For all of the individual awards that an NBA player might win and all the stats they may accumulate, the true measure of greatness in pro basketball is championships. It’s why Michael Jordan is less remembered for his 14 All-Star appearances and more for his six titles (and six Finals MVP awards). It’s why icons like Bill Russell stand on a different plane in NBA lore than Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, all-time greats who never won a ring. Indeed, it is only the true giants of the game who can be called champion.
Or, you know, something like that. Sure, in a superstar-driven league, it takes a special kind of talent to lead your team into the record books. But even on the very best of teams, it’s just about impossible to boast a roster that runs 15-deep, nor would you necessarily want to. In a salary cap era (a soft cap, but a cap nonetheless), there’s only so much money to go around, and you ideally want it allotted to your best players. Depth is great in theory, but you rarely need a full 15 trustworthy players, not when most teams use just eight or nine in a game. So yes, even the best teams may be lacking at the very end of the bench.
The funny thing is, of course, the championship rings look the same no matter how much value you really had to your title-winning club. The rings that have been won by coattail-hangers like Greg Oden, Sun Yue and D.J. Mbenga are the same as the ones that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant got for those victories. With every Larry O’Brien trophy winner, there come a few guys whose ‘role’ in the triumph elicits scoffs and eye rolls - not that they care in that moment. Here is the worst player on each of the last 20 NBA champs:
20 Will Perdue - San Antonio Spurs, 1999
While never anyone’s idea of a star-caliber talent, Will Perdue got by as a purveyor of the less glamorous parts of the game. As part of the three-time champion Chicago Bulls of the early '90s, the seven-footer embraced a reserve role as a grit-and-grind interior presence. By the 1998-99 season, however, nearly five years after being dealt to San Antonio for Dennis Rodman, a 33-year-old had lost a step or twelve.
Perdue’s 2.4 points marked his worst offensive output since his rookie season and his 3.7 rebounds were more than six fewer than he had managed two years prior. Fortunately for the Spurs, they had the Twin Towers combo of Tim Duncan and David Robinson and didn’t need much from Perdue. Come playoff time, he was getting just a shade over seven minutes a night and doing little to affect the game.
19 A.C. Green - Los Angeles Lakers, 2000
There's no question that A.C. Green, a player known for being an iron man, is most remembered for his days as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he won all three of his NBA titles and made his lone All-Star Game appearance. And so it made for a nice story when a 36-year-old Green returned to a Lakers squad led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for one last title chase. On a positive note, the Lakers succeeded in their quest while Green started all 82 games. He was, however, a distant fifth option for LA, averaging just five points in 23.5 minutes. When Robert Horry began having "Big Shot Bob" moments in the postseason that year, it was typically Green who he had been subbed in for.
18 Greg Foster - Los Angeles Lakers, 2001
Backing up Shaquille O'Neal in his peak years could often be a boring job. After all, the Big Aristotle logged an average of 39.5 minutes during the 2000-01 season, leaving Greg Foster precious few opportunities to get into a game. It didn't help, however, that the former Utah Jazz big man didn't exactly inspire confidence when he did get a shot. Foster couldn't score and didn't rebound all that well, making for a precipitous drop-off when he tried to cover for one of the greatest big men that game has ever seen.
By the time of that year's postseason, in what should've been a moment of retribution for a guy who had previously been on two runner-up teams in Utah, Foster played all of three minutes, picking up a foul and a rebound in mop up duty at the end of a first round blowout win over Portland.
17 Mark Madsen - Los Angeles Lakers, 2002
Current Lakers Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram weren't even in grade school back in 2002 when Mark Madsen, one of their coaches, chose an - ahem - unique way to celebrate the club's recent championship. For those of us old enough to remember LA's title celebration, however, the sight of Madsen's nearly unwatchable dance moves will forever be burned in our retinas. Those moves also easily stand up as the most memorable thing he did over his nine-year career. In that 2001-02 season, the 6'9" power forward got five starts next to Shaq, but played just 11 minutes per contest and averaged a measly 2.8 points and 2.7 rebounds. Come playoff time, he was practically a forgotten man, playing a total of 10 minutes across seven games and accumulating as many fouls and turnovers as shots (one).
