To win an NBA championship it takes more than most people realize. What fans see is just the final product, a culmination of many tiresome days, and long grueling nights.
When a general manager is putting together an NBA roster they are given 15 roster spots to work with. Now, most of us only see the eight to 10 players who are used in games, however all 15 of those roster spots are valuable to a general manager, and a franchise. As we get into this list of the best and worst players on the 10 most recent NBA champions, it is important to remember that every player on a championship team brought value to their respective team. What else is important to remember as you delve into this list is that we are basing each entry solely on their skills at the time they won the title.
With the evaluation process clearly explained and a brief understanding of the value each and every player has to a championship team, let’s waste no more time. Here are the best and worst players on the last 10 championship teams. We will begin with the 2007 San Antonio Spurs and end with this past year’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
20. 2007: Best – Tim Duncan
The 2007 NBA Finals were an extremely lopsided affair. It pitted the wildly dominant San Antonio Spurs against the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs had the Cavs dominated in pretty much every single area of the game, aside from the small forward position. However, the Spurs’ biggest mismatch came at the power forward spot. Tim Duncan was in the prime of his career in 2007, and he was not going to be stopped by the likes of Drew Gooden and Scot Pollard.
Although Tony Parker would be named the series MVP, it was obvious that Duncan was the anchor and ultimate leader of the Spurs. Duncan wrapped up the sweep with averages of 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. Duncan also showed the sportsmanship that separates him from most every NBA player in history when he embraced a young LeBron James after the final whistle of the series. He told James that the league would soon belong to the king and that James should be extremely proud of what he had accomplished at the age of 22.
19. 2007: Worst – Michael Finley
Michael Finley was an incredibly talented player who spent 15 seasons in the NBA. During his prime he helped lead the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns to some fairly successful playoff runs.
When Finley joined the Spurs in 2005 he was on the tail end of his career and looking for a chance to win a championship. Finley found himself in the role of mentor and trusted veteran by the time the 2006-07 season rolled around. During the sweep of Cleveland in 2007 Finley was relied on to play over 18 minutes per game, a lot for a player in Finley’s role. To say Finley performed poorly in the finals would be a bit of an understatement, especially considering the career he had up to that point. Finley finished the series averaging only 3.8 points on 26% shooting, and .083% from the three point line.
18. 2008: Best – Paul Pierce
One of the most un-athletic superstars the game has ever seen, somehow Paul Pierce was always able to get it done on the biggest stage. In 2008 Pierce led the Celtics big three to a title, winning Finals MVP along the way. Pierce, no doubt had some help getting there from Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But, Pierce’s 22 points and 6.3 assists per game led the way for the Celtics.
When the Celtics and Lakers met in 2008 it was an intense series in which Pierce and Kobe Bryant were going head to head night after night. Kobe outscored Pierce, but it was the clutch shots that enabled Pierce to get his team the title. Hitting clutch shots is something ‘The Truth’ will be remembered for, as his career was filled with incredibly difficult buzzer beaters and last second clutch baskets.
17. 2008: Worst – Sam Cassell
Sam Cassell had an amazing career. He may be the only player in history to bookend his career with NBA championships. When he broke into the NBA in 1994 he was lucky enough to join the incredibly talented Houston Rockets, which enabled him to win back to back titles in his first two NBA seasons. To wrap up his time in the league he joined the Celtics in 2008 just in time to be part of another championship run.
Cassell played in five out of the six games in the 2008 finals, averaging just over 10 minutes per game. By 2008 Cassell was more like a coach who suited up. He spent the season mentoring younger players like Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis, but once the finals rolled around Doc Rivers looked to his trusted veteran for valuable playing time. Sam was unable to produce the way he would have like during his time on the floor, averaging only 3.8 points, and 1.8 assists in his five games.
16. 2009: Best – Kobe Bryant
For the basketball world, 2009 was supposed to be the year that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James matched up in the NBA Finals, however, LeBron was unable to lift his team past the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Fans were disappointed with the matchup, but Kobe was thrilled. During the 2009 Finals Kobe Bryant put on a performance seldom matched in NBA Finals history. Kobe posted 32.2 points per game in the five games it took the Lakers to discard the Magic. Kobe also rebounded the ball extremely well for a guard, 5.6 per night. The cherry on top for Kobe was his 7.4 assists per game, which led all players in the series.
