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- A player must have worn the jersey number for at least five years to be eligible for consideration, but the player’s full career is considered, not just the portion in which he wore that number. For instance, we’re not going to consider Michael Jordan for No. 12 because he wore it for one game, but Shaquille O’Neal’s full career was eligible for consideration at No. 32 or No. 34.
- A player can only be selected for one number, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the number he wore the most, provided he wore it for at least five years. We had to choose between No. 32 and No. 34 for Shaq, as well as No. 8 and No. 24 for Kobe Bryant.
Tim Duncan (21) and David Robinson (50)ERIC GAY/Associated Press
If you could only choose one player from NBA history as the best player for each jersey number, who would those selections be?
It’s a simple question that turned into several days of inner turmoil and more than 7,000 words trying to justify the decisions.
Two very important criteria notes before we dive in:
Beyond those two things, everything is fair game.
Most of these guys either already are or will eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but that didn’t always make for easy decisions. For No. 11 alone, there are a dozen Hall of Famers who wore that number for at least five seasons.
Jersey numbers are listed in descending numerical order from No. 99 to No. 0/00.
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Dikembe MutomboScott Cunningham/Getty Images
Aside from 55, there aren’t many numbers in the 51-99 range that an individual player wore for more than a season or two. In fact, the following numbers have never been worn: 58, 59, 64, 69, 74, 75, 78, 79, 80, 82, 87 and 97.
This is the biggest reason we decided to implement a “minimum five years” requirement. No sense in writing about Ron Artest/Metta World Peace for Nos. 51, 91, 93 and 96 just because he couldn’t stick to a number. With that minimum in place, though, only a handful of numbers greater than 50 had a qualified candidate.
99. George Mikan
It’s because of Mikan that goaltending is illegal and the foul lane is as wide as it is. The NBA had to come up with a way to mitigate the impact of this 6’10” center who would knock shots away at the rim and who was unguardable down low when allowed to camp out close to the basket.
Only 12 times in NBA history has a player recorded at least 20.8 win shares in a season. Mikan was responsible for three of them. His career deteriorated in a hurry, though, because of a combination of injuries and those new rules that made it harder for him to dominate.
90. Drew Gooden
Gooden played for 10 different franchises, but there’s no question he was at his best during his three-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland. Playing alongside LeBron James has its perks. Gooden never made the All-Star Game or led the league in any category, aside from time spent wearing No. 90.
88. Nicolas Batum
Batum has worn No. 5 throughout his time in Charlotte, but he was No. 88 for seven seasons in Portland. While there, he averaged 11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Hardly sensational stats, but he had the good fortune of becoming a free agent during the summer of 2016 when the salary cap spiked and teams were giving money away. He’s the best (only) player to wear No. 88 for at least five seasons, but his five-year, $120 million contract is one of the worst of all time.
77. Gheorghe Muresan
Muresan’s 7’7″ frame made him a sight to behold, but that body barely held up for 300 NBA games. Though his career was effectively over by the age of 25, he had a couple of solid years with the Washington Bullets, earning the Most Improved Player title in 1995-96.
55. Dikembe Mutombo
This was the one number greater than 50 that had multiple quality candidates. Kiki Vandeweghe, Roy Hibbert and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams all wore 55. But they all pale in comparison to Mount Mutombo. The finger-wagging Hall of Fame center was an eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year.
54. Horace Grant
Similar to Gooden, Grant had the good fortune of hitching a ride with one of the greatest of all time, winning three straight titles with the early ’90s Chicago Bulls. After getting those rings with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, he went to Orlando and teamed up with Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal for a couple of years. He also won a fourth title with O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.
Grant was a great defensive player, but he definitely benefited on offense for about a decade by being an afterthought behind those legends.
53. Artis Gilmore
Aside from Julius Erving, Gilmore was arguably the greatest player in ABA history. Though he didn’t arrive in the NBA until he was 27, he continued to thrive well into his late 30s, scoring a combined total of 24,941 career points while grabbing 16,330 rebounds and blocking 3,178 shots. In the latter two categories in combined ABA/NBA history, he ranks in the top five all-time.
