History remembers champions. Once you get a ring on your finger, your career and your legacy is instantly re-evaluated. Every year, the NBA Finals puts together the two teams who were able to endure the regular season and fight through the unforgiving playoffs to be given their shot at glory. But history remember the gallant losers too. Karl Malone and John Stockton against the Bulls, Patrick Ewing against the Rockets, Elgin Baylor eight times against the colossal Celtics. These players efforts are etched in our memory and their place in history will never be disputed.
But what about the players who never got their shot? This list ranks the NBA players, who while never able to showcase their talents at the games ultimate stage, still captured the world’s imagination and achieved greatness. In this era of” super-teams,” many of the players on this list are a throwback to an era where loyalty really counted for something. Bringing a championship home to the fans and team who signed you and believed in you can often mean much more than just getting a ring for yourself. Just ask LeBron. For this reason, I’ve decided to only include players who have retired from the game.
Injury is a regular theme that sadly features throughout this list. Many were literally seconds away from making it to the finals, proving how fine the line is between glory and failure in the NBA postseason. Every year the NBA produces great players and great teams. But the players on this list, the top 15 who never made it to the NBA Finals, are who made the game, and the league, great as a whole, and helped ensure the NBA to be consistently one of the most competitive and entertaining products in all of sport.
15 Artis Gilmore
Artis Gilmore was one of the game’s most formidable big men. He is also the owner of the NBA career record for field goal percentage at .599 and an average of 17.1 ppg during his 12 years in the NBA. Originally drafted by the Bulls in 1971, Gilmore had already committed to the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels where he won the Rookie of the Year and League MVP in his first year. Chicago finally got their man in 1976 where Gilmore was a four-time All-Star. In 1982 Gilmore joined the Spurs where, in his first season, he helped them reach the Western Conference Finals where they were defeated by the Lakers in six games. At the end of his career Gilmore found himself joining the Celtics midway through the 1987-88 season, where he got one more shot at making it to the finals, but unfortunately they were undone by the “Bad Boys” Pistons in the Conference Finals.
Contrary to many of his rivals in the league, Gilmore played the game without being flashy or flamboyant, and was a low-key personality off the court. But the 7'2" Gilmore was always a dominant presence throughout his career and was deservedly inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
14 Jermaine O'Neal
This is essentially a list of players who never achieved success despite their career numbers and ability. Many faced bad luck, whether through injury, or coming up against the wrong player and the wrong team at the wrong time (Michael Jordan’s name features heavily throughout this countdown). Some players, like Jermaine O’Neal, simply never fully lived up to the promise that was expected of them. Along with Kobe Bryant, O’Neal entered the 1996 Draft straight out of High School. Whereas Kobe would have his first ring in four years, O’Neal never quite reached his full potential and it has to be questioned how much O’Neal would have benefited had he chosen a path via the NCAA.
Drafted 17th overall by the Blazer’s, O’Neal struggled for game-time on a strong roster. It wasn’t until a 2000 trade to the Pacers that O’Neal started to deliver. In 2001-02 O’Neal received the Most Improved Player Award and in 2003-04, O’Neal led the Pacers to the league’s best record of 61-21 while averaging a double-double (20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds). In the playoffs they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals where they were undone by eventual champions Detroit Pistons in a tough six game series. Big things were expected from O’Neal and the Pacers, but the following season they had a bizarre game in Detroit in November which saw an on-court brawl pour into the stands and led to heavy suspensions dealt to O’Neil and key teammates Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson. The Pacers season faltered and O’Neal’s career never really recovered.
13 Bernard King
On pure God-given ability alone, Bernard King is one of the most talented players to ever step foot on the court. Unfortunately his early career was too often blighted by substance abuse and arrests, before a major knee-construction took him out of the game for two years at the height of his prime. Despite these obstacles, the Brooklyn-born King was “The Man” in New York for the Knicks in the mid-80s and consistently showed an explosive scoring ability. Once he was in a scoring rhythm, he was unstoppable. He averaged .500 or better for seven seasons straight and won the NBA scoring title in 1984-85 averaging 32 ppg.
That year, however, King suffered a horrific injury that appeared to all but end his career. But against the odds, King’s career underwent a remarkable rebirth for the Washington Bullets where King completely changed his style of play to a more measured style. In 1990-91, at 34-years-old, King averaged an incredible 28.4 ppg and played in the All-Star game.
