There’s a belief among the league that “tanking,” the idea of losing as many games to receive a high draft pick, is one of the best avenues towards rebuilding a franchise towards winning a championship. However, since 1980, only 11 top-3 picks have won titles with the team that selected them, and there’s a very valid argument that half of those players weren’t even the best player on their team. position
This suggests that “tanking” is not as effective as you might think. The last top-3 pick to win a championship with his respective team was Kyrie Irving in 2016. With 40 years, it suggests that just one top-3 pick per 10 years will win a title with their team that selected them.
Here are those players that have accomplished that feat.
Number 3 Overall Picks
Elliott was selected with the No. 3 overall pick in 1989 by the San Antonio Spurs, where he spent the bulk of his career. The 1998-1999 season was shortened to 50 games due to a league lockout, but the Spurs owned the league’s best record with 37 wins. After defeating the Timberwolves and Lakers, the Spurs played the Trail Blazers in the Conference Finals.
In Game 2, trailing by two points and nine seconds to play, Elliott hit a crucial game-sealing three-point shot over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-11 Rasheed Wallace. The shot was known as the “Memorial Day Miracle.” The Spurs eventually made the NBA Finals and took down the New York Knicks in five games. Elliott averaged 11.9 points per game and shot 40% from beyond the arc in 17 playoff games.
Championships: 1981, 1984, 1986
McHale was a great player in his own right, but is anyone going to say that he was better than Larry Bird? The seven-time All-Star was also a six-time All-Defensive selection. In 1984 and 1985, McHale won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award for his efforts coming off the bench.
The Boston Celtics featured a great one-two punch with Bird and McHale on the team. McHale owns a career playoff average of 18.8 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Championships: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998
Out of all the top-3 draft picks, Jordan owns the most championships with six. Had he not left the league on two separate occasions, he might have added to that total. Regardless, the six-time Finals MVP is the greatest player of all time and he helped the Chicago Bulls finish a perfect 6-0 in the NBA Finals during the 1990s.
Jordan was also a five-time regular season MVP, nine-time All-Defensive selection, and 14-time All-Star. As long as LeBron is in the league, the “GOAT” debate will live on, but for now, Jordan owns that title all to himself.
Number 2 Overall Picks
The Detroit Pistons chose Milicic with the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, bypassing the likes of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Pistons were in a great position by owning a high draft pick and a stacked squad that had previously made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons owned the second overall pick thanks to a 1997 trade that sent Otis Thorpe to the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Milicic saw limited playing time during his rookie year. He played in 34 games and averaged 1.4 points per game. In the playoffs, he averaged just 1.8 minutes per game. He did become the youngest player (18 years and 356 days) to appear in the NBA Finals.
Championships: 1989, 1990
Thomas is one of five players on this list that spent their entire career with the NBA team that drafted them. Thomas was selected in 1981 and made his first of 12 straight All-Star appearances in 1982. With the combination of Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons transformed their culture to the “Bad Boys” Pistons.
The “Bad Boys” were seen as the most physical team in the league. They were known for being in your face, playing hard defense, and were not fearful of anyone. The Pistons won two championships together before their historic moment of walking off the court and not shaking hands with the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 playoff series.
Number 1 Overall Picks
Irving was seen as the “savior” for the Cavaliers in 2011. The team was still hurting from hometown hero LeBron James leaving for the Heat in 2010. Irving was seen as a potential Hall of Fame player down the road, but the team never fully completed until LeBron came back in 2014.
With the combination of LeBron and Irving, the Cavaliers made three straight NBA Finals appearances before Irving left the team in 2017. Irving grew tired of living in LeBron’s shadow and was traded to the Boston Celtics.
LeBron owns four championships in his trophy hall but only won with the team that originally drafted him. LeBron’s story is well-documented. After failing to win a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron bolted to form a Big 3 with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. After winning two championships with the Heat, LeBron returned to the Cavaliers in 2014.
After losing to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were able to dethrone the 73-win Warriors in 2016 to bring home Cleveland’s first NBA title. LeBron made the Finals four straight years in Cleveland before leaving for the Lakers in 2018, where he eventually won a title in 2020.
Championships: 1994, 1995
After years of watching Michael Jordan win three straight championships, the Houston Rockets finally had their chance when Jordan abruptly retired from the league after 1993. Olajuwon, who was taken No. 1 overall and two spots ahead of Jordan, finally had his chance with the MVP pursuing a baseball career.
Olajuwon was able to team up with Clyde Drexler after Drexler came up empty in Portland. The pair won two championships during this time, including the 1994 regular season MVP and back-to-back Finals MVPs.
Championships: 1999, 2003
Robinson won two championships with the San Antonio Spurs with his teammate Tim Duncan winning two pairs of Finals MVP awards. Imagine having to stop the “Twin Towers” with Robinson and Duncan. Most teams couldn’t do it.
Robinson, like Duncan, spent his entire career with the Spurs. Even though Robinson may not have been the “best player” on the roster, he was still a Hall of Famer, who even won a regular-season MVP in 1995. The 10-time All-Star was one of the best second options in recent history.
Championships: 1985, 1987, 1988
The “Showtime” Lakers featured some great talent on this team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leader in points, Magic Johnson, the potential greatest point guard of all time, and “Big Game James” on the roster. While some can say that Worthy was not the best overall player on this roster, Worthy proved his worth in the 1988 Finals by winning Finals MVP.
Worthy played his entire career with the Lakers from 1984-1993 and made seven straight All-Star appearances. In his playoff career, Worthy averaged 21.1 points per game. With a triple threat of Kareem, Magic, and Worthy, it’s almost surprising that the team didn’t win more than three championships.
Championships: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014
Duncan is a pure outlier. Not only did Duncan stay with the San Antonio Spurs his entire career that lasted between 1997-2016, but he won five championships with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. Out of all No. 1 overall picks, Duncan owns the most championship rings as well as three NBA Finals MVP trophies.
In 2003, Duncan won the regular season MVP and Finals MVP, making it a rare occurrence. In the end, Mr. Fundamental goes down as one of the best of all time