They are the ones history frowned upon, the ones shirked by Lady Luck; seminal players that dominated professional basketball in their own way, and yet were never able to climb to the peak of their profession. We retroactively watch as one season after another becomes a brutal, Sisyphean endeavor. Individually, they’re footnotes in other’s history; collectively, they can make up a dynasty.
Arguing about and listing the “Greatest Players To Never Win A Ring” has been done before. It’s a fun game to play and a good argument to be had amongst basketball historians, casual fans, and that loud drunk guy at the bar. Plenty of writers have taken a crack at this general format, some as recently as Byran Toporek this past June.
What this column wants to examine is the following: if you were to pick out some of the best to never win a championship, and pair them with their peers, could you put together a team of stars that would be as powerful a dynasty as the Bob Cousy/Bill Russell Celtics? That team, which won eleven championships in thirteen years between 1957-1969, is the gold standard for success. Don’t think it’s possible? Perhaps you’re right. What about assembling a team that could win as often as Michael Jordan‘s Bulls? Six championships in eight years. That could be attainable.
The key question is how.
All of the players we’re assembling here are fantastic. That isn’t up for debate. What is up for debate is how we’d get them to team with each other, and what style they’d be most successful playing. Most of these athletes failed to win a championship because they were swatted aside by a more dominant team.
What pieces could we put together to make a champion?
When constructing my two teams, I looked for something that the players had in common, other than the fact that many of them played in the era of Michael Jordan. I looked at style of play, coaching systems and what they never had when they were attempting to win. I’ve built two very different teams from the best twelve players to never win a championship and paired them with coaches who’ve yet to win a ring as well.
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The Broken Hearts Club
“The Broken Hearts Club” is composed of players who were great for long periods of time, but were also caught up in the tidal wave of a dynasty that they couldn’t quite conquer, despite their best efforts. They are solid fundamentally, by and large good teammates, and were missing just one or two elements around them to push them over the top.
Center: PATRICK EWING
The best center to never win an NBA championship, Ewing was a prominent member of the Jordan victim society, making the NBA finals twice. Michael was playing baseball the first time and had just retired for Ewing’s non-appearance in ’99. Ewing played well in the 1994 finals against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets. But Dream’s supporting cast made more big plays â€“ unsurprising when you consider that Robert Horry and Sam Cassell were playing with Olajuwon. Ewing didn’t play at all against the Spurs in the lockout shortened 1999 finals, following an improbable run with Patrick on the bench from his 8-seeded Knicks â€” who were just happy to be there. Along the way were a myriad of close calls and bad luck, including some Reggie Miller highlights and a brawl with the Miami Heat that took out a team many believe was Patrick Ewing’s best bet to finally beat Jordan’s Bulls. Yet for that era, the last for traditional big men, Patrick was acknowledged as one of the 50 best players in NBA history and the best center to never win a ring.
Ewing had a fantastic turnaround, was a great shot blocker, and played good post defense and solid team defense. On this team, there would be some designed opportunities to give him touches on the block, and he’d make them count. He could also use that jumper at the elbow and off the pick and roll. Accompanied by these teammates, Ewing could very well outshine them all.
Power Forward: KARL MALONE
Karl Malone had to deal with the glut of talent in the West and his reward for getting through the conference was to face Michael Jordan and Co. in the finals. He and John Stockton represented the best point guard-power forward combination to date and were seamlessly competitive year in and year out. The back-to-back finals losses to the Bulls culminated the high point of the Stockton and Malone partnership in the playoffs, but their consistency over the course of 1,412 regular season games together is perhaps their finest achievement. Individually, Karl Malone ranks sixth or higher in eleven different statistical categories: games, points, minutes played, rebounds, and free throws. Malone is also 53rd all-time in blocks, 10th all-time in steals and 43rd all-time in assists.
It would be criminal to separate Malone and Stockton, so you’ll find John and his tight shorts as the point guard for this team. With the two of them running the pick-and-roll, while incorporating Ewing on the block as a much more talented Greg Ostertag, this is a team that can dominate from the elbow in. With Ewing as shot blocking center on defense, and Malone to keep people out of the lane, scoring inside the paint would be difficult for opposing offenses, who’d have to rely on outside jumpers and fast break opportunities. On offense, you’d have a smooth shooting center and a gifted forward who could each switch between working the post and taking elbow jumpers with relative ease. You can’t ask for much more than that from this combination.
