Ranking the Greatest Active NBA Players with No Rings
"But rings!" is often a fallback position for NBA fans locked in heated debates over the all-time legacies of their favorite individual players.
Michael Jordan's 6-0 record in the Finals may be the brightest feather in his cap in such debates.
But as we showed in June, some of the greatest players in league history went through their entire careers without playing for a title-winning team.
And some of the greatest players of the last two decades have the same distinction. Of course, there's still time for guys like Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook to win a championship, but they're currently on track to join the likes of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
Where do those three rank among the greatest active players without rings? We'll use the following methodology to answer that question.
Methodology and Close Calls
Differentiating "best" and "greatest" can be a fine line to walk in projects like this. If we emphasize rate numbers like box plus/minus into the methodology, someone like fifth-year center Nikola Jokic would have a good shot at the top 10.
Instead, we'll focus on cumulative numbers (think points, rather than points per game) in an effort to reward longevity and career accomplishments.
To determine the final ranking, we started with the top 50 in box plus/minus among active non-champions with at least 5,000 career minutes.
Those 50 were then sorted by the average of their ranks (among each other) in the following:
- Career wins over replacement player.
- Career playoff wins over replacement player.
- Career MVP shares ("The formula is (award points) / (maximum number of award points). For example, in the 2002-03 MVP voting Tim Duncan had 962 points out of a possible 1,190. His MVP award share is 962 / 1190 = 0.81.")
- Career accolade points (Three points for a first-team All-NBA selection, two points for a second-team All-NBA selection or a first-team All-Defensive selection, and one point for a third-team All-NBA selection, a second-team All-Defensive selection or an All-Star selection.)
- A fan vote.
A little extra weight was given to MVP shares (since that award is the pinnacle of individual achievement in the NBA) and the fan vote.
By that criteria, the first 10 players to miss the cut were LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Horford, Derrick Rose, Nikola Jokic, Mike Conley, Paul Millsap, Rudy Gobert, John Wall, Joakim Noah and DeAndre Jordan.
The top 10 follow.
10. Blake Griffin
Prior to an injury-plagued 2019-20 campaign, Blake Griffin was one of the most explosive and statistically versatile point forwards in NBA history.
Many likely know him as the rim rattler who demolished Kendrick Perkins, flew over Timofey Mozgov and dunked on countless others over the course of his prime, but it might actually be his passing that truly sets him apart.
Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in league history who match or exceed Griffin's career marks for points (21.7), rebounds (8.8) and assists (4.4) per game.
"It's very valuable," CP3 said of Griffin's passing in 2015, per Robert Morales of the Los Angeles Daily News. "When teams try to send two people at me in the pick-and-roll and different things like that, there are some guys in our league who have to try to pull it and drag it and keep it themselves. But it makes us that much more dangerous that I can just hit Blake, and he knows how to make great decisions."
The added wrinkle of Griffin's passing made the Lob City Clippers' pick-and-roll one of the most dynamic and dangerous sets in the league. When defenses collapsed on a rolling Griffin, he was often able to find DeAndre Jordan above the rim for a big-to-big alley-oop.
Over the course of the six seasons that trio was together, the Clippers were a whopping plus-11.0 points per 100 possessions when all three were on the floor.
9. Damian Lillard
Some rightfully point to the three-point revolution as a reason for inflated offensive numbers of today's NBA stars. But I'm not sure we should be penalizing anyone for playing a smarter brand of basketball.
And Damian Lillard's utilization of the three-point line is a big reason he's ninth in NBA history in career offensive box plus/minus.
He has been the offensive engine for the Portland Trail Blazers from the moment he entered the league. And despite relatively few star teammates over the course of his career, Lillard's Blazers are sixth over that span in points per 100 possessions.
The defining characteristic of Lillard, though, might be an intangible. Prior to the start of this season, the annual GM survey pegged Lillard as the league's best leader.
Portland's core has morphed multiple times during Lillard's career. He is invariably the face and leader of the group each time. And he pushed the Blazers to the postseason in the loaded West in six of his first seven seasons (with the possibility of a seventh appearance still in play in his eighth season).
