James Harden is one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history, combining great skill with a touch of crafty. He averaged 36 points and 7.5 assists per game during the 2018-19 season. He powered the Rockets to 65 wins in 2018 and 53 wins in 2019.
Harden’s Rockets came extremely close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 playoffs when the Rockets took the Warriors to Game 7, but eventually lost a heartbreaker at home. The following season, the Rockets lost to the Warriors again in the postseason, this time in six games.
Russell Westbrook is one of the most athletically gifted players to play in the NBA. He is a triple-double machine. He put together a historic 2016-17 season when he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season.
Westbrook set a new NBA record with 42 triple-doubles, one more than Robertson’s old mark set in 1962. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard averaged 31.6 points per game, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists. He carried the undermanned Thunder into the playoffs as a sixth seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, a year after All-Star forward Kevin Durant left OKC to join the Golden State Warriors.
Harden and Westbrook have one thing in common. They’re both ringless superstars. Their playoff failures put them on a list they’d rather be left off.
Harden and Westbrook are supremely talented players who are worth the price of admission. But they are also flawed. They are both iso-centric. Tough to play against, but even tougher to play with. They both take the air out of the ball and wear down when it matters most. Both have very high usage rates and unable to sustain their pace for an entire postseason. Their signature moments happen during the regular season. It is hard to find a signature playoff moment for Harden and Westbrook. You often find both of them walking off the court disappointed after enduring another painful playoff exit.
Since 1956 when the first NBA regular season MVP award was handed out, four most valuable players finished their careers without winning the ultimate prize while four are still in pursuit of that elusive chip.
Here are the eight NBA MVPs without a championship ring:
Charles Barkley (MVP in 1993)
Barkley is one of the most beloved sports figures of all-time. He had a big personality to match his big physical presence on the court. He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1984 and quickly became a fan favorite in Philly. After being traded to Phoenix in 1992, Barkley enjoyed his best season as he captured the 1993 MVP and led the high-powered Suns to the best record in the league and advanced to the NBA Finals. But Barkley’s Suns ended up losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the ’93 Finals, and Barkley never got back to The Finals. He did manage to win two Olympic gold medals and his career was validated by being selected to the 1992 Dream Team. The Round Mound of Rebound finished with more than 23,000 points and 12,000 rebounds. He was a unique player who wasn’t defined by one position. Barkley has said many times publicly that not winning a title shouldn’t and didn’t define his basketball career. Hard to argue with Sir Charles.
Karl Malone (MVP in 1997 and 1999)
With the help of his good friend John Stockton, The Mailman delivered two MVPs as a member of the Utah Jazz. Unfortunately, Stockton and Malone couldn’t deliver a title to Salt Lake City. Malone led the Jazz to appearances in the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. Both times his teams lost to Jordan’s Bulls (that was a common theme during the Jordan era) in six games. In 2003-04 Malone joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in L.A., hoping to make one final push for a ring. But it wasn’t meant to be as Malone had an injury-plagued season and the Lakers went down to the Detroit Pistons in five games in The Finals. Malone finished his career as the second-leading scorer in history (36,928). He made the All-NBA first team 11 times and made the All-Defensive team three times. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest power forwards and part of the NBA’s 50 greatest players.
Allen Iverson (MVP in 2001)
When we’re talking about Iverson, we’re talking about a fearless competitor who played with reckless abandon. A.I. answered the call several times throughout his 13-year career, putting together a MVP season in 2001 and leading the Sixers to the NBA Finals. But Iverson ran into Goliath in the form of Shaq and the Lakers, and the Sixers were defeated in five games. That was the closest A.I. got to playing for a title. After stints in Detroit, Denver and Memphis (extremely short stint there), Iverson rejoined the Sixers but did not finish the season. He took his talents to Turkey, but that lasted about as long as A.I.’s career as a hip-hop artist. Iverson desperately wanted to finish his career in the NBA, but no team took the bait. Iverson will go down in history as a polarizing figure who gave us great highlights and one memorable soundbite. Yes, we’re talking about practice!