Kobe has always been criticized for not distributing the ball well enough. During the finals in 2009 it appeared he was on a mission to prove the critics wrong. As he scored at an incredible clip, he also dished out assist after assist, leaving the Orlando Magic bewildered and confused on how to stop the Mamba.
15. 2009: Worst – Shannon Brown
Shannon Brown made a name for himself with his highlight slam dunks and his freakish jumping ability. But, in 2009 Shannon, for whatever reason, was unable to tally even a single point. He appeared in three of the six games during the finals, but his stat line was left with zeros across the board, aside from a single rebound he grabbed in Game 2.
In Brown’s defense, he was still a younger player back in 2009 and he would ultimately become a more integral part of the Lakers team as he grew up. He also participated in the Slam Dunk Contest. His career highlight was obviously being a part of the Lakers back to back titles in 2009 and 2010. Brown called it a career in 2016 after he was waved by the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA-D League.
14. 2010: Best – Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant makes his second appearance on the list. In 2010 the Lakers got their chance at redemption against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics had beaten the Lakers in the finals two years prior, but this time Kobe would get the best of the Boston big three.
The 2010 Finals was a classic series that last the full seven games. Kobe would carry the Lakers on his back throughout the series, as he finished his Finals MVP performance averaging 28.8 points per game. As opposed to the 2009 series against the Orlando Magic, Kobe had to take it more upon himself to get the four win needed to hoist the trophy, and that he did. Kobe was sensational during that series, matching, and outdoing all three of the Boston superstars. This would be the last NBA Finals of Kobe’s great career, and he sure went out with a bang!
13. 2010: Worst – Jordan Farmar
Jordan Farmar has a 2010 championship ring, but the truth is the Lakers won the 2010 title despite Farmar, not thanks to him. Jordan was the back up point guard, a very important piece to a championship team. Somehow he played in every single game of the seven game series, averaging over 12 minutes per, but was still only able to contribute only three points per game and less than one assist.
Many attributed Farmar’s lack of production to the emergence of Boston point guard Nate Robinson, and to his credit, Nate did an incredible job that series on both ends of the floor. Farmer was not resigned by the Lakers after the 2010 Finals, he did however land with the New Jersey Nets. The following six years Farmar saw more time in the D-League than he did in the NBA, and he is currently still looking to be picked up by somebody.
12. 2011: Best – Dirk Nowitzki
In 2011 the Miami Heat created their super team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. The Heat were supposed to cut through the NBA like a hot knife through butter, and they pretty much did… until the Finals.
The 2011 Finals was a culmination of Dirk Nowitzki’s entire career of hard work and dedication to his style of play. In the Finals the Heat had no answer for Dirk as he averaged 26.1 points per game and 9.7 rebounds. He was a one man wrecking crew who found a way to defeat the ultimate Goliath of the NBA. Not only did Dirk beat the big bad Miami Heat, he also embarrassed them along the way. There was an incident during the Finals when Dirk had a minor cold on an off day between games. There is footage of Wade and James mocking Dirk’s illness. Dirk came out the following game and destroyed Miami with 34 points and 11 rebounds, on his way to winning Finals MVP.
11. 2011: Worst – Peja Stojakovic
Peja Stojakovic was one of the greatest shooters in league history, but during the Finals in 2011 he simply a shell of his former self. During his time with the Sacramento Kings, Peja was lethal from long range. He was a driving force in evolving the game into what it is today with all the three point shots and three point shooters. He was a true marksman.
The Peja that we all knew and loved from Sacramento was not the same player who averaged 0.5 points per game in the 2011 finals. Stojakovic averaged less than one rebound, less than one assist, less than one steal, and less than one point during his four games of the ’11 Finals. But, it was clear that Peja was not out to rack up stats at that point in his career. He was out for a title, plain and simple. Once he got that title in 2011, Peja promptly called it a career and hung up his sneakers.
