The series isn't over yet. In fact as we look forward to Sunday's Game 2, the 2011 NBA Finals offer an intriguing possibility that seemed completely far-fetched after Miami's win in Game 1 earlier this week. Dallas, suddenly, has the home-court advantage. And while Miami has played expertly on the road in these playoffs, this remains a best of five with three to play in Dallas. Who'd a thunk it?
Whatever the outcome, there will be some all-time greats who will be receiving their first NBA championship as a result. All-Stars like Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Juwan Howard have a chance, along with Hall of Fame types like Jason Kidd, LeBron James, and 13-year vet Dirk Nowitzki. All have enjoyed fantastic NBA careers. But among the all-time ringless, where do they rank?
Because it's a weekend, and because everybody loves a list to spout over, let's pile 'em up.
5. LeBron James
The idea of including a 26-year-old that has only been in the NBA since 2003 might chafe, but James' accomplishments are too significant to ignore. Career averages of nearly 28 points, seven rebounds, seven assists at this pre-prime stage of his career astonish enough, and the fact that he hasn't missed more than seven games in a season since entering the NBA gives the man credibility. It doesn't say much for the work of his previous bosses in Cleveland, but James is attempting to right things as his Heat are just three wins away from his first ring.
4. Dirk Nowitzki
Our man played his first NBA game all the way back in January of 1999, and save for a championship, all of his wildest dreams have come true. Without much precedent, save for a Bird there, a McAdoo here, and a Detlef Schrempf over there, he made the power forward position his own in a way that hadn't been seen before. At one time he rivaled Charles Barkley in the way he'd grab a defensive rebound and drive to score on the other end, while still approximating Larry Bird's touch from long range. As he grew, he refined those wily instincts, stayed a scorer, and turned the ball over once a fortnight. And though his Mavericks have yet to win a title, his impact will far overshadow any banner he'll ever help raise.
3. Patrick Ewing
Ewing takes a spot in this list not because of his hard-luck time with the New York Knicks (and, though you'd like to forget, the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic), but because NBA fans tend to forget his defensive impact on games. At this point in his post-playing career, Ewing remains the trigger-happy turnaround jump shooter with small hands, always ready to make a championship guarantee in October that he couldn't follow through on in May. But Patrick patrolled the paint for those intimidating Knick teams, and nearly won it all while watching John Starks shoot 2-18 in a Finals Game 7 back in 1994. The man left it all out there, to no championship end.
2. Charles Barkley
Barkley's tale isn't as hard-luck as Ewing's, because this guy had great teammates, but it's nearly as tragic. Barkley's prime was wasted on a poor Philadelphia 76er team. His lone trip to the Finals in 1993 with Phoenix was scuttled by nervous teammates that seemed in awe of the stage. His back locked up on him during playoff runs in 1994 and 1995, with Michael Jordan either away playing baseball, or out of basketball shape and out of the second round in 1995. His other closer attempt, as a member of the Houston Rockets in 1997, was literally shot down by a John Stockton 3-pointer that sent Stockton's Jazz to the Finals. Further back woes hampered his attempts in 1999 with Scottie Pippen joining Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston.
How is it that this guy keeps a smile on TV?
1. Karl Malone, and John Stockton
An easy cop-out? Sure. Still one that allows us the chance to keep deserving names in the top five, while lauding these men as equals.
Advanced statistics won't rank these two as equals, Malone's ability to rebound and score at a high efficiency rate without turning the ball over place him far ahead of Stockton in this realm. But why was it, exactly, that Malone was able to toss in those runners and jumpers (and especially free-throw attempts, in a play that Stockton received no box score credit for) with such hot space to work with? It was Stockton that believed that every centimeter was crucial, as he delivered the ball with those massive hands. And it was Malone that made it easier for Stockton to see the light that wasn't obvious to their defenders, as Stockton passed the ball to a spot that Malone would not yet occupy.
These two, for years, were the best in the league at their particular position. And yet they never won an NBA title. It's a cruel thing, this team game.
Honorable mention: Elgin Baylor (though we spent a while either putting him at No. 4, or keeping him off the list altogether, as he was around when the Lakers won in 1971-72 but was inactive due to injury), Chris Webber, Steve Nash, Bob Lanier, Jason Kidd, Dominique Wilkins, Allen Iverson, Rory Sparrow.