16 Steve Kerr - San Antonio Spurs, 2003
Long before he took the Golden State Warriors to the next level and turned them into the juggernaut they are today as head coach, Steve Kerr established a winning pedigree as a player. Kerr won five titles as a member of the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, benefiting from having the likes of Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan as teammates and Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich as coaches.
The sharpshooting guard carved out a nice complimentary role on most of those teams, but was clearly over the hill as a 37-year-old on the 2002-03 Spurs. By then, the league leader in career three-point field goal percentage (45.4%) was hitting at just 39.5% from deep and managing just four points per game. In the playoffs, Kerr averaged just 4.6 minutes over 10 games and promptly rode off into the sunset as a player thereafter.
15 Darko Milicic - Detroit Pistons, 2004
Rarely can an organization contend for a championship and a top draft pick in the same year, but that was the Pistons in the early 2000s thanks to a lopsided Otis Thorpe trade. But with the No. 2 pick in the loaded 2003 draft and coming off a Conference Finals appearance, the Pistons didn’t exactly help themselves by drafting Darko Milicic. It would have been tough to expect any young rookie to step into a rotation with legit championship aspirations and contribute, but Milicic was a special case.
You could have seen Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade offering Detroit at least some support, unlike the deer-in-headlights 18-year-old Serb. Milicic would average 1.4 points in his rookie season and tally exactly one playoff point, but the Pistons would still win the title - in spite of him, not because of him.
14 Rasho Nesterovic - San Antonio Spurs, 2005
The go-to starting five for the championship-winning 2004-05 Spurs functioned as a game of “one of these things doesn’t belong”. You had the franchise big man Tim Duncan, the exceptional young point guard Tony Parker, the magician Manu Ginobili, the elite defensive stopper Bruce Bowen... and Rasho Nesterovic. The big man was clearly the fifth option among that group, so his inferior scoring numbers were hardly a surprise. But the seven-footer couldn’t even sustain an edge on the glass, barely maintaining a better rebounding rate than Ginobili and averaging roughly the same amount of boards as backup Nazr Mohamed in about seven more minutes per contest. By playoff time, Mohamed took over at the center position, leaving Nesterovic to average just 7.6 minutes in 15 games off the bench.
13 Michael Doleac - Miami Heat, 2006
To be fair, the 2005-06 Heat probably didn’t need to put a great deal of thought into their third-string center, what with Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning occupying the first two spots on the depth chart. But this wasn’t exactly peak ‘Zo we were talking about, at 35 and having played a total of 49 games over the previous three seasons on account of serious kidney problems. Still, Mourning had no problems outplaying 28-year-old Michael Doleac and cementing his backup role.
It was a heartwarming story to see the seven-time All-Star turn back the clock for a key role with a championship team, but that still didn’t change the fact that Doleac had blown his shot at a larger role by failing to make any kind of impact. What’s worse, Doleac actually doubled Mourning’s earnings that season, coming in just a shade under a young Dwyane Wade on Miami’s salary chart.
12 Beno Udrih - San Antonio Spurs, 2007
It's a good thing Tony Parker had the season he did in 2006-07, earning an All-Star invite in a year that also saw him win NBA Finals MVP honors. If not for Parker, then surely the Spurs would've needed help from outside the organization. In other words, backups Beno Udrih and Jacque Vaughn just weren't doing the trick. Udrih shot 36.9% from the floor and averaged just 1.7 points in about 13 minutes per game, while Vaughn registered a measly three points a game in about 12 minutes on the floor. Let's trust Pop's judgment and go with Udrih here. Udrih, who would actually break out for San Antonio one year later, all but stopped seeing the floor in the postseason, as Vaughn played all 20 playoff games as the primary backup.
