As the saying we must all live by goes: Life isn’t always fair. And that rule is no different in the NBA world.
Various players throughout the league’s long and illustrious history had the bona fides, the otherworldly skill level and the leadership abilities to win NBA championships, but ultimately – and somewhat tragically – fell short for one reason or another.
Some of these players are still active and have a chance to change the narrative before they call it quits, but many – sadly – have been retired for a while now and will never be able to capture that elusive ring.
Using advanced metrics and legacies to aid us, we list the 13 NBA players most deserving of a ring who never won one.
Career Win Shares: 234.6, fourth all-time
Major accolades: Two-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, 11-time 1st Team All-NBA
When people talk about the best NBA players without a ring, Karl Malone is usually one of the first names that pops up.
One of the Top 3 power forwards in NBA history, Malone was an absolute monster throughout his 19-year career, with a bruising post-game and finesse-driven face-up game, great rebounding chops and underrated passing skills all in his arsenal.
For his career, Malone averaged 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists, career marks that can only be equaled by two other players historically: Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. What’s more, Malone’s 36,928 career points ranks second all-time in league history while his 14,968 career rebounds ranks seventh.
Malone came closest to finally winning a championship three times, in 1996-97, 1997-98 and in 2003-04, the former two of which came as a member of the Utah Jazz and the latter as a Laker.
The first two times, Michael Jordan stood in his way, as he did for a few other players coming up on this list, while his final opportunity in Los Angeles fell short at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.
But who knows? Had Malone stayed healthy in that Finals matchup against Detroit, perhaps the outcome would have been different. After all, prior to hurting his knee in Game 3 of the series, Malone had been an important piece for the Lakers, averaging 12.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists over the first 19 games of L.A.’s playoff run that year.
Career Win Shares: 177.2, 14th all-time
Major accolades: One-time league MVP, 11-time All-Star, five-time 1st Team All-NBA
If not Malone, the player who gets thought of first when discussing the best NBA players to never win a ring is Charles Barkley, one of the greatest and most unique big men basketball has ever seen.
The undersized-yet-wide power forward stood around 6-foot-6 while weighing well over 250 pounds, yet he had no trouble scoring down low over taller, longer opponents thanks to his outrageous strength and explosiveness. Couple that with his ball-handling and face-up game and you have the makings of a player who truly was ahead of his time historically.
Barkley’s 11-year peak saw him post ridiculous numbers, averaging 24.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals from 1985-86, his second campaign as a pro, through 1995-96, leading the league in rebounds once in that stretch and in two-point percentage five times, despite his size-related limitations down low.
Barkley’s best all-around campaign had to undoubtedly be 1992-93, a year that saw him put up 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals, take home league MVP honors, lead the Phoenix Suns to a 62-20 regular season and all the way to the Finals, where they faced Jordan in the Finals.
And although Barkley and Co. would fall short in the championship series, losing in six games, it’s impossible to fault Barkley – who put up 27.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the 1993 Finals – for that.
Barkley would never reach the Finals again in his career, which goes to show just how unfair basketball can be.
Career Win Shares: 104.2, 75th all-time
Major accolades: 11-time All-Star, 10-time 1st Team All-NBA
NBA Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor, who many credit as the first high-flying, uber-productive, superstar wing in the Association’s history, came painfully close to winning an NBA championship and not being needed for this list at all.
Unfortunately, however, Baylor retired nine games into the 1971-72 campaign, his age-37 season, because of knee troubles, a year in which his Los Angeles Lakers would go on to finish the season 69-13 and be crowned as league champions.
During Baylor’s time with the Lakers, the team reached the Finals eight times only to fall short every single one of those years.
Awful luck for Baylor, who was truly a league-shifting, special talent, one who averaged 27.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists over the first 12 years of his career.
Career Win Shares: 188.9, 11th all-time
Major accolades: 10-time All-Star, four-time 1st Team All-NBA
Chris Paul, affectionately known as the Point God by NBA fans, is undoubtedly one of the greatest floor generals the game has ever seen.
Paul already ranks fifth all-time for dimes, with Mark Jackson and Steve Nash well within his sights to surpass soon, while his career averages of 18.3 points, 9.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game make him the only player since 1972-73 to post a career stat line of 18/9/2, per Stathead.
And yet, despite his greatness as a lead guard, Paul – who has led the NBA in assists four times and steals five times – has never once reached the Finals over his 16-year career.
He came closest in 2017-18 as a member of the Houston Rockets, getting to the Western Conference Finals and even helping lead his team to a 3-2 series lead over the dynastic Golden State Warriors of that era, but an ill-timed hamstring injury would knock him out of the final two games of the series, which Houston would go on to lose by a combined 38 points.
There’s still time for Paul to do win that elusive ring or at least reach the Finals, of course, as the Wake Forest legend remains one of the top point guards in the game today, but now 36 years old, the clock is starting to tick on his chances.