8. Anthony Davis
So far, Anthony Davis has piled up 12,526 points, 5,423 rebounds and 1,255 career blocks.
Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson are the only players in league history to hit all three marks through their first eight seasons, and Davis has played over 2,000 fewer minutes than anyone on that list.
He also started his career at a younger age than any of the above Hall of Famers. No one prior to AD had ever totaled that many points, rebounds and assists through an age-26 campaign.
Simply put, Davis is one of the most productive big men the NBA has ever seen.
In his eight seasons, Davis has seven All-Star appearances, three All-NBA appearances, three All-Defensive appearances and three blocks titles. He's finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times and the top five twice.
And now, as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and teammate of LeBron James, there's a solid chance AD won't be eligible for lists like this for much longer.
The Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and others will have a say in the matter, but the Lakers will enter the league's bubble in Orlando as one of the top-tier title contenders.
7. Carmelo Anthony
Over the last three seasons, Carmelo Anthony is 325th among the 384 players with at least 1,500 minutes in box plus/minus. But this twilight phase of his career shouldn't erase the memory of the scorer he was for much of the 2000s and 2010s.
"I think he's the best pure scorer in the NBA," former teammate Amar'e Stoudemire wrote in 2016 for the Players' Tribune (h/t CBS Sports). "It just comes so easy to him. When he's at his best, he's playing an entirely different game than the rest of us. That night when he scored 62 at the Garden, that was easy for him. He could have gotten 70, maybe more. He just flowed out there on the court. That's what the game is all about, getting to a level like Carmelo is on. When a great player performs like that, it's fun to watch. I should know, I was there."
All those jab-step mid-range jumpers, threes, post moves, drives to the rim and trips to the line were distinctly Melo. You can see them all (especially the jab steps) in your mind's eye. And they all came with a smoothness or flow, as Stoudemire said.
He never reached the mountaintop with the Knicks or Denver Nuggets. In fact, he only advanced past the first round twice in his career. But for well over a decade, his teams could rely on 20-plus points from him night in and night out. There aren't many players across league history who earned that distinction.
6. Paul George
Paul George's placement one spot ahead of Carmelo Anthony may surprise some, but remember the criteria used here.
Despite only being in the league for 10 seasons, George was just two spots behind Melo in career wins over replacement player. And believe it or not, PG topped the legendary scorer in playoff wins over replacement player, accolade points and the fan vote.
And when you look at their basic career numbers side by side, you find clear advantages for George:
- Anthony: 35.7 minutes, 23.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 threes, 1.0 steals per game, 48.2 effective field-goal percentage
- George: 33.5 minutes, 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.4 threes, 1.7 steals per game, 51.1 effective field-goal percentage
When you adjust for pace and playing time, the gap in scoring between these two isn't enough to overcome George's wins in terms of efficiency, playmaking and defense.
And it's that last category that really sets him apart.
For the majority of George's career, he has been known as one of the game's best perimeter defenders. He's been named to four All-Defensive teams. And his squad's defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was better with him on the floor in eight out of his 10 seasons.
Not only has he been a No. 1 scorer, but he's also generally the No. 1 defender. Taking on the assignment of the opposition's top scorer is no small task. The energy and commitment it takes to do so successfully is immense. And to be able to expend that and still be an effective scorer is impressive.
Like AD, George has a chance to remove himself from exercises like this. His defense in combination with Kawhi Leonard's makes the Clippers one of the scariest teams heading to Orlando.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo is in just his seventh NBA season, but he's already fifth among the group sampled in MVP shares and eighth in accolade points. And he finished third in the fan poll.
You can't blame the voters for clicking on Giannis' name. He's been one of the most dominant individual players we've ever seen over the last two seasons.
He's posting unprecedented basic numbers in 2019-20. Prior to this campaign, no one had averaged at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and six assists per 75 possessions.
And this is fresh off the heels of the first season of at least 29 points, 13 rebounds and six assists per 75 possessions, also posted by, you guessed it, Giannis.
