NBA history is full of almosts – deals that almost happened; shot’s that almost went in; teams that almost won it all. And while there are plenty of great players who almost won a championship only to fall short, there are some who never even set foot in the NBA Finals.
Even for MVPs and Hall-of-Famers, missing a ring is understandable. Historic talents like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Allen Iverson all reached basketball’s biggest stage, but ultimately lost to titans like Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. But for players of that caliber, missing the Finals altogether is another level of surprising.
Obviously, other factors play in aside from just talent – injuries, life problems, underachieving teams, and unstoppable opponents. But each of the greatest to never reach the Finals has their own story of why, and a time or two that it almost happened. These are the 15 best of those players.
15. Artis Gilmore
If you’ve never heard of Artis Gilmore, you’re not alone. Part of that’s because he drew more attention in the ABA than the NBA, and part of it’s because of the low-key persona he maintained both on and off the court. But Gilmore was a dominating force at center, standing 7’2” and averaging an ungodly 59.9 percent field goal percentage for 18.8 points per game over the course of his NBA career.
His rookie ABA season with the Kentucky Colonels, Gilmore won both the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP over fellow rookie Julius Erving. He was an unstoppable rebounder and a powerful weapon on offense. And in 1975, he led the Colonels to an ABA Championship title, taking home the playoffs MVP award with 28 points and 31 rebounds in the series-clinching game.
Unfortunately, Gilmore didn’t find the same level of success in the NBA, falling just short of the Finals a few times, but never making it. Still, he remained a major force. He became an All-Star four times in Chicago, and twice more with the San Antonio Spurs. In 1980/81, Gilmore shot 67 percent while averaging just under 18 points per game.
14. David Thompson
Another ABA star, David Thompson earned the nickname “Skywalker” for his impressive verticality. He won the NCAA national title in 1974 at NC State, and was named an ABA All-Star and All-Star Game MVP while playing for the Denver Nuggets in 1976. That same year, he placed second to Julius Erving in the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest.
After the ABA-NBA merger at the end of the 1976 season, Thompson went on to four more All-Star selections. He averaged 27.2 points in the 1977-78 season at 52 percent shooting, finishing just behind George Gervin for the scoring title. In his last game of the season, Thompson made an absurd 73 points against the Detroit Pistons. That year, Thompson nearly made the Finals but was defeated in six games by the Seattle Supersonics in the Western Conference Finals.
Through the 1980s, a set of injuries and mental health problems abruptly ended Thompson’s professional playing career and snowballed into dangerous and expensive cocaine addiction. In 1987, he was jailed for 180 days for assaulting his wife. But after his release and time in rehab, Thompson turned his life around, reconciled with his family, returned to school to obtain a degree in sociology, and has worked in his later years as a motivational speaker. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
13. Tim Hardaway
When looking at the Jordan Era, it’s easy to gloss over the many other great players who graced the NBA at the time. Tim Hardaway is one of those greats, making five All-Star appearances and five All-NBA selections over the course of his career with the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat. Hardaway was a master passer and the cornerstone of Golden State’s “Run TMC” era.
But despite a few impressive playoff runs, including a sweeping upset to David Robinson’s Spurs in 1991, Hardaway never made the Finals. Forces of the era like Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, and of course, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, kept Hardaway just out of the upper echelon throughout his impressive NBA career.
12. Bernard King
Bernard King was an offensive titan. A four-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player (First Team twice), King played for several teams but is most famous for his brief but dominant peak with the New York Knicks in the mid-80s. In 1984, he led New York to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where the Knicks battled out a brutal seven-game series against Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Boston was victorious, and went on to win the championship, but not before King averaged 34.8 points in 12 playoff games. The next season, King claimed the scoring title with 32.9 points per game, only to suffer a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for two years at the pinnacle of his potential. While he did become an All-Star once more after returning to play with the Washington Bullets, he never got close to the Finals again.
