One-Time Stars Who Rode the Bench to an NBA Title
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Call them front-runners, ring-chasers, whatever you want, but there is a decent amount of one-time NBA stars who have won championships by coming off—or riding—the bench late in their careers.
Some of them had already won titles earlier in their playing days, and they played pivotal roles during those runs. Of course, father time is undefeated, and at some point, stars are going to fade.
While there is really nothing wrong with an older player joining a championship-contending team, generally, their legacies are decided long beforehand. For example, recent Hall of Fame inductee Gary Payton is not recognized as an all-time great because of his lone title with the Miami Heat in 2006. It is because of all of those outstanding years of work he had put in previously, mainly with the Seattle Supersonics.
So, even those these guys captured titles in the twilight of their careers, chances are that final moment of glory is not what you will remember them for.
Robert Parish (1997)
While he was an integral piece of the Boston Celtics' three championships during the 80s, Robert Parish was less than a shell of himself when he collected his fourth title with the Chicago Bulls in 1997.
Parish played in only 43 games during the 1996-97 campaign, averaging a mere 3.7 points and 2.1 rebounds. The Hall of Famer then proceeded to see the floor in only two playoff contests.
When you can't get minutes ahead of Luc Longley and Bill Wennington, you know you're pretty much at the end of your tether as a professional basketball player. Consequently, this ended up being the final season of Parish's illustrious and seemingly never-ending 21-year career.
Just look at The Chief in that picture after the Bulls had won it all in '97. It's like he's thinking, "Does this one really count?"
No, but seriously, even though Parish may have rode the bench to his fourth ring, it does not damage his legacy one iota.
Gary Payton (2006)
There was a time when Payton was one of the best players in the league, dominating both ends of the floor and playing defense was such ferocity that he was nicknamed "The Glove."
Younger Heat fans, however, remember him as the decrepit, inconsistent point guard who averaged only 7.7 points and 3.2 assists during Miami's first title run in the 2005-06 season. The main thought that probably crossed their minds was, "What was so great about this guy?"
Payton was 37 years old when Miami won the championship in 2006, and his play had fallen off so much that he was actually relegated to backing up Jason Williams throughout the playoffs. Ouch.
Gary actually started 25 games during that regular season, but he came off the bench in all 23 of the Heat's postseason contests.
It's a shame that Payton wasn't able to win a ring in his prime. Yes, in the end, he ended up getting one anyway, but if it weren't for Shawn Kemp being such a head case and if not for some guy named Michael Jordan, he likely would have gotten one much sooner.
Mitch Richmond (2002)
In the 2001-02 campaign, the final year of Mitch Richmond's career, he won his elusive first title as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Richmond spent most of his career toiling away in Sacramento with the Kings, averaging at least 20 points per game in every season but only making the playoffs once. It's too bad he didn't have any help.
He obviously couldn't complain about a lack of a supporting cast with the Lakers, as Richmond didn't have to do any of the heavy lifting thanks to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (not that Richmond was capable of doing any such lifting at that stage of his career, anyway).
The sharpshooter played in 64 games during that season, averaging 11.1 minutes. He appeared in only two playoff contests, and that second appearance happened to consist of him dribbling out the clock in the deciding Game 4 of the Finals. Not a bad way to finish things.
Sam Cassell (2008)
Sam Cassell was always one of the more underrated players in the league during his time. He averaged a very solid .141 win shares per 48 minutes over the course of his 15-year career and developed a reputation for being one of the game's most lethal shooters in crunch time.
Cassell's career got off to a red-hot start, as he captured back-to-back titles with the Houston Rockets during his first two seasons. Then, 13 years later, Sam I Am would obtain his third ring.
After being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers in the middle of the 2007-08 campaign, Cassell signed with the Boston Celtics. That was the Big Three's inaugural year, and they would go on to defeat the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Cassell did see a solid chunk of floor time during those playoffs, playing in 21 games and actually becoming the catalyst in a key Game 1 over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. Outside of that performance, however, Cassell was relatively non-existent for the rest of the postseason, posting only 4.5 points per game off 33.3 percent shooting.
Regardless of the fact that Sam wasn't even close to the player he once was in 2008, he can now sit back and say that he ended up with more rings than the guy who essentially brought him his first two championships in the first place: Hakeem Olajuwon.
Juwan Howard (2012)
A former All-Star, Juwan Howard is now known for basically being an extra assistant coach on the Heat bench. That, and for getting in Lance Stephenson's face during the playoffs last year.
Howard, someone who was a consistent 18-point-per-game scorer during the prime of his career, has spent the past three seasons with Miami, playing in 92 games total. Last year during the Heat's championship run, Howard appeared in 28 contests, averaging 1.5 points per game off 30.9 percent shooting. He then played in nine games during the playoffs, accumulating seven points over 24 total minutes.
Even though Miami still would have won the 2012 title with their mascot Burnie taking the place of Howard on the pine, Juwan was there, and therefore, he has a ring. He also can lay claim to some bragging rights, as he is the only member of Michigan's "Fab Five" to have won an NBA title.
Bill Walton (1986)
This one might be slightly unfair because Bill Walton did play a rather big role off the bench for the Celtics during their championship run in 1986. But let's face facts here: he wasn't the same Bill Walton from prior years.
Walton was certainly no scrub during that 1985-86 campaign, as he averaged 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 56.2 percent from the floor. Compare that to the year Walton won his first title with the Portland Trail Blazers where he was an automatic double-double, and you have a player that was clearly past his prime. In Walton's case, that was mainly due to injuries. He could still perform at a high level, but was no longer able to stay on the floor for 30-plus minutes
He was fortunate enough to have Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in Boston as he corralled his second ring. He played 18.2 minutes per game during those playoffs, posting nearly identical numbers to his regular-season stats.
It's probably safe to say that Walton had more to give than anyone else on this list at their respective stages of their careers.
Kevin Willis (2003)
No one ever really talks about Kevin Willis when discussing the best big men of the 90s, and it's hard to understand why.
Willis was an absolute animal in his prime, once tallying 18.3 points and 15.5 rebounds per game. He would consistently average double-doubles during his years with the Atlanta Hawks, shooting right around 50 percent from the floor throughout his entire tenure there.
Unfortunately for Willis, he didn't get a finals opportunity until the 2002-03 season with the San Antonio Spurs. He played in 71 games that season, recording 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds a night behind David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Willis then saw the floor in 18 of the Spurs' 24 playoff games that year, posting 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds per game as San Antonio hung another banner.