NBA Metrics 101: Best Active Players to Never Win a Title
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have four apiece—more than all but 26 players in NBA history. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem have three of their own. Stephen Curry got his second, while Kevin Durant earned his first with the Golden State Warriors' redemption against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals.
But not every great player has a title on his resume.
Championships are elusive beasts. That's why they're so important in historical debates and Hall of Fame resumes; no one would care if they were easy to earn.
These 10 active players—the leaders in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) over their regular-season careers—might eventually join the club, but that's by no means guaranteed. They could retire without any jewelry of note.
And they'd still have enjoyed fantastic careers. If they hadn't, they wouldn't be featured here, since we're interested in the totality of their NBA tenures rather than their current levels.
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Nicolas Batum, SG, Charlotte Hornets: 1,028.2 TPA
Though Nicolas Batum has yet to make an All-Star squad for either the Portland Trail Blazers or Charlotte Hornets (and likely never will, unless he explodes in 2017-18 to take advantage of the weakened field in his half of the NBA), he's already put together a fairly lengthy career filled with plenty of production. The French swingman entered the league back in 2008-09, and he's steadily asserted himself as a multifaceted contributor capable of challenging for triple-doubles and competing on both ends.
But that hasn't led to nearly any playoff success.
Forget about rings. Batum has yet to advance past the postseason's opening series in all but one of his go-rounds. The lone exception came in 2013-14 when his Blazers took down the Houston Rockets in six games but quickly fell to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals.
Perhaps this could change now that he's forming a dynamic duo with Russell Westbrook and surrounded by plenty of complementary talent on the Oklahoma City Thunder. But up to this point in Paul George's up-and-down career, he's failed to do anything more than throw playoff scares into LeBron James.
Though the setback created by his horrifically fractured leg sucked away a prime season, George has still asserted himself on a near-Hall-of-Fame trajectory. He's emerged as a prominent threat to put up 30 points on any given night, and he's often just as impactful on the defensive end. The living embodiment of a two-way wing, he's now made three All-NBA squads.
Nonetheless, he's relegated to the honorable mentions because the longevity isn't quite there. Those three aforementioned accolades are quite impressive, but the rest of his career has been spent either injured or slowly building up to that high level.
Has Al Horford ever been the NBA's best center?
Probably not. He's been close on numerous occasions, but it's telling that his lone All-NBA appearance came via a Third Team selection in 2010-11. Especially while playing for nondescript Atlanta Hawks outfits, the big man didn't post enough glamorous numbers, though his two-way abilities certainly gave him the production of a two-way superstar.
Perhaps this could change if the Boston Celtics make good on their immense cache of future assets, but Horford's playoff career falls into the same category: He's always been solid and advanced fairly deep into the proceedings, but he never wins anything and rarely gets the recognition he deserves.
Twice now, he's been to the Eastern Conference Finals—once with the Hawks in 2015, and again with the top-seeded Boston Celtics this past year. Both times, he was steamrolled by James' Cleveland Cavaliers, preventing him from reaching the league's ultimate stage and gaining a legitimate shot at some jewelry.
10. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
Years Played: 2010-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 21.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Career Accolades: Five-time All-Star, Four-time All-NBA, All-Rookie, Rookie of the Year
For whatever reason, Blake Griffin's flaws often inappropriately spring to the forefront of any discussion about the dominant power forward.
He can't shoot...except he knocked down 43.6 percent of his two-point jumpers from at least 16 feet during the 2016-17 campaign. He doesn't display any semblance of post-up skill...except his unorthodox, whirling-dervish style is more effective than it looks, to the point that he finished in the 66th percentile for back-to-the-basket plays last year. He's an atrocious defender...except ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) and defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), flawed as they may be as standalone metrics, both point to him emerging as a slightly above-average stopper.
Perhaps the world was just so captivated by his early-career dunking prowess that nothing he does now can ever be good enough. He hasn't morphed into an MVP frontrunner, so apparently serving as a legitimate All-NBA threat year in and year out isn't good enough and forces the microscope to focus on the perceived flaws—illegitimate as they may be.
But the one legitimate knock comes in the playoffs.