Career Win Shares: 126.4, 39th all-time
Major accolades: 11-time All-Star, one-time 1st Team All-NBA
One of the great big men of the ’90s, a golden era for the center in the NBA, Patrick Ewing was a double-double machine, a high-volume scorer and an elite rim-protector in his heyday, one who averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks over the first 13 years of his career.
To this day, Ewing’s 2,894 career blocks rank seventh all-time (blocks only began to be recorded as an official stat in 1972-73, for what it’s worth) and his 11,607 career rebounds rank 25th.
Ewing came as close as any player on this list to winning a ring in 1993-94, when his New York Knicks held a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the 1994 Finals, but New York would drop the final two games of the series by a combined eight points and thus, miss out on Ewing’s best shot at a ring.
Apart from that, it was a lot of Jordan-related pain for the Hall-of-Fame 7-footer in the majority of his other playoff runs, though Ewing’s 20.2 point, 10.3 rebound and 2.2 block averages over nearly 140 career playoff games prove what a big-time performer he was in the postseason.
He just had the bad luck of a couple of career-changing moments not go his way in the playoffs.
Career Win Shares: 174.4, 15th all-time
Major accolades: Five-time All-Star, three-time 3rd Team All-NBA
Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller is one of the greatest sharpshooters the league has ever seen, one who currently sits third all-time in three-pointers made with 2,560. He was also one of the most clutch late-game shot-makers, coming up huge late in playoff games for Indiana multiple times in his career.
Miller’s 12-year peak as a player came from 1989-90 through 2000-01, a stretch where he put up 20.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 47.6/40.2/88.9 shooting splits.
The one problem for Miller as far as winning a title came in the form of having to go through two other all-time 2-guards to win one.
Even then, Miller and the Pacers pushed Jordan’s Bulls to the brink in 1997-98, forcing a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals that year before falling in the finale by five points.
Two years later, in the 1999-00 season, Miller and Co. finally broke through in the East, reaching the Finals for the first time with Miller at the helm, but who was waiting for them once they got there? That would be the second-greatest shooting guard of all time, Kobe Bryant, and his supersized teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
Miller performed fantastically in the 2000 Finals, averaging 27.8 points and 3.6 assists after Game 1 of the championship series (an off night where he shot 1-for-16 and scored just seven points) while shooting 40.5 percent on over seven nightly three-point attempts, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Pacers from dropping that series in six games.
Career Win Shares: 207.7, sixth all-time
Major accolades: 10-time All-Star, two-time 1st Team All-NBA
John Stockton’s outrageous career longevity is without parallel among point guards in league history, as the Jazz legend played until he was 41 years old, never letting go of his starting job in Utah once he gained it 1987-88, even through 2002-03, the final campaign of his career.
Stockton is the assist king in league history, holding the record for most dimes in a career with 15,806, a mark that will likely never be topped – at least for not the foreseeable future. The second-place player on the list for career assists, Jason Kidd, is 3,705 helpers behind Stockton.
The Hall-of-Fame floor general also holds the record for most steals in a career with 3,265 takeaways.
Stockton enjoyed a nine-year run from 1987-88 through 1995-96 where he averaged 15.7 points, 13.1 assists and 2.6 steals, an outrageous stretch in which he led the league in assist average every single season and in nightly steals twice.
Of course, Stockton’s closest taste to winning an NBA championship came just after that run, in 1996-97 and 1997-98, where he and Malone led the Jazz to the Finals back-to-back years, losing both series to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in six games.
Career Win Shares: 129.7, 38th all-time
Major accolades: Two-time league MVP, eight-time All-Star, three-time 1st Team All-NBA
Steve Nash’s career paralleled Stockton’s in a lot of ways, particularly in that they were both undersized players in a league of giants who weren’t more than average athletes (if that), yet he, too, managed to post one of the greatest NBA careers ever.
There’s also that whole never winning an NBA championship thing as an obvious parallel between the two legendary point guards.
Nash, No. 3 all-time in assists with 10,335, led the league in nightly helpers five times in his career and had a 13-year stretch where he averaged 16.2 points and 9.7 assists while shooting 43.2 percent from three.
Had Nash’s career come just a decade and a half later, it’s interesting to consider how many nightly threes he would have been launching. Without a doubt, it’d be more than the 3.2 nightly attempts from beyond the arc he heaved in his career, a shockingly low number for a player with his shooting prowess. It might have even been double that.
Regardless, Nash did have his limitations defensively that he didn’t make up for by being a steals merchant as Stockton did. As such, that hurt his Suns teams in the playoffs, and they would never even reach the Finals as a franchise with Nash at the helm.
They got close on a few separate occasions, falling 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals three times during the Nash era. But with foes out West like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, Nash and Co. certainly did not have things easy in trying to bring a ring to Phoenix.
Career Win Shares: 99.0, 88th all-time
Major accolades: One-time league MVP, 11-time All-Star, three-time 1st Team All-NBA
One of the most exciting and influential guards in NBA history, Allen Iverson didn’t let his lack of size prevent him from being an absurdly proficient bucket-getter and must-watch television in his prime.