He hasn't been around as long as some of those behind him on this list, but he's undoubtedly the statistical king of the league right now. And that's something few can claim at any point during their time in the NBA.
"Imagine a defender as punishing as Rudy Gobert and an offensive star nearly as dominant as Harden," Kirk Goldsberry wrote for ESPN. "That's Giannis."
4. Dwight Howard
Much like Melo, Dwight Howard has put together a post-prime that looks very little like his superstar years.
But if you scanned over his first 10 seasons or so, you'd quickly be reminded of just how dominant Howard was in the 2000s and early 2010s.
From 2006-07 to 2013-14, Howard won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and made eight All-Star teams, eight All-NBA teams and five All-Defensive teams.
He averaged 19.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while posting a 60.5 true shooting percentage. His teams were plus-6.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and plus-0.1 when he was off.
For a while, he appeared on track to join the ranks of the game's greatest centers of all time. And despite a steady decline and no titles (yet), he may still get there.
3. Russell Westbrook
While some may complain about stat hunting, it's hard to argue that the sheer volume of Russell Westbrook's production, particularly the number of triple-doubles, isn't impressive.
Over the last four seasons, Westbrook has averaged 26.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.8 assists. For three straight campaigns prior to this one, he averaged a triple-double.
And for all the talk of the adverse effects of his ball dominance and inefficiency as a shooter, Westbrook has only had two seasons with negative net-rating swings.
During the triple-double seasons, specifically, the Oklahoma City Thunder were plus-5.1 points per 100 possessions with Russ on the floor and minus-5.2 with him off.
Those numbers were born of the force with which Westbrook plays. When he's in the game, there is seemingly constant pressure on the opposition. Westbrook plays at a relentless pace, attacking the paint on offense and gambling for steals on defense.
Beyond his talent, there's an element of chaos introduced by his attitude toward the game. Those two things in concert make Westbrook an all-time great and certainly one of the best ever without a championship.
2. James Harden
James Harden's current average of 32.6 points per 75 possessions is the seventh-best mark in league history. And it's not his only appearance on that leaderboard. His 31.7 points per 75 possessions in 2017-18 ranks 15th, and his 36.2 from last season is the all-time high.
His career mark of 27.1 is fifth all-time.
In short, Harden is one of the greatest scorers of all time. And not just because of the sheer number of points he puts up. He does it efficiently too.
Harden's rookie season is the only one in which he's posted a below-average effective field-goal percentage. He's never been below average in true shooting percentage. And he's added more career points on his true shot attempts (both field goals and free throws) relative to a league-average shooter than Stephen Curry.
Harden is more than a scorer, though. Westbrook and CP3 are the only players in the league with more assists than Harden since the start of the 2012-13 campaign, Harden's first in Houston.
Over the last couple seasons, we've become conditioned to seeing Harden iso and attempt to score, but focusing on that sells his vision short.
Harden's ability to survey the floor and find the open man when his own scoring opportunities are stifled may be a bit underrated at this point. His kickouts to the three-point line are almost always on time and on target.
Put it all together, the scoring and the playmaking, and you have a player who is truly an offense unto himself.
1. Chris Paul
Some of Chris Paul's all-time ranks may surprise you. They're worth listing:
- Wins over replacement player: 8th
- Box plus/minus: 3rd (trailing only Michael Jordan and LeBron James)
- Assists per game: 4th
- Steals per game: 7th
- Assists: 7th
- Steals: 7th
And of course, we're not limiting the sample to non-champions on these ones. CP3 isn't just No. 1 on this list. He has an argument for top-10 to -15 status all-time.
Paul has meticulously controlled thousands of possessions over the last decade-and-a-half. He ensures that everyone is in the right spot, makes the right play almost every time he's faced with a decision and scores with devastating efficiency, particularly in the mid-range.
On defense, Paul is one of the game's premier ball hawks. And he doesn't do a ton of gambling to make defensive plays. He's committed to his individual assignments and the team's rotations. His plays on that end come within the scheme, as they generally do when he's on offense.
CP3 is as much a basketball engineer as he is a typical point guard. And few have built a legacy as unassailable as his.