12 Tim Hardaway
Despite a reputation damaged in recent years by public homophobic statements (which he has notably taken significant steps to atone for), on the court Tim Hardaway was one of the league’s most solid point guards during his 14-year career. Drafted 14th in the first round in 1989 by the Warriors, Hardaway had six standout years playing as part of “Run TMC” with fellow emerging talents Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond. Traded to Miami in 1996, his first full season in South Beach proved to be the best of his career. With Alonzo Mourning at center, the Heat won their first ever division title with a 61-21 record. Hardaway averaged 20.3 ppg. plus 8.6 assists and finished 4th in League MVP voting. Against the Magic in the first round, the Heat won their first ever playoff series, before coming from 3-1 down to beat arch-rivals New York Knicks to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, as for many on this list, it was Michael Jordan and the Bulls who stopped Tim from reaching the NBA Finals.
An outstanding clutch player with a lethal crossover, Hardaway was a ferocious competitor with a sound respect for the fundamentals of the game, which he has instilled in his son Tim Jr. of the Atlanta Hawks. A bright prospect, Tim Jr. may get the chance his father never got of playing in the NBA Finals.
11 Sidney Moncrief
Many of the players on this list make it because they put down big numbers despite never achieving success in the post-season. Sidney Moncrief is different, as you won’t see his name in any all-time top ten list. But Moncrief was the full package at both ends of the court. As well as regularly averaging over 20 points through the season, Moncrief was the winner of the NBA’s first two Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1982-83 and ’83-84). In an interview with the LA Times, Michael Jordan said, “When you play against Moncrief, you’re in for a night of all-around basketball. He’ll hound you everywhere you go, both ends of the court.” As part of the early 80s Milwaukee Bucks team with the great Bob Lanier, the Bucks twice made it to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to eventual NBA champions (the 76ers in ’83 and the Celtics in ’84). After Lanier retired, Moncrief and the Bucks made it to the Conference Finals again in ’86, where they were swept by Celtics who again went on to win it all.
Without Hall of Fame numbers and no Finals appearances, Sidney Moncrief is a name you hear little of these days. Yet it cannot be disputed that Moncrief had the ability, attitude, and work ethic that deserved championships. For this reason, he is fondly remembered by NBA fans of the 1980s as one of the most versatile players of the decade.
10 Mark Price
To this day, Mark Price is a name you still here in discussions on the game’s greatest shooters. Drafted by Dallas in 1986, Price was immediately traded to Cleveland where he joined the first overall pick, Brad Daugherty. Together, they formed the base of one of the greatest pre-LeBron Cav teams. Price lead the league in free-throw percentage in 1991-92 and ’92-93, and is also a two0time champion of the 3-point contest. But Price was more than just a shooter. Before LeBron, Price was the Cavs all-time leader in steals (734) and assists (4206), as well as 3-pt shots made and attempted.
And Price and Daughtry nearly took the Cavs all the way to the Finals. In 1992, after having fought past the Celtic in seven games to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, where they managed to take the Bulls to six games. It’s interesting to think how Price’s career would have played out had he played in the modern era where deadly 3-pt shooters are so prized. I’m sure LeBron would love to have Price in his line-up any day.
9 David Thompson
If you're a Star Wars fan, there was always a Skywalker much closer to home. In his day, David “Skywalker” Thompson” showed an ability to leap that appeared to defy gravity. After a legendary college career at NC State (where he and teammate Monte Towe are credited by many for inventing the “alley-oop”), Thompson was drafted first overall in the NBA and ABA drafts. After being unimpressed by the Atlanta Hawks, Thompson signed with the ABA's Denver Nuggets on the condition they signed his friend Monte Towe. Thompson became one of the ABA’s high-flying stars, famously dueling Dr. J in the first ever Slam Dunk Competition.
Thompson continued to have success after the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. On the last day of the 1977-78 season, locked in a battle for the league’s leading scorer with San Antonio’s George Gervin, Thompson dropped 73 points against the Pistons, only to just miss out on the title as The Iceman sank 63. At 27.22 - 27.15 ppg, it remains the closest race for leading scorer in NBA history. That year was also the closest Thompson got to reaching the finals, losing to the Sonics in six in the Western Conference Finals. The second half of his career was hampered by injury and substance abuse, so sadly Thompson goes down as one of the game’s great underachievers.