10. 2012 Best – LeBron James
LeBron finally got his first title in 2012, as he put it ‘about damn time.” James led the Miami Heat to another appearance in the Finals, only this time he was able to play up to his potential and get the job done. He put up good numbers, not great for his standards, but good enough to put the Oklahoma City Thunder away in just five games.
James’ greatest accomplishment in the 2012 Finals may not be his averages 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists (which combined is pretty freaking impressive!) but instead it might be the fact that he averaged 44.2 minutes per game in that series. What often gets lost when people discuss the greatness of James is his durability; the man never gets injured or tired. To capture his first championship, it took James to be on the court for 94% of the minutes that series, which is very impressive.
9. 2012: Worst – Joel Anthony
It is a little unfair to Joel to have him here because he was simply not given much of a chance to establish himself in the Finals, but frankly, he was just never very good. He only played 2.1 minutes in the entire series, obviously not tallying any kind of stats.
Anthony’s career was spent in that same mold, not getting much playing time, and in turn, not having much to show in terms of the stat sheet. Anthony was more of a locker room guy; a good presence to have around, a hard worker in practice and film study. When it was time to get to business on the court, Joel was often left at the end of the bench watching, hoping for a blowout so he could get a little run in. In the end though, Anthony gets the last laugh, as he was a part of back to back NBA championships in 2012 and 2013.
8. 2013: Best – LeBron James
Two years in a row LeBron demonstrated why he was the greatest player on the planet on the biggest star the game has to offer. The 2013 Finals was the ultimate coming out party for LeBron, as he was finally able to prove to everyone, most importantly himself, that he was the best player in the world.
LeBron separated himself from the rest of the NBA during these finals. It was in Games 6 and 7 when James seemed to have the realization that the NBA was now his playground. He posted a triple double in a must win Game 6 with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. James then sealed the series in a winner take all Game 7 by putting up 37 points and 12 rebounds. There was an iconic moment when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had Kawhi Leonard lay off LeBron at the elbow extended, almost daring LeBron to shoot a jump shot. The game was in the balance at this point, and LeBron had long been sheepish about his mid-range shooting abilities. With less than two minutes in a close game LeBron pulled up for a 15 footer and hit nothing but net. That shot broke a wall for James and gave him the confidence he needed to take that next step in his career.
7. 2013: worst – Juwan Howard
It is hard to knock a guy like Howard. He is the ultimate professional, a class act through and through, and an incredibly brilliant basketball mind. However, in 2013 Howard was 40 years old, and basically a coach in uniform. Howard suited up for the Heat in the 2013 Finals, but he never saw a single minute of game action.
Howard, the player, was a literal non-factor in the 2013 NBA Finals, and for that reason he is the easiest selection on this entire list. But, Howard the teammate is the reason he filled a roster spot for the Heat. Juwan is now an assistant coach with the Heat, a position he has held since retiring after the 2012-13 season. He is in the process of turning Hassan Whiteside into one of the best big men the NBA has to offer right now. There is little doubt that with Howard’s guidance, Whiteside will continue to improve and grow as a player, and also as a man.
6. 2014: Best – Kawhi Leonard
At 23 years old, Kawhi Leonard was the Finals MVP above three future Hall of Fame teammates. Kawhi was tasked with the hardest job in basketball during the Finals; stop LeBron James. Now he didn’t entirely stop LeBron, but he did do enough to enable the Spurs to pull out a pretty easy five game series victory against the Heat.
Leonard was immediately thrown into the mix of best players in the league after his Finals MVP in 2014, maybe a bit premature, but obviously he deserves the praise and recognition at this point in his career. What has made the Spurs so good for so long is their players’ willingness to give up alpha-dog status. On a team with three sure fire Hall of Famers, how could a 22-year-old kid become the Finals MVP? Well that is Spurs basketball. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli all checked their egos at the door, and that has enabled the team to be the true definition of a team. Leonard has since taken the mantle, and is now leading the Spurs to another potential title run, and it would surprise nobody if someday he relinquishes the reigns of the team to the next up and coming superstar that the Spurs find.
