Michael Jordan had a long and grueling road to get to the mountaintop of an NBA championship. It took him seven years to get there as the Chicago Bulls had to face many obstacles along the way that blocked his path to achieving the ultimate prize.
There were the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons, and yes, even the Orlando Magic. But once he had overcome those teams, Jordan never let anyone else take the title from him except for the time he had just returned from baseball prior to the team’s second three-peat.
Many great players deserved to win the championship as much as he did. But their championship windows, unfortunately, coincided with Michael Jordan’s stranglehold on the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Jordan Dynasty lasted for six years with two years separating the two three-peats. From 1991-93 and 1996-98, His Airness and the Jordanaires took on any and every challenger to the throne such as the Philadelphia 76ers, L.A. Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Seattle Supersonics, Indiana Pacers, and the Utah Jazz.
Here are the top 10 stars, pairs, trios, and ensembles who never won a championship ring because of Michael Jordan’s dominance:
10. Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle
The Suns were America’s darlings during the 1992-93 season. Their leader, Charles Barkley, was named the league’s MVP and many had predicted that the Bulls had finally met their match in the NBA Finals. Barkley could have joined Johnson and Majerle at this spot, but he ranks much higher on this list because he faced Michael Jordan two other times in the Eastern Conference.
Johnson was a top-notch point guard, an All-Star who was superior to any of Chicago’s playmakers. Majerle made a living at the three-point line and as a tough, hard-nosed defender capable of shutting down opponents as one of the best defensive stoppers in the NBA. He, too, was an All-Star.
But Jordan elevated his game beyond All-Star levels in the Finals such that he was able to carry the Bulls on his back en route to a 4-2 series win (more on this later).
Johnson and Majerle would never get the chance to play in an NBA Finals ever again.
9. Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, and Christian Laettner
If there ever was a more balanced NBA team in the East that had the chance to take down the Bulls Dynasty, it was the Hawks. Led by one of the best defenders in NBA history in Dikembe Mutombo, the Hawks had a scoring point guard in Mookie Blaylock who was an All-Defense member as well. Steve Smith was also a shooting guard who could score in bunches while playing excellent defense. Christian Laettner was one of the league’s toughest and best power forwards. All four of them were All-Stars at least once in their careers.
During the 1997 All-Star Game, the finger-wagging Mutombo baited Michael Jordan by saying that the he had never dunked on him, not even once. Challenge accepted.
Later that year in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Hawks tied the series against the Bulls at 1-1, showing them that they had the firepower to keep up with the NBA’s best team. But Jordan and his Bulls team thrived on adversity and the tide quickly changed with Chicago capturing the next three games.
In Game 5 of the series, Michael Jordan received a pass from Luc Longley from the baseline and dunked the ball over the outstretched arms of Mutombo. Never one to miss an opportunity to get back at his opponent, Jordan wagged his finger at the 7-foot-2 center. It was the perfect picture of Jordan’s competitive will to win that brought down the Hawks.
8. Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf
The man-child known as Shawn Kemp was one of the NBA’s best dunkers and one of its most ferocious finishers on the fastbreak. As soon as his game developed beyond dunking to becoming a complete player, the Sonics’ power forward showcased how far he had come in the 1996 NBA Finals.
Detlef Schrempf was a 3-time All-Star, a 3rd Team All-NBA member, and was twice named Sixth Man of the Year. And we haven’t even talked about Gary Payton who isn’t on this list because he won a championship with the Miami Heat in 2006.
The Supersonics were loaded with enough talent to present enough of a challenge to the Bulls in the championship round.
Kemp was so good in that series that even Dennis Rodman, the league’s best rebounder, and a premiere defender, couldn’t stop him. During the 6-game series, Kemp averaged 23.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game.
Schrempf was no pushover as well as he scored 16.3 points per game while shooting 38.9% from the three-point line.
Then again, there’s only one trophy and Jordan was not about to let it slip away from his grasp. He led the Bulls to a 4-2 series win, averaging a series-high 27.3 points per game to go along with 1.7 steals and taking home the Finals MVP trophy with the championship in the bag.
7. Anfernee Hardaway
A “Next Jordan” candidate early in his career, the Magic’s Penny Hardaway combined the scoring ability of Michael Jordan with the court vision of Magic Johnson. He was a tough match-up for any team with the ability to match Jordan’s athleticism and knack for controlling a basketball game.
He teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal to eliminate the Bulls in the 1995 Easter Conference Semifinals at a time when Michael Jordan had just returned from his short-lived baseball career.
In 1996, with last season’s loss still fresh on his mind, Jordan and the Bulls never let go of the gas pedal as they swept the Magic 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was all about revenge for MJ who closed out the series with 45 points on 16-of-23 shooting in Orlando. Hardaway would never come close to another Finals appearance after this year as injuries took its toll on his body later in his career.
6. Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, and Rik Smits
The Pacers of 1998 had the best chance of any team to dethrone the Bulls in the 1990’s. Reggie Miller was in top form and had another shooter on his squad with former All-Star Chris Mullin.
Miller was tough to cover as he would run through so many screens all designed to set him free for his lethal jumpers. Mullin needed to win as his illustrious career was near its end by this time.
They had Mark Jackson, an excellent playmaker, and there was the toughest pair of power forward and center combos in Dale Davis and Antonio Davis. And then there was 7-foot-4 Rik Smits who had become one of the premiere centers of the late ‘90s.
Moreover, Miller, Mullin, Jackson, and Smits had Larry Bird as their head coach.
Everything was set for an upset. Except, even at his worst, Michael Jordan would find a way to win.
In Game 7, His Airness was grounded by great defense from the Pacers who gave him different looks to stifle the 5-time MVP. Jordan shot 9-of-25 from the field but wound up with 28 points nonetheless on hustle plays. He had five offensive rebounds, grabbing some of them during the most crucial plays of the game. At the end, Jordan could be seen breathing heavily and tugging at his shorts. You could tell that Miller and company gave everything they had to take down the Bulls.
But Jordan had more to give as he nearly had a triple-double with 9 rebounds and 8 assists.
The Pacers would reach the Finals two years later but that was the last time they would get there. They lost in 6 games to the Lakers.
5. Tim Hardaway
Tim Hardaway was one of the game’s elite point guards, capable of scoring a basket and finding the open man. He knew when to score and when to pass the ball. Armed with his “Killer Crossover,” Hardaway left opponents in the dust as he found ways to score and pass the ball to the open man time and time again.
He led the Heat to the playoffs as a no-nonsense floor leader and gave the team its earliest taste of postseason success.
Meanwhile, Alonzo Mourning (who won a championship with the Heat in 2006) was the man-in-the-middle, the All-Star center who patrolled the paint and the cornerstone of the franchise.
Hardaway and the Heat had the misfortune of going up against some of the best Bulls teams in the 1996 and 1997 playoffs.
They lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1996 due to inexperience and the lack of talented players on their roster especially as the number 8-seed going up against the Bulls who held the best record ever in league history at the time with a 72-10 win-loss card.
In 1997, Hardaway finished fourth in the MVP voting, averaging 20.3, 8.6 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. More importantly, he led the Heat to a 61-21 record and the third-best record in the league. The time was ripe for them to make it to the Finals.
Michael Jordan had other plans, though.
Meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan gave the Heat everything they could handle, scoring 30.2 points, grabbing 8.0 rebounds, and stealing the ball 1.8 times each night. As a result of Jordan’s onslaught, the Heat fell to the Bulls 4-1.
As good as Hardaway was, Jordan was far superior and so were his Bulls.
4. Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley was the league’s best power forward during the early 90’s. The undersized Sixers forward was only 6-foot-6 but was built powerfully but he had the speed and quickness of a guard.
From 1990-1993, a four-year span, Jordan, and the Bulls were Barkley’s roadblock to a championship. Though they were the best of friends, MJ would cut his friend’s heart out during the playoffs three times in four years.
They first met in the playoffs during the 1990 Eastern Conference Semifinals. In that series, the 10-time scoring champion averaged video-game like numbers of 43.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 4.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. The Bulls eliminated them easily in five games.
The following year, Michael Jordan once again used his superhuman abilities to post insane averages in the semifinals, crushing the Sixers 4-1. In the clinching Game 5 win, Jordan had 38 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 assists.
But it wasn’t until the 1992-1993 season that Barkley had his best opportunity to win the championship when he was traded to the Suns. The Round Mound of Rebound was named the MVP to the chagrin of Jordan who wanted to win it for the third straight season. Only Larry Bird had ever done it before.