52. Jamaal Wilkes
After becoming one of the greatest players in UCLA history, Wilkes went on to win the 1975 NBA Rookie of the Year crown. He was a three-time All-Star and a three-time NBA champion. Though a knee injury derailed his career at the age of 31, he had already done enough to get voted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
51. Reggie King
If he spends one more season in No. 51, Boban Marjanovic will become the obvious choice here. He has a career win shares per 48 minutes ratio of .244 that would rank fourth in NBA history if he played enough minutes to qualify.
Until that time, though, King will reign at No. 51. I have no clue how many players have spent time with a franchise bearing their name, but King was solid with the Kansas City Kings in the early 1980s. He averaged 14.9 points and 9.7 rebounds in his second season. However, it was a brief apex. By year No. 4 he was down to 4.8 points per game, and he was out of the NBA after six seasons.
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David RobinsonFred Jewell/Associated Press
Note: Neither 46 nor 48 had a qualified candidate, though Aron Baynes might get there if he sticks with 46 for another two seasons.
50. David Robinson
Honorable Mention: Ralph Sampson
If Sampson had been able to stay healthy, perhaps he would’ve taken this spot. He was one of the greatest college players of all time, and he was outstanding for his first three-plus seasons in the NBA.
But knee and back problems left Sampson a shell of his former self by his mid-to-late 20s, while Robinson was an impact player well into his mid-30s. “The Admiral” was the 1994-95 NBA MVP and finished top-seven in that vote seven other years. He was named to 10 All-NBA teams (first team four times) and was a no-brainer selection for the Hall of Fame once he was eligible.
Robinson was elite on both ends of the floor, averaging 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game in his career. Along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and longtime teammate Tim Duncan, Robinson is one of just six players in NBA history with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 2,500 blocks—and he did it while playing at least 196 fewer games than each of the other five.
49. Shandon Anderson
Anderson is the only qualified player to wear No. 49, and just barely at that. He made 58 starts during his five seasons in this number, averaging a meager 5.9 points per game with the New York Knicks and Miami Heat. Suffice it to say, this is the only way you’ll see him mentioned on the same list as David Robinson and Jerry West. He did get a championship ring in his final season with Miami, though.
47. Andrei Kirilenko
Like Anderson, AK-47 was the only player to don his number for at least five years. But Kirilenko was an All-Star in 2003-04, the NBA leader in blocked shots (220) in 2005-06 and a three-time All-Defensive team member, making the first team in 2005-06. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be named to the Hall of Fame, but he did rack up 75.4 win shares in his career.
45. Rudy Tomjanovich
Honorable Mention: A.C. Green
Let’s be sure to give a preemptive honorable mention to Donovan Mitchell. His three seasons in No. 45 have been great, but it’s hard to compare that to a guy like A.C. Green who missed three games in his entire 16-year career as No. 45.
While Green had unrivaled durability, Rudy T. made a bigger impact in a shorter time. During his seven-year peak, Tomjanovich averaged 20.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and was selected to five All-Star Games. The Houston Rockets were quite bad for most of those seven years, but he accrued more win shares during his time with Houston than Yao Ming did.
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Jerry WestAssociated Press
Note: Nos. 37, 38 and 39 had no qualified candidate.
44. Jerry West
Honorable Mention: So. Many. Players.
As we ease our way into the more commonly worn numbers, fierce debates and painful omissions will become the norm.
As I worked alphabetically through the list of options for No. 44, I originally set aside Danny Ainge, Shawn Bradley, Michael Cage and Derrick Coleman as potential candidates. But then I got deeper into the alphabet and found Hall of Famers George “Iceman” Gervin, Dan Issel, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Rod Thorn and Paul Westphal and had to laugh at the original four names considered.
Of course, that entire exercise was just to try to come up with the top honorable mention behind Jerry West, since there was never any doubt that The Logo would be the pick here.
How in the world this man never won an MVP is beyond me, but West did finish top five in that vote eight times during his 14-year career. He was also an All-Star in each and every one of those 14 seasons and was named All-NBA in every year except for his rookie season and his final season, in which he only played 31 games.
43. Jack Sikma
Honorable Mention: Brad Daugherty
Only one Hall of Famer wore No. 43 for so much as one season, and Sikma rocked it throughout a 14-season career in which he was selected to seven consecutive All-Star Games.