Small Forward: ELGIN BAYLOR
The tragedy of Elgin Baylor is almost Shakespearean. Fighting against a stacked Celtics dynasty year in and year out, Baylor and Jerry West were the original Stockton-Malone two-man show that couldn’t quite get to the summit of the NBA landscape. When the Lakers added Wilt Chamberlain it was a sign that Baylor’s piece of the wedding cake was soon at hand after so many losses to Boston. But a horrendous knee injury slowed Baylor down, ultimately forcing him to retire. After he left the stage, the Lakers went on that iconic 33-game winning streak and beat the Knicks to win the 1972 championship. The litany of close calls that Baylor was apart of is tragic, but shouldn’t drown out his talent. Baylor averaged more than 30 PPG three times and more than 20 eight other times and was All-NBA first team in 10 of his first 11 seasons.
If you’re looking for a creative slasher with a good mid-range jumper who can rebound and play solid defense, look no further than the Big E. Baylor could drive the lane, create double teams, and feed either Ewing or Malone for easy points, or he could score while taking contact with speed and power. Baylor had the physical gifts necessary to compete with today’s athletes, which is not always true when we look at former greats. His jumper would bust those looking to crowd the post, and his ability to create in transition and at the rim would make him a nightmare to guard regardless of the era.
Shooting Guard: REGGIE MILLER
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for a player who mastered the “Art of Trolling” before it was mainstream. But it’s not hard to appreciate him as a player. Miller was a clutch sniper, and made the most out of every inch of his 6-7, 195 lb. frame. Shooting 39.5 percent from three and 88 percent from the line, with a shot that was essentially unblockable, Miller delighted in playing well while telling you how powerless you really were. He, too, had to deal with Jordan in the way, alongside his rivalry with the Knicks, and made the finals only once in his career â€” while Jordan was retired. But Reggie then ran into another dynasty that was just beginning, the Shaq-led Lake Show, with The Big Aristotle having his best year as a player. But if you were facing the Pacers, you never wanted to see Reggie Miller with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. Particularly with Spike Lee sitting courtside.
Reggie Miller would work perfectly on this team because unlike Baylor or Ewing, he creates his shot before the ball is in his hands. All Miller would need â€” as he ran defenders ragged off of tough screens set by Ewing, Malone and Baylor â€” was the ball in his hands to snap his quick jumper and drill another 3-pointer. His perpetual motion would create openings inside the post, which a smart point guard or small forward could easily exploit, and â€” luckily for Reggie â€” his teammates are two of the smartest to ever play. Miller would get a lot of open shots, as would Stockton, and both would cash in on players rushing back off the double team by drawing fouls while splashing open jumpers in their face. More often than not, Reggie Miller would likely have the highest point total on this team, simply because he’d be feasting on 3-pointers all game long.
Point Guard: JOHN STOCKTON
I’ve written above about the illustrious career of John Stockton and every word is deserved. He is remarkable for countless reasons: the statistics, the consistency, the unselfish manner on the court and the ability to be one of the greatest players to ever put on sneakers and still look like an accountant. If you saw John Stockton on the street and you weren’t a diehard NBA fan or a resident of Salt Lake City, you’d probably think he was the manager at the local bank. It’s almost like Clark Kent and Superman. The numbers need repeating: the career assist record (15,806), career steals record (3,265) and perhaps one of the most durable players of all time, played all 82 games in 17 of his 19 seasons. His career shooting percentage was 51.5, which is amazing for a guard of his stature.
If you were to try to create a point guard for this team from the depths of your imagination, or your X-Box, you couldn’t do better than John Stockton. His ability to efficiently distribute the ball to a slashing shooting guard, run the pick-and-roll with a power forward or center, or set up a creative small forward is unquestionable. He would also be a bulldog on defense, creating steals and fast break opportunities for his streaking big men and seamlessly hitting his roving shooting guard for a back-breaking three.
Sixth Man: CHRIS MULLIN
A member of the 1992 Dream Team, one of the best pure shooters ever, Chris Mullin could bust a defense from behind the arc and make it look effortless. Though it must be said that he was injury prone for the latter half of his career â€” which diminished his skills â€” his silky smooth jumper never aged or faded, and rarely faltered. His 38.4 percent average from three and 86.5 percent from the free throw line are right up there with Reggie Miller, and he’s a perfect change-of-pace player off the bench.
