What are you without a championship? That’s the big question in many NBA debates. Can Lebron be over Jordan with fewer rings? How important are championships in all-time rankings? It’s the question that usually tops all others. However, many fantastic NBA players have had hall of fame careers with numerous accolades, but have failed to grab “the big one”. I think many NBA fans would be surprised to see some of the greats who never won it all. Today, we’re going to look at the five best NBA players without a ring.
Since many players have won rings late in their careers, we will only be looking at players who are currently retired from the NBA.
Top Five Best NBA Players Without a Ring
Quite possibly the most underrated NBA star of all time, Dominique Wilkins comes in at number five. Wilkins, drafted in 1982, spent nearly his whole career with the Atlanta Hawks. During his time with the Hawks, he totaled seven All-NBA finishes and dominated the game with the best of them. When your discussing the best NBA players without a ring, it’s hard not to include Wilkins.
He would lead the league in scoring just once (1986), but would average 20+ points per game for 11 straight seasons, continually being one of the biggest threats on the court for over a decade. He is widely regarded as one of the best pure scorers ever but is left off of many GOAT lists because of his ringless record.
Wilkins played in what was widely regarded as the most competitive era basketball has ever seen. The likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson started their campaign just as Wilkins started his. All three would go down as some of the best to ever do it. Wilkins was met with the unfortunate task of trying to knock these guys off. He ran into Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer in the playoffs and never made it past the second round in his 16-year career. It’s certainly a huge blemish, but running into Bird and Jordan a combined four times over a ten-year stretch should be noted in the criticism.
Although Wilkins doesn’t have the playoff success normally associated with all-time greats, his ability to score from nearly anywhere on the court puts him in an elite category. Mix that with the highly competitive era he played in and I think he should still be considered a top 30 player ever, making him easily one of the best NBA players without a ring.
One of the most gifted passers ever comes in at number four. John Stockton, drafted in 1984, was as close to Magic as you were going to get in terms of his playmaking ability. Dominating on both sides of the ball for almost the entirety of his 20-year career, Stockton would lead the league in assists nine times all in consecutive years while totaling five All-Defensive titles as well.
His accolades would spread even further as Stockton would lead the league in steals (2x) and finish with numerous All-NBA honors (11x). He was never the most gifted scorer, but he was rightfully recognized year after year for his historic playmaking and defensive abilities. You wanna talk about team players? Here’s your guy.
Stockton would receive some immediate help after being drafted when Karl Malone became his eventual partner for the next 15 years. From 1985-2000 the Utah Jazz never missed the playoffs. An impressive feat. Stockton would get to the NBA Finals in back to back years (1997/1998) but would face off against MJ in both of those matchups. Finals appearances don’t equal rings obviously, but it’s impressive nonetheless that nearly 15 years after his rookie year Stockton was able to make the NBA Finals in back-to-back years.
Similar to Wilkins, it seems as if Stockton rarely gets the credit he deserves. His lack of scoring turns a lot of people away but people need to understand that he was one of the greatest passers in NBA history. Not to mention, his defensive prowess also proved to be elite during his time. His unique abilities and era-less game allowed him to keep a playoff streak of over 15 years and although he never won the title, he’s certainly one of the best NBA players without a ring.
3. Elgin Baylor
Elgin Baylor deserves major recognition even without any rings under his belt. Baylor, drafted in 1956, was a force on the court for over a decade. In his prime years, Baylor averaged over 30 points and 15 rebounds while he dominated NBA teams left and right. His numbers are some of the best we’ve ever seen and he’s one of the only ringless players that many widely consider top 20 of all time. His skill was unmatched and he was an idol of many future players in the 1980s and 1990s.
Baylor was not only unable to win a ring, but he also failed to grab an MVP at any point in his career as well. It’s insanely surprising, especially since in 1962 he averaged 38 points and 19 rebounds. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell dominated the MVP races year after year, so Baylor was once again blessed with the unfortunate task of trying to knock off some of the greatest players of all time every season.
Baylor is one of the greatest scorers ever, so there’s no doubt he should be recognized for it. If Baylor had won just one ring, I think there’s an argument to be made that he sits with many of the guys on the top ten bubble. He rebounded as well as many of the bigs during that era and was arguably the second-best scorer of his time behind Chamberlain. Baylor is undoubtedly one of the best NBA players without a ring.
The choice to rank Charles Barkley over Baylor was a tough one, but ultimately Barkey’s MVP put him just over the top. Drafted in 1984, Barkley spent the majority of his prime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his prime, Barkley would average 26 points and 12 rebounds, winning an MVP in 1992-93. Barkley was a point forward before it was even a commonly used term. He wasn’t extraordinarily tall, but he played the four and ran the floor like a guard. He was a special type of player that the league had never seen before.
Barkley, like others we’ve talked about, played in a very competitive era. He made the NBA Finals just once, running into Michael Jordan and losing. He has a handful of Conference Finals appearances as well, but ultimately Barkley underperformed in his career. Barkley was a top-five player in the league for many years and was quite the performer on the court, but could only total one NBA Finals appearance. He’s one of the best NBA players without a ring, but certainly could be much higher on the GOAT list if he had just one ring.
Barkley may not have had the glorified numbers like Baylor, but his success in an extremely tough era should be noted. He constantly competed with the best of the best during his prime and was one of the most overpowering players in the league. He is generally ranked as one of the greatest players of all time and would certainly be a lot higher if he weren’t one of the best NBA players without a ring.
1. Karl Malone
I’m sure everyone knew who would be sitting at number one. Karl Malone is just a ring or two away from being a top-five player ever. He is the greatest four the game has ever seen and it’s incomprehensible that he never won a title. Drafted in 1985, Malone played nearly his entire career with his partner John Stockton. He would make an immediate impact for the Jazz but truly started to take the team to the next level in the mid-1990s.
Malone wouldn’t win an MVP until 10+ years into his career but would dominate the late 90s and secure two in a matter of three years. Malone was a fantastic mid-range shooter which made him nearly impossible to guard. His rebounding prowess is some of the best we’ve ever seen and he would finish his career as a 25 point and 10 rebound per game player.
I’ve already discussed with Stockon the unfortunate path both players had to withstand. A two-time MVP appearing in just two NBA Finals is very peculiar, but statistically, Malone was no slouch in the playoffs. Malone was a career 25/11 guy, so his game never fell off as some did in the postseason. Aside from his struggles to get to the NBA Finals, Malone would finish his career behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in all-time points and would make 14 All-NBA squads and four All-Defensive teams as well.
Malone is undeniably one of the best big men this league has ever seen and is one of the only to have never won a title. This is a ranking in terms of talent and Malone had plenty of it. He was a classic post scorer who caused problems all over the court for over 10 years. He’s in most top 15 lists and would easily jump an additional 10 spots if he had won a title. Karl Malone is easily one of the best NBA players without a ring. Not only is he one of the best NBA players without a ring, but he’s undoubtedly the best.
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