11 Brian Scalabrine - Boston Celtics, 2008
Yeah we know that everybody loves Brian Scalabrine, especially the Boston Celtics faithful. But for as nice as it was to see the White Mamba get a ring in 2008, the big man was absolutely terrible. Scalabrine played just under 11 minutes per game during that 2007-08 season, although he did start nine games for some reason. When he was actually playing, the glorified mascot averaged just 1.8 points while shooting 30.9%, the lowest mark of an 11-year career that wasn't exactly sparkling otherwise.
Mercifully, once things really got serious by late April, Scal was hidden away, not making a single playoff appearance. While his enthusiasm and popularity made for an endearing figure on the Celtics bench, he actually made $3 million that season for 88 total points, earning a higher salary than point guard Rajon Rondo.
10 Sasha Vujacic - Los Angeles Lakers, 2009
As with many of the lesser lights from the Lakers' rosters of the 2000's, Sasha Vujacic's relationship with Kobe Bryant was tumultuous at best. To be fair, Vujacic would actually go on to have a major role for the Lakers one year later, sinking the title-clinching free throws in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. In the 2008-09 season, however, the 24-year-old just wasn't very good. Despite his reputation as a shooting specialist, he shot just 38.7% from the field and 36.3% from long distance. In the playoffs, those numbers sunk all the way to 26.4% and 31.4%, respectively. That's right, Vujacic could barely make a quarter of his shots in the 2009 postseason.
9 Adam Morrison - Los Angeles Lakers, 2010
Few NBA prospects have created the level of intrigue that followed Adam Morrison into the pros. It was unclear how the skinny, awkward-looking kid would fit in as an NBA player, but Morrison also had many believers who had seen him develop into one of the best pure scorers in college basketball history at Gonzaga.
After being taken third overall in 2006, however, Morrison got exposed. An okay rookie campaign was followed by a serious knee injury that 'The Stache' could never recover from. He would play just three seasons and 161 games, being out of the league by age 25. But, he's an NBA champion. On the 2009-10 Lakers, he averaged 2.4 points in 7.8 minutes across 34 games, all the while making over $5 million and basically having a great seat to watch the Lakers' seven-game Finals triumph over the rival Boston Celtics.
8 Peja Stojakovic - Dallas Mavericks, 2011
With his Mavericks looking poised to contend for a title in the middle of the 2010-11 season, Dirk Nowitzki made a push for the club to sign veteran free agent Peja Stojakovic, recalling their three straight years of playoff battles in the early 2000s while the sharpshooter was on the Sacramento Kings. Despite some warnings and Stojakovic's two previous teams that same season, the Mavs acquiesced to their star's request.
Perhaps Dirk shouldn't become a GM when his playing career comes to an end. Stojakovic was, in fact, pretty well done, running out of steam in a Finals that saw him average just 0.5 points. It was hardly a surprise to see him retire shortly after the season ended. Here's hoping he thanked his buddy for letting him ride shotgun en route to a ring.
7 Eddy Curry - Miami Heat, 2012
There was nothing wrong with an otherwise loaded, Big Three era Miami Heat squad to take an inexpensive flyer on Eddy Curry in hopes that the one-time fourth overall pick would get in shape and stay motivated at the prospect of a title chase. By all accounts, Curry tried his best, losing considerable weight and working hard to earn his place. But cracking that kind of lineup is hard for anyone, let alone a guy who had played 10 total games across the past three seasons.
The absence showed, as Curry was slow and ineffective, averaging 2.1 points and less than a rebound per game while getting just six minutes over 14 games and nothing in the playoffs. Still, let the record show that when LeBron James finally earned his first championship ring, Curry did too.