Making Mullin come off the bench is arguably heresy. It has more to do with the style of play and, potentially, on the nature of the opponent than a commentary on Mullin. But having Mullin come in to bust defenses on nights that your outside shooting is a bit dodgy is a luxury that many teams fantasize about. Though less mobile than Reggie, he’s every bit as deadly a shooter and without the need for histrionics. Adding Mullin off the bench for a couple of quick bombs would keep defenses honest and allow the starters to flourish.
Coach: JERRY SLOAN
A tough hombre as a player and a great defensive coach, Jerry Sloan was the glue for a Utah Jazz franchise that won even after the departure of Stockton and Malone. His regular season record was 1221-803 and his postseason record was 98-104 over a a career ranging from 1979 ro 2011. Sloan put his team in the hunt to win almost every year he coached, ultimately leaving when he could no longer get through to his team [Eds. note: also Deron Williams].
He would not have that problem with this team. Sloan would have his team prepared, motivated and ready to win on a nightly basis. Their offense would be run primarily through Stockton, which would be a clinic to watch, and the defense would be tough and scrappy while creating turnovers; the hallmark of every Jerry Sloan team.
When you have players this talented, you tend to focus on the offense. As mentioned above, Stockton â€” with this many weapons and this many rebounding big men â€” would be able to set up layup after layup and open jumper after open jumper. No double teaming defense would work against a team with Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin to make teams pay, and given 1-on-1 match-ups, the shot charts would see a field goal percentage the Harlem Globetrotters would envy.
But that doesn’t mean they would beat the team with nicknames on their backs.
The Highlight Reel Club
It is undoubtedly true that the Broken Hearts Club would be sound fundamentally, solid to spectacular at all five positions on the court, and glide into every playoffs with a top seed and home court advantage. But that doesn’t mean they’d be a dynasty. Since the Boston Celtics of Bob Cousy, every great dynasty has had showmanship and a touch of arrogance. Magic and the Lake Show, Bird and the Celtics, The Bad Boys of Detroit, Jordan’s Bulls, and The Shaq & Kobe Lakers all have won games and looked good doing it while often times reminding you of how good they looked. The exception that proves the rule is the San Antonio Spurs. This team of greats composed entirely of players who never won a title, is the yin to the Spurs’ yang.
Center: DIKEMBE MUTOMBO
Though limited offensively, Mutombo was a monster defensive player and an all-time showboat. He’s still making money from wagging that huge index finger in commercials. The numbers and accolades are staggering: four-time Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time All-Star, and the second most prolific shot blocking artist in NBA history.
On this team, Mutombo’s lack of offensive prowess would be an asset and not a detriment. By making most of his points off of rebounds and dunks and focusing on his defense, Mutombo would anchor the team in the middle without demanding touches in the paint. Which is good, because he wouldn’t get them. His incessant finger wagging would be considered low key by the standards of some of his teammates, but it keeps within the oeuvre of this crew.
Power Forward: CHARLES BARKLEY
“The Round Mound Of Rebound” is an All-World player and an All-Universe talker. Career averages of 22 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game are impressive, but the impact of Sir Charles Barkley cannot be limited to mere numbers. At his best, Chuck could not be stopped and he’d be the first to tell you that. During his MVP year in 1993, Barkley was notorious for telling opponents that he was torching how unstoppable he had become. The total magnitude of Chuck’s trash talk can only be comprehended when read.
Barkley’s rebounding and his ability to move up the court in his young days would complement teammates that like to run and move the ball. He’d also be the go-to-guy inside for this team of showboating superstars in the half-court. Oddly enough, he’d also likely be the team’s leader. Always outspoken, Barkley, surrounded by a team of yodelers around him, would still manage to be the most entertaining quote in the locker-room and the vital part of the team’s offense. Also, anyone who didn’t listen to him risks being thrown out of a window.
Small Forward: DOMINIQUE WILKINS
Dynamic and explosive, the “Human Highlight Film” was a spectacular dunker and the most dazzling basketball player to be born in Paris, France. Wilkins never averaged less than 20 points a game and managed to win a scoring title in 1986, though it helped that Michael Jordan was hurt that year. Wilkins was a clear Hall of Fame player, finally getting his induction in 2006. His crowning playoff appearance was in his duel with Larry Bird where he scored 47 points against the Celtics in game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Celtics won the game and the series, such is the fate of these players.
