This article will, in no specific order, select a few of the many seasons in NBA history that featured a player who, despite consistently terrific performance, was not able to win an NBA championship. These players did not even REACH the finals, but most of them did eventually win a ring later in their careers. Dozens of players have had great seasons and lost, but the following individuals had exceptionally great years AND an exceptionally great performance in the playoffs despite losing.
2001-2002 Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan recently retired after a career lasting about two decades, each and every year with San Antonio, and is remembered by most for his five championship rings. While this is indeed an impressive feat, his individual ability during his prime is not to be overlooked.
During the 2002 NBA Season, Duncan was near or at his absolute peak as a player, and was dominant throughout the year. He received the regular season MVP award, with averages of 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks on 50.8% shooting from the field. During this time, Duncan was not only arguably the best rim protector in basketball, he was arguably the best post and individual defender. Despite some premier names, the name value of Duncan’s supporting cast may have exceeded their actual production. Hall of Fame center David Robinson was nearly out of gas, well out of his prime. He was still a solid defender, but averaged just 12.2 points and 8.3 rebounds shooting 50.7%. Those are good numbers, mixed with his defense, the Admiral could evidently still play ball..but he was not an all-star, and was nowhere near his MVP form. Tony Parker was on the team, but this was his rookie season in which he averaged 9.2 points and 4.3 assists on 41.9%. Parker was not a bad player during his rookie year, nor was he anywhere near a great player. Steve Smith averaged 11.6 points on 45.5%. It is clear that this team, although it was composed of players who could defend well, did not possess a supporting cast with enough firepower to contend for a championship. Tim Duncan did a masterful job in leading this Spurs team to a 58-24 record.
The Spurs would run into a force to strong for Duncan and co. to challenge. The fall of the ’02 Spurs came in the second round at the hands of the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers. They were led by arguably the most dominant player in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal. Not to mention an amazing supporting cast and a “1b” sidekick/co-star in Kobe Bryant who was reaching his peak as one of the greatest players ever in his own right. The Lakers defeated the Spurs 4-1 in the series en route to their third championship in a row. Duncan, however, was great in the losing effort. Despite shooting just 43% from the field, Duncan averaged 29.0 points, 17.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists and played stellar defense. Shaq spent a good amount of time being guarded by Duncan, and averaged 21.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists on 44.7%(worst of his career). Defensively and offensively, despite a relatively low shooting percentage, Tim Duncan put up one hell of a fight against a dynasty. His second best player(Parker) averaged 13.8 points on 40.9%, and no other Spur averaged double digits. As you can see, Tim Duncan was a historically good player during this season and lost due to a lackluster supporting cast… In 2003 Duncan had one of the best playoff runs ever and did win the championship, but he was just as good of a player in 2002 and had an amazing year, as well as an amazing postseason despite the loss.
2008-2009 LeBron James
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are fresh off of winning their first NBA championship in franchise history after defeating the 73-win Golden State Warriors in an exciting seven game series. James, winner of the NBA Finals MVP award for the third time in his career, led the Cavaliers to a historic upset of a team that was heavily favored to win the title throughout the year and even held a 3-1 series lead. This season may be his greatest accomplishment in terms of team success, but as an individual, his 2009 season was close if not just as impressive. The 2016 Cavaliers had no all-stars on the team, as Kyrie Irving battled injuries all year. If healthy, there is no doubt that he is an all-star and he was healthy and magnificent throughout the playoffs. Kevin Love, despite seemingly failing to reach expectations, is a good player and others like J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, and more acted as solid role players and formed a good supporting cast for LeBron and Kyrie.
In 2009, the Cavaliers point guard Mo Williams averaged 18-3-4 on 47% and earned an all-star selection. Delonte West averaged 11.7 points on 45.7% and Zydrunas Ilguaskas averaged 12.9 points on 47.2%. No other Cavalier reached double digits. A low-level all-star who undoubtedly benefited from playing alongside a player who commands as much attention as LeBron and an average defender at BEST, Mo Williams is not an ideal second option for a championship team that has only four double-digit scorers(none shooting 50%). The Cavs defense, led by LeBron and accompanied by solid defensive role players all around, finished first in opponent points per game(91.4 ppg) and third in defensive rating(102.4). One of the best defenses in the league and an extremely supbar offensive arsenal, this Cavs team seems to be nowhere near a championship contender. This is where LeBron James comes into the picture. James averaged 28.4-7.6-7.2 on 48.9%.These numbers alone are amazing, but the fact that he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year just adds to the ridiculous year that he had. To recap: 28-7-7 on 49%, one of the best defenders in the league, and carrying a rather lowly Cavaliers team to an outstanding league best record of 66-16.
