The top chokers in NBA history will reveal some very familiar names. After all, these are the players who have amassed some decent stats during their playing careers, but routinely failed to deliver in the clutch. Hence, they earned unenviable reputations as chokers.
You’d be surprised to know that some of these famous chokers are actually members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Their vast contributions to the game more than offset their tendency to fold during a game’s most critical moments.
Let’s be honest: Basketball wouldn’t be as fun to watch if it weren’t for chokers. This holds true from the fans’ point of view—they have every reason in the world to rile up opposing players if they stink up the joint during crunch time.
It’s just unfortunate that players who get fired up when booed are perhaps fewer than those who wilt under tremendous pressure. Reggie Miller is the perfect example of the former classification. Miller hit two straight threes in the waning seconds after stealing an inbounds pass from the New York Knicks’ Anthony Mason in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals to tie things up. His two free throws sealed a 107-105 win.
In his 1995 autobiography, “I Love Being the Enemy,” Miller shows why making a big deal out of choking can actually backfire. He narrates how he thought how the Knicks gave the game away during a postgame NBC interview:
“As I was trying to get off the court, they told me I had to do an NBC interview. Hey, I was just as shocked as everyone about the game, so whey they asked me what happened, I told them the truth: (John) Starks choked. Mason choked. And you can even second-guess Patrick (Ewing) for shooting the ball so fast and not passing it out to someone else so the Knicks could have the last shot in regulation.”
Miller’s words fired up the Knicks, who blew out the Pacers in Game 2, 96-77. However, Indiana beat New York in seven games to advance to the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals against Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and the upstart Orlando Magic.
We will rate the players and teams according to the implications surrounding their infamous choke jobs.
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15 Washington Bullets, 1975 NBA Finals
The then-Washington Bullets produced one of the first and most memorable choke jobs in NBA history.
The Bullets finished the regular season with a 60-22 record behind the exploits of future Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. On the other hand, the Warriors wound up with a 48-34 regular-season mark. Fans and experts alike did not like their chances against a power Washington team.
However, another future Hall of Famer—Warriors guard Rick Barry—would average nearly 35 points per game during the series. Clifford Ray and George Johnson helped stymie Hayes and Unseld in the post. The Warriors would sweep the Bullets with Barry proclaimed 1975 NBA Finals MVP.
Golden State head coach Al Attles summed it up best when he said, ”I guess no one took us very seriously.”
14 New York Knicks, 1993 Eastern Conference Finals
New York Knicks forward Charles Smith was never known to be a bruiser down low. That distinction more aptly described his teammates Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason.
The Chicago Bulls snuffed each of Smith’s undergoal stabs in the waning moments to preserve a 97-94 win in Game 6—Horace Grant blocked him, Michael Jordan slapped the ball away and Scottie Pippen blocked Smith from behind twice. John Starks and Patrick Ewing both thought Smith got fouled, to no avail.
The Bulls would go on to win their third consecutive NBA title.
As for the Knicks, who managed to squander a 2-0 series lead, it was another season that went down the drain.
13 Chicago Bulls, 2011 Eastern Conference Finals
Eighteen years after they embarrassed Charles Smith and the New York Knicks, it was the Chicago Bulls’ turn to choke.
The No. 1-seeded Bulls seemed to have everything going for them that year: They wrapped up the regular season with a conference-best 62-20 win-loss record and they also had the league’s MVP, 22-year-old Derrick Rose.
That was also LeBron James’ first season in a Miami Heat jersey. He led the charge for the Heat, averaging nearly 26 points per game during the Conference Finals. The Big 3 of James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade had the Bulls on the ropes, leading the series 3-1 heading into Game 5.
The Bulls had a chance to force a game 6 in Miami, as they led by 12 points at home with less than four minutes to play. Instead, they squandered their lead and any hope of advancing. Bulls forward Carlos Boozer described the Heat’s run “as a blur.”
It was the first in 16 years a team won a best-of-seven playoff series after losing the series opener by more than 20.
12 Kobe Bryant, 2008 NBA Finals
It had been 21 years since the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers met in the NBA Finals. Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his Lakers won the NBA title in six games in 1987.
In 2008, fans got their wish: Boston and Los Angeles in the NBA Finals. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. At that point, Bryant already had three title rings. He was gunning for a fourth. However, he shot just 22 of 67 in three of the Lakers’ four losses to the Celtics for a 32.8 percent clip.
Boston would win its first championship since 1986 by pounding Bryant and his Lakers by 39 points in Game 6, 131-92.
11 Patrick Ewing, 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The Indiana Pacers almost choked the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals series away to their hated rivals, the New York Knicks. Instead, it was New York center Patrick Ewing who got the nod.
Ewing actually had a decent series, averaging 19.3 points on 49.5 percent shooting to go along with 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. It was his last-second shot in Game 7 that did his team in.