Griffin's play has declined, if only by a slight amount, during the NBA's second season. He's dealt with unfortunate injuries, and he's been part of too many collapses. The Los Angeles Clippers may have advanced past the 82nd game during each of the last six seasons, but they have yet to move past two teams and fight for a Finals berth in the penultimate round.
Until that changes, Griffin's reputation as a stat-stuffing 4 who struggles to win when it matters might not change, either.
9. Joakim Noah, C, New York Knicks
Years Played: 2007-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 9.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks
Career Accolades: Two-time All-Star, All-NBA, Three-time All-Defensive, Defensive Player of the Year
Again, we're not concerned with the levels at which these contributors currently play. Only their body of work matters.
Joakim Noah is coming off an injury-riddled season with the New York Knicks, one that saw him suit up only 46 times and log just 22.1 minutes per game. He's a shell of his old self, and he hasn't made 70 appearances in a single campaign since 2013-14—back when he was still an All-Star who finished fourth in the MVP voting, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
But let that last sentence sink in.
Noah has a fourth-place MVP finish. The year before that, he finished on an MVP ballot, though he didn't generate a first-place nod from anyone. He's won Defensive Player of the Year, and his remarkable ability protecting the paint, complemented by his passing flair, made him one of the game's best centers even while he struggled to score in double figures.
No matter what happens throughout the rest of his career—and it's not just possible, but overwhelmingly likely he never reenters the elite center conversation as a 32-year-old with a lengthy injury history—he's put together a monster resume. It's just devoid of titles, and he never got further than losing a five-game clash with the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
8. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
Years Played: 2008-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.5 blocks
Career Accolades: Three-time All-Star, Two-time All-NBA, All-Defensive, All-Rookie, Defensive Player of the Year
Throughout his career, Marc Gasol has consistently elevated his play during the postseason. He's averaged 17.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.7 blocks, and his advanced metrics back up the slight increase in performance.
His player efficiency rating (PER) has remained the same in both the regular season and playoffs, but his box plus/minus (BPM) has risen from 3.7 to 4.8. His win shares per 48 minutes? They've gone from 0.154 to 0.146, though that minimal decrease is perfectly understandable when you factor in increased level of competition and the Memphis Grizzlies' struggles to advance.
Plus, Gasol's biggest boosts are harder to quantify because they come on the defensive end. He devotes so much of his energy to making quick rotations around the basket, and his laser focus routinely allows him to get to the intended spots before his opponents.
But wins have still eluded him.
Due to Memphis' grit-and-grind style and persistent point-preventing prowess, playoff series become all-out wars that often go the distance—or close to it. So by the time the Grizz are ready to square off against an elite foe, as they did in 2013 when they were swept out of the Western Conference Finals by the San Antonio Spurs, they're already a bit worn down.
Unfortunately for one of the best 5s of his generation, this might not change anytime soon. Memphis' cap situation isn't conducive to breaking out of the West's middling morass, though the two-man core of Gasol and Mike Conley should remain in the playoff hunt every year.
7. Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
Years Played: 2006-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks
Career Accolades: Three-time All-Star, All-NBA
It's not Kyle Lowry's fault he had to play during an era ridiculously stacked with top-tier point guards. He may only have one All-NBA selection on his resume, but that's not a reflection on his overall talent.
Lowry had trouble excelling with both the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets early in his professional tenure, but he broke out in a big way after moving to the Toronto Raptors. Losing weight and gaining motivation helped unlock his full potential as a deadly shooter who could break down any defender off the bounce and still find time to contribute on the other end.
Over the last four seasons, Lowry has averaged an elite line: 19.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals per contest. He's also shot 43.1 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from downtown and 81.3 percent at the stripe. Only two other players have matched those per-game numbers during the same span: James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
But the playoffs have told an entirely different story.
For whatever reason, Lowry's shot has consistently gone missing on the bigger stages. He can't create quite as much separation for his pull-up jumpers and is greeted by more contact around the rim, which has led to him shooting the Toronto Raptors out of a game a few too many times.
He does have an Eastern Conference Finals appearance under his belt (2016), but getting over the hump will be impossible if he can't first work past his mental block.
6. Paul Millsap, PF, Denver Nuggets
Years Played: 2006-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks
Career Accolades: Four-time All-Star, All-Defensive, All-Rookie
Perhaps Paul Millsap wouldn't be so underrated if he had a championship to his name.