11. Sidney Moncrief
When the NBA created the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1983, Sidney Moncrief was the first winner. The next year, he won it again. In ten seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, Moncrief made five All-Star teams, five All-NBA teams, and four All-Defensive First Teams. And last year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. But despite a standout career, Sidney Moncrief never made the NBA Finals.
He took the Bucks to the playoffs every year he played for them, and in 1984, he took them to the Eastern Conference Finals. But Larry Bird and the Celtics were waiting, and they beat the Bucks in five games on their way to the national title.
10. Grant Hill
Grant Hill is one of basketball’s great “what-ifs.” What if he hadn’t hurt his ankle in 2000? In his six seasons with the Pistons from 1994 to 2000, Hill was named Rookie of the Year (alongside Jason Kidd), a five-time All-Star, and a five-time All-NBA player, while averaging 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. He was a walking triple-double just hitting the peak of his career when a string of injuries stole what seemed like limitless potential.
That’s not to take away from what Grant Hill did. He was named an All-Star twice more after his injury. He was a two-time NCAA champion with the Duke Blue Devils. And he helped pave the way for future point-forwards like LeBron James. But unfortunately, a Finals appearance just wasn’t in the cards.
9. Vince Carter
A walking highlight reel; one of the greatest dunkers of all time; but Vinsanity wasn’t enough to carry Carter to the NBA Finals, with Toronto, or any other team.
That shouldn’t detract from VC’s many accomplishments, which include eight All-Star selections, a Rookie of the Year award, a Slam Dunk Contest victory, and a stunning 22-season career, the longest in NBA history. Still, Carter’s postseason record is somewhat disappointing for a player of his caliber.
In eleven different playoff runs, he only made the Conference Finals once, in 2010, where his Orlando Magic lost to the Celtics in six games. Still, Carter remains one of the most impressive, prolific, and impactful stars of the 21st century.
8. Alex English
Through the eighties, Alex English made the Denver Nuggets a major force in the NBA. He was a scoring phenom, averaging 25 points per game or more for eight straight seasons, and leading the League in 1982-83. Every one of those years, he was named an All-Star, and in 1997, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The one thing English couldn’t bring to Denver was a trip to the Finals. He got close in 1985, defeating San Antonio and Utah in the first two rounds to bring the Nuggets to a Western Conference Finals faceoff with Magic Johnson’s Lakers. In Game 4 against LA, English hurt his thumb and was unable to play for the rest of the series. The Lakers went on to win the Conference, and the title.
7. Pete Maravich
Pistol Pete Maravich is a legend for good reason. His stylish play, exceptional ball-handling and fierce scoring made him a crowd favorite in his day, and he remains one of the most influential players to ever touch the game. Unfortunately, a combination of underachieving teams and personal injuries kept him from achieving the highest level of professional success.
Maravich’s best playoff run was in his final season with the Boston Celtics, where he lost in five games to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. But his stats tell the story of a man who, in different situations, might have done much more – five All-Star selections, four All-NBA selections, a Hall of Fame chair, and the 1977 scoring leader, with 31.1 points per game.
It’s also worth noting that Maravich played nearly his entire career before the inception of the three-point shot. For many players of his day, that might not have made much of a difference. But Pistol Pete’s distance shooting was one of his most powerful weapons, and you can’t help but wonder what more he might have done if he had the opportunity to shoot behind the arch.
6. Dominique Wilkins
People called him “The Human Highlight Film,” and it was a well-earned title. Dominique Wilkins was everything a basketball player strives to be. He was an All-Star nine years in a row, All-NBA seven different times, a two-time winner of the Slam Dunk Contest, and the 1986 scoring champion.
Yet amid so many accolades, and one of the most respected careers in the history of professional basketball, Dominique Wilkins never made it to the NBA Finals. In fact, he never even made it to a Conference Finals. It’s an almost unbelievable blemish on an otherwise stunning resume, but it didn’t stop him from making it into the Hall of Fame, or into the hearts of basketball fans around the world for decades to come.
