Jordan and Pippen. Magic and Kareem. Bird and McHale. Thomas and Dumars. Shaq and Kobe. Behind every NBA championship, there is more often than not a dynamic duo whose on-court brilliance allowed the team to steamroll the competition and take home the NBA’s highest honor. However, not every dynamic duo succeeded in their quest to be crowned champions.
While we’ll always remember the NBA duos listed above for taking home the association’s highest honour, there are many more pairs in NBA history that would be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan and Pippen if only they had better luck with injuries or if they could have contained their egos for a few more seasons. They are the great “what ifs” of the NBA.
Too often, failing to win a championship invalidates entire careers as far as NBA historians are concerned. And although these duos are indeed ring-less, they are potentially just as great. In spite of their greatness, it just wasn’t meant to be.
Here are the 15 greatest NBA duos to never win a ring.
15. Chris Webber And Jason Williams
Pairing one of the flashiest passers ever in Jason “White Chocolate” Williams with a big man like Chris Webber, who made good on his promise in his rookie year with an iconic dunk on Charles Barkley made for a duo that electrified the Sacramento Kings.
Though this duo only played three seasons together in Sacramento before Williams was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies with Nick Anderson for Mike Bibby and Brent Price, their brief time together is fondly remembered by basketball fans, becoming one of the most YouTube-able duos in this list. Swapping Williams for Bibby would eventually prove to be the right move for Sacramento, enabling the team to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2002 before falling to the Lakers’ in a hotly contested and conspiracy theory-riddled series. The Williams-Webber connection is an unforgettable NBA duo who sadly never made it past the second round, forever remaining a great “what if” had the Kings held on to Williams as he matured as a player and a person.
14. Allen Iverson And Carmelo Anthony
When two dominant scorers and a former MVP team up, championships are practically guaranteed, right? Well, not for the Denver Nuggets.
On December 20th, 2006, Carmelo Anthony received a 15-game suspension for his role in a brawl against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In order to fill the immediate need to replace their volume scorer, Denver traded Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 second-round picks to the Sixers for Allen Iverson. Iverson, while logging the best shooting percentages of his career and some of his higher assists totals too, saw his scoring numbers fall in the Mile High City. The loss of a savvy distributor in Andre Miller also made Denver’s offence stagnant as most possessions would devolve into an AI or ‘Melo ISO in the last five seconds of the shot clock.
In their two seasons together, Carmelo and Iverson were unable to make it out of the first round. They never really even got close to winning the title, the amount of hype these two playing together managed to generate for the Nuggets qualifies them as great.
13. Jerry West And Elgin Baylor
Jerry West and Elgin Baylor together transformed the Minneapolis Lakers into the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty we know today. Drafted number on overall in the 1958 NBA Draft, Elgin Baylor had a sweet shooting stroke and an explosiveness that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s game and helped establish the Lakers as a powerhouse by taking the team from last place to the NBA Finals in his rookie year. West was drafted number two overall in the 1960 NBA Draft, and though undersized and lacking a handle, West’s supreme confidence, quick trigger and knack for making big shots would eventually earn him the nickname “Mr. Clutch.”
Together, Baylor and West appeared in eight NBA Finals but lost to the Celtics seven times and once to the New York Knicks. Baylor retied early in the 1971-72 season, and that year the Lakers would go on to win 33 games in a row and win the NBA Finals. Despite not being an active player, Baylor was still awarded a championship ring from the Lakers. It might be a consolation prize as Baylor did not contribute to the championship, there is no doubt that he’s glad to have it.
12. Alonzo Mourning And Tim Hardaway
Teaming up two All-NBA talents is typically a recipe for success. That’s what the Miami Heat were hoping for when they traded for All-Star center Alonzo Mourning, and then acquired All-Star point guard Tim Hardaway midseason.
In their first full season together, Mourning and Hardaway led the Heat to a 61-21 record, good for third in the East and managed to lead their team all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, like so many great 90s teams, they had the misfortune of facing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
11. Reggie Miller And Rik Smits
Before the 1986-87 NBA season, the young Indiana Pacers franchise had struggled to achieve relevance, missing the playoffs nine times out of their first 11 seasons since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. However, that would all change when the Pacers drafted Reggie Miller out of UCLA 11th overall in 1987 and Rik Smits out of Marist College second overall the following year.