Unfortunately for the power forward, he's never been particularly close. He advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015 while serving as a two-way leader for the Atlanta Hawks, but that was his first experience in the penultimate round since the 2007 Western Conference Finals, back when he was playing only 15.5 minutes per game as a rookie for the Utah Jazz.
In both cases, he lost.
Maybe that'll change now that he's functioning as a perfect frontcourt complement to Nikola Jokic for the Denver Nuggets, but rings aren't likely to come until we're a few years down the road. Not given the youth of the Mile High City's troops. Not given the ongoing Golden State Warriors dynasty.
Either way, the lack of playoff success shouldn't detract from Millsap's ever-growing resume. He's asserted himself as one of the NBA's most versatile players, thriving whether he's using his pump-fake to work past defenders or making the most of his lanky wingspan on the preventing side.
Since moving into the staring lineup back in 2010-11, Millsap is one of just three players to post offensive and defensive box plus/minuses of 1.4 and 2.3, respectively. Kawhi Leonard joins him, and Sim Bhullar (over the course of just three games) completes the group.
The former second-round pick might not get mentioned frequently enough as one of the Association's premier two-way talents. But he is one.
5. Dwight Howard, C, Charlotte Hornets
Years Played: 2004-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks
Career Accolades: Eight-time All-Star, Eight-time All-NBA, Five-time All-Defensive, All-Rookie, Three-time Defensive Player of the Year
Dwight Howard spent only one season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and his lack of chemistry played a part in the disappointing finish, even if he put up quality individual numbers. That inability to fit in with teammates reared its ugly head once more during three seasons with the Houston Rockets, and he lasted only a single year with his hometown Atlanta Hawks before the franchise dealt him to the Charlotte Hornets for nothing more than Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee.
Chances are good he won't win a championship in Charlotte. He might not ever add one to his Hall of Fame resume, unless he signs on as a lesser piece in ring-chasing mode at the tail end of his career.
But don't let this downturn distract you from what Howard did with the Orlando Magic.
He was a transcendent talent during his eight seasons with the franchise, establishing himself as an unquestionable elite at the center position while racking up awards. Earning Defensive Player of the Year three times is no easy feat, and the same is true of his eight All-NBA selections and consistent ability to push the Magic close to a title.
Let's not forget about Howard dragging Orlando into the NBA Finals during the 2008-09 campaign, in which he averaged 20.3 points and 15.3 rebounds while shooting 60.1 percent from the field throughout the playoff run. Sure, he couldn't overcome the massive talent deficit against the Los Angeles Lakers on the biggest stage, but he still became one of the few players in these rankings to even suit up during the final round.
4. Vince Carter, SG/SF, Sacramento Kings
Years Played: 1998-present
Career Per-Game Stats:18.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks
Career Accolades: Eight-time All-Star, Two-time All-NBA, All-Rookie, Rookie of the Year
Vince Carter has been a part of the NBA since winning Rookie of the Year with the Toronto Raptors in 1998-99, but he hasn't logged an inordinate number of postseason appearances. He's only made the conference finals on one occasion—2010 with the Orlando Magic—and his 88 career playoff games leave him behind 35 active players, including the following luminaries:
- Leandro Barbosa
- Matt Barnes
- Mario Chalmers
- Glen Davis
- J.R. Smith
Do note that "luminaries" is used sarcastically. Each of the five aforementioned players was useful during his prime but didn't ascend to Carter's level of high-flying superstardom.
Carter has settled in as a two-way role player while battling Father Time and playing into his 40s, but he submitted some premier seasons during his peak years. During the 2000-01 campaign, he even averaged 27.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 46.0 percent from the field, 40.8 percent on his three-point tries and 76.5 percent on his free-throw attempts.
But the playoffs have always been his bugaboo.
3. James Harden, PG/SG, Houston Rockets
Years Played: 2009-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Career Accolades: Five-time All-Star, Four-time All-NBA, All-Rookie, Sixth Man of the Year
James Harden is one of the few players featured here who once had a legitimate chance to work his way off the list.
Rewind to the 2012 NBA Finals, and the bearded guard was a sixth man supreme for the Oklahoma City Thunder, teaming up with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka to wreak havoc on the Western Conference. But after advancing to the boss battle against a Miami Heat squad eager for revenge following a disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks one year prior, Harden disappeared.