5. 2014: Worst – Austin Daye
Austin Daye is the son of former NBA player Darren Daye who played five seasons in the NBA. Austin was a late season pick up by the Spurs in 2014, and the Spurs were hoping to turn the once highly touted youngster into something serviceable, as the Spurs often do. But they were not able to polish Daye into anything worth keeping.
By the time the Finals rolled around in 2014 it was too late to mess around with a project like Austin, so he was relegated to the bench for the entire Finals. In 40 games with the Spurs, Daye averaged only four points per game. He was released by the team after the 2014 playoffs, and has since been bouncing around the D-League, and professional leagues around the world. When he came out of college early, many scouts, and draft experts condemned the choice to not finish his college career. It was fairly obvious to anyone with an eye for NBA talent that Austin was not ready for the biggest stage yet, but he made his choice and ultimately he is living with it.
4. 2015: Best – Steph Curry
In 2015 Steph Curry and the Warriors flipped the NBA upside down. He turned each NBA arena into his own little video game court, with behind the back dribbles, 20 foot arching lay-ups, and half court shots. Steph made every NBA team reevaluate its vision of success.
The 2014-15 campaign was supposed to be the year LeBron James brought a championship to his home state of Ohio, but Steph and Co. had something to say about that. Once the Finals came it seemed the momentum that Golden State had built was just too much for even LeBron James to overcome. Once Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured, Steph smelled blood in the water, and he went for the kill. With Andre Iguodala doing his best Kawhi Leonard impersonation on LeBron, Steph had a field day on the other end. Whether it was 30 foot threes or rafter scrapping lay-ups, Steph had his way with the Cavaliers guards on his way to averaging 26.1 points, and 6.3 assists for the series. Somehow Iguodala was named the Finals MVP, but we all know that award belongs to Steph.
3. 2015: Worst – Brandon Rush
Rush comes from a family of NBA talent, including his brother Kareem who spent several years in the NBA. Brandon spent four seasons with the Warriors, which includes two different two year stints with the team. In 2015 he was the back up small forward to Harrison Barnes.
When the 2015 Finals came to be, Rush was demoted to the end of the bench, so far down that bench in fact that he was never given an opportunity to contribute in the Finals. However, Rush was a contributor during the regular season, and in the prior rounds of the playoffs. It was the coach’s decision to leave Rush off the floor during the finals in 2015, which goes to show how much they thought of him at the time. During Golden State’s run to the championship in 2015, Rush saw action in three playoff games, averaging one point in each of those three games.
2. 2016: Best – LeBron James
In 2016 LeBron was at the ultimate peak of his career. He found the perfect balance of physical dominance as well as the mental dominance he had gained from his prior successes and failures in the Finals. It also marked the sixth straight NBA Finals that James had appeared in, making it the longest such streak since the great Red Aurbach and Bill Russell led Celtics teams of the 1960s.
James found his team trailing three games to one in the finals, against a team that had beaten him the season before and parlayed that title win into a record breaking 73-9 regular season record. So to say the least, the odds were slim that Cleveland and LeBron would be able to capture the title. Yet somehow, LeBron was able to muster up the moxie to lead his team all the way back from a 3-1 deficit (something that had never been done before). James solidified his place in basketball’s hierarchy with this feat and made it clear that he is now chasing the ghosts of the game, not his contemporaries. One other thing LeBron did in his Finals MVP performance that had never been done before was he led all players, regardless of team, in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks for the entire series. This is especially impressive when you consider the series went to its full seven games as opposed to a simple blow out and sweep.
1. 2016: Worst – Jordan McRae
Jordan McRae went on the ride of his life last spring, as he mostly sat and watched LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith lead the Cavs to a stunning comeback over Golden State while McCrae was riding the bench. McRae only got into 15 games of action in the 2015-16 regular season and only managed to start one game. His minutes were even fewer in the postseason as he only got into two games and averaged two mintues a game. His decent shooting skills allowed him to average 4.5 points per game in the playoffs, but he was really a non-factor in the Cavs breaking the Cleveland curse.
The Cavs decided to exercise their option on McRae’s contract this past offseason. In the NBA Summer League, McRae put up some good numbers, averaging 24.3 points per game.