When the final whistle blows and determines the winner of an NBA championship, the Ernie Johnson, Kenny, Chuck, and Shaq interviews commence. The NBA Finals MVP award is given out and the Larry O'Brien Trophy presented… A few moments later the champagne gets sprayed all around the locker room. The players can’t stop smiling. Brian Scalabrine gives the interview of the decade. The private jet stops off in Las Vegas. J.R. Smith wears no shirt for 12 weeks straight. Drake hugs LeBron. Or Kawhi. Or whatever team he’s rooting for that particular season… The parties and parades take over the next few weeks of their lives before the players have to get back to work.
The Real Prize… Championship Rings
And then six months later, the winning teammates get their championship rings in ceremonies that can take place on their home court – or in multiple arenas throughout the league because we all know how hard it is to keep a squad together these days. Some guys may have been traded in the off-season… others may have been released.
In some cases, players may have not even been on the team or in the locker room at the time when the team won. This puts these players in the interesting place of receiving a championship ring, but not having a title to their name.
A Brief History of Players Who Won Championship Rings But Not Titles
Let’s take a quick look at some of the players throughout history (and in this year’s Finals) who this has happened to.
Torrey Craig, Guaranteed Ring Recipient
Case in point, Phoenix Suns surprise player Torrey Craig, who actually began this season with the Milwaukee Bucks, playing 18 games before being traded to the Suns for cash considerations in March. Of course, anybody who signed a contract with a team anytime during the season can be awarded a championship ring. So no matter what the outcome of the Finals, Torrey Craig is officially an NBA “Ring Owner.”
Obviously, Torrey Craig would rather win one as a member of the Phoenix Suns two weeks from now. But you have to wonder – if the Bucks win and offer him a ring, will he accept it?
My guess is no.
Then again, it’s very hard to tell. Craig did play 18 games for Milwaukee this season, but receiving a Bucks’ ring would just feel a little… off. Although, who knows – he could always sell that bastard for $70k and buy a few Christmas presents for the fam.
The Anderson Varejão Conundrum
Torrey Craig will NOT become the first player to possibly win a ring from a team that gave up on him earlier in the season.
The other time it happened was in 2016 with Anderson Varejão, who famously spent 12 seasons as a Cleveland Cavalier. When he was released, the Golden State Warriors picked him up for the remainder of the season. When the Cavs beat the Warriors in the finals that year, Varejão was offered a Cleveland championship ring. But he turned it down due to principle. He played in 14 games for Golden State the following season before the W’s released him. But when they took the Larry O’Brien Trophy home in 2017, they offered Varejão another ring. This time he took it.
Torrey Craig’s awkward situation is a little different, but Varejão’s was one that I was surprised by. Varejão was a perennial member of the Cleveland Cavaliers for over a decade… his allegiance was to the Cavs for so long he should probably have a Cavs ring and not a Warriors ring, but you can’t blame him for being loyal.
Elgin Baylor, Retired Ring Recipient
One of the earliest examples of a player earning a ring from a team he was not currently on was Elgin Baylor, the Los Angeles Laker Hall-of-Famer who retired after about 10 games into the 1971-72 season. After the Lakers went on to win it all that year, they gave Elgin a ring. This is most likely because he was such an important part of the franchise for so long. However, in the annals of NBA history, Elgin is NOT credited as being officially on the team when they won – because he was technically not active.
Sadly, of course, this means that official NBA records do not recognize this as a title. And Baylor’s Hall of Fame stats do not list him as an NBA champion.
The Toronto Tiered Ring System
One team that decided to basically give out rings to everybody was the Raptors, who created a five-tier system for handing out their 2019 NBA Championship Rings.
It began with Tier 1 - which went to coaches and players. Tiers 2 and 3 went to folks who were hands-on in the player training and development. Tier 4 went to people who basically made signage for the team and possibly directly worked with the players. And Tier 5 went to the FANS on opening day the next season.
Obviously, the Tier 5 diamonds and gold weren’t real… But hey – the Raptors organization felt that the fans were enough of a part of their title as some of the team… Just don’t let them tell you that they “won a title.”
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Of course, Drake got one as well. What team isn’t this guy a fan of?[/caption]
Lakers Sharing the Love
Last year’s NBA Bubble champion Los Angeles Lakers were pretty generous with the championship rings as well. They gave them out to all three of their players who were not physically a part of their team when they actually won the chip. This includes DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his ACL before even stepping foot on an NBA court in a Lakers uniform. And then they released Cousins during his recovery… When he signed with the Houston Rockets in the off-season, the Lakers announced they would be giving Cousins a ring, even though he basically only shouted out defensive switches to Anthony Davis and LeBron James from the sideline.
Cousins called the decision “dope" and happily took the ring, citing his locker room commitments and leadership as reasons for deserving the hardware. (I firmly believe he deserved this. Boogie is a veteran big man who most likely provided guidance for the team early on.) But on his career highlights, it will not officially be considered a championship. The other two players who got Lakers bubble rings were Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels. Bradley decided to not join the Lakers in the Bubble due to his son’s respiratory illness. And Troy Daniels was bought out mid-season.
Daniels’ story ends a little sadly because he went and made a vlog declaring himself to be an NBA Champion. However, Google his name, and Troy Daniels is not credited with a title.
Avery Bradley is credited as having a ring, however, because he was still considered an active member of the Lakers when they took it all.
Do Legends Deserve Championship Rings?
Certain other players who have reportedly been given rings by an organization include the veterans who stayed loyal to the cities they played for their entire careers. In 2008, the rumor was that the Boston Celtics made sure that Larry Bird got a championship ring as a way to honor his contributions to the city and the team.
At current printing, NBA experts are predicting that should Phoenix win the title, they will award Charles Barkley, who won his MVP with the Suns in 1993, a ring. The honorary Larry Bird ring makes sense… The honorary Barkley ring, not so much. In my opinion, long-time Suns Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire deserve championship rings more than Barkley does, even though he famously took them to the NBA Finals back in the day… But ultimately, the team will make the final decision on who receives the coveted jewelry.
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Barkley has his own ring for making the Top 50 Greatest NBA Players. That’s more than enough, Chuck.[/caption]
Playing for Pride
So, as Torrey Craig battles his way towards winning his first ring as an NBA player, you gotta think that winning it as a Suns player will motivate him even more so that he doesn’t receive that “awkward opponent ring” from the other team. After all, only if he wins as a Phoenix player will he receive credit for having an NBA title to his name.
So put some money on the Suns. Heck, put some money on Craig to win the damn Finals MVP…
(For the record, having been a Suns fan my whole life, I would also like a ring… Thank you.)