Building the NBA's All-Time 'Never Won a Title' Team
Now that Jimmy Butler's Miami Heat have been eliminated from the NBA Finals by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, he may be trending toward "one of the best players to never win a title" status.
Despite losing to L.A., he had one of the strongest statistical performances in Finals history.
By the numbers, Butler is on track for all-time-great status. But you know the story. Among NBA analysts and fans, those who failed to win a title are often viewed through a different lens.
One of the first points that comes up when discussing the legacies of John Stockton, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, just to name a few, is the fact that they never broke through with a championship.
Whether that's fair is a topic for another article. Here, we'll deliberately look through that lens and select the All-Time "Never Won a Title" Team using largely objective methodology.
Methodology and Honorable Mentions
We'll name 12 players to the team, using the same positional format the NBA uses for All-Star teams: two backcourt spots, three frontcourt spots and seven reserves.
And those 12 players come from a field established by last summer's all-time top 50. Any retired players from that list or its honorable mentions without a title were included. Active players were excluded, since they still have time to win titles.
Then, the following were determined for each player:
- Career box plus/minus: "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court."
- Career wins over replacement player: the cumulative variant of BPM (think points versus points per game).
- Playoff BPM and WORP.
- 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 / 1,190 = 0.81."
- 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.
The players were then sorted by the average of their ranks in each category. That gave us the 12 who make up the All-Time "Never Won a Title" Team. It also kept some all-timers off.
Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Chris Webber and "Pistol" Pete Maravich were some of the players who didn't quite make the cut.
Some may be surprised by Elgin Baylor's absence as well. He's often discussed as a player without a title, but he was given a championship ring by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers squad despite not playing that postseason. He retired just nine games into that regular season.
He never made it past the second round in the postseason, though. Being in the Eastern Conference for a significant chunk of Larry Bird's career certainly didn't help.
His most productive seasons came in the ABA, but Artis Gilmore did plenty of damage after the merger, too. Over his first 10 NBA seasons, Gilmore averaged 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
Like Wilkins, though, much of his career was played during an era largely dominated by Bird and Magic Johnson.
Another ABA product, George Gervin was one of the league's best scorers in the 1970s and '80s.
He won the scoring title in four out of five seasons from 1977-78 to 1981-82. And the distance between his 29.8 points per game in that stretch and Moses Malone's second-place 26.1 was about the same as the distance between second and eighth.
Reggie Miller was ahead of his time. You know about the three-point shooting. What doesn't get as much publicity is his ability to get to the line.
Chauncey Billups, Spencer Dinwiddie, Danilo Gallinari and James Harden are the only players in league history who exceed Miller's career marks for three-point attempt rate and free-throw attempt rate.
Bob Lanier was one of the game's early point big men.
Magic and Bird prevented a lot of the '80s stars from winning titles. Michael Jordan was the foil in the '90s. And Patrick Ewing is one of the stars who had much of his prime spoiled by MJ.
That shouldn't detract from his individual greatness, though. Over a 10-year peak from 1987-88 to 1996-97, Ewing averaged 24.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.0 steals.
If you sort every team across NBA history by relative offensive rating (a team's points per 100 possessions minus the league average), you'll find that Steve Nash was the starting point guard for each of the top two, five of the top nine and six of the top 15.
His five assist titles and third-place spot on the all-time assist leaderboard are impressive, but his command of those all-time-great offenses says even more.
Backcourt: John Stockton
John Stockton's numbers, particularly through his 10-year peak, almost don't look real.
From 1987-88 to 1996-97, Stockton averaged 15.6 points, 12.8 assists and 2.6 steals. In the first five years of that stretch, his assists were all the way up at 14.0.
And here's the kicker: He also had a 56.0 effective field-goal percentage during that decade. The league average for those years was 49.1.
Stockton isn't just the all-time king of assists and steals; he was a ridiculously efficient shooter, one of the game's grittiest defenders and the epitome of floor generalship and unselfishness.
"As a scoring forward or 2-guard, John is what you always dreamed of in a point guard," legendary teammate Karl Malone said in 1995. "He has the ability to make the last-second shot, but instead he wants to be the guy to set up the last-second shot."
That unselfishness was on vivid display throughout Stockton's career. Had he come up in a more recent era, coaches may have urged him to shoot more. And he repeatedly proved that was a good option. But like Malone said, passing was his preference.
Over the course of his career, Stockton averaged 10.5 assists and 9.1 field-goal attempts per game.
As he aged past his prime, he had back-to-back shots at a title against Michael Jordan. Like so many at the time, he couldn't get past the GOAT.
Backcourt: Allen Iverson
But few players across NBA history carried as heavy an offensive burden. And more often than not, his teams scored more efficiently when he was on the floor, a better indication of his impact than shooting percentages.
