Balancing Individual and Team Talent Among Champions

One of the more common criteria for judging the greatness of basketball players is to simply ask who has the most championship rings. It’s a natural starting place, because only a fraction of the players who have donned NBA Jerseys have won even one championship and, of those who have, only about half saw significant playing time during their championship seasons.

But solely using ring count as a metric for greatness has some obvious flaws. For example, Derek Fisher was a fantastic point guard and I still remember being amazed by his buzzer beating 0.4 seconds shot against the Spurs in 2004. But he has five NBA championship rings, which puts him on par with Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Robert Horry has more rings than any one player in NBA since 1980, but you never hear his name mentioned with Michael Jordan or LeBron James with good reason.

And speaking of Lebron James, he only has three rings. Same with Larry Bird. Does that mean Michael Jordan with his six rings is twice as good as James or Bird? That’s a hard argument to make. Clearly we can’t simply quantify NBA greatness the same way we guess how old trees are.

How do we determine greatness?

Players can be great for a lot of different reasons. Cal Ripken is a great baseball player for having broken Lou Gherig’s consecutive games played streak appearing in over 2,600 games in a row. The US Women’s National Team in soccer is full of great players who dominate international soccer and use their platform for good. Jim Valvano’s NC State basketball team in 1983 made a great tournament run.

But when I first thought up this post, the example that came to mind was Marshawn Lynch putting the team on his back doe(Note: The video uses language that some readers may find inappropriate). Individual greatness is carrying your team to victory even if your teammates aren’t all-stars themselves.

The general quality of a basketball player is measured with a metric called Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Essentially, WAR measures how many more or fewer games a team won relative to what they could expect to win by subbing out their player for a generic player. For example, in 2000 the LA Lakers could have expected to win about 25 fewer games in the regular season if they dropped Shaq and replaced him with a generic teammate. On the other hand, the Miami Heat would have won 2.7 more games in the 2013 regular season by replacing Norris Cole, which was a slight improvement over 2012 when they would have won 3.24 additional games without him.

Ring count isn’t a totally inadequate measurement of greatness. It takes real skill and talent to win an NBA championship, much less more than one. And WAR isn’t a perfect measure of player quality because it’s only based on box score metrics and therefore misses cultural factors like leadership. So instead we should take a more nuanced approach to counting rings by also accounting for the WAR of each player’s teammates. Great players on worse teams that still win are more impressive than OK players surrounded by great teammates.

Distribution of WAR by team

All teams have some players who are better than others. Steph Curry was the best player on the 2017 Warriors team and Magic Johnson was the best player on the 1980 Lakers. But some teams have more high-WAR players than others. The 2003 Spurs had Tim Duncan earn 9.45 WAR while the rest of his team averaged 3 WAR while the 1996 Bulls averaged around 4.5 WAR while their two best players earned 5.13 (Michael Jordan) and 5.65 (Scottie Pippen) WAR respectively.

Every player on the 2003 Spurs and the 1996 Bulls earned one championship ring, but Tim Duncan’s accomplishment is more impressive than Jordan’s or Pippen’s since he was the main driver of their playoff victory.

Who is the GOAT?

To determine GOAThood based on the team-on-back criterion, we recalculate ring count for each player weighting by the distance between that player’s WAR and the average WAR of their teammates. For example, Paul Pierce earned 4.05 WAR compared to his 2008 team average of 3.66, so his 2008 championship is weighted according to a .39 WAR difference.

Based on Adjusted Ring Count, the top two GOAT candidates are LeBron James and Michael Jordan with Tim Duncan as a somewhat close third. Meanwhile players like Robert Horry and Derek Fisher get appropriately downweighted in accordance with their contributions to their teams. If Lebron James were to win another title, either with the Cavaliers or whatever team he goes to next year, he will almost definitely earn the 1.2 adjusted rings needed to overtake MJ.


Taken separately, NBA championship counts and WAR ratings tell pieces of the story about who the greatest basketball players are. But taken together, the two metrics offer a helpful index of true greatness. The end result being that LeBron James has a shot at catching up to MJ, but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.