The Best Players to Never Make the NBA Finals
Every NBA player dreams of winning an NBA Championship, but only a select few are lucky enough to raise the hardware. In fact, some players don’t even get a chance to play for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Heck, some teams have never had that opportunity.
That’s an entirely different debate that I’ve already broken down by analyzing five teams that could break their NBA Finals drought next. It tends to be a bit grabbier when it’s a star NBA player, of course.
It’s a harsh reality to live with, especially for great players who lead their team for years and years, just to fall short when it matters the most.
With that, let’s look at the top 5 players to never reach the NBA Finals.
5. Chris Webber
Chris Webber made the National Championship Game in back-to-back seasons at Michigan University. Webber was a member of the Fab 5, but everyone remembers him for his timeout error in his second National Championship Game. However, Webber was a great NBA player.
He was a five-time All-star, All-NBA First Teamer in 2001, Rookie of the Year, and a rebounding leader.
Webber made the playoffs his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors, but the Phoenix Suns swept them in the first round. Webber averaged 15.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.7 assists during the series.
Golden State traded Webber to the Washington Wizards the following season. The team didn’t make the playoffs until Webber’s third season with the team in 1996-1997.
Unfortunately, it was a familiar result for Webber, as the Wizards lost in a three-game sweep.
The Wizards traded Webber to the Sacramento Kings following the 1997-1998 season. Sacramento lost in the first round in Webber’s first two seasons, but Webber finally got past the first round in 2000-2001. Webber averaged a career-high 27.1 points during the regular season. The Kings beat the Suns 3-1 in the first round, but it was yet another sweep in the second round.
In 2001-2002, the Kings finished with a 61-win franchise-best. They earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They advanced to their first Conference Finals in 21 years after defeating the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks.
Sacramento matched up with the Lakers in the Conference Finals. The Kings led the series 3-2 with a trip to the NBA Finals in sight. Game 6 of this series is widely regarded as one of the most controversial games in NBA history.
Suffice to say, it didn’t do anything to quiet the chatter about sports betting scandals in history.
The Lakers attempted 27 free throws in the fourth quarter enroute to winning the game by four points. There are reports out there that the game was rigged by the officials. The Lakers went on to win Game 7.
Webber averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Kings to a pair of 55+ win seasons in 2002-2003 and 2003-2004. Unfortunately, the Kings lost in the Conference Semifinals each season in seven games.
He made the Conference Finals one last time as a role player for the Detroit Pistons in 2006-2007. They lost the series 4-2 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
We really can’t say for certain what happened in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, but Webber’s legacy could look a lot different if the Kings won the series.
Nonetheless, Webber will enter the Hall of Fame as part of the 2021 class.
4. Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony is a 10-time All-star, a scoring championship, and a three-time gold medalist. Despite those astounding accomplishments, Anthony has never made the NBA Finals.
Anthony came into the NBA in 2003 with the Denver Nuggets. He averaged 21.0 points, helping the Nuggets make their first playoff appearance in nine years. The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated Denver in the first round, 4-1.
Unfortunately, that would become a trend for Denver. Here’s a look at Melo’s first six playoff runs with the Nuggets.
- 2003-04: Lost in 1st Round
- 2004-05: Lost in 1st Round
- 2005-06: Lost in 1st Round
- 2006-07: Lost in 1st Round
- 2007-08: Lost in 1st Round
It’s almost blinding, isn’t it?
Fortunately, Anthony did get the Nuggets over the hump in 2008-2009, when they moved from the 8th seed to 2nd in the Western Conference. They finished 54-28, despite Anthony averaging just 22.8 points.
The Nuggets won their first playoff series since the 1993-1994 season by defeating the New Orleans Hornets 4-1.
Anthony led the Nuggets to their first Conference Finals since the 1984-1985 season. Anthony put on a show in the Conference Semifinals, averaging 30.0 points on 55.3 percent shooting from three-point range.
The Nuggets split the first four games with the Lakers in the Conference Finals. Anthony went off with 39 and 34 points in games 1 and 2, respectively. However, Denver dropped the final two games of the series, denying them their first trip to the finals in franchise history.
After another first-round loss in 2009-2010, Denver traded Anthony to the New York Knicks. They lost in the first round in his first two seasons with the team, but there was a lot of optimism in the 2012-2013 season.
The Knicks went 54-28, earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Anthony also won the scoring title that season, averaging 28.7 points.
New York won their first playoff series since the 1999-2000 season with a 4-2 series win over the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, it was another disappointing playoff defeat for Anthony, as the Knicks lost to the Indiana Pacers in the Conference Semifinals.
Anthony’s lack of an NBA Finals appearance shouldn’t diminish how great of an NBA career he has had. He ranks 10th all-time with 27,370 career points. Once he decides to hang it up, there’s no doubt he’ll be a Hall of Famer.
3. Dominique Wilkins
A lot of younger basketball fans probably know Dominique Wilkins as more of a dunker. After all, “The Human Highlight Reel” did win the NBA Dunk Contest twice, but there’s so much more to his game.
He is a nine-time All-star, an All-NBA First Team member in 1986, a scoring champion, and NBA Hall of Famer.
The Atlanta Hawks made Wilkins the third overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft. He helped the Hawks advance to the playoffs in his first two seasons, but they lost in the first round both times.
Wilkins led the NBA by averaging 30.3 points in the 1985-1986 season. The Hawks went 50-32, earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They defeated the Detroit Pistons, 3-1 in the first round.
However, their season came to a disappointing end with a 4-1 loss in the Conference Semifinals to the Boston Celtics.