6 Joel Anthony - Miami Heat, 2013
For the Miami Heat's Finals runs in 2011 and 2012, Joel Anthony emerged as one of the club's unsung heroes, mixing it up in the paint and contributing on the glass. The Canadian big man remained in South Beach for the Heat's 2012-13 title defense, but looked like a shell of his former self. Losing minutes to the newly acquired Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Anthony went from 21.1 minutes to 9.1, seeing his production endure a similarly precipitous drop-off. He became almost invisible come playoff time, averaging just 5.1 minutes over 14 games as the Heat won their second in a row.
5 Shannon Brown - San Antonio Spurs, 2014
Look, I know that Shannon Brown was barely a footnote in the San Antonio Spurs' resilient 2013-14 season, playing just 10 games over two ten-day contracts and finishing the season with the New York Knicks. But with no obvious alternative, Brown's brief stay was bad enough to warrant mention here. The 28-year-old had averaged double digit point totals over the previous two seasons in Phoenix, but was reduced to garbage time fodder with the Spurs. As such, he never quite caught on, averaging just 28.6% shooting despite a career mark of 42%. By the end of the second of his 10-day deals, there was little doubt that San Antonio would part ways with Brown rather than keeping him for the rest of the year.
4 Brandon Rush – Golden State Warriors, 2015
Depending on how you look at it, Brandon Rush either picked the best or worst time to return to the Warriors as a free agent. On one hand, the 29-year-old shooting guard went back to the Bay Area for a second stint just in time for the first of their three titles in four years. Of course, this was also the true breakout of the Splash Brothers tandem of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Not only did Rush have to contend for minutes with two all-time great shooters, but he also found himself behind the likes of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and even Justin Holiday in the guard pecking order. Going from 9.8 points in 26.4 minutes to 0.9 points in 8.2 minutes just three years later showed Rush that these weren't the same Warriors anymore.
3 James Jones - Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016
There's no question that being close friends with LeBron James helped the NBA career of James Jones, now the GM for the Phoenix Suns. But to his credit, the long-range gunner achieved plenty of his own accord. Just not as part of the history-making 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, Jones was there, as he was for LeBron's two other title victories. But the 35-year-old could only manage to follow up a forgettable regular season by making a mere two of his 10 shot attempts in the postseason, going 1-7 from three-point range.
Since the Cavs wouldn't dare cut an LBJ ally (not that it helped when he left for LA), Jones was back for the 2016-17 season, shooting a little better but still mostly proving himself to be past his prime before finally hanging it up.
2 Anderson Varejao – Golden State Warriors, 2017
While we're on the subject of friends of LeBron James, it had to sting the King at least a little bit to see former running buddy Anderson Varejao join up with his Finals adversaries, the Golden State Warriors. Given how bad the big Brazilian was for the Warriors, however, it's probably fair to wonder if Varejao had been deployed as a double agent. We're only kidding about that part (we think), but the veteran center known as Sideshow Bob averaged just 1.3 points while shooting 35.7%, compared to career averages of 7.3 and 51%.
Moreover, the 34-year-old's rebounding average plummeted down to 1.9 per game from a career average of 7.2. Varejao was cut after just 14 games that season, but did earn a ring after famously rejecting one from the previous season, when he played 31 games with Cleveland but wound up facing them in the Finals after signing in Golden State.
1 Patrick McCaw – Golden State Warriors, 2018
Somehow, Patrick McCaw's name became one of the hottest in the NBA for a brief stretch a couple weeks ago. Rather than being for any on-court accomplishments, it was instead for the potentially murky circumstances surrounding a two-year, $6 million non-guaranteed offer sheet that he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, one that was waived soon after and then prompted accusations of impropriety by the Golden State Warriors. A league investigation into the matter is pending, but this all seems like a lot of fuss over the worst player on the Warriors' 2017-18 NBA championship team.
McCaw has now won titles in each of his first two seasons in the league, albeit while riding the bench as more talented teammates take charge. Last season, he averaged an underwhelming four points in about 17 minutes over 57 games, even getting the opportunity to make 10 starts. However, after averaging 12 minutes across 15 games in the 2018 postseason, McCaw only saw 2.7 minutes worth of action in six games last spring.