To win an NBA Finals, you not only need a lot of talent, but you need some good teamwork to achieve the ultimate goal. We have seen teams without one star player taking over the entire season and then the Finals to win it all, but more often than not, it’s one player that seems to win it all by himself. It’s not a recent phenomenon, as players have been shining in the biggest spotlight for decades.
Of course, you need some solid players behind your star or else you’re never going to score more than 50 points per game. With that said, the guys that took a backseat to the star players that went to the NBA Finals weren’t bad by any stretch, but they never would have sealed a ring if it weren’t for the best player on the team.
Let’s take a look back at some of those players that either went to an NBA Finals, won a ring or have more than can fit on one hand because of a legend on their team. Here are 15 of the best players in NBA history, and the guy (and in some case, guys) that they had to carry on their back to make it to the promised land of the NBA Finals.
15 Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas (1977)
We start the list 40 years ago with the ever eccentric Bill Walton. Walton, who was no stranger to winning titles while at UCLA, usually had a lot of help. In the 1976-77 NBA season, Walton was playing with the Portland Trail Blazers, and the team was able to clinch a three seed in the Western Conference. Walton was part of a fine duo with Maurice Lucas, though it was clear who would emerge as the star when the playoffs rolled around.
Walton was dominant, especially when it came time for the NBA Finals as Portland took on Philadelphia. The Blazers defeated the 76ers in six games thanks to Walton, who averaged 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and even 3.7 blocks per game. While Lucas saw a dip in his scoring during the Finals, Walton stepped up to win the MVP Award and gave Lucas his only title.
14 Larry Bird and Robert Parish (1984)
The 1983-84 season was a big one for Larry Bird, as he would win the league’s MVP title. Bird finished the regular season with 24.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists to lead the way for the Celtics. He wasn’t the only star player on the team, however, as Robert Parish averaged 19.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. When it came time for the high profile 1984 NBA Finals, though, it was Bird that stood tall.
In the seven game series against the Lakers, Parish saw a significant dip in his season scoring average with 15.4 points per game, but did still collect 11.4 rebounds per game. Bird would step up in a big way to lead the team in both scoring and rebounding with 27.4 points and 14.0 rebounds. Bird also led the team in steals, while almost leading with assists and blocks, as well.
13 Bill Russell and Everybody (11 Times)
There’s no doubt that Bill Russell is one of the best players in NBA history, and even Michael Jordan has Russell as his pick for the greatest of all-time. Russell spent his entire career with the Celtics, and was able to help the team win 11 NBA titles. Throughout his career, Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game, basically putting the team on his back every single season.
Along the way, there were some talented players that won NBA titles with Russell and the Celtics, but many were forgettable. It’s hard to win more than a handful of rings without making the Basketball Hall of Fame, but several accomplished that thanks to Russell. Remember Jim Loscutoff or Larry Siegfried? Neither do we, but they have a combined 12 NBA Championship rings between the two of them.
12 Allen Iverson and Theo Ratliff (2001)
Most of this list is comprised of players that were able to singlehandedly able to help other players win a championship ring, but we’ll make the exception for players that were able to win a conference championship without help. That was the case in the 2000-01 NBA season when the Philadelphia 76ers reached the NBA Finals after finishing the regular season with a 56-26 record.
Of course, it was Allen Iverson that led the way that season with 31.1 points, 4.6 assists, 2.5 steals and 3.8 rebounds per game. The second best player on the team? Theo Ratliff. Ratliff did not play in the NBA Finals, though it wouldn’t have made a difference. Iverson and the 76ers came up short, losing 4-1 to the Lakers. However, Iverson tried his best with 35.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, trying to carry Dikembe Mutombo and Eric Snow.
11 Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (2000)
In the quest for his first NBA title, Kobe Bryant put up one heck of a season in the 1999-2000 campaign with 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. The Lakers made their way through the Western Conference playoffs for a date in the NBA Finals with the Indiana Pacers. It was supposed to be Bryant’s big coming out moment to solidify his spot as one of the best players in the game.
His teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, had other ideas, though. Bryant saw his scoring plummet to 15.6 points per game in the NBA Finals, and even his rebounding and assists dropped. O’Neal went absolutely ballistic in the series, finishing with 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds per game. Naturally, O’Neal was named the Finals MVP, and it started the “frenemy” relationship between the two.
10 Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal (2006)
Six years after Shaquille O’Neal stepped ahead of a young up-and-comer to take the spotlight, it was the other way around in 2006 when O’Neal was a member of the Miami Heat. O’Neal had a fine season with 20.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, but Dwyane Wade was the leader of the squad with 27.2 points. The two had to be strong as the roster was rounded out with names like Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey.
In a role reversal of the 2000 NBA Finals, it was Shaq that got carried to another championship ring. O’Neal averaged “just” 13.7 points (third on the team) and 10.2 rebounds per game. Wade, on the other hand, was an absolute monster that averaged 34.7 points and 7.8 points per game to capture his first NBA title.
9 Lakers Big Four and Kurt Rambis (1985)
It was no surprise why the Lakers made the NBA Finals so often in the 1980s, because the rosters were stacked. 1985 was another example, as both top seeds in the Western Conference (Lakers) and Eastern Conference (Celtics) squared off yet again for the title. It took six games for the Lakers to pull it off, but they finished the series with a 111-100 win.