If an athletic gunner with the ability to slash to the hoop is what you’re looking for, Wilkins is your man. Playing off of Barkley in the post and running the break after a Mutombo block, ‘Nique would provide dunks that would cause you to leap outside your chair. He’d also draw so much atention he possesses the ability to create for others, if he could be so inclined to pass the ball.
Shooting Guard: PETE MARAVICH
Just typing Pete Maravich without putting ‘Pistol’ in front of it feels unnatural. To put Maravich in the starting lineup, particularly when you see who is on the bench, it’s necessary to show what a talent he truly was.
His scoring ability was legendary, averaging 24 PPG for his career, but you came to see his passing. He was good for five assists and at least two highlights a night.
The reason to start Maravich is the passing. With Wilkins and Barkley gunning, you need a shooting guard that can not only light it up but can also create highlights for others. No scoring guard did it better than Pistol Pete. Maravich liked to light it up, but understood that it could be done with a great behind-the-back pass just as easily as tossing up the rock for his own shot. While he was a point guard in theory, he was long enough to defend and play the off guard position.
Point Guard: STEVE NASH
Steve Nash is the only active player on this list and could very well be off of it soon. Given the Lakers recent struggles and his own injuries, Nash may soon find his presence on this list permanent. A two-time MVP and seven-time All-Star, Nash is one of the top point guards in league history and his best opportunity to win a championship during the 2006-2007 season was foiled by Robert Horry‘s hip check. When Nash went flying into the scorer’s table and his teammates â€” particularly Amar’e Stoudamire â€” rose up to protect him, the NBA handled it wrong, and punished the Suns. Horry’s actions cost the Suns, and Nash, a likely championship.
Nash would be the one player on the court who let his game do the talking, but it would be a game perfectly suited for this team. Fast paced, highlight-reel worthy, Nash would get the ball and tell Maravich and Wilkins and Barkley to start running. By the end of a season, Sir Charles would look svelte. The team would probably lead the league in points and technical fouls and all of us would see them as impossible to turn off. They’d be catnip for television and for the internet, and that’s without full consideration of the sixth man.
Sixth Man: ALLEN IVERSON
The best player under 6 feet in NBA history, Iverson had an unstoppable crossover, an incredible scoring ability, was a solid â€” if streaky â€” shooter and played through pain. He was also someone who you had to completely design the team around, or he’d be miserable because he only knew one way to play. Every time a coach would take him out of the game, he’d curse at them. His teammates, including Mutombo, knew that if they wanted the ball, they’d better grab rebounds. Yet his talent was so transcendent, he was able to march team after team into the playoffs with as little help as he could get away with. Game 1 of the 2001 NBA finals is in the conversation as one of the the top five most dominating performances from a guard in NBA history.
Iverson comes off the bench only because when he’s on the court, everyone else had better rebound. With the talent around him, he’d have to be prepared to pass in the open court and occasionally go inside to Chuck, or allow Dominique to create in the half-court. More likely, he’d see a half-court opportunity and use his crossover, much to everyone’s annoyance. The single most interesting aspect of the team would be watching Iverson interact with his teammates, and how pouty he’d get coming off the bench.
Coach: DON NELSON
Who better to coach a team that wants to light it up than a coach who thinks that they’ll move too slow? Don Nelson has a 1335-1063 record in 31 seasons as a NBA head coach, is a three time Coach of the Year and a Hall-of-Famer. Innovative, impatient to score, and someone who loathed the slow down approach that the Bad Boys of Detroit began and Pat Riley emulated with the Knicks and Heat, Nelson would be the perfect coach to create opportunities for each of these fragile egos. Provided he could count on everyone coming to camp in shape and actually attend practice.
Team Overview: To say this team would be a soap opera is really underrating 24 hour cable sports’ ability to create a controversy where none exist. The Iverson and Barkley relationship alone could fuel the sports conversation for weeks at a time and it would make Shaq and Kobe look like Bert and Ernie. But there is something creative in chaos, and this team would be borderline unstoppable on offense. Would they play enough defense to get out and run? Would they get sick of each other despite the winning? All of those questions come to the surface supported only by a breakneck style of play and an affinity for loafing on defense.
Which of these two teams are more likely to be a dynasty? A team full of trash talkers or a team that would allow Reggie Miller to mouth off in a vacuum? A methodical, defense-first team that would shine in the half court, or an offensive track meet with each player competing to show who has the best behind-the-back pass?
In a best of seven series between the two, who ya got?
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