The Pacers were on the verge of knocking off the Knicks with a 3-1 series lead. However, they let the Knicks claw their way back into it. With the Pacers ahead by two at 97-95 with five seconds left in Game 7, Ewing got the inbounds pass near the top of the key, spun to his left, stretched for the finger roll and…
10 Portland Trail Blazers, 2000 Western Conference Finals
The 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers were out for blood in that season’s playoffs.
First, memories of David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs sweeping them in the previous season’s Western Conference Finals still lingered. Secondly, they wanted to prove it was them, and not the Los Angeles Lakers, who were the team to beat in the West.
The Lakers almost choked their 3-1 series lead away, allowing Portland to win Games 5 and 6. It looked like the Blazers were destined to move on to the NBA Finals in 2000. Had they done that, it would have been their first in eight seasons.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Rasheed Wallace and Co. built a 15-point lead with 10 minutes remaining only to watch Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers claw their way back. The Blazers missed 13 shots in a row to cough up their lead. Kobe Bryant fed Shaq for an emphatic alley-oop tomahawk dunk with 41 seconds left to put the game out of reach.
9 Isiah Thomas, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas is clutch when it matters most. However, he can choke, too. Thomas’ most infamous blunder came in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Detroit had fought back from an 0-2 series deficit, winning the last two games at the Pontiac Silverdome by an average of 22 points. With the Pistons clinging to a precarious one-point lead at 107-106 and just five seconds left in Game 5, Thomas inbounded the ball. He wanted to pass the ball to a good free-throw shooter, as the Celtics were looking to foul. Joe Dumars was a bit too far away, while the other Pistons were guarded tightly.
Bird knew Thomas wanted to get the ball to Bill Laimbeer at this point, a decent free-throw shooter. Bird pretended to guard Dennis Rodman and just as the ball left Thomas’ hands, Bird positioned himself between Thomas and Laimbeer and stole the ball. He passed to a streaking Dennis Johnson, who made an uncontested layup.
Boston won the pivotal Game 5, 108-107. It would go on to win the series in seven games.
8 Karl Malone, 1997 NBA Finals
Hall of Fame Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone was known as “The Mailman” for his ability to deliver the goods for his team. This wouldn’t be the case on June 1, 1997—Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
Utah finished the regular season with a 64-18 record. The Jazz’s counterparts, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, did them one better—they had the league’s best record at 69-13. Fans relished Malone and Jordan on the NBA’s biggest stage.
Malone had a chance to ice the game and steal homecourt advantage from the Bulls when he was given two free throws with 12 seconds left in Game 1. At that point, the game was tied at 82 apiece.
Malone missed both charities.
The muffed free throws gave Chicago a chance to win the game. Jordan got the inbounds pass and nailed a left quarter court jumper just inside the three-point line to win it at the buzzer, 84-82.
The Jazz did tie the series at 2-2, but the Bulls won the next two games to clinch their fifth NBA title.
7 Phoenix Suns, 1993 NBA Finals
The 1992-93 NBA season was a chance for Charles Barkley to win his first NBA title.
It wouldn’t come easy. He and his Phoenix Suns had to go through Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who were gunning for their third straight championship under head coach Phil Jackson.
That season, the Suns almost choked their title aspirations away as early as the first round of the playoffs. They fell behind 0-2 to the 39-43 Los Angeles Lakers, whose leading scorer during the regular season was a relative unknown in Sedale Threatt (15.1 PPG). The Suns got their act together in time to win the next three contests and oust the upstart Lakers.
Phoenix had the NBA’s best record (62-20), so the team wanted to prove to everybody it had what it took to dethrone Jordan’s Bulls. Chicago won the first two games to steal homecourt advantage. They would go on to win the series in six games.
Barkley had 27.3 points and 13.0 rebounds. However, the Suns just couldn’t stop Jordan, who scorched them for 41.0 points per game. He won his third straight NBA Finals MVP in the process.
6 Portland Trail Blazers, 1992 NBA Finals
Eight years before their choke job against the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trail Blazers lost their composure against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals.
Just two years earlier, the Blazers had a golden opportunity to win their second NBA crown and first in 13 years but fell in five games to the eventual champions, the Detroit Pistons.
Clyde Drexler and Co. were looking to redeem themselves in 1992. Not only was it an NBA Finals matchup pitting Rip City against the Windy City, it was also Drexler against Jordan—unarguably two of the game’s all-time best.
After the Blazers allowed Jordan to nail six first-half triples in a Game 1 loss, they managed to tie the series at two games apiece. Jordan then promptly averaged nearly 40 points in Games 5 and 6 to thwart any hopes of a Portland comeback.
The Blazers had a 15-point lead during the third quarter of Game 6. They eventually lost by four. This is painfully familiar to their loss to the Lakers eight years later, where they had a sizeable second-half cushion which dissipated.