The Lakers had star players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Magic Johnson leading the way. Even Byron Scott and Michael Cooper were able to add some solid production. The one starter that really stuck out, though, was Kurt Rambis. Rambis was perhaps one of the worst starters in an NBA Finals, as he averaged just 7.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, getting carried to a title by his star teammates.
8 Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes (1975)
In the 1974-1975 season, the Golden State Warriors clinched the top spot in the west despite a record of just 48-34. The team would have had an awful record if it weren’t for star player Rick Barry, who finished the regular season with 30.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. Barry didn’t get much help from teammates throughout the season, most notably Jamaal Wilkes and Charles Johnson. It was considered, though, that Wilkes was the second best.
The story didn’t change when the Warriors reached the Finals and faced the Washington Bullets, as Golden State swept the series in four games. Barry scored 29.5 points per game, while Wilkes was second with just 11.5. Obviously, Barry couldn’t win a title by himself, but he came close to accomplishing that feat, it seems.
7 Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry (2011)
In 2006, the Mavericks came up short in their pursuit of an NBA title when they lost to Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat. Not many people gave the Mavericks a chance to get back to the Finals in 2011, since all they had was Dirk Nowitzki, basically. Nowitzki was clearly the star, with the second best player on the team being Jason Terry. Going against the big three of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals, it didn’t seem Nowitzki would get that ring.
However, Nowitzki took over by scoring 26.0 points and pulling in 9.7 rebounds per game as the Mavericks took the series in six games. Terry didn’t have a bad series or anything, but there is no way that he would have a ring if it weren’t for Nowitzki dominating the favorite Heat.
6 Tim Duncan - Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (2003)
The San Antonio Spurs won their first title in 1999, and it was mainly thanks to the solid play of both Tim Duncan and David Robinson. When 2003 rolled around, it was Duncan that was the solid leader of the team since Robinson had retired. The 2002-03 squad featured the likes of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but the two were still very young and hadn’t developed into stars just yet.
The young guards did not play very well in the 2003 NBA Finals when the Spurs faced off against the Nets. It was a series that would last six games, with the Spurs winning the final two to take the series. Duncan singlehandedly got the Spurs their second ring, thanks to scoring 24.2 points and hauling in 17.0 rebounds per game. Duncan also led the team with 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks per game in an unreal performance.
5 Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu (2009)
In another case of a player carrying his team unexpectedly to the NBA Finals only to come up short, Dwight Howard pulled an Allen Iverson in 2009. Howard had only been in the league for a few years, and put the team on his back during the regular season with 20.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game to lead the team in both categories (as well as blocks). Hedo Turkoglu put up some solid points, but didn’t contribute much outside of that.
Howard and the Magic got the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and were able to surprise some people by making it to the NBA Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. While Howard didn’t lead the team in scoring during the Finals, he averaged more than 15 points and 15 rebounds per game in a great effort to help the Magic win their first title. Howard still doesn’t have a ring.
4 Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (1993 and 1998)
There’s not many people that would question Scottie Pippen as a great NBA player, but he never really emerged as an elite talent that could dominate a game quite like his longtime teammate Michael Jordan. The duo won six NBA titles together, though Pippen could not clinch one for himself without having Jordan on the same squad. The two instances where Pippen was carried by Jordan the most happened in 1993 and 1998.
In 1993, Jordan had a legendary performance where he posted 41.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. That was nearly 20 more points per game than Pippen and nearly as many rebounds and assists. It wasn’t quite as lopsided in 1998 when Jordan scored 33.5 points per game, but it was still a significant amount more than Pippen.
3 Hakeem Olajuwon and Robert Horry (1994)
With Michael Jordan out of the picture in the 1993-94 season, the Houston Rockets knew that it was their time to shine. The team was led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the roster did not yet feature Clyde Drexler, who would help the team win a second title the next season. Going back to the 1993-94 Rockets, Olajuwon led the team with 27.3 points per game to go along with 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.7 blocks.
Nobody on the team was even close to Olajuwon in terms of talent, with Robert Horry perhaps being the most notable side player at the time. The Rockets reached the NBA Finals to take on the Knicks, a series that would ultimately go seven games. Olajuwon put the team on his back with 26.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game.
2 Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom (2009)
1994 wouldn’t be the only time that Robert Horry was carried to a title by a superstar. In fact, Horry won a total of seven NBA titles thanks to teammates like Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Shaquille O’Neal, and even Kobe Bryant. However, the time when Bryant carried a player the most came in the 2009 NBA Finals when he took over as the Lakers beat Dwight Howard and the Magic in 2009.
During the regular season, Bryant led the team in scoring, and stepped it up during the championship. Pau Gasol was a great second option that was consistent throughout the regular season and playoffs, while Bryant went for 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game in the series. Odom would have never been able to win a title if it weren’t for Bryant’s heroics, though Gasol might have been a different story.
1 LeBron James - Multiple (2012, 2013, 2016)
When the Miami Heat formed the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was expected that they would win more than a handful of titles. It turned out that wasn’t the case as they won just two in back to back years. Starting in 2012, it was obvious that James was hungry for his first title and outplayed his two star teammates as they defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder four games to one.
During that series, James posted six more points, four more rebounds and two more assists per game than Wade and 14 more points and seven more assists than Bosh. The 2013 NBA Finals when the Heat defeated the Spurs was much of the same story as James led the team in all major category except blocks. While James led those two in 2012 and 2013, his greatest carrying act came in 2016 when the Cavaliers upset the Warriors in seven games. Kyrie Irving wasn’t carried, but players like J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and even star player Kevin Love were.