8 Grant Hill
Injury is a common theme on this list and is an obvious reason why many great players failed to achieve the success they deserved. No more is this true than for Grant Hill. Picked third by the Pistons overall in the 1994 Draft after four high profile years at Duke, Hill entered the league with high expectations and he quickly delivered. Sharing the Rookie of the Year award with Jason Kidd, Hill went onto to be a five-time All-NBA pick and five-time All-Star with the Pistons. Despite this, he was unable to lead the Pistons past the first round of the playoffs. After spraining his ankle in the 2000 playoffs, Hill moved to the Magic in a high profile trade where big things were expected for Hill and the Magic.
Disastrously, the ankle injury turned out to be a fracture. He played less than half of the Magic games in seven frustrating seasons in Orlando, before joining Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in 2007. In 2010, at full fitness, Hill helped the Suns reach the Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champions, the LA Lakers. It was a strong end to a career whose prime years were lost to injury.
7 Bob Lanier
Bob Lanier stands as one of the game’s truly great big men who played in an era dominated by great big men such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Willis Reed. Unlike these other big men, Bob Lanier, who averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.1 rpg in his fourteen-year career, isn’t able to show off a championship ring.
He spent 10 seasons with the Pistons where he still stands as their leading scorer by average (22.7 ppg) and third in career points (15,488). But Lanier knew he was never going to win a championship with the Pistons and asked to be traded to the Bucks in the 1980s. When he got on the plane to leave Detroit, Lanier said he “cried like a baby.” His spell at the Bucks was successful, winning five consecutive division titles, but heartbreakingly for Lanier they lost out in the Eastern Conference Finals in ’81 to the 76ers and in ’84 to the Celtics, both of whom went on to win the championship.
6 Chris Webber
Very few careers are filled with as many “what-ifs” as Chris Webber's. As a member of the iconic Fab Five, what if Webber hadn’t called that fateful time-out in the dying seconds of the championship game? What if the Magic hadn’t traded Webber after selecting him first overall in the draft and teamed him up with Shaq?
After promising spells with the Warriors and Bullets/Wizards, Webber seemed destined for success when he was traded to the Sacramento Kings in 1998 and established himself as one of the elite power forwards in the league. Three times the Kings were halted in the playoffs by eventual champions LA Lakers, led by Shaq and Kobe. Peaking in 2001/02, the Kings won the Pacific West Division with the league best’s record of 61-21, with Webber averaging 24.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. The stage was set for a spectacular showdown with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, where the winner was surely expected to beat the un-fancied Nets. It would be heartbreak again for Webber as the Kings lost game 7 in overtime. With the last four games coming down to the final seconds, this series was full of “what-if” moments for Webber and the Kings.
With injuries hampering his next few seasons, Webber would never get another shot and his career was rounded off with less remarkable stints at the 76ers, Pistons, and again with the Warriors. A good mid-ranger shooter and a great rebounder who could pass like a point guard, C-Webb will go down as one of the game's most complete players.
5 Alex English
Who was the NBA highest scorer of the 1980s? Probably Magic or Larry. Maybe Dominique, right? Wrong. It was Denver Nuggets' small forward, Alex English who scored 21,133 total points in the decade. He also became the first player to score 2,000 points in eight straight seasons, and led the league in points during the 1982-83 season. The rainbow colored, free-scoring Nuggets were a popular team in the 80s, but they had little postseason success. The closest English came was reaching the ‘85 Conference Finals against the Lakers. This was the height of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and the Nuggets were beaten 4-1 by Magic and co.
A nine-time All-Star, English was a dominant force in the 1980’s, but is often forgotten today. But with over 25,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 1,000 steals, plus 9 All-Star appearance, English is unmissable in the history books as one of the league’s best small forwards.