Atlanta improved the next season, earning the No. 1 seed with a 57-25 record. Wilkins led the Hawks to an easy round one victory. He averaged 32.5 points for the series, including a 43-point game.
Unfortunately, Wilkins and the Hawks suffered yet another disappointing loss in the second round.
In 1987-1988, Wilkins averaged a career-high 30.7 points. He led Atlanta to 50 wins for the third consecutive season. Atlanta did their thing, picking up another series win in the first round. They even led the Celtics 3-2 in their best of seven series in the next round.
With the Conference Finals in sight, the Hawks lost the final two games of the series each by two points. Wilkins put up 35 and 47 points in the final two games, respectively.
Unfortunately for Wilkins, he not only has the distinction of not making the NBA Finals, but never making the Conference Finals. Atlanta always had their strong regular seasons but they just couldn’t finish the job in the postseason.
Wilkins finished his career with 26,668 points. He is no doubt one of the greatest players in Atlanta Hawks history.
2. George Gervin
George Gervin’s career got off to a bit of a unique start. When he joined the San Antonio Spurs in 1973, they were still a part of the ABA. The Spurs didn’t join the NBA until the 1976-1977 season.
San Antonio made the playoffs in their first season but they lost in the first round. Gervin led the Spurs to a 52-30 record and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. He also won his first of four scoring titles.
Back then, the top two seeds in each conference got a bye, sending the Spurs straight to the Conference Semifinals. The Spurs lost in six games to the Washington Bullets.
The Spurs earned the No. 2 seed for the second straight season behind Gervin’s 29.6 points per game. They got their first playoff series win since joining the NBA by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games. San Antonio matched up with a familiar foe- the Bullets.
It looked like they would get their revenge on the Bullets after taking a 3-1 series lead. Unfortunately, it all came crashing down as the Spurs lost three consecutive games, losing the series. Gervin averaged 28.6 points in that postseason.
They failed to win a playoff series in their next two seasons, but they made it back to the Conference Finals in the 1981-1982 season. Gervin led the NBA in scoring for the fourth time in five seasons with 32.3 points. The Spurs were no match for the Los Angeles Lakers though, as they lost in a four-game sweep.
San Antonio had one last run left during the Gervin era. They went 53-29, which at the time was a franchise-best, in 1982-1983.
Gervin kicked off the Conference Semifinals with a 42-point game. The Spurs won the series to advance to their third Conference Finals. Another matchup with the Lakers yielded a similar result, and they lost in six games. Gervin never won another playoff series.
Gervin finished his career a nine-time All-star, a five-time All-NBA First Teamer, and a four-time scoring champion. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
In such a storied franchise like the San Antonio Spurs, Gervin will still go down as one of the best players in franchise history.
1. Steve Nash
Steve Nash is the only non-active NBA MVP winner to never play in the NBA Finals. In fact, Nash has two MVPs, winning them in 2005 and 2006. He is also an eight-time All-star, and a five-time assist leader who made the All-NBA First Team five times.
Nash made the playoffs his first two seasons with the Phoenix Suns but they lost in the first round both times. Following that, the Suns traded Nash to the Dallas Mavericks.
He didn’t make the playoffs until his third season with the Mavericks in 2000-2001. Nash took a big step that season, averaging 15.6 points. Dallas overcame a 0-2 deficit to win their first-round series, but they lost 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
Following another second-round defeat, Dallas won 60 games for the first time in franchise history. They earned the No. 3 seed in the 2002-2003 season.
The Mavericks won a pair of hard-fought seven games series to make their first Conference Finals appearance since 1988. However, they were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, losing in six games.
After another first-round loss, Nash returned to the Suns. He won MVP after averaging 15.5 points and a league-high 11.5 assists. Phoenix finished with the best record in the league at 62-20. Phoenix cruised through the first two rounds before suffering a surprise defeat in the Conference Finals against the Spurs.
Nash averaged a career-high 23.9 points, including a career-high 48 points against the Mavericks in the Semifinals.
Nash won his second straight MVP by leading the Suns to a 54-28 record. He averaged a career-high 18.8 points and 10.5 assists. Phoenix overcame a 3-1 deficit in round one to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers, and used this game six gem to do so.
Phoenix won their second straight, seven-game series to advance to another Conference Finals. This time, the Suns were no match for Nash’s old team, as they lost to the Mavericks.
Despite winning 61 games the following season, Phoenix lost in the Conference Semifinals to the Spurs. Phoenix made it back to the Conference Finals in the 2009-2010 season, but they couldn’t overcome the Lakers. After missing the playoffs the next two seasons, Nash joined the Lakers.
He, along with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, were supposed to make the Lakers championship contenders. However, they disappointed with a 45-37 record and lost in the first round to the Spurs. That was the final playoff appearance for Nash.
For his career, he averaged 14.3 points and 8.5 assists. He is third, All-time with 10,335 assists.
While his playing career is over, Nash has a chance to make his first NBA Finals appearance as a head coach with the Brooklyn Nets.
Other Great Players to Never Play in the NBA Finals
- Pete Maravich
- Vince Carter
- Grant Hill
A few more NBA stars that never made it to the NBA Finals are “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Vince Carter, and Grant Hill.
Maravich was known for his elite passing and explosive scoring, Carter was a dunking machine, and Hill was fundamentally strong. Despite their many individual accomplishments and postseason success, none of them made it to the biggest stage in the NBA.
Unfortunately, sports are full of what if’s and this just happens to be another one of those.
Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo kept themselves off this list with a trip to the NBA Finals this past year, and it will be interesting to see which current NBA stars can avoid this list going forward.