Though there were some hiccups initially, from fans booing the Miller pick to head coach Jack Ramsay stepping down following a 0-7 start in the 1988-89 season, by 1989 the Pacers were qualifying for the playoffs.
In their 11-year partnership, Miller and Smits would lead the Pacers on deep playoff runs, and though they never managed to hold a championship parade in downtown Indianapolis, their efforts helped solidify Indiana as a legitimate NBA franchise.
10. Charles Barkley & Kevin Johnson
On June 17th, 1992, the Phoenix Suns shocked the NBA when they practically stole Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry. Barkley had been toiling away on a bad Philadelphia 76ers team his entire career, but this trade meant that the Round Mound of Rebound would be playing alongside one of the NBA’s best point guards and stat-sheet stuffer, Kevin Johnson.
In their first season together, Barkley and KJ powered the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals but would eventually fall to the Chicago Bulls. They would never make the Finals again and neither would win an NBA championship. And although they don’t have the hardware to show for it, Barkley and Johnson were a force to be reckoned with.
9. Kevin Garnett & Stephon Marbury
In the early days of the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury seemed destined to become the next Stockton and Malone. On top of being one of the most fearsome duos on the floor, the dual faces of a burgeoning franchise were starring in classic, laugh-out-loud funny ESPN the Magazine commercials.
Despite their on-court brilliance, when Kevin Garnett signed his massive $126 million contract, which sparked an NBA lockout and eventually led to restrictions on salaries, Marbury expected similar renumeration. When Marbury was eligible for a new deal, he was limited to a $71 million contract, which he felt was an injustice and eventually led to Marbury’s camp forcing a trade to the Nets, undoing a great NBA duo and ending what appeared to be an incredible friendship.
8. Gary Payton & Shawn Kemp
The Seattle SuperSonics drafted the freakishly athletic forward Shawn Kemp in 1989 and followed it up by drafting tough-as-nails point guard Gary Payton in 1990, laying the foundation for a team that would give opposing teams headaches for years.
Over a six-year span with Payton and Kemp driving George Karl’s frantic style of play, the Sonics won 357 games and finished with the best record in the Western Conference four times. However, these Sonics teams have their share of blemishes from losing to the Bulls in the Finals and becoming the first No. 1 seed team to lose to the eighth seed.
Shawn Kemp’s powerful dunks and Gary Payton’s elite trash talking, these Sonics seemed like they were ready to combust at any second, which is why they were so much fun to watch and so fondly remembered despite never bringing a championship to the Pacific Northwest. When Clay Bennett moved the franchise to Oklahoma City, he took any possibility for the Reign Man or the Glove to see their jerseys hang in the rafters, which only adds insult to the injury of never winning the NBA’s grand prize.
7. Patrick Ewing & Charles Oakley
During their ten years together on the New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley were notorious for being one of the toughest interior tandems in the NBA, never missing the playoffs for decade. If it hadn’t been for Michael Jordan’s near-psychotic drive to win, these two bigs could have very well led the Knicks to a dynasty. Ewing was a scorer, a nimble shot blocker and a Hall of Fame talent. Oakley complimented Ewing with an insane amount of heart and hustle, defending and rebounding everything in sight.
Though some Knick fans will argue that John Starks was Patrick Ewing’s most important running mate, Oakley’s importance to the Knicks’ franchise cannot be understated, especially in light of how current management tried to paint him as a belligerent alcoholic after an altercation in the Garden this season.
6. Allen Iverson & Dikembe Mutombo
When a dominant scorer and MVP teams up with a player whose name and wagging finger are synonymous with great defence, what could go wrong? With a four-time NBA scoring leader in Allen Iverson and a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year winner in Dikembe Mutombo, it’s hard not to like the championship chances of a team that has transcendent talent on both ends of the floor.