Steve Nash (MVP in 2005 and 2006)
Nash is considered one of the best point guards in basketball history, but he never reached the NBA Finals during his 18 seasons in the league. He led the Phoenix Suns three times to the conference finals and once with the Dallas Mavericks. He teamed up with Dirk Nowitzki to lead the Mavs to the 2003 Western Conference finals, losing to eventual champion San Antonio. He captured his first regular-season MVP in 2005, leading the Suns to the NBA’s best record. But the Spurs got in the way again, bouncing Nash and a loaded Suns squad that also featured Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson in the conference finals in five games. Nash won his second MVP award in 2006, but was eliminated by the Mavericks led by his buddy Dirk, who removed himself from the ringless fraternity in 2011. Voters may have made a mistake by giving Nash the MVP in 2006. Nash didn’t deserve to win it over Kobe Bryant, who had one of the best statistical seasons and delivered the signature moment of the year when he scored 81 points against Toronto. Nash maxed out in Phoenix and was never able to recapture that magic he had with coach Mike D’Antoni.
Derrick Rose grimaces in pain after suffering a knee injury in the 2012 playoffs. (AP)
Derrick Rose (MVP in 2011)
It’s almost unfair to put Rose on this list because he has been bitten by the injury bug several times. But, the fact of the matter is, D-Rose has an MVP trophy sitting at his home but doesn’t own a championship ring nor has he set foot in an NBA Finals game. During his time in Chicago, Rose’s Bulls squad had a very nice nucleus and were strong contenders for the title. A devastating ACL injury in the 2012 playoffs pumped the brakes on Rose’s career. Despite flashes of his old self, Rose never returned to his MVP form. He lost the burst that made him such a tough cover, and his jump shot never got good enough to keep defenses from sagging back. Rose has since left Chicago and all the physical gifts that made him so special are no longer there. Rose bounced around the league for the next five seasons, playing in New York, Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit.
Russell Westbrook (MVP in 2017)
Westbrook is one of the most polarizing stars in the league. He has about as many detractors as admirers, and that list includes current players. Some people were bothered by Westbrook’s “Spalding” comment, referring to the ball being his only friend when’s on the court. Westbrook also rubs a lot of folks the wrong way with his abrasive personality. But what drives a lot of basketball pundits completely batty is Westbrook’s shot selection and recklessness. He can shoot you back in the game, but he can easily shoot you out of the game. Critics point to a playoff loss to Houston in 2017 when Westbrook scored 51 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out 13 assists. Despite posting a triple-double, Westbrook was blamed for the loss after making just 17 of 43 shots, including 4-for-18 in the fourth quarter. But Westbrook’s physical attributes aren’t enough. He struggles shooting 3-pointers and takes ill-timed shots late in ballgames.
James Harden (MVP in 2018)
The Beard came into his own when he left Oklahoma City for Houston. Harden went from a 17-point scorer to a 27-point scorer. He went from 6th Man contender to MVP winner. His 2017-18 season was almost like a video game. He led the league in scoring (30.4) and was the runaway leader in free throw attempts and free throws made. No one draws more fouls than Harden. In fact, he does it so well and so often league officials are changing the way they call games. He gets to the line 11 times a game. For an 87 percent free throw shooter, that’s 10 points in the bank. Harden is so clever and crafty he has referees completely fooled. But Harden’s game is more than just gimmick moves. He has a devastating step-back jumper to create space for his 3-ball and if you give him room to drive he’ll collapse a defense and can either finish at the rim or throw the lob pass. About the only thing left unchecked on Harden’s basketball resume is a championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MVP 2019)
Nicknamed the Greek Freak because of combination of size, speed and ball-handling skills, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the latest addition to this list. It’s almost unfair to brand Giannis as a ringless MVP because he’s just barely scratching the surface and he has plenty of time to capture that elusive chip. Giannis has improved his stats across the board — especially his scoring average — since becoming a full-time starter for the Bucks. During his MVP season, he averaged 27.6 points per game while shooting over 60 percent from the field. He also averaged 10.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Giannis has fully embraced being the face of a small-market team and is undoubtedly going to push himself to become even better to finally bring home the Bucks’ first championship since 1971. Giannis posted even better statistics (29.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, shot over 60 percent from field) in 2020, leading the Bucks to the best regular-season record. But Giannis and the Bucks were bounced out of the playoff bubble in the second round.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.