5. Chris Webber
Chris Webber’s lack of a Finals appearance is especially notable because of the infamous manner in which he didn’t make the championship series in 2002. You probably know the story: Chris Webber leads his Kings to a brutal showdown with the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. In Game 6, the Kings are up three games to two, and they’re looking good going into the fourth quarter.
Then in that fourth quarter, LA shoots 27 free throws. The Lakers take the game, and game 7, and go on to win their third straight title. While fixing has never been proved, there are plenty of conspiracies about the bizarre way Chris Webber was boxed out of the NBA Finals. He got close again in 2007 but never broke through.
But he certainly did a lot else – Rookie of the Year, five All-Star Games, five All-NBA teams, a rebounding leader title, and a string of impressive playoff runs, where even his losses were respectable when up against opponents like Shaq, Kobe, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett.
4. Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony has a lot in common with Alex English. Like English, he led the Denver Nuggets during one of the franchise’s most prominent eras. Like English, Anthony has been a scoring sensation throughout his career and has led the league in points per game (2012-13). And like English, Carmelo Anthony has still never played in an NBA Finals.
As is true with Chris Paul, that could change. After a period of deferment and forced absence, many believed Anthony’s career was over. That changed this season when he returned with the Portland Trail Blazers and helped the team make the playoffs after a year of injuries. Could he still make the Finals before he’s done? Absolutely, and Damian Lillard is far from the worst teammate to help him get there. But still, it seems unlikely.
Like Alex English, Carmelo Anthony made it to the Western Conference Finals once with Denver. And just like English, he fell to a Lakers team that would go on to win the championship. While a Finals tour may not be part of Anthony’s story, it doesn’t change all that he’s done and continues to do. He’s already earned his future seat in the Hall of Fame.
3. George Gervin
For 14 years, George Gervin dominated in both the ABA and NBA. In twelve of those years, and nine in the NBA, he was an All-Star. In four of his NBA years, he led the league in scoring. He was the All-Star Game MVP in 1980, and the main reason the San Antonio Spurs remained a threat through the era.
The Iceman made the playoffs in every season of his career except in 1984, but he never made it to basketball’s biggest stage. He got close in 1979, and again in 1983, but lost each time to the Washington Bullets and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively.
2. Chris Paul
Obviously, Chris Paul is still a major player in the NBA. He’s still an All-Star, and after nearly beating the Rockets this postseason, there’s still a chance he could play in the NBA Finals before retirement finds him. If that happens, hoops fans the world over will rejoice.
But as of this point, getting closer daily to the inevitable end of his career, the Point God has still never gone past the Conference Finals. He nearly did with Houston in 2018, only to hurt his hamstring in Game 5 against the Warriors and watch the Rockets fall from the sideline. If Paul had stayed healthy, we might all be talking about Durant’s Golden State years very, very differently.
But even without a Finals appearance, Paul’s accolades speak for themselves: ten All-Star selections. Nine All-NBA selections, including four First Team. Nine All-Defensive Selections, including seven First Team. 2006’s Rookie of the Year. 2013’s All-Star Game MVP. Four-time assist leader and six-time steals leader – accomplishing both at the same time in 2008-09 while also averaging 22.8 points per game at over 50 percent shooting.
1. Steve Nash
Steve Nash tops this list as the most shocking player never to make the NBA Finals because of the one thing he has that no one else on this list does – a League MVP award. Nash won two of them, in two consecutive years, and somehow never climbed that last step to the Finals. That fact remains one of the oddest happenings in the history of the NBA.
Nash was everything you needed on the court. He was a master passer and floor general, leading the league in assists five times. He was a pinpoint shooter, with the NBA’s best free throw percentage in two different years, and four seasons ended solidly in the 40/50/90 club. And when you needed him to, he could be a commanding scorer.
The fact remains though, that even at his best, Nash never progressed beyond the Conference Finals. You can put it partially on teammate injuries, or front office decisions. You can say that the League wasn’t quite ready for the Suns’ rapid-fire offense. But you can’t change history. It doesn’t take away from Nash’s greatness, but it does stand as a baffling asterisk to one of the NBA’s most famous names.