Together, Iverson and Mutombo were able to lead the Sixers to a Finals berth. However, they lost to Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers in 5. The following year, this duo of offence and defence would lose to Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker’s Celtics in the first round.
5. Yao Ming & Tracy McGrady
In 2004, then-NBA sophomore Yao Ming managed to end a six-season playoff drought in Houston, defying the predicted failure many analysts imposed on the Great Wall. Later that summer, the Rockets acquired two-time scoring champion Tracy McGrady from the Orlando Magic and one the greatest inside-out duos in the league was born.
In their first season together, Yao and McGrady averaged 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2 blocks and 25.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists respectively. Unfortunately, from the 2005-2006 season until McGrady was traded to the New York Knicks on February 18th, 2010, the two rarely shared the floor due to Yao’s frequent foot injuries and McGrady’s back problems. They never managed to win a playoff series together, the only series the Rockets won during this period was against Portland when McGrady was sidelined, but had they both been healthy, who knows what could have been? The fact that fans never got to see not only this duo’s full potential, but Yao Ming’s individual potential due to injury (he retired in 2010 after 5 games at age 30) is the basis for a great ‘what if’ we’ll never know.
4. Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook
At the risk of being accused of rubbing salt into the wounds of Oklahoma City Thunder fans, the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was truly great despite the fact that they don’t have a ring to show for their time together.
It’s very rare for two of the top five players in the NBA to coexist on a team for as long as they did. They may not have a championship to show for their 8-year partnership, but they do hold the distinction of being one of sixteen duos where both averaged over 25 points per game. And if the media’s constant dissection of how Russell feels about Kevin or how Kevin feels about Russell this season is any indication, these two are inextricably linked in NBA history.
3. Steve Nash & Amar’e Stoudemire
Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were the faces of one of the most entertaining teams in NBA history. Though they never made it past the Western Conference Finals, this duo’s impact was so huge that the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns shaped our current pace and space NBA.
Nash, the offensive maestro, and Amar’e, the ruthless finisher, played for the Suns for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. In those six years, the franchise went 332-160, winning approximately 67 percent of their games, which was the best stretch in franchise history. Steve Nash earned two MVPs and one of the better nicknames in NBA history (MVSteve). Before Nash arrived in Phoenix, the Suns went 29-53 and improved their record by 33 wins. Over the course of their time together, Stoudemire averaged a stellar 23.2 points and nine rebounds per game, while Nash added 17 points and 10.9 assists. Though Nash and Amar’e both retired without the championship title, their legacy lives on at the top of the league with the present day Warriors and Rockets at the top of the standings playing a brands of basketball reminiscent of this duo’s electric style of play.
2. Shaquille O’Neal & Penny Hardaway
In the early 90s, Shaquille O’Neal was dunking on everybody and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson. Together, they brought legitimacy to a fledging expansion team in Orlando by making it to the 1995 NBA Finals where they were defeated by Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets.
In the three years Shaq and Penny spent together in the Sunshine State, they became superstars, going 167-79. Much to the chagrin to Magic fans, Shaq moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers after a perceived low-ball by the Magic front office where he would forge a similar partnership with another transcendent guard in Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, Penny suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1997-98 season, after which he was never quite the same player.
Their time together may have been short lived, but in their three seasons together, these two buoyed a troubled expansion franchise and stole the NBA limelight. Even today, Shaq and Penny are remembered as one of the most exciting young duos the NBA has ever seen, commemorated with a 30 for 30 documentary.
1. John Stockton & Karl Malone
When discussing the greatest NBA duos to never win a ring, John Stockton and Karl Malone immediately come to mind. These two played together for 18 seasons, made the playoffs eighteen times, never won fewer than 42 games in a season (except for the shortened 1998-99 season where they posted a record of 37-13), and made the Finals twice. Both Malone and Stockton became the NBA’s all-time leaders in major statistical categories.
In an alternate, Michael Jordan-less universe, it’s easy to imagine these two Hall of Famers taking home the hardware, but unfortunately for these two, Michael Jordan does exist and put them on the receiving end of some of the most iconic shots in NBA history.
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