He averaged better than a double-double (16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds) during his nine years in Seattle before becoming a lower impact stretch-5 late in his career in Milwaukee. After shooting a combined 7-of-68 from three-point range in his first 11 seasons, he went 196-of-550 in his final three years. It took a couple of decades, but Sikma is unofficially the pioneer responsible for basketball being what it is today, where even centers are expected to have three-point range.
42. Nate Thurmond
Honorable Mention: James Worthy
Working in reverse numerical order, this was the first decision that was even remotely difficult.
As far as win shares are concerned, there are nine players who accumulated at least 50 while predominantly wearing No. 42: Greg Ballard (54.0), Elton Brand (109.6), P.J. Brown (89.8), Mike Gminski (55.9), Connie Hawkins (76.7), Jerry Stackhouse (52.4), Nate Thurmond (78.0), Kevin Willis (81.8) and James Worthy (81.2). That’s a deep list with no clear-cut alpha dog.
Brand has the most win shares, but he was merely a two-time All-Star. He probably deserved more than that, because he was excellent for the first half of his career, but it is what it is.
Both Thurmond and Worthy are Hall of Famers and seven-time All-Stars, so it boiled down to those two. We’re giving Thurmond the edge because a career rate of 15.0 rebounds per game is incredible. At his nine-year peak, he averaged 19.1 points and 17.9 rebounds per game, including one year at 20.5 and 22.0, respectively. The only other players in NBA history to put up at least 20.5 and 20.5 in any season were Wilt Chamberlain (10 times) and Jerry Lucas (once).
41. Dirk Nowitzki
Honorable Mention: Wes Unseld
And now we’re back to no-brainer decisions for a little while.
All due respect to Hall of Fame big man Wes Unseld, but Nowitzki is easily one of the 25 top players in NBA history, and you could make a compelling argument for him in the top 10. Jack Sikma opened the door for big men to shoot threes, but Dirk kicked that door in and left everyone in the room in awe.
The 7-footer from Germany made 1,982 triples in his career, and his “fadeaway off one foot from mid-range” shot was the one everyone fruitlessly tried to imitate in their driveway for more than a decade.
Permanently unguardable because of the combination of his height and his high release point, Nowitzki finished his career with 31,560 points, good for sixth-best all time. Kevin Durant (22,940), James Harden (20,723) and Russell Westbrook (20,315) may surpass him, but he should remain top 10 on that list for a long time.
40. Shawn Kemp
Honorable Mention: Bill Laimbeer
Kemp and Laimbeer had relatively similar career numbers, but that’s partially because Kemp gained about one Muggsy Bogues’ worth of weight during the 1999-00 lockout and lacked the conditioning to make an impact beyond the age of 30.
In his prime, though, Kemp was named to six consecutive All-Star teams and had an eight-year stretch in which he averaged 18.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Laimbeer was a little better on the glass, but he never had a season above 17.5 points, let alone eight in a row.
36. Rasheed Wallace
Honorable Mention: Marcus Smart
Thank goodness Wallace spent enough seasons in No. 36, because literally the only other options here were Smart, Etan Thomas and Lloyd Neal.
Two of Wallace’s four All-Star seasons came while wearing No. 36, and it’s the number he donned for most of his time with Detroit—where his propensity for technical fouls somewhat reanimated the “Bad Boy” era of the Pistons.
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Kareem Abdul-JabbarAnonymous/Associated Press
35. Kevin Durant
Honorable Mention: Roger Brown
One more easy one before we embark on an absolute murderers’ row (Nos. 34-32).
Brown is the only Hall of Famer to have spent a single season wearing No. 35, but that distinction will only hold up until five years after Durant calls it a career. The Thin Man was unlikely to play at all in 2019-20 while recovering from a torn Achilles, but he had averaged at least 25 points per game in each of the previous 11 seasons, including four scoring titles during his time in Oklahoma City. He’s a 10-time All-Star, and that number will likely increase over the course of the next few years, as he’s still just 31 years old.
34. Shaquille O’Neal
Honorable Mentions: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Giannis Antetokounmpo
O’Neal spent more time wearing No. 32 than No. 34, but he was in the latter throughout his eight seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, which is when he was the most phenomenal.
He averaged 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while teamed up with Kobe Bryant. He also had a PER of 28.9 in those eight years. In fact, he led the NBA in PER for five consecutive years (1997-2002), and he trailed only Tracy McGrady in what would have been his sixth straight year atop that leaderboard.