4 Pete Maravich
After a legendary college career for LSU where he still stands (and almost certainly never to beaten) as the NCAA’s leading scorer, Pete Maravich entered the league as one of the most dynamic scorers. Drafted third overall in 1970 by the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged 23.2 ppg in his rookie year. Known for outrageous “playground” moves, Maravich sometimes looks like a time-traveler from the modern era in the grainy footage of the early-70s. Playing for the New Orleans Jazz in 1976-77, Maravich led the league in scoring, averaging 31 ppg, one night dropping 68 on Walt Frazier’s New York Knicks.
Like many players on this list, Maravich’s career was touched with misfortune. A knee injury forced an early retirement at 32 and his life was tragically cut-short at the age of 40 from heart failure. Maravich possessed a near obsessive determination to train and improve, clocking countless solo hours in the gym. Sadly, Maravich was never able to shake off a reputation that he played for himself first, rather than the team. This probably accounts for his lack of postseason appearances. Nevertheless, the numbers don’t lie, and "Pistol Pete" will always be remembered as one of the great scorers. With his unbridled, joyful style of play, he was a player who genuinely transformed the game.
3 Dominique Wilkins
Arguably the game’s most exciting player, “The Human Highlight Film” Dominique was a true entertainer. But he was also one of the game’s best all-round players. A two-time Slam Dunk Champion and nine-time all-star, Dominique was one of the dominant players in the late 80s/early 90s, leading the league in scoring in the 1985-86 season with 30.3 ppg. Wilkins was perhaps unlucky that he played in an Eastern Conference that was exceptionally competitive, regularly coming up short in the playoffs to the dominant Celtics, the “Bad Boy” Pistons, or Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
Wilkins will always be remembered for his explosiveness on the court, but he possessed a defensive game that improved throughout his career and developed a surprisingly good 3-point shot. Currently standing as the league’s 13th leading scorer with 26,668 and, despite the lack of postseason success, ‘Nique is cemented in history as one of the all-time greats.
2 George Gervin
In 2013. Magic Johnson tweeted:
The greatest one-on-one players I've ever seen are: #1 Michael Jordan, #2 Kobe Bryant, #3 George Gervin!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 14, 2013
Former NBA coach Dick Motta once said, “You don’t stop George Gervin. You just hope his arm gets tired.” Gervin received plaudits from team-mates and rivals alike throughout his career for the smooth, effortless way he played the game, as well as an ability to make the most impossible of shots. But it’s the stats that tell the true story. The Iceman led the league in scoring four times (only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have done so more).
Gervin came closest to playing in the Finals in the 1979 where the Spurs were eventually beaten in game 7 of the conference finals by the Washington Bullets after Bob Dandridge sank the winner with 8 seconds left on the clock. Despite the Spurs massive success of the last two decades, for many fans it is Gervin who is remembered as the greatest to ever put on the Spurs uniform.
1 Steve Nash
Suns fans booed the 6'3" skinny white kid from Vancouver Island when he was selected 15th overall by Phoenix in the 1996 Draft. Little did they know they were booing arguably their greatest ever player.
With Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson ahead of Nash for point guard at the Suns, Nash was traded in 1998 to the Dallas Mavericks where he became a popular player. Mark Cuban ultimately decided to build his team around Dirk Nowitzki and, in 2004, the 30-year-old Nash re-signed with Suns, where under coach Mike D’Antoni, he became the orchestrator of what would become known as the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns. Along with Amare Stoudamire, a natural pick-and-roll player, the Suns developed into one of the most explosive up-tempo teams in NBA history, inventing a style of play that has been developed with huge success by the Spurs and Warriors in recent years.
In his first year back in Phoenix, the Suns averaged 110.4 points per game and topped the West with league’s best record (62-20). Nash became the first Canadian to win the league MVP, but the Suns were eventually defeated in the Western Conference Finals by the Spurs. Nash was voted league MVP a second year running in 2006, but this time they lost in the Conference Finals to his old team the Dallas Mavericks. Nash would lead the Suns to the Western Finals one more time in 2010, this time losing to the Lakers, before making a move to LA himself in 2012. Many thought Nash would finally get his ring, but his three-year spell with the Lakers was plagued with injury. It was a sad career end for one of the great point guards in history.
Despite zero NBA Finals appearances, the stats show Nash as one of the best point guards ever with 17,387 career points and 10,335 assists. In his prime, Nash and the Suns were truly revolutionary, with a style of play that was anarchic, yet beautiful to watch.
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