Jordan averaged 35.8 points to Drexler’s 24.8, proving once and for all who the real MVP was.
5 Magic Johnson, 1984 NBA Finals
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s end-game gaffe in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics was un-Magic like.
Johnson’s early claim to fame was single-handedly winning the 1980 NBA Finals as a rookie filling in for injured center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with his 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists against Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers.
Four years later on the game’s biggest stage, he played like a rookie.
Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals was a nip-and-tuck affair. The Lakers led, 113-111, with 18 seconds left to play before Gerald Henderson stole James Worthy’s inbounds pass to tie things up.
In the ensuing play, Johnson inexplicably dribbled out the clock. The Lakers didn’t even get a shot off. The Celtics prevailed, 124-121 in overtime and went on to beat Los Angeles in seven games.
Johnson said,”I didn’t make a mistake. I would rather hold the ball and go into overtime than lose in regulation. You cannot let a man steal the ball and let them have a chance to win.”
You be the judge.
4 LeBron James, 2011 NBA Finals
According to Time.com’s Sean Gregory, Scottie Pippen “hinted that James could end up the game’s greatest all-around player ever” after James steamrolled the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics in the first two rounds of the 2011 NBA playoffs.
That assessment proved to be a little premature once the 2011 NBA Finals commenced.
That’s because James turned in one of the most bizarre performances ever in the series’ history. Although Miami won Game 3, he scored just two points in the final quarter. In Game 4, he scored a measly eight points as the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks, 86-83. Dallas won the series, 4-2.
James did average 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists during the six games. NBA.com’s Schuhmann labeled LeBron’s performance as “passive.” Cleveland fans—who felt James betrayed them when he signed with the Heat that offseason—laughed at his mediocrity.
Two years later, they weren’t laughing anymore. A more assertive James had just won back-to-back championship rings with the Heat.
3 Seattle SuperSonics, 1994 Playoffs, First Round
Once was everything was said and one, the 1994 first-round series between the Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets was like Mike Tyson vs. James “Buster” Douglas. It was also similar to the Baltimore Colts vs. New York Jets matchup in Super Bowl III.
Similar to whatever massive upset you can think of.
On paper, the 42-40 Nuggets were no match for the 63-19 Sonics. Seattle boasted of players such as Gary Payton, Shawn “The Reign Man” Kemp and Detlef Schrempf. But nobody told the Nuggets.
Seattle blew out Denver by an average of 17 points in the first two games at Seattle Center Coliseum. The Nuggets bounced back to tie things up in the next two games at their McNichols Sports Arena.
Against all odds, Denver won the fifth and final game in Seattle in overtime, 98-94. High-flying guard Robert Pack scored 23 points. Nuggets center Dikeme Mutombo, who had eight blocked shots, will forever be remembered for holding on to the ball while lying on the parquet floor as the final horn sounded.
It was the first time ever that an eighth-seeded playoff team ousted a No. 1-seeded team in the NBA postseason.
2 Nick Anderson, 1995 NBA Finals
In his prime, the Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson was known for stroking three-pointers. He also had always been an above average free-throw shooter (66.7% for his career). It’s just too bad his performance during Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals would live on in infamy.
With the Rockets in the bonus, Anderson trooped to the charity stripe with 10.5 seconds left in the game. Orlando was up by three, 110-107. He missed both free throws.
Fortunately, he rebounded the second missed charity and was fouled by Rockets guard Mario Elie. Anderson gets a shot at redemption at the free-throw line.
He bricked both free throws. Again. That’s four missed free throws in a row. He must’ve borrowed a page from Shaq’s book. Houston grabs the rebound.
In the ensuing possession, Rockets guard Kenny Smith drills a top-of-the–key triple to knot the game at 110. Hakeem Olajuwon’s tip-in during overtime secured a 120-118 Houston win. The Rockets would sweep the Magic in four games.
Anderson, who would be nicknamed “Nick the Brick,” told The Orlando Sentinel (via Yahoo) in 2009 that he would always be “associated with those four free throws.”
1 John Starks, 1994 NBA Finals
When the NBA Finals series reaches a seventh and deciding game, you lay everything on the line.
In 1994, John Starks tried to. He couldn’t.
Starks shot a woeful 2 of 18 for just eight points in the deciding Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals between his New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. That was one of the reasons why Houston won the game 90-84, and the series to win its first NBA title.
It was an unfortunate turn of events for two reasons: The Knicks entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead and Starks actually played his guts out during that game. He had 27 points and eight assists in an 86-84 Knicks loss.
Starks easily gets the nod over Anderson as the biggest choker in NBA history because the former folded in Game 7 of an NBA Finals series. Anderson did choke, but it was during Game 1 of the NBA Finals. At that point, anything can still happen.
Starks had one last gasp, but he folded under pressure.
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