A subplot of these NBA Finals taking place is that they feature three highly decorated former MVPs, that while have received many accolades for their play in their careers, have also received a fair amount of criticism for what they haven’t gotten: a Championship.
LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd have all had indisputably great careers, yet haven’t been able to reach the summit yet. Each is at a different point in their pursuit of the top prize the game has to offer: LeBron is young and looking to fulfill his unparalleled expectation (or at least start the road towards doing so), Dirk is out to kill a reputation of being a playoff flop, and Kidd trying to take full advantage of what could be his last opportunity to add the final piece to his resume.
Besides these three, there have been many distinguished careers that have never taken home a ring. So today in THE LINEUP, I’ll be ranking the top 10 (or 11…) players that never were the last standing guy at the end of the season. One way or another, someone will be removed from this list at the end of this year’s Finals, but some will never have the opportunity to correct this slight…who’s the best runner up ever?
10. REGGIE MILLER
Best Shot: 2000 vs. the Lakers
Tough luck will be a reoccurring theme here, and it rarely gets any tougher than what Reggie Miller faced in his career-long battle trying to get out the East. His battles with the Knicks seemed like Finals showdowns when you look back at them, but the closest he actually got is a lot less memorable. After all the years of not getting over the Knicks or the Jordan era, his Pacers finally broke through in 2000….just to run into Shaq at the height of his power. That was the pinnacle of the tough breaks for one of the best postseason performers ever.
9. JASON KIDD
Best Shot: 2011 vs. the Heat (Right Now)
He is currently the record-holder of the most consecutive postseasons without a title at 14, and right now he is in the middle of the best chance he has had yet to end that undesirable record. His first visit to June basketball was the pinnacle of the great point guard acts in League history, taking the Nets from last to first, but to true join the ranks of the elite court generals he needs to pull this year’s tilt.
8. NATE THURMOND
Best Shot: 1967 vs. the Sixers
Talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity. Well that’s what it had to feel like the non-Celtics in the NBA of 1960’s trying to get a shot at a title that didn’t involve going through Boston. A lot of guys had to wait in line to get their number called for a championship during Bill Russell’s reign in Boston. And a lot of guys did get their chance afterwards, but he caught a break that few others did: he made it to the Finals in the one year between 1957 and 1969 (crazy) that they actually didn’t make it. What was his reward? Wilt Chamberlain and the 1967 Sixers who had set the single season wins record over the course of that year.
7. DIRK NOWITZKI
Best Shot: 2006 vs. the Heat
This could very well be Dirk’s redemption show we are watching right now, but his first trip to the end of the road he basically got carjacked while pulling into his spot on Championship Lane. The Mavs jumped out to a two game lead, and then Dwyane Wade went into a berzerker rage of 30 and 40 point games in one of the great Finals performances ever and sent Dirk home in a hurry. But since he’s wearing the cape this postseason, there’s a chance he’ll get to exact the same type of revenge on Wade right now.
6. PATRICK EWING
Best Shot: 1994 vs. the Rockets
If there is any career that could have used one championship, just one, it’s Ewing’s. He arrived with more expectations in the League than any other player before LeBron James (more on that later). He was the great college hero, the franchise center that landed in the league’s biggest spotlight in New York. While he took the Knicks to a longer stretch of success than they ever had, he never got over the top. And his career in review is more defined by never winning than anybody else’s thus far.
5. ALLEN IVERSON
Best Shot: 2001 vs. the Lakers
This isn’t A.I.’s fault; he was a MAJOR victim of circumstance. He was a force of nature in the Playoffs, averaging 29.7 in his postseason career places him second to only Jordan. However, while the NBA is definitely a league where one player can win games, solo act shows do not win championships, and Iverson may have played with less talent over his career than any other dominant player ever.
4. LeBRON JAMES
Best Shot: 2011 vs. the Mavs (Once again, right now)
It’s hard to categorize LeBron’s career yet, because there’s been no other career quite like his yet. However, he is a two-time MVP and a talent unlike any player before, so the championships have to be factored in the equation on him. He reached the Finals in 2007, but played the absolute worst team a first time player could run into in the Spurs. To really etch his place in history though he has to get them (plural), however he’s 25 years old and has at least another decade left to his career. I don’t see much as sure bets, but whether it’s this year or not, he won’t end his career on this list. He just can’t.
3. CHARLES BARKLEY
Best Shot: 1993 vs. the Bulls
Chuck was the best power forward an era full of great ones. However, no matter what mountain he climbed it all ended up with having to answer to Jordan, and that was a question that didn’t have an answer. He was at his very best when he ran into the Bulls in ’93, his debut season in Phoenix. However, despite piloting the deeper team, in the end it wasn’t enough. That was his best shot, the Rockets overtook them at the top of the West after that and after that point he was never the same player again. And then Mike came back again. But Chuck was so good that he’s one of the only guys that still get as much respect without a ring as he probably would have with one.
2. ELGIN BAYLOR
Best Shot: 1972 vs. the Knicks (when the Lakers actually won)
It doesn’t get any worse than this. Elgin Baylor was a boss of epic proportions. There’s never been another player quite like him since; a 6’5 small forward who averaged over 24 points and 13 rebounds a game for his career, as well as four consecutive years of 32 points or better a night in the Playoffs. He pushed the great Celtics dynasty to a seventh game three different times, but never could close them out. However, he may have been forced the bitterest pill of them all along the road to no-ringdom. In 1972, he was forced to bow out of the season after nine games due to a knee injury. That year’s Laker club went on to set the record for most consecutive wins in history and finished the year as champions; Baylor didn’t participate in either effort.
I don’t know what hurts more, that end of his career or what followed it: 20+ years as the GM of the Clippers. It’s a crap shoot, literally.
1. KARL MALONE and JOHN STOCKTON
Best Shot: 1998 vs. the Bulls
The game’s most productive duo ever; their careers are so intertwined that they have to get equal billing here. They put up ridiculous numbers, and made the Playoffs every season from 1985 to 2003. Despite Stockton setting the NBA records for most assists and steals and Malone winning two MVPs while they played together, they never got over the hump together. They took the Bulls to six games in consecutive Finals, and had their best shot in ’98 when they potentially could have hosted the last two games at home in Salt Lake City. However, that shot was end by “The Shot” taken by; once again, the previously and multiply mentioned Michael Jordan, as the Bulls won game six and ended the last chance Malone and Stockton had to win a ring together.