Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Charles Barkley ranks No. 18

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Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 18, Charles Barkley.

Charles Barkley’s career highlights:

  • 1993 MVP
  • 11-time All-Star
  • Five-time first-team All-NBA, five-time second team, one-time third team
  • 1987 rebound champion
  • 1985 All-Rookie team

Over the past four decades, nine players account for all but two Finals and more than four-fifths of the titles. Nine. (You can probably guess who they are, and they’ll all appear on this list soon enough.) That’s how dynastic the NBA is.

Alas, the lack of parity inevitably excludes several great players who didn’t win a championship from being properly recognized. Perhaps no player has been victimized by ring counting more than Charles Barkley. 

Charles Barkley I No. 18 I Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

A dominant rebounder and low-post scorer, Barkley was the 1993 NBA MVP and registered five First Team All-NBA appearances.

“When you talk about some of the best players in sports history to never win a ring, Charles’ excuse for never winning a ring, it’s not much of an excuse,” Wright said. “He kept running into [Michael] Jordan and ‘The Dream’ [Hakeem Olajuwon], the two greatest players of the ‘90s by a wide margin, and he couldn’t get through them.”

His teams certainly didn’t. Barkley, generously listed at 6-foot-6, 252 pounds and affectionately dubbed the “Round Mound of Rebound,” got through just about everyone. But in a cruel twist of fate, Barkley was either too young or old to capitalize with his best supporting casts. 

Upon entering the league alongside Hall of Famers Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, the portly wonder averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds as a rookie during the 76ers’ 1985 conference finals run.

By his second season, Barkley was the best player on an aging Philadelphia roster. After earning the first of eight top-six MVP finishes, he dropped 31-20-6 and 37-14-9 against the Bucks in the conference semifinals while averaging 28-15-4 in the seven-game series loss. 

Then came Barkley’s prime, and a series of forgettable Sixers squads. He became a fixture on the All-NBA first team, all while Philly either lost in the first round, lost in the conference semis to the Bulls, or missed the postseason altogether. That couldn’t keep him off the Dream Team, which he led in scoring.

Also in the summer of 1992, the Sixers finally made good on their pledge to trade Barkley, and he instantly elevated the Suns to title contenders. He won league MVP (over Olajuwon and Jordan) while leading Phoenix to the best record in basketball. Barkley was dominant throughout the ensuing postseason, especially in the conference finals against the SuperSonics. With the series tied at 2-all, he went for 43-15-10. Sir Charles outdid himself in Game 7, recording 44 points and 24 rebounds to seal his first (and only) Finals appearance.

“Flatly, one of the greatest playoff games anyone has ever played,” Wright said.

The Suns, of course, fell short in the Finals, although it took a Herculean effort from Jordan. Barkley averaged 27-13-6 in the series, while all four of Phoenix’s defeats were by fewer than 10 points. It was Barkley’s third-consecutive playoff loss to Jordan. His next two would come in the conference semis to Olajuwon, with the Suns blowing two-game series leads both times.

In 1996, Barkley was traded to Houston and teamed with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler for one last deep playoff run. The newcomer adapted to a lesser offensive role by averaging 13.5 rebounds per game, the second-best mark of Barkley’s career. The Rockets reached the conference finals but were knocked off by Utah, which exploited their mediocre backcourt. None of the renowned trio would win another playoff series or make another All-Star team, and Barkley retired after an injury-plagued 16th season.

While he’s since transitioned into a beloved media figure, the endless discussion about him not winning a title is a disservice to his greatness. Barkley was good for 22-11-4 on 54% from the field in the regular season, and his production increased almost across the board in the postseason. Since his 1984 debut, no one’s averaged more rebounds (12.9) or recorded a double-double more frequently (74.7%) in the playoffs. 

Barkley might not have been a role model off the court, but he was a unicorn on it. And he was one of the best basketball players ever.

“It pains me to put him here,” Wright said “I’d love for him to be higher. He’s one of my favorite people in sports, he was one of my favorite players to watch.” 


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