If anything is considered the pinnacle of a basketball career, it’s got to be winning an NBA championship. Setting aside the time-honored tradition of little boys shooting in the driveway, a ring on the resume of a professional can make all the difference between two cliches: the gritty gamers who do anything to win versus selfish ball hogs.
It goes without saying that these comparisons are unfair for this team game. Any championship run requires the perfect storm of savvy front office negotiating, tough coaching, and plain luck. You can do everything in your power to sign the right players and manage egos, but you still need to avoid injuries and make sure your players knock down clutch shots.
5. Patrick Ewing
The New York Knicks selected Patrick Ewing with the first overall pick in the conspiracy-laden 1985 draft. He was supposed to be the savior of the franchise. Instead he turned into fodder for the Chicago Bulls. After the Bad Boy Pistons, Ewing and the Knicks were arguably the toughest playoff out for the Bulls. As Pat Riley stalked the sideline, the Knicks attempted to replicate the Pistons’ physical style, with Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, John Starks, Xavier McDaniel, and Ewing taking direct orders to slow down the game and dole out hard fouls.
The Bulls, however, knocked Ewing and his Knicks out of the playoffs in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996. Ewing did get past the Bulls in 1994, with Michael Jordan temporarily on hiatus from the NBA. Sadly, the Knicks fell to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets that season. Although ringless, Ewing averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per game over his 17-year career.
4. Allen Iverson
At shooting guard, Allen Iverson gets the nod above both George “Ice Man” Gervin and Pistol Pete Maravich because of a deep postseason run and a Finals appearance to his credit. In the 2001 NBA Finals, Iverson ran into the middle of the Lakers’ three-peat, led by the formidable one-two punch of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
While Philly went down four games to one, Iverson carried on as the franchise’s sole hope, flanked by players like Eric Snow and an aging Dikembe Mutumbo. In any event, A.I. torched the Lakers for 36 points per game through this championship series.
Arguably the toughest man to play the game of basketball, Iverson stood just 6 feet tall and weighed in at a mere 165 pounds, but that didn’t stop his fearless drives to the hoop. A.I. never shied away from the contact and physical play of much larger forwards and centers. For his career, Iverson averaged 27 points per game after leading the league in scoring through four separate seasons.
Without a championship to his name, however, Iverson is often dismissed as a “me-first” man who famously refused to attend or even talk about practice. A petulant performer, Iverson largely wore out his welcome in Denver, Detroit, Memphis, and the NBA at large after his glory years in Philadelphia.
3. Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley unceremoniously predated the likes of Eric Lindros, Iverson, and Donovan McNabb as a superstars who led perennially competitive teams but failed to bring championship glory back to Philadelphia. In the City of Brotherly Love, Barkley averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per game while making six trips to the playoffs in eight years.
The Philadelphia 76ers, however, never had enough to get past the Boston Celtics and a budding Bulls dynasty. In 1992, the 76ers dealt the Round Mound of Rebound to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for spare parts, aka Tim Perry, Andrew Lang, and Jeff Hornacek.
During his first year in Phoenix, a rejuvenated Barkley racked up 26 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists per game while claiming MVP honors. That postseason, Sir Charles upped his per-game averages to 27 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists before facing off against Jordan in the NBA Finals. His Airness and the Bulls dispatched of the Suns in six games. For the series, Jordan went off for 41 points, nine rebounds, and six assists per game, as if he had a point to prove in schooling the reigning MVP.
By 1996, Barkley left Phoenix for Houston and teamed up with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, who both won championships during Jordan’s first retirement. In 1998, Drexler retired, and Scottie Pippen came on board in Houston. As a Rocket, however, a past-his-prime Barkley was often injured and failed to get past the Western Conference Playoffs.