Basketball is mostly a team sport, right? A great player can sometimes disappear into the folds of a bad team, even a good team in some cases.
So it’s something of a fools errand to get hung up on the NBA players with the most rings. Greatness is probably more about the teams, dynasties or even coaches, and definitely about all of it coming together. And the stats you find in this article speak to just that.
But there’s something else in here, something about what it takes to win a championship in the NBA. The first 8 names on the list all come from one dynasty of one team, Red Auerbach’s early 60’s Celtics.
But then at #9 you get a smart and reliable, but statistically unimpressive role player. It’s like an onion ring made its way in with your french fries. Of course you get your marquee legends, but you also get a few wild onion rings here.
If you just want the list in a nice table, I won’t begrudge you that. Hesd over to the Wikipedia entry.
But this is really more than just a list of accomplished NBA players. This is yet another unique and fascinating story about the greatest sport on the planet, how it works, and what it takes to win.
The NBA player with the most rings
The entire top of this list is dominated by those Auerbach Celtics. Only Bill Russell gets his own full section. I hate to slight Sam Jones, but there’s plenty of content out there for vintage Celtics fans and we have a lot of story to tell.
Bill Russell – (9 as a player | 2 as a player-coach)
This is almost a hack. Those last couple of rings were picked up as a player-coach, something that doesn’t really exist in the modern NBA. Steve Kerr isn’t about to suit up and hit corner 3’s if Klay has a rough night.
But in the 70’s, it kinda worked like that. Bill took over for Red Auerbach for the 1966 season and he just kept playing. And he wasn’t just filling in occasionally. Russell played as many minutes with the Celtics as a player-coach as he had been playing as a player.
For the rings and countless other reasons, Bill Russell goes down as an unquestionable all-time great, more essential to the game and to American history than a lot of the names you might be more familiar. There’s a great Netflix doc if you need to catch up.
The Auerbach Celtics
As promised, the next 7 players also played for Red Auerbach in the 60’s. Yep, everyone in history who has won more than 7 NBA titles as a player, won all of those titles with the Boston Celtics between the years of 1959 and 1976.
Pretty wild. This was the most successful dynasty in NBA history.
Here they are…
- Sam Jones – (10 titles as a player)
- Tom Heinsohn – (8 titles as a player | 2 as a coach)
- K.C. Jones – (8 titles as a player | 2 as a coach)
- Satch Sanders – (8 titles as a player)
- John Havlicek – (8 titles as a player)
- Jim Loscutoff – (7 titles as a player)
- Frank Ramsey – (7 titles as a player)
Alright, we can finally get into some players who never played for Red Auerbach. This is where the list starts to get a little more interesting. That is, before we get right back to some more Celtics ;).
Robert Horry – (7 titles as a player)
Robert Horry is the only player who has won 7 or more titles who never played for the Celtics. He’s also the only player to have won 5 or more titles on 3 separate teams.
Horry is a bit of an enigma. He never averaged over 15 points a game. He never broke 10 PPG after his first four years in the league. His 3-point percentage crept above 40% only once in 17 seasons in the league and that was under relatively low usage.
Horry was a role player, at times a decent defender. His shooting was a little streaky but he was known to hit some very clutch 3’s. Somehow that adds up to 7 rings.
And you can’t argue with those rings. Nor should you. This guy is just about the perfect template for a dude you want on a championship team. You don’t want to have to rely on him, and you’re not gonna play him 45 minutes, but for the right price, you’d love to have Robert Horry coming off your bench.
Bob Cousy – (6 titles as a player)
Just one more old Celtics legend before we can get to some names you’re going to be much more familiar with.
Bob Cousy was famously snubbed by Red Auerbach in the 1950 draft. Red thought he was just a goofy showboater. Fast forward a bit and Cousy’s managed to pull some strings to get himself routed to the Celtics anyway.
And the Celtics made it to the playoffs with Cousy. They made it to the playoffs 6 times. By Cousy’s admission, they were just running out of steam half way. And then in 1956, Red drafted Bill Russell.