From 1998-99 to 2005-06, Iverson averaged 29.6 points, 5.9 assists and 2.4 steals. He topped 30 points per game four times and won four scoring titles. At just 6'0" and 165 pounds, he was one of the most dominant forces in the league in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Undefeated's Justin Tinsley described him as a "planet with his own gravitational pull." And you could see that whenever watching him during his run with the Philadelphia 76ers. Every possession was entirely in A.I.'s control. Though he appeared diminutive in comparison to many who defended him, the ball was his, whether dribbling around guards or fearlessly attacking bigs.
In 2001, he led Philly all the way to the Finals with a supporting cast headlined by Aaron McKie, Theo Ratliff, Tyrone Hill and Eric Snow. Against the fabled Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, A.I. even dropped 48 points and took a game off a team that finished that postseason 15-1.
Frontcourt: Tracy McGrady
The player in the top spot on the single-season offensive box plus/minus leaderboard is no surprise. In 2015-16, Stephen Curry averaged 31.9 points, 7.1 assists and 5.4 threes per 75 possessions, with a 66.9 true shooting percentage that dwarfed the league average of 54.1.
The No. 2 spot on that list, on the other hand, may be surprising to many. It doesn't belong to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, James Harden or Kevin Durant. They make up the rest of the top 10, but in second place is Tracy McGrady, who was unstoppable in 2002-03.
That season, McGrady averaged a league-leading 32.1 points, 5.5 assists and 2.3 threes per game while shooting 38.6 percent from three.
His combination of size (6'8") and athleticism, as well as his scoring prowess from all three levels (the basket, mid-range and three-point range) were what drew the most attention that season, but his evolution as a leader and playmaker may have been equally important.
"What validates a superstar from just a great talent is the ability to make your teammates much better," then-Detroit Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said in 2003. "That's what Tracy does now. And he doesn't have to score to carry the team, either."
Of course, 2002-03 wasn't T-Mac's only monster season. From 2000-01 to 2007-08, McGrady averaged 26.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, but he never made it past the first round of the playoffs.
Don't blame him, though. McGrady is sixth in NBA history in career playoff box plus/minus.
Frontcourt: Karl Malone
Half of one of the game's truly legendary duos, Karl Malone was the finisher for thousands of John Stockton's record 15,806 dimes. He was the primary beneficiary of Stockton's greatness, but this was undoubtedly a two-way street. It's fair to wonder where Stockton would be without Malone, too.
Over the course of his career, Malone developed into a complete scorer who could get points in the post, in transition or from the mid-range. He averaged over 20 points per game in a staggering 17 consecutive seasons.
He certainly wasn't selfish, though. Over the last 11 seasons of his career, the Mailman delivered 4.1 assists per game. And he's 58th on the all-time assist leaderboard.
His production never led to a title, though. Peaking in the '90s often meant battles with Michael Jordan. And no one from the West had to do that more than Stockton and Malone.
You can't hold up numbers like a trophy, so the two Utah Jazz icons would surely trade stats for titles, but they were great in those two Finals series.
If you sort everyone with at least 100 minutes from those 12 games by box plus/minus, Malone (7.5) and Stockton (6.9) trail only Jordan's 10.6.
Plenty will remember Jordan stealing the ball from Malone down the stretch of 1998's Game 6 over the numbers that led to that box plus/minus, but the big man averaged 24.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists in those Finals games.
Frontcourt: Charles Barkley
Few relationships depict unrequited love quite like Charles Barkley and analytics. The Hall of Fame forward and TNT analyst has often railed against the statistical revolution of the last decade or so, but many of the numbers that have resulted from that push absolutely adore Barkley and help educate younger fans on just how dominant he was.
Barkley is 13th in NBA history in career box plus/minus, eighth in career offensive box plus/minus and 12th in career true shooting percentage despite the worst three-point percentage of all time (by far) among players with at least as many attempts.
What led to the great catch-all numbers for Barkley was dominance on the boards, unrivaled efficiency from two-point range, solid passing for a big and a little bit of ball-hawking.
Barkley averaged double figures in rebounds in 15 of his 16 seasons. His 14.6 per game led the league in 1986-87. And he's top-20 all-time in career boards.
As for the efficiency, he led the league in two-point percentage for five straight seasons from 1986-87 to 1990-91, a remarkable feat for a 6'6" player. Among players with at least as many career two-point attempts, Barkley (58.1) trails only the much bigger Shaquille O'Neal (58.3) in career two-point percentage.
On the playmaking front, Barkley's company is legends of the league's formative years. Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell are the only players in NBA history who exceed his career marks for both rebounds (11.7) and assists (3.9) per game (minimum 10,000 minutes).
Swap out assists per game for steals per game in that exercise and Barkley stands alone.
Put it all together and it isn't difficult to see why an advanced formula like box plus/minus considers Barkley one of the greatest players of all time.
Unfortunately, gaudy numbers don't guarantee titles. And, like plenty of others on this list, Barkley had the distinct misfortune of dominating in the same era as players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.