LOOKBACK: Legends left without NBA titles by Michael Jordan

MANILA, Philippines – An NBA championship is one of the most elusive awards in the sporting world, and for good reason. 

Only a carefully-constructed roster of the best basketball players can even get a crack at the Larry O’Brien trophy through 4 rounds of grueling battles with other transcendent talents of the sport. 

There’s only enough room for one team at the top every year and those who fail to get a ring must suck it up and start another hundred-game marathon the next season for another shot. 

But once every generation, there comes a team so dominant it denies other great squads their place at the top thanks to their assortment of larger-than-life megastars. 

In the 1990s, that team was the Chicago Bulls led by the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan

Thanks to “His Airness” and other Hall of Famers like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and head coach Phil Jackson, the Bulls won 6 of the decade’s 10 titles through two separate three-peats. 

As this unparalleled run cemented the Bulls’ reputation as one the NBA’s greatest franchises, this also denied other teams and their respective superstars a legitimate shot to claim the ultimate prize. 

Below is a list of the best of the best who never won a single NBA championship due to Jordan and the Bulls one way or another. 

Despite being left ringless for the entirety of their careers, each of these legends still easily earned their spots at the Naismith Hall of Fame, which says a lot about just how dominant their most feared adversaries were. 

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Career Averages: 18.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 40% three-point percentage 

What’s worse than being denied a championship by the greatest of all time? Sharing a conference with the greatest of all time. 

This is exactly the case with Reggie Miller, the greatest Indiana Pacers star of all time and one of the best shooters in basketball history. 

After years of losing in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics, the Miller-led Pacers got over their postseason hump by reaching their third Eastern Conference Finals berth in 1998. 

Just as Miller was about to start his career decline at age 32, he recorded his ninth straight season averaging at least 19 points per game that year and led the Pacers to a Conference Finals matchup with Jordan and the Bulls for the first time ever.

The series proved to be an instant classic as the Pacers forced a winner-take-all Game 7 in Chicago, proving they have the power to deny the Bulls’ second three-peat.

However, Miller’s charge fell excruciatingly short of the mark as the Bulls escaped with a series-ending 88-83 win for a finals spot against the Utah Jazz. 

By the time the Pacers actually got to the NBA finals in 2000, Miller was a 34-year-old aging star facing the Los Angeles Lakers and their emerging duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. LA eventually won the series, 4-2, to kick off its own title three-peat.

Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Career Averages: 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 1.0 steals 

Unlike Miller and the Pacers, Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks actually achieved more success during Jordan’s reign over the NBA. However, this doesn’t mean that they won it all.

Thanks to Jordan’s one-and-a-half year leave spanning across 1993 to 1995, Ewing managed to lead the Knicks to the 1994 NBA Finals, where they faced the Houston Rockets and their own superstar big man Hakeem Olajuwon. 

The year prior, the Knicks were ousted from the Eastern Conference Finals in 6 games at the hands of, who else, Jordan and the Bulls.

With Jordan out of the way in 1994, however, Ewing took full advantage as the Knicks eventually forced a do-or-die Finals Game 7 in Houston. 

But the Rockets pulled away by just 6, 90-84, to win the first of their two-straight NBA titles sandwiched between Chicago's three-peats.

The very next year, Ewing and the Knicks were back as stepping stones for the resurgent Jordan and the Bulls, who eliminated them in 5 games in the conference semifinals. 

By the time Ewing got back to the finals in 1999, he was then met by the new guys on the block: the San Antonio Spurs and their deadly twin tower duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. 

The 8th-seeded Knicks were simply no match as the Spurs ended their Cinderella run in 5 games. 

Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns/Houston Rockets

Career Averages: 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks 

While all of the guys on this list chased their NBA title dreams with just one team, “The Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley had the luxury of doing so in 3 different squads during his prime. 

However, his fate did not change much wearing each team's colors. He still fell short whenever Jordan came around. 

Barkley first experienced Jordan’s dominance as the Bulls eliminated his Sixers in the conference semifinals two years in a row from 1990 to 1991. 

Then after a rough 1992 season where the Sixers didn’t even make the playoffs, Barkley traveled out west and settled with the Phoenix Suns, hoping for a better shot at the title. 

That wish indeed came true as he led the Suns to the 1993 NBA finals against – surprise, surprise – Jordan and the Bulls in the middle of their chase for their first three-peat. 

As Barkley averaged 31.5 points, 12 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 46 minutes over the first two contests, the Suns, however, completely lost their homecourt advantage by dropping both home games to the visiting Bulls for a commanding 2-0 lead.

Although Phoenix rallied and miraculously stole two of the next 3 games in Chicago to close the gap at 2-3, the Bulls delivered the ultimate heartbreaking dagger as John Paxson sank a championship-winning trey with 3.9 seconds left to secure a 99-98 win.

 That moment marked the last time Barkley – and so far, the Suns – appeared in the NBA finals.

Karl Malone and John Stockton, Utah Jazz

Malone Career Averages: 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks

Stockton Career Averages: 13.1 points, 10.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals 

Last but definitely not the least are the two greatest casualties in Jordan’s unrelenting charge towards basketball supremacy: Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz. 

As a testament to their unprecedented consistency at the highest level, Malone and Stockton never missed the playoffs for the entirety of their 18-year partnership in Utah. 

Despite accumulating 9 first-round exits in 18 years, the duo led the Jazz to 4 conference semifinals and 3 conference finals during their tenure. But obviously, no campaigns were more successful than their back-to-back finals trips in 1997 and 1998.

However, what were meant to be their crowning moments turned to nothing but recurring nightmares as they lost to the Bulls two years in a row and witnessed the completion of Chicago's second franchise three-peat at their expense. 

After losing the last two games of the 1997 finals by an average margin of just 3 points, Stockton and Malone then saw their bounceback efforts in 1998 go down the drain yet again thanks to one of the most iconic shots in the game’s history.

As the last shot of "The Last Dance" fell through, so did Malone and Stockton’s best chance for their first-ever title. 

Stockton quietly retired in 2003 as the holder of the untouchable all-time career assists (15,806) and steals (3,265) records, cementing his place as arguably the greatest pure point guard of all time despite the lack of hardware to back it up.  

For context, the active player nearest to those marks right now is 14-year veteran Chris Paul, who “only” has 9,607 assists and 2,207 steals to his name. 

Meanwhile, Malone gave up his title pursuit just a year after Stockton’s retirement with the ill-fated 2004 Lakers superteam. 

Playing alongside fellow Hall of Famers Gary Payton, Bryant and O’Neal, Malone and the Lakers were humiliated in just 5 games by the blue-collar Detroit Pistons to complete one of the greatest finals upsets in NBA history. 

Malone then retired in 2005 holding the league’s second all-time scoring record with 36,928 points. For context, living legend and 17-year veteran LeBron James is still 2,841 points short of that mark.

That graphic says it all, really. Michael Jordan killed the dreams of 5 men to achieve his own 6 times over.

These legends were all great in their own right, but there’s a reason why only one can be the greatest. – Rappler.com