This combination of a sturdy post and an elite point guard lit the fire on the first half of the Celtics title run.
Michael Jordan – (6 titles as a player)
You’ve probably heard of him. If the name isn’t ringing any bells, you may know him as Air Jordan. Air is not short for Michael, it’s just what they call him and his line of shoes.
Jordan won 6 titles with Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s. Phil Jackson is pretty obviously a great coach. And the Bulls were a great team. And yet, the two titles they didn’t win, sandwiched between their 2 90’s 3-peats are the titles where Jordan was missing, and where Jordan was still a little rusty.
Coincidence? Probably not.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – (6 titles as a player)
My favorite player of all time, personally. I have very little love for the Lakers, but this dude is just so endlessly interesting. The more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he’s just exactly what the world needed during his era.
He wasn’t Bill Russell, hauling the heaviest baggage of classic American racism as the first black coach in the league. He wasn’t Wilt, carrying a massive chip on his shoulder. Kareem was just a chill dude that wanted to play basketball at a ridiculously high level and be left alone. Too bad you can’t have it both ways.
Anyway, Kareem won 6 titles with Los Angeles and that says basically nothing about him as an icon or an American or a player. If you wanna catch up, there’s a decent HBO doc.
Scottie Pippen – (6 as a player)
Scottie has been taking some heat lately.
I don’t think it’s far fetched to imagine that Jordan isn’t that great of a human. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the NBA has touched, at times, on exploitation.
But, you know, you won 6 rings 30 years ago. Enjoy the rest of your life. What’s the point of arguing about who did what on a team that accomplished something great. Again, it was 30 years ago.
The 5 Ring Club
Ahhh, yes, and then we have the 5-ring family. 5 seems to be the magic number. It’s an exclusive club, but with a lot of members. These names start to look a lot more familiar to the modern NBA fan.
- Steve Kerr
- Kobe Bryant
- Tim Duncan
- Magic Johnson
- Dennis Rodman
- Derek Fisher
- George Mikan
- Jim Pollard
- Slater Martin
- Larry Siegfried
- Don Nelson
- Michael Cooper
- Ron Harper
The 4 Ring Club
Once you get to 4 rings, the club gets a little bigger. You have a total of 18 players with 4 titles.
You’ve got Shaq and LeBron here. You also get Steph and the other stars of the GSW dynasty. There are some appearances from the 90’s Bulls rotation, then Manu and Tony Parker from the big Spurs run in the 2000’s. And the rest is filled up with some of the old Celtics and Lakers rotations.
LeBron and John Salley are both notable here for having claimed titles on 3 different teams.
- LeBron James
- Steph Curry
- Draymond Green
- Andre Iguadala
- Klay Thompson
- Manu Ginóbili
- Tony Parker
- Vern Mikkelsen
- Frank Saul
- Bill Sharman
- Gene Guarilia
- Jamaal Wilkes
- Kurt Rambis
- Robert Parish
- Will Purdue
- John Salley
- Horace Grant
So what does this all say about what it takes to win a title in the NBA?
I mean, it clearly says it takes a team. Only 4 players in history have won titles on 3 different teams. There are plenty of greats who have never won a title.
It also says that a little bit of luck can be very helpful. It’s not that players like Robert Horry and John Salley aren’t great basketball players, but they both had a bit of the right place at the right time that could have easily gone either way.
And you don’t have to be elite at everything to win a lot of titles. In fact, it can help if you’re not. Max players end up staying with a team for awhile. A reliable role player has more opportunities to jump to whatever team is in contention.
We’ll probably never see another run like the 60’s Celtics. The talent converged in a way that the modern NBA actively tries to discourage. A team like that just can’t stay together for a decade anymore. The bar was also a bit lower back then.
But we’re sure to see new dynasties emerge over time as we saw the Warriors emerge in the 2010’s. And wherever those dynasties pop up, they’re sure to be fueled by a blend of generational talent, strong coaching, and clever and determined management.