell is probably the greatest overachiever in this history of the game. Even a guy like Scottie Pippen is an overachiever- he was essential to all six of the Bulls’ titles- even if he would have zero if not for MJ’s Batman to his Robin.
Sure, Reggie Miller never won, but he doesn’t make my list. He was a star player, but did anyone really expect him to win one? Miller was a great (not elite) player competing directly against Jordan in the East for nearly his entire career. Once Jordan was gone, and Miller finally broke though to the Finals, he ran into Shaq and Kobe. Tough.
What makes this question so much more interesting is that you can throw a player like Paul Pierce into the mix — similar to Reggie in terms of all-time ranks, but he does have a championship. Pierce isn’t on my list either, but you could certainly argue he’s worthy of one or two more rings during his prime.
Got it? Good.
Here are the biggest underachievers the NBA has ever seen.
Allen Iverson and Chris Paul
A couple of the best little guys to ever lace ‘em up. CP3’s style of play suggests maybe he’s just never had the right supporting cast around him. That may be even more true for Iverson, despite the scoring machine he was. Getting the 2001 Sixers to the Finals and stealing Game 1 against the Lakers is more impressive than half the teams that won a championship.
10. Bill Walton
To Walton’s credit, he was always the best player he could be. He carried the Blazers to a title in one of his only healthy seasons, then helped the Celtics win another one as a sixth man in his later years. Still, had Walton’s career not been riddled with foot injuries, we are looking at the potential for five championships. He’d often play about half the games in a season, and sat out three full seasons at one point.
9. Patrick Ewing
Ewing brought his Knicks to a pair of NBA Finals, losing to Hakeem’s Rockets in ’94 and Duncan’s Spurs in ’99 (both MJ-less years in the Eastern Conference). Unfortunately for Ewing, he became better known for his sweating abilities than his on the floor play in big games. Ewing was always a great player that should have been a better player, but shrank in the big moments.
8. Kevin Durant
The book is still open on Durant, obviously. But to this point, zero rings is still a disappointment. KD is twice the player Ewing ever was, and despite some injuries and tough matchups, he has blown opportunities to win. OKC was favored over Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals. Injuries to KD and Westbrook have eliminated postseasons. Then the 3-1 blown lead to Golden State is the cherry on top. The way the Cavs are playing, it’s tough to think the Thunder wouldn’t be on pace for a ring right now had they held on against Golden State. Wherever Durant winds up playing, we’ll see if he ever achieves his championship aspirations.
7. Charles Barkley
Chuck peaked in ’93 when he won the MVP award and took the Suns to the Finals. Had it been a year later, he probably would’ve beaten a team like Ewing’s Knicks. Unfortunately for Sir Charles, he ran into the same problem many of the greatest players to never win a ring did — Jordan. Barkley really was one of the most dominant players of that era, but without a Scottie Pippen type by his side, he never made it over the hump.
6. Julius Erving
Dr. J suffers from being the most overlooked third wheel in the history of the NBA. While Magic and Bird were dominating the ’80’s, Erving was consistently knocking on the door. He and Moses Malone did pair up to take down the Lakers for the title in ’83, but it just feels like the great Dr. J should’ve had more. A title in the late ’70’s or another title in the ’80’s would’ve felt right. The last team before the Thunder to blows a 3-1 Conference Finals lead? Erving’s Sixers to Bird’s ’81 Celtics, who went on to win the title.
5. Karl Malone
Who’s better — Barkley or Malone? Honestly, this is one of the closest toss-ups in NBA history for me. I’d say Barkley reached the higher level of play but Malone was dominant over a longer period of time, which still doesn’t answer the question. There are two reasons the Mailman underachieved slightly more than Chuck. 1. Stockton was by his side the entire time as one of the greatest one-two punches ever. 2. Malone got two cracks at the NBA Finals. One of them actually at the expense of Barkley’s Rockets in his later years. Malone ran into the same problem in the end — this damn Jordan guy. Both Malone and Chuck still played extremely well individually in big moments.
4. Oscar Robertson
The Big O is remembered as a top-10 player of all-time, but only came away with one ring — the 1971 Bucks when he was teamed up with Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). As a walking triple-double and a 6’5” guard that was far ahead of his time in terms of skill and athleticism, I’d expect much more from Robertson. Simply put, Oscar would be a top guard in today’s game, so it’s inexcusable he didn’t win more during his era.
3. LeBron James
We’re looking at about a 90% chance that LeBron falls to 2-5 in the NBA Finals. Not only that, but LeBron’s had some terrible performances when the lights are brightest, whether it’s against a heavily favored Warriors team or a Mavericks squad that isn’t supposed to have a chance. Remember, LBJ dropped eight points in one of those finals games against Dallas. He’s cramped up in the biggest moments — both literally and figuratively. He was fantastic in the 2015 Finals, but still lost.
ESPN recently crowned ‘Bron the third greatest player of all-time. THIRD! Kobe finished 12th! One behind Oscar! LeBron is the greatest player ever with two rings. LeBron would be the greatest player ever to lose five Finals. His most amazing accomplishment is that he actually lived up to all the hype he had coming out of high school. That seemed practically impossible. But being mentioned in the same breath with Jordan/Kobe/Bird/Magic is too much. He’s underachieved far too often.
2. Jerry West
West recently stood up for LeBron’s legacy. He said that LeBron has essentially done far more than anyone expected and that his teams have been the underdog in every Finals he’s played in (which is false, but helped his argument). Jerry West’s NBA Finals record? 1-8! Nine trips, one win, eight losses! Ahhh, now it makes sense. This guy is the logo of the NBA. You’d think maybe he would have had a little more success when it mattered most. West was the only player to ever win NBA Finals MVP from the losing side (in the first year of the award in 1969) — something that probably should have happened again in 2015.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
In 1961-62 Wilt averaged over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game. He also had seasons where he averaged 37/27, 38/27, 44/24, 37/22, 34/23 and 33/24 (points/rebounds). He failed to win a championship in any of those seasons. Wilt actually wound up with just two rings, yet is thought of as one of the greatest players of all-time, and the most dominant force in NBA history. Yet, Russell’s Celtics were raising the banner at the end of every season (only one of Chamberlain’s rings came while Russell was in the league — his second was in a diminished role with the ’72 Lakers, West’s lone title). Russell played 13 years and won 11 titles. Chamberlain played 14 years and won two titles. These guys are thought of essentially as equals. You tell me who the underachiever is.
Find me on Twitter @julianedlow