Top Five Canadians to Win the NBA Title
He didn’t win the NBA title for the Toronto Raptors, but Vince Carter has still made a bigger impact on Canadian pro basketball than anyone since James Naismith. Today’s NBA is stacked with Canadians who grew up watching and idolizing Carter, and they’re out there winning championships.
It wasn’t always like this. Naismith may have invented the game, but it wasn’t until 1987 that Canada had its first NBA champion – and it was center Mike Smrek from Welland, Ontario, who was the last man off the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bill Wennington (born in Montreal, raised in New York) would play a larger role as a back-up centre for the Chicago Bulls during their second “three-peat” with Michael Jordan from 1996-98. Then the 2000s came, and Canadians really started making an impact in the NBA odds, one that kicked into high gear after Carter’s exploits inspired thousands of kids from Toronto and across the country to pick up the sport.
Those kids included one Jamal Murray from Kitchener, Ontario. Now he’s on the cusp of winning the title with the Denver Nuggets, who are battling the Miami Heat in the 2023 NBA Finals as we go to press. If the Nuggets succeed, Murray will become the ninth Canadian to win the title, and by far the cream of this northern crop.
So who are the current top five Canadians to win the NBA title? With all due respect to Smrek and Wennington – and to Joel Anthony (Montreal), who started at centre for the LeBron James version of the Heat in 2012 before assuming a back-up role in 2013 – our list begins at No. 5 with the only Canadian to win the title for our home and native land.
5. Chris Boucher (2018, 2019)
Boucher (born in Saint Lucia, raised in Montreal) actually won his first chip with the Golden State Warriors, where he was on a two-way contract and therefore ineligible for the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors saw enough promise in Boucher to sign him to their own G-League team, the Raptors 905. The lanky 6-foot-9 power forward earned MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honours – and a full contract with the parent club.
As it turned out, the Raptors would face Boucher’s former team in the 2019 NBA Finals. He didn’t play at all in that series, and saw only four minutes of garbage time the previous round versus the Milwaukee Bucks, but that was enough to make Boucher the first and only Canadian NBA champion on a Canadian team.
Despite his limited role on that title-winning squad, we’re putting Boucher on this list because of the player he’s become. Boucher has been one of Toronto’s best performers the past three years, delivering at both ends of the court with his monster blocks and thunderous jams – with the occasional rainbow three sprinkled in for good measure.
4. Cory Joseph (2014)
Joseph was the first of the young Torontonians to win the title after growing up a Carter fan. It was during his third year as a back-up point guard with the San Antonio Spurs. Joseph played only a handful of minutes during their 2014 Finals victory over the Heat, but he gave San Antonio’s bench a lift at both ends of the court during their Western Conference Finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That experience playing for head coach Gregg Popovich allowed Joseph to carve out a healthy career for himself as a trustworthy reserve. He doesn’t have the same ceiling as Boucher, but we’re putting Joseph ahead at No. 4 for now because of his full body of work over the past dozen years, most recently with the Detroit Pistons.
3. Tristan Thompson (2016)
We almost had a different Canadian playing for the title this year. Thompson, another Carter devotee from the Big Smoke, was signed by the Lakers off the buyout market this past April as an insurance policy for the playoffs – presumably because of his previous title run alongside King James with the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thompson was a different player then. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft was at the peak of his somewhat limited powers; Thompson’s durability and offensive rebounding allowed him to play at a respectable level for most of his nine years with Cleveland, typically as their starting centre.
Things went a bit sideways after LeBron left town the second time. Age, injuries and some dubious off-court life choices have Thompson on the fringes of the NBA – he played for three different teams this year before LA gave him one more shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But Thompson will always have that 2016 comeback win over the Warriors on his lengthy resume.
2. Andrew Wiggins (2022)
Surprise! You may have been expecting to see Andrew Wiggins lead our list of top five Canadians to win the NBA title, based on how important he was for the Warriors last year, but as the song goes, he just hasn’t earned it yet. Wiggins is the poster child for the Carter Generation of Toronto ballers, a preternaturally gifted swingman who never did live up to his billing as the clear No. 1 pick for Cleveland at the 2014 NBA Draft.
He’s definitely rescued his career, though. Wiggins was immediately flipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves (alongside 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, another Toronto kid who had even more trouble meeting his potential) when King James returned to Cleveland, then spent the next five-plus years languishing with one of the NBA’s most poorly-run franchises.
Wiggins was thrown a lifeline in 2020 when he was shipped to Golden State in the D’Angelo Russell trade. He worked on his defense, improved his 3-point shooting, and became a valuable supporting player for Stephen Curry and Co. at the tail end of their dynasty. Wiggins even made the All-Star team last year en route to winning the championship, although his nomination was a bit of a stretch.
1. Rick Fox (2000, 2001, 2002)
Andrew Wiggins may have started his basketball journey trying to emulate Vince Carter, but he’s wisely turned into Rick Fox instead. Fox (born in Toronto, raised in the Bahamas and Indiana) was a classic “3-and-D” guy for the Lakers during their three-peat at the turn of the millennium, fitting like a glove alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He made both Toronto and Canada proud at a time when this country was just starting to find its basketball footing.
Even more remarkable: These three titles all came after Fox had turned 30. He was a late first-round pick by the Boston Celtics in 1991, and became their first Opening Day rookie starter since Larry Bird in 1979. Boston went through a lengthy rebuild between the Bird and Paul Pierce Eras, and Fox did yeoman service for six years before getting his release in 1997 and signing with the rival Lakers.
Technically, Fox ended his career with Boston after he and Gary Payton were traded there in 2004, but Fox retired instead to focus on his burgeoning career in acting and media. He was inducted last year to the Canada Basketball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments, and he deserves to be No. 1 on our list of the top five Canadians to win the NBA title here at Bodog Sportsbook – at least for now.
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