The postseason did not slow LeBron down, in fact, he took a step up. Averaging 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 7.3 assists, he also averaged just 2.7 turnovers per game and shot 51% from the field. The Cavaliers swept the 39-43 Pistons and 47-35 Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. During these eight games, LeBron averaged 32.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists while shooting 53.2% from the field. The Cavaliers ran into the Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard-led 59 win Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8.0 assists on 48.7% shooting. 39-8-8 on near 50% … Those are numbers that few have ever achieved, much less against the best defensive team in the league(Magic were 1st in D-Rating). Mo Williams put up a 18.3 points and 3.7 assists on a poor 37.1% from the field. Delonte west averaged 14.5 points and 3.8 assists on 31.8% from the field. Big Z averaged 10.2 points and 9.3 rebounds on 44.6% shooting. The supporting cast of the Cavaliers played at an awful level, and Dwight Howard averaged 25.8 points and 13 rebounds on 65.1% shooting, dominating the Cleveland front court. Looking at this season as a whole for James, it should be easy to see why it is included in this article. Carrying the Cavaliers to a high-level contender status, great all-around play, and having a historically impressive performance even in a losing effort, LeBron James in the 2008-2009 season was a force to be reckoned with and only a handful of players in the history of the game can claim to have ever played at that level.
1989-1990 Michael Jordan
Most of us know Michael Jordan as the man who won six rings and six Finals MVP’s in six Finals appearances, but his absolute peak as a player included some years where he did not hoist the championship trophy. In my opinion, Jordan was at his best from 1988-1993. It would have been fair to pick any of the three years in which MJ and Chicago lost to the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, as Jordan was incredible in each of those seasons. However, the 1990 playoffs stands out due to the fact that the series was incredibly close.
In 1989, the Bulls had lost to the Pistons in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals.The Pistons swept every other opponent that they faced in the playoffs and won their first of two championships. This was the series in which the famed “Jordan Rules” were implemented, basically swarming Jordan and forcing him to make quick decisions and be a passer. The strategy was based around the fact that one great player was not enough to beat a championship team. Detroit had Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and heavy hitters inside with Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, and more. The Pistons took advantage of the fact that the rest of the Bulls player could not perform at a high enough level to defeat them. Considering the fact that the “Bad Boy” Pistons did not lose a game to anybody else, the 1989 season was really a success for a Bulls team that, despite having probably the best player in the league already in Jordan, was not a top-tier contender.
The Bulls environment surrounding Jordan was not nearly enough to match Detroit. As a rookie in 1988, Scottie Pippen barely played 20 minutes per game and did not reach double digits in points per game, he was ineffective in the match up against Detroit in the playoffs that year and not much of a threat at all throughout the season. In 1989, he became a second option to Jordan but was still good, not great. As the Pistons dared another to beat them in 1989, Pippen played a horrendous series. Horace Grant and others were not producing at a level which could make a difference. The team was going to have to improve to win a championship.
The Bulls began to make steady improvements for the 1990 season. Going into the 1990 season, Jordan’s alleged feud with head coach Doug Collins and rising tension between Collins and the upper management led to Phil Jackson’s rise to the head coach position. In 1990, Pippen averaged 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists on 48.9% shooting. These are quite solid numbers, and they earned Scottie an all-star game reserve selection. Grant, Cartwright, and John Paxson all averaged low double digits in points. The Bulls managed a respectable 55 win season. Despite an improvement in the supporting cast, the Bulls were still, as Bill Laimbeer would say: “Michael Jordan and the Jordan-ites”. MJ would average 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 52.6% shooting. 34-7-6 on 53% while leading this Bulls team to 55 wins should have been enough for the MVP award.
- Charles Barkley 1990: 25.2 points-11.5 rebounds-3.9 assists on 60%. Philly wins 53 games. Supporting cast includes Johnny Dawkins-14.3 points/7.4 assists on 48.9%, Hersey Hawkins-18.5 points on 46%, and Mike Gminski-13.7 points/8.5 rebounds on 45.7%. Rick Mahorn also joined the Sixers and was known as a defensive specialist and averaged double digits.