The ridiculously explosive Iverson led the league in scoring four separate times, in steals three times and in average minutes seven times. Today, he ranks 25th all-time in points scored with 24,368 points while sitting 14th in steals with 1,983 career takeaways.
Arguably his most famous moment as a player, besides when he crossed Michael Jordan out of his shoes as a rookie that one time, came in 2000-01 when he led the Philadelphia 76ers on an unexpected run to the Finals, even helping lead his team to a Game 1 victory in the championship series against the heavily favored Lakers – in Los Angeles, no less – after an insane 48-point, five-steal performance.
That would be the closest Iverson ever got to winning a title, as the Lakers would win that series in five games, but his legacy is beyond secure as a cultural game-changer with or without a ring.
Career Win Shares: 141.7, 30th all-time
Major accolades: One-time league MVP, nine-time All-Star, six-time 1st Team All-NBA
Already on track to be considered one of the greatest 2-guards in league history, all James Harden‘s legacy is really missing is that elusive ring.
Harden came close to winning one in his third season as a key reserve for that loaded Oklahoma City Thunder team, but the Thunder would lose the series in five to LeBron James and the Miami Heat after taking Game 1.
He got somewhat close to winning a title again as Paul’s teammate on the Rockets in 2017-18, though another showdown with James, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, loomed that year, and it’s tough to really say who would have come out victorious.
Nevertheless, Harden already has one of the most impressive resumes in league history, and considering he’s still just 31 years old and possesses a game not that influenced by elite athleticism, he won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Now on a stacked Brooklyn Nets playing with two former champions in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the pressure will be on Harden and his two super teammates to be crowned champions if not this year, within the next few seasons.
Harden will have every chance to get his name off this list during his upcoming time with Brooklyn.
Career Win Shares: 103.9, 77th all-time
Major accolades: One-time league MVP, nine-time All-Star, two-time 1st Team All-NBA
People like to take Russell Westbrook for granted these days, be it for his questionable defensive tactics, what they consider stat-chasing or because of his porous shooting numbers, but don’t be mistaken: Westbrook is one of the greatest NBA players of all time, a future Hall-of-Famer and already has a resume that 99 percent of players historically could only dream of.
Westbrook, for his career, has averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.5 assists per contest, making him one of just two players ever to post a 23/7/8 stat line for their career, along with Robertson. He has led the league in scoring twice, in assists twice and unfathomably averaged a triple-double three seasons in a row, from 2016-17 through 2018-19.
A one-time league MVP, nine-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBAer and two-time All-Star Game MVP, Westbrook has done just about everything one could dream of accomplishing in the NBA… except win a ring.
The absurdly explosive Westbrook did come awfully close on two occasions, first in his fourth season when he, along with Durant and Harden, helped lead the Thunder to the Finals where they fell 4-1 to the Heat, and then in 2015-16, Durant’s final season in Oklahoma City, when the Thunder held a 3-1 series lead over championship favorites Golden State.
Of course, we all remember how that series ended: The Thunder lost in seven, with none of the final three games of the series being particularly close, Durant jumped ship and joined the Warriors and Westbrook only got past the first round of the playoffs once since.
Now, it’s hard to imagine Westbrook getting that close to winning a title again, but even if he never wins one, history will remember his game fondly.
Career Win Shares: 117.5, 48th all-time
Major accolades: Nine-time All-Star, one-time 1st Team All-NBA
Dominique Wilkins was a highlight machine in his heyday, putting up poster dunks on a nightly basis during his prime with the Atlanta Hawks.
Wilkins was far more than just a dunker, however, as evidenced by the fact he led the league in scoring at 30.3 points per game in 1985-86, a year that also saw him average 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.8 steal nightly.
Wilkins’ prime was truly historically great, as the Georgia legend had an 11-year stretch where he averaged 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 steal per contest, doing so with almost no three-point shot to speak of. Wilkins ranks 14th all-time in points scored with 26,668.
Unfortunately for Wilkins, the Hawks did not do a good job of putting similarly great talent around him and had to deal with all-time teams like Larry Bird’s Celtics and the Bad Boys Pistons in the playoffs; Atlanta only got out of the first round of the postseason three times with Wilkins, and never got past the second round.
Hard to fault Wilkins for that, however, as the explosive swingman averaged 25-plus points in the playoffs for his career.
Career Win Shares: 134.2, 35th all-time
Major accolades: Six-time All-Star, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
The heavily underrated Adrian Dantley was an elite scorer in his heyday, leading the league in points per game in 1980-81 (with 30.7) and in 1983-84 (30.6) and averaging at least 30 points nightly four years in a row.
Dantley was such a good scorer, in fact, that he enjoyed a nine-year stretch where he averaged 27.4 points per contest behind an extremely tidy 55.5 field-goal percentage, to go with 5.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per outing.
Dantley came awfully close to winning a title in 1988-89 as a member of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, starting the season with and playing 42 games for the team that would go on to be crowned champions that season and the one that followed.
However, disputes between him and various members of the team led to his getting traded, and Dantley was never able to capture that elusive ring.