Best players to never win a title and how winning impacts the NBA’s Greatest 75 Players

This week on Sporting News a collection of over 50 NBA beat writers, national media members, agents and #NBATwitter notables created a top 75 list of NBA players at their peaks.

Yeah, that’s right their peaks. Not the totality of their careers, the peak of their careers. Who were the best players in their prime?

On Tuesday, the first batch of names were released and some key notables missed the mark. Yao Ming and Adrian Dantley, both Hall of Famers, both left off the 75. Others made the list but came in lower than expected. Reggie Miller one of the deadliest and most feared showmen of his era just squeezed onto the list. Chris Webber, a Hall of Famer who had all the talent in the world slotted below Penny Hardaway — a player who is most remembered for what he could’ve been had it not been for injuries.

With Ming, Dantley and Webber causing debate amongst the SN staff it begged the question: where would these players have ranked had they had a championship on their resumes? It’s almost always the punction on any debate between two Hall of Famers and in the case of the SN 75 peaks, it may have been the decider for many of the voters.

When the NBA releases its Greatest 75 Players later this month, it will surely include all of the usual suspects in the “best player never to win a title” conversation. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Steve Nash, James Harden (for now!) and Russell Westbrook (ditto!) are among that illustrious group. And yet all are still widely perceived to be among the very best to ever lace them up.

But what about players whose legacies ultimately slipped through the cracks of the NBA legends penthouse floor? Among the players who never won, who would benefit the most with a ring if history played out differently?

We asked our SN staff to give us the player they thought would’ve most benefitted from a ring in NBA history. Yes, that’s right in the history of the league. Some of the answers may surprise you.

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Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): It’s easy for me, I’m going with Vince Carter.

Going up in Canada I watched Vince Carter put Toronto on the map. He was Drake before Drake. Any time a Torontonian leaves the country and says they’re from Toronto the immediate response has something to do with Drake. Well, before that it was Mr. half-man, half-amazing. 

The world found out about Carter was he dazzled everyone at the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He instantly became one of the biggest stars in the league that night. He followed that up by dropping a career-high 51 points in his and the Raptors’ ever-first nationally televised game against the Phoenix Suns. At that point, he was made and destined for greatness.

What followed was a heartbreaking conference semifinal Game 7 loss to the 76ers in the 2001 playoffs. A myriad of injuries and an ugly breakup between he and the Raptors. A rejuvenated Carter ended up with the Nets where he once again proved he could be one of the best players in the league, but playoff success never followed. In fact, Carter ended his 22-year career having gone as far as the Conference Finals just once. 

Carter had a good career. He’s the only player in league history to appear in a game in four different decades. He’s one of six players in league history to have averaged at least 20 points, four rebounds and three dimes per game in 10 straight seasons. He won a Gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Olympics. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1999. He set a bunch of records with both the Raptors and Nets in his time there. He was on the cover of video games, appeared in music videos and TV shows.

Vince Carter was the man. And he had a peak that many players would dream of having, but when you step back, you’re still left wondering ‘what if?’. 

For a player as great as he may seem he was only named to two All-NBA teams and never made a first-team. He never finished higher than 10th in MVP voting. His lack of playoff success is almost mind-boggling considering his time in the East and teams he played on. And his claim to being the greatest player in a franchise’s history is long gone.

But if Carter could have at some point in his prime won a ring, his legend would be unmatched, especially if he had done it in Toronto. I mean look how the franchise and their fanbase talk about Kawhi Leonard, and he was only there for less than 12 months. That same championship took Kyle Lowry from a nice player to a guy many expect to be in strong consideration for the Hall. If a ring has done that for Kyle Lowry, imagine what it would’ve done for Vince.

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Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Chris Webber. How many players in NBA history are capable of tossing up 51 points, 26 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in a game where his entire team scored just 91?

People remember the timeout at Michigan. People remember the playoff heartbreak against the Lakers. People remember C-Webb time and again coming up short and failing to fully deliver on his immense physical gifts.

There’s a case to be made that Webber is the most skilled power forward of all time, a prototypical ahead-of-his time big who could score inside and out, surgically carve up defenses with his passing and grab-and-go on the fastbreak. Webber made First-Team All-NBA in an absolutely loaded forward position featuring in-their-primes Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Rasheed Wallace, not to mention a still-great Karl Malone.

How much differently do we remember Webber’s career had Robert Horry missed at the buzzer in the 2002 Western Conference Finals? How many more “benefit of the doubt” All-Star teams does Webber make on the back end of his career? Unlike Malone and Charles Barkley, two power forwards widely considered among the best 20 players ever, Webber doesn’t sniff that stratosphere. But with a ring, he gets the Dirk-esque title bump and almost certainly goes into the Hall of Fame on the first go-around.

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Gil McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I once saw a tweet that crowned Patrick Ewing as the greatest player in New York Knicks franchise history and immediately wondered how he could ever hold that title if he never led them to an NBA title.

I then realized maybe I needed to do my research.

Admittedly, I was born just a month before Ewing and the Knicks came up short to the Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals and in 1999, remember him being older and wearing a suit on the sideline during the franchise’s last run to the Finals.

Not only did I miss Ewing’s prime, but I also had no point of reference to what he accomplished to deserve that title over the likes of Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe or Willis Reed.

That’s when my research led me to realize that Ewing, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, was named 1986 Rookie of the Year (having played in 50 games, no less), an 11-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA selection and three-time All-Defensive Team selection. On top of that, Ewing still stands as the Knicks’ all-time leader in games and minutes played, points, rebounds, blocks and steals.

As someone that wasn’t old enough to watch Ewing in his prime, I realize that the narrative would be completely different had he led the Knicks – one of the most storied franchises in professional sports – to a championship. He’s without a doubt an all-time great, but a title would have launched Ewing into another tier of greatness and would have caused his story to be told quite differently.

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): The answer for me, watching his entire career unfold in real-time, is Russell Westbrook.

Is there a player who is more unfairly assessed than Westbrook?

“His success doesn’t contribute to winning,” and “he’s a stat padder,” are two things that are often said about one of the most talented players of my generation.

His resume is ridiculous – he’s a nine-time All-Star and All-NBA selection, two-time scoring champion, three-time assist champion and one-time MVP.

He’s the only player in NBA history to have multiple scoring and assist titles to his name, making him one of the most prolific playmakers the game has ever seen. He’s also one of two players in NBA history – joining, of course, Oscar Robertson – to win a scoring title while averaging a triple-double.

He has averaged a triple-double in four different seasons, becoming the NBA’s all-time leader with 184 triple-doubles (and counting), a record that may never be broken.

But in a discussion for greatest point guards of all-time, Westbrook’s name is rarely mentioned and the lack of an NBA title on his list of accolades plays a major part in that. If Westbrook were to win a title, how far would he climb up the all-time point guard list? Or the greatest players in NBA history, in general?

There’s a case to be made that one single championship would put Westbrook in those conversations indefinitely.

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