- Magic Johnson 1990: 22.3 points-6.3 rebounds-11.5 assists on 48%. Los Angeles wins 63. James Worthy averages 21.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists on 54.8%. Worthy is an all-star, along with A.C. Green, who averages 12.9 points and 8.7 rebounds on 47.8% shooting. Byron Scott also averages 15.5 points on 47% shooting. Orlando Woolridge and Mychal Thompson average double digits as well.
- Michael Jordan 1990: 33.6 points-6.9 rebounds-6.3 assists on 52.6%. Chicago wins 55 games. Scottie Pippen averages 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists on 48.9% shooting. Horace Grant averages 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds on 52.3%. Cartwright averages 11.4 points/6.5 rebounds on 48.8%. Paxson averages 10.0 points on 51.6%.
Jordan averages by far the most points of the top three in MVP voting, and it should be agreed by most that a perimeter player averaging 34/53% is more impressive than a post player averaging 25/60% or another perimeter player averaging 22/48%. Jordan also averaged 7/6 in the rebounds/assists categories, compared to an impressive 6.3/11.5 for Magic and 11.5/3.9 for Barkley. Jordan was also a much better defender than these two, tying for fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and he actually won the award in 1988. Also, the weakest supporting cast between the three likely belongs to Jordan, arguably the 76ers , but at least offensively Jordan was forced to carry the biggest load. Being the best scorer, efficient, a good passer and rebounder, and one of the best defenders in the league, Jordan should have won his second MVP award in 1990 and was definitely the best player in the league.
In the postseason, Jordan did not slow down. Averaging 36.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.8 assists on 51.4%, he continued to destroy the competition at an all-time great level. The first round matchup was the Milwaukee Bucks, who had one of the best perimeter defender of all time in Alvin Robertson. Robertson won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1986, tied for fifth in voting in 1990, and finished third in 1991. In a 3-1 series win, Jordan averaged 36.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.0 assists on 53.9% shooting against the Bucks. In the second round, the Bulls faced the 53 win Philadelphia 76ers who were led by superstar power forward Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins. The Bulls won the series 3-2, as MJ averaged an insane 43.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists on 54.8%. The Eastern Conference Finals would be a rematch with the “Bad Boys”. The defending champion Detroit Pistons won 59 games and their defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman, finished first in opponent points per game during the 1990 season. The series was hard-fought, going to seven games. Jordan averaged 32.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 46.7% shooting. This is great production, but considering the fact that the Pistons defense boasted Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, great rim protectors, and of course coach Chuck Daly and the “Jordan Rules” strategy, it is unbelievable. The Pistons began to notice that despite still being somewhat effective, hounding Jordan did not affect him mentally and he was able to overcome some of the challenges he had previously had with Detroit. For the third straight year, the Pistons attacked the supporting cast. Pippen averaged 16.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists on 42.6%. Grant averaged 11.6 points and 11.7 rebounds on 40.8% shooting. This is actually a step UP from the past years against Detroit, but game seven is where the supporting cast blew a chance for Chicago to make the finals. In a 19 point loss, Jordan scored 31 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 9 assists and shot 13-27(48.1%) from the field. This was the famous “Migraine game” in which Scottie Pippen had major head pain leading up to and during the game, resulting in a 2 point, 1-10 performance in which he not only had no positive impact but actually hurt the team while he was in. Horace Grant was not unhealthy, but he managed to shoot a ridiculously poor 3-17 from the field to score his ten points. No other Bull but Horace and MJ even reached ten points. Shooting woes of other Bulls: Craig Hodges shot 3-13 and scored just 8 points, Cartwright scored 6 points on 3-9. and B.J. Armstrong scored 2 points on 1-8. Despite the load he carried, the only Bulls to shoot better than Jordan were Ed Nealy(6 points 2-3), Stacey King(5 points 1-2), and Charles Davis(2 points 1-1). Had Pippen at least been 50%, or Horace Grant at least made six out of seventeen and Hodges or Armstrong made some more shots, the Bulls would have not only been in the game but they very well could have won. A game seven victory means a matchup with a good Trailblazers team, but a team that the Bulls would have had a very good chance against.
Michael Jordan was every bit as good a player from 1988-1990 as he was from 1991-1993, and there is a great case to be made that no player in NBA history has ever matched that level of play.