When I first decided to write this column with this topic, I thought this was going to be a piece of cake...and then I did the research. Wow.
There are so many great players that never got to add "champion" to their resumes. And in most cases, it wasn't from a lack of trying, talent, or desire. It was just the way it went. Fate is a cruel mistress and these athletes probably know that better than most.
(I have excluded active players from this list because that is a list for another day...)
10. Patrick Ewing - New York Knicks, Seattle Supersonics, Orlando Magic
He was the leader of the big, bad Georgetown Hoyas that played for three NCAA National Championships and was supposed to usher in a new era of New York Knicks basketball when he was the first pick in the 1985 draft. During his peak, he averaged 25.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, and three blocks for a perennial playoff contender. Ewing was a 12 time All-Star, 7 time All-NBA, and the starting center for the 1992 Dream Team.
But there was something fatalistic about Ewing's career. He certainly had the look of an NBA alpha dog, but when compared to the other alphas of the time (Jordan, Bird, Magic, even Isiah Thomas) he just wasn't. The Bill Russell comparisons started early in his career, but when he didn't win like Russell, then the questions about his game rose. Why didn't he rebound better? Does he have any low-post moves? Where is his go-to shot?
While Ewing brought a dormant Knicks franchise back to life, he never brought the city a title. And in New York, it's all about winning.
9. George Gervin - San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Virginia Squires (ABA)
"The Iceman" had one of the coolest (no pun intended) nicknames in sports history with as slick a game to match. Gervin glided through his career as a versatile scoring machine and a matchup nightmare. He unleashed his gangly 6'8" frame over smaller players with his patented finger-roll and his crisp bank shot over taller players. He twisted his body through traffic with ease and made the incredible shot routine. His 33 points in a single quarter in 1978 was a record that stood for 37 years. At his peak, he averaged 26 points a game and was a 12 time All-Star.
Gervin's quiet demeanor made him a perfect fit for San Antonio. He didn't have hoards of press around him watching his every move. He was left alone to work tirelessly on his offensive game. But the combination of his solitary nature and playing for eight different coaches in 14 years may have been his fatal flaw. He was a notoriously bad defender and often skipped practices. As a result, he tended to freelance outside the game plan. Despite having led the Spurs to 13 playoff appearances, they went 31-41 and never made the Finals.
8. Reggie Miller - Indiana Pacers
Reggie Miller had a jump shot that should never be taught with a release that never should've worked. But it did.
It worked to the tune of an 18 year career, a Hall of Fame induction, and the reputation as the best shooter of his generation. He launched three-point barrages in the 1990's when most NBA games were grind-it-out slugfests. He shot from 30 feet away before years before Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors made it fashionable.
Miller grew up in L.A. and went to UCLA, but patterned his game after Larry Bird. He also honed Bird's killer instinct. When he was on, there was no stopping his jumper or his legendary trash-talking. Just ask the Spike Lee and New York Knicks.
7. Dominique Wilkins - Atlanta Hawks, L.A. Clippers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic
For a time in the late 1980's, Dominique Wilkins was the most spectacular player in the NBA. More than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, more than an aging Julius Irving, and yes, even more than Michael Jordan.
There was no one in history that punished the rim during a game the way "The Human Highlight Film" did. His dunks weren't just dunks, they were seismic shifts that altered the momentum of games. His 1988 All-Star dunk contest against Michael Jordan was an epic showdown that has never been equaled.
Wilkins evolved into a more all-around contributor, raising his rebounding and assist averages for three 50+ win Atlanta Hawks teams. But his teams never got past the second round of the playoffs. His best effort was in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals where he put up 47 points in Boston Garden against Larry Bird's Celtics in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss.
6. Steve Nash - Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers
Steve Nash's detractors always had the same question about him: "Who can he guard?" To those people, I asked, "Who's going to guard him?" Throughout Nash's 14 year career, not many could.
He ushered in a new wave of point guard with a style that was a throwback to an early age. He wove all around the court like a long haired Bob Cousy just waiting for a teammate to make the right cut to the basket. He'd set up two to three pick and roll plays for different teammates in a single possession. He made All-Stars of players like Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, and Amar'e Stoudemire that were never All-Stars again once they left his side.
Nash knew that the best point guards needed to complement their passing by being great shooters. He shot 45% from the field in his career, 43% from 3-point range, and an incredible 90.1% from the free throw line, the second highest percentage in NBA history. He was only the third point guard to win league MVP (Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson) when he won the awards in 2005 and 2006.
Most of all, Steve Nash was fun to watch. Any player in the league during his career would've killed to play alongside him.