Barkley was deserving of the award as he posted some of the best numbers of his career on a winning team, leading Phoenix to the league’s best record at 62-20. Barkley submitted nightly averages of 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game.
Michael Jordan would have his revenge in the epic 1993 Finals.
The 6-game series showed that Barkley was a star that belonged on the big stage. But among the stars in the Finals, it was Jordan who shined the brightest.
In this series, Jordan would score at least 41 points in four straight games, topping it off with a 55-point performance in Game 4. He bagged the Finals MVP after averaging the highest points in a championship series in NBA history at 41.0 points per game. He even found time to add 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.
Sadly, Barkley would never play in the Finals again and continued to be ringless until he retired.
3. Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks
Very few NBA players were as worthy of an NBA title as Patrick Ewing. He was a warrior of the first order, carrying the Knicks on his back every night even when the team wasn’t going anywhere. The 1989 and 1991 Knicks were ill-equipped to challenge the Bulls and both teams would flame out in six and three games, respectively.
One of the all-time great centers, Ewing eventually found success in the playoffs with bruising power forward Charles Oakley, (a former Chicago Bull), and fiery shooting guard John Starks.
Everyone expected the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals to be mere formalities for the 67-15 Bulls to advance to the next round. At 51-31, the Knicks didn’t appear to be a threat by any stretch to the Bulls’ ascension to the Finals.
The physicality of the 1992 Knicks team was like the second coming of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys. This time, it came with a soon-to-be Hall-of-Fame center in Ewing. The Bulls had no answer for the 7-foot Georgetown alum as their centers were ill-equipped to take on the Knicks’ big man.
New York employed plenty of roughhousing techniques to get under Chicago’s skin much like their Detroit counterparts. The series was tied 3-3 when Jordan asked for advice from his dad. Does he take the lead, or does he get everyone else involved first in the first few minutes of Game 7?
His father told him to take the lead and let everyone else follow. Michael Jordan scored 42 points and added 2 steals and 3 blocks to lead the Bulls to a rout of the Knicks, 110-81. Wise counsel indeed.
The next year, Ewing brought the Knicks back to the playoffs and on a collision course with the Bulls again. This time, Starks was more prepared to take on the task of guarding Jordan. He hounded the superstar throughout the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. He found time to talk trash to the league’s MVP and dunked on him in the waning moments of Game 2, one that has been replayed over and over again on classic NBA games and highlights.
The Knicks took the first two games on their home floor owed to the Knicks’ 60-22 record to the Bulls 57-25 mark in the standings. Ewing was as good as ever, averaging 25.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. Oakley provided the muscle underneath and fortified the Knicks’ interior defense.
But the Bulls would bounce back to win the next four games to take the series by the horns. Jordan was unleashed in Game 4 as he dropped 54 points against the vaunted Knicks defense. Starks was clueless on how to stop the rampaging Jordan and he remained unshackled until the series was over.
By the time the smoke had cleared, the Bulls were back in the Finals once again and Ewing, Starks, and Oakley were left to wonder what could have been.
2. Karl Malone and John Stockton
The famous Dynamic Duo of the NBA was Karl Malone and John Stockton. They were the most successful one-two punch the league had ever seen. When it comes to championships, the two are infamous for having played the most playoff games without winning a title. Malone at 193 games, and Stockton at 182.
But it’s not for a lack of effort.
Malone is widely considered to be the second greatest power forward of all-time, next only to Tim Duncan. He owns the second most career points in NBA history with 36,928.
Stockton is the best pure point guard ever in league history. He owns the most number of assists with 15,806. He also has the most number of career steals with 3,265.
Their pick-and-roll is nearly impossible to stop. No matter how often everyone’s seen it, no one seems to have found a solution to it for more than a decade.
The bad news for this pair is that Michael Jordan and his Bulls team have foiled their attempts to seize the championship trophy away from them. For two straight years, 1997 and 1998, the Bulls had their hands full containing the Stockton-to-Malone pick-and-roll in the Finals.
Just when they appeared to have taken the game-opener in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, Jordan was there to take and make the game-winning shot over Byron Russell. The series was 2-0 in Chicago’s favor days later.
Malone and Stockton were their usual sensational selves, taking the middle games for Utah to tie the series at two games apiece. The next game was crucial.
But even when His Airness couldn’t take flight because of a stomach flu in Game 5, he still managed to score 38 points. That point total includes the deciding 3-pointer with about 25 seconds to go after he missed a free-throw that would have given them the lead.