In five Finals games, he averaged just 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 37.5 percent on his field-goal attempts and 31.8 percent on his treys. The shots weren't falling, which made him quite the detrimental presence when he already couldn't guard Dwyane Wade or any of Miami's other backcourt members. Just look at what Matthew Schmidt wrote for Bleacher Report heading into Game 5:
"He has been nothing short of atrocious, and that is the main reason why the Thunder find themselves on the brink of elimination heading into Thursday night's Game 5 in Miami. ... Now, Harden is just playing scared, so scared to the point where my friends and I were calling for Scott Brooks to remove Harden from the game and go with a lineup of Ibaka, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Westbrook."
That take isn't hyperbolic.
Harden is obviously a different player now—stinker against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 postseason notwithstanding. He's developed into a generational offensive talent capable of competing for MVPs while leading the Houston Rockets close to the promised land, and it's entirely possible he gets his first trophy sometime in the not-too-distant future.
2. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Years Played: 2008-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Career Accolades: Six-time All-Star, Two-time scoring champion, Six-time All-NBA, All-Rookie, MVP
Could Russell Westbrook retire right now and earn recognition in Springfield?
At this point, probably.
After the 2016-17 campaign, Westbrook now has an MVP trophy on his mantle. He's one of only two players to average a triple-double for an entire season, and he's proved he can carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to semi-lofty heights while working as the team's lone star. With nine seasons to his credit, two scoring titles and plenty of incredible numbers, he should be viewed as a near-lock, even with so much time left in his career.
Already, he ranks rather impressively in most historical analyses.
ESPN.com ran its all-time rankings before the start of Westbrook's trip-dub festival, but he placed at No. 49, sandwiched between Allen Iverson and Ray Allen. The CBS Sports staff took part in a similar exercise that debuted in February 2017, and the uber-athletic point guard was listed as one of the 10 players who just missed the top-50 cut.
But remember, this is before he held up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Of course, these questions are ultimately irrelevant. Westbrook isn't retiring anytime soon, and he has so many more seasons to add to his already-impressive resume.
Most importantly for our purposes, his new pairing with Paul George offers him an opportunity to start winning games when they count most. He wasn't able to earn a championship alongside Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, but that doesn't mean he'll go ringless in this new era of Thunder basketball.
1. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets
Years Played: 2005-present
Career Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks
Career Accolades: Nine-time All-Star, Eight-time All-NBA, Nine-time All-Defensive, All-Rookie, Rookie of the Year
Let's turn back to those same two sets of rankings.
"More than anybody else on this list, you have to wonder how we’d talk about him if he’d won a championship or two. Paul is beyond a basketball genius. He’s one of those rare few players who can completely control a game with his mind. At 31 he’s nowhere near as quick as he was when he entered the league, but he’s still the best two-way point guard on the planet. An underrated scorer, his 2008-09 season in New Orleans stands out as one of the greatest ever at his position: 22.8 points, 11 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals while shooting 50.3 percent with a 59.9 percent true shooting percentage. How a player this good has never advanced to a conference championship is hard to comprehend."
Paul's regular-season resume should not be questioned.
He's good enough to spark legitimate arguments about whether he's on pace to become the greatest point guard of all time, blasphemous as that may seem with Magic Johnson factoring into the equation. Few have ever been such deft facilitators, and Paul's monumentally positive impact is limited to neither that one facet of offensive play nor that one side of the court.
But questions about his playoff resume remain.
They're made more interesting by his elevated individual performances after the 82nd game of the year—his true shooting percentage (58.0 to 58.5), PER (25.7 to 25.8) and box plus/minus (7.6 to 8.5) all rise in the playoffs, compared to his already stellar regular-season exploits. However, the consistent inability to advance into even the conference finals has spawned numerous thinkpieces. And it's a shame, because playoff failures shouldn't be a central argument for such an overwhelmingly excellent player.
Paul might not win a ring for a while longer (if he ever does). But at least he'll have a distinct shot at getting to the Western Conference Finals now that he's wearing a Houston Rockets uniform and suiting up alongside James Harden to form a super-charged backcourt.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.