5. John Stockton - Utah Jazz
John Stockton was the everyman superstar. He wasn't big or fast and would never claim to be, but he was made to play point guard. He saw plays before they developed and always looked for the open man. There was no element of surprise in his game. Teams knew he and Karl Malone would run their two man sets, but none of them could stop it.
Stockton seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. He didn't have a shoe contract and didn't do many endorsements. During the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, rather than wade through the giant crowds he knew awaited, he took his family off the team bus, and went sightseeing. At just 6'1" and 175 lbs, he could simply blend into the crowd. But on the court, he was never afraid to set a hard pick or throw a few elbows against much bigger players.
He ended his career as the NBA's leader in assists and steals. And while not known for scoring, he finished with 19,000 career points. He was never flashy, but always solid. And in today's NBA where fundamentals are seemingly a lost art, John Stockton showed how valuable fundamentals are and will continue to be.
4. Allen Iverson - Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies
Unfortunately, for Allen Iverson, his "we talkin' about practice" soundbite has been used by many to illustrate what went wrong with the NBA in the early 2000's. And it's a real shame. Because those who decried the NBA's hip-hop era missed out on one of the most competitive and fearless players in history.
He was listed at 6'0" but was closer to 5'10" and looked every tiny bit of his 165 lbs. He used his speed and smarts to maneuver past the redwoods of NBA front courts. And after every ridiculous twisting shot, he'd crash down to the floor, battered and bruised, but ready to do it all over again. He won the league MVP in 2001 and carried a subpar 76ers roster to the NBA Finals.
He may have hated practice, but nobody gave more of himself to win a game than Allen Iverson. He had tons and tons of guts.
3. Charles Barkley - Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets
Simply put, Charles Barkley should never have been what he became. He was a 6'4" power forward, built like a bakery truck, and very familiar with its contents. But he routinely grabbed rebounds away from much taller players, ran down the floor like a Corvette, threw behind the back passes, shot clutch threes, and ended coast-to-coast fast breaks with thundering slam dunks. He is one of only four players with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists in NBA history. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone)
On the court, Barkley wasn't afraid to show his emotions. In 1990, he started a fight with the Detroit Pistons that fell into the stands. The next year, he spit at a heckler that accidentally hit a young girl nearby. Off the court, Barkley was just as dichotomous. He gambled, drank, and partied, but was incredibly generous to staffers, waiters, and vendors. He sought out the family from the spitting incident and maintained a good relationship with them. And in 1993, he shot his unforgettable "I Am Not A Role Model" commercial for Nike where he said famously said, "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."
Barkley is brash and kind, tough and complimentary, thoughtful and unapologetic, and still, one of the most popular players in NBA history.
2. Karl Malone - Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers
If you watched any NBA basketball in the 1990's, the phrase, "Stockton to Malone" is very familiar to you. It felt wrong to separate John Stockton and Karl Malone on this list considering how intertwined their careers were. But as great as Stockton was, Malone was truly unique at his position.
He was 6'9", 265 pounds, and built like Hercules. He was a powerful force that played with fluidity and grace. "The Mailman" was a solid defender and finished as the all time leader in defensive rebounds. Greater still was Malone's commitment to his game. He started as a poor free throw shooter and ended with a career mark of 74%. He relied less on his brute strength in the paint to score and added a deadly face-up jumper that was good from 20 feet. He was one of the first NBA players to implement a workout regimen that was more affiliated with bodybuilders. As a result, he only missed ten games in his eighteen year career.
Malone's teams made the playoffs every season with postseason averages of 24.7 points per game and 10.7 rebounds and finished his Hall of Fame career with averages of 25 points, 10 rebounds, and the second most points in NBA history.
1. Elgin Baylor - Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers
Most of Elgin Baylor's extraordinary career came in the years before the NBA had a wide exposure on television. But those who played with and against him all say that Baylor was basketball's first true innovator and one of the greatest players of all time.
Before he came along, basketball was mostly a ground game. Players moved quickly, passed the ball, and fired set-shots at the rim. Baylor took the game into the air. He introduced the concept of "hang time" before anyone even knew what to call it. He wowed fans and opponents with his aerial displays decades before Julius Irving and Michael Jordan did.
Baylor was the first non-center that dominated games. He scored 55 points in a game as a rookie, the third highest ever. In his second season, he scored a then record 71 points against the New York Knicks. He topped 50 points seventeen times in his 14 year career including a memorable 61 point outburst against the Boston Celtics in 1962, still the highest total in an NBA Finals game.
Perhaps the only thing more heartbreaking than Baylor's 0-8 record in the NBA Finals is seeing that the indelible mark he left on the game has been largely forgotten. The high-flying players all owe Elgin Baylor, the most under appreciated superstar in NBA history, a debt of gratitude.
Agree with my top 10? Who would you add? Comment below.