At the end of that game, not only did he score 38 points, he also added 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block. MJ was so drained after that he collapsed in the arms of teammate Scottie Pippen who assisted him to the bench.
The Bulls finished off the Jazz at home in Game 6 when Jordan passed the ball to an open Steve Kerr for the series-deciding shot.
The Jazz had another chance in 1998 and they didn’t waste time showing that they were a better team after their first Finals experience. The Jazz took Game 1 on their home floor after Utah secured home-court advantage with a better regular season record.
The Bulls were tested and hardened by the Pacers in the previous series that went to a Game 7 (see number 6 of this list). Chicago took the next three games to take a commanding 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5. Michael Jordan was adamant about not going back to Utah and finishing off the Jazz on their home floor.
But Malone and Stockton weren’t done yet.
The Mailman shredded the Bulls defense on the way to a 39-point outing as All-Defensive Team member Dennis Rodman couldn’t stop him.
Game 6 was back in Utah and the Bulls ran into early problems when Pippen aggravated a back injury after dunking the ball on a play. Throughout the game, he was visibly in pain but even at 50% capacity, Pippen was still better than any player the Bulls could replace him with.
Jordan had to take over.
Scoring from just about anywhere, Michael Jordan scored 23 points in the first half to stay within striking distance of the Jazz before halftime.
Late in the fourth quarter, Stockton made a 3-pointer to break an 83-all tie with 41.9 seconds remaining. A 3-point lead is huge in a series such as this with less than a minute remaining.
Jordan went to work once again. Scoring on a drive quickly to cut the lead to one, 86-85. On the Jazz’ next possession, Jordan knew Stockton would pass to Malone on the block, so he snuck up on him as soon as the pass was delivered. The 3-time steals leader stole the ball and raced back to the other end of the court. Jordan wisely didn’t call a timeout to keep the Jazz from setting up their defense.
Going one-on-one with Russell, Jordan drove to the middle then went with a crossover to take a jumper from the top of the key as his defender fell down hard to the floor. With his follow-through in perfect form, number 23 scored his 45th point of the ballgame to give them an 87-86 lead. Only 5.2 seconds remained, but that wasn’t enough time for the Jazz to make a basket.
The Bulls celebrated their 6th championship on Utah’s home court, keeping the Jazz from a championship once again.
Even after Jordan retired from the game in 1999, Stockton and Malone were unable to carry their team to another Finals appearance until their careers ended.
Once again, Jordan denied superstars the chance to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy.
1. Mark Price, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty
The Cavaliers had a championship window between 1988 and 1993. They were the most unfortunate of any franchise to have run into the Bulls during that stretch, facing them four times in six years.
Point guard Mark Price, power forward Larry Nance and center Brad Daugherty were All-Stars and as good a Big 3 as any you will find in the league at the time. Man for man, the Bulls didn’t appear to have a chance against a powerhouse team like the Cavs.
But Michael Jordan was more than any man could handle.
In the first round of the 1988 playoffs, Jordan lit them up for 50 and 55 points in the first two games of the series. He then finished them off in Game 5 with 39 points.
The 1989 series was more of the same. It was in this first round series that Jordan made “The Shot” at the buzzer to win the series and advance to the next round. That buzzer-beater shocked the Cavaliers, one that this team would never recover from.
They had another opportunity in 1992, however, when the Cavs reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Price, Nance, and Daugherty played great basketball and the series was tied 2-2 after four games. The Bulls had other plans, though, and they dispatched the Cavs by winning the next two games.
By 1993, the Bulls already knew what to expect from the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Even with the addition of “Jordan Stopper” Gerald Wilkins, Jordan merely took it as a challenge, scoring 43 points in the opening game. In Game 4, with the score tied in the final seconds, number 23 sealed the 4-0 sweep with a series-clinching buzzer-beater. It would come to be known as “The Shot II,” sending the Cavaliers home for the summer with another heartbreaker.
Nance and Daugherty would play one more season before retiring without a ring. Price played two more seasons for the Cavs before bouncing around three teams in three years as injuries shortened his career.
More than any other franchise, Jordan owned the Cavs during his run towards a championship. Moreover, no other franchise suffered as much heartbreak as the Cavs did at the hands of the one and only Michael Jordan.