As great as O’Neal’s peak was, this was hardly an uncontested fight. Allen (145.1), Barkley (177.2), Olajuwon (162.8) and Pierce (150.0) each rank in the top 30 in win shares in NBA history. And while it’s way too soon to legitimately consider the Greek Freak as a challenger in a group with five players on at least 10 All-Star rosters in their careers, Antetokounmpo could crash the party and steal the top spot from O’Neal with another six to seven years on par with what he has done for the past four seasons.
33. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Honorable Mentions: Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill
As with No. 34, No. 33 has a bunch of deserving candidates but an even easier choice for the top spot.
Hill, Pippen and Mourning were each seven-time All-Stars who were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and they were the simple ones to trim from the list. Ewing (11-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA) and Bird (12-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA, three-time NBA MVP) were a little more painful.
But with the exception of the other NBA Mount Rushmore guys, how can anyone expect to contend with Abdul-Jabbar? The man was a 19-time All-Star who earned 15 All-NBA honors and six MVPs. Six-time NBA champion and Rookie of the Year are secondary achievements on his outrageous resume.
LeBron James will maybe catch him before retiring, but Abdul-Jabbar is currently the all-time leader in win shares by a margin of 26.15 (ahead of Wilt Chamberlain). You could eliminate the best season of Kareem’s career (25.4 WS in 1971-72), and he’d still be No. 1 in that category.
32. Magic Johnson
Honorable Mentions: Karl Malone, Bill Walton, Kevin McHale, Shaquille O’Neal (only considered for 34)
Malone (234.6 win shares) has Johnson (155.8) dwarfed in that category, but the Mailman also played 570 more games than Magic. He was very good and very durable, but he was also “just” an excellent power forward, while Johnson broke the mold of what to expect from a point guard.
Guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook make it look easy now, but prior to Magic, Oscar Robertson was the only player who could seemingly roll out of bed and get a triple-double. And not to put an asterisk on Big O’s achievements, but he did it during the NBA’s infancy when guys weren’t as athletic and when playing 45 minutes per game was no big deal.
Though Johnson never averaged a triple-double for a season, he had 138 in his career and averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds. He was named league MVP three times to Malone’s two, and he won five NBA titles to Malone’s zero.
Malone is one of the 25 greatest players in NBA history. Johnson just happens to be in the top 10.
31. Reggie Miller
Honorable Mention: Zelmo Beaty
Mercifully, that brings us back to an easy decision with only two viable candidates.
Beaty was a phenomenal big man, averaging 17.1 points and 10.9 rebounds in his career. But Reggie was the original Ray Allen: the three-point assassin that an entire generation of kids wanted to be. (Aside from the ones who wanted to be Michael Jordan, of course.)
Miller was admittedly a bit of a one-trick pony. He only averaged 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in his career, and he was a liability on defense. But if you’re going to be the best at one thing, shooting is a good thing to master. He shot 39.5 percent from three-point range and 88.8 percent from the free-throw line in his career. Allen eventually left him in the dust—and Steph Curry and James Harden are going to obliterate them both—but Miller retired as the all-time leader in made three-pointers with 2,560 of them.
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Stephen CurryJeff Chiu/Associated Press
30. Stephen Curry
Honorable Mentions: George McGinnis, Bernard King
Kind of cool to go straight from Reggie Miller to the Baby-Faced Assassin, considering Curry is about one-fourth of a season away from passing Miller in career three-pointers, even though he’s probably going to play for another seven to 10 years and flirt with 4,000 triples.
Curry shot better than 41 percent from three-point range in each of his first 10 seasons in the NBA and has a career success rate of 43.5 percent. Not surprisingly given his pure stroke, he’s also one of the best free-throw shooters of all time at 90.6 percent. He’s currently No. 1 in that category, narrowly edging out both Steve Nash and Mark Price.
McGinnis and King were mighty fine players, but they weren’t generational talents like Curry.
29. Paul Silas
Honorable Mention: Pervis Ellison
If you want to add Hank Finkel and Mike Wilks to the list of honorable mentions, well, all right. Along with Silas and Ellison, those are the only players to have worn No. 29 for more than three seasons. But neither Finkel nor Wilks amounted to anything, and aside from two surprisingly great years (before he started wearing No. 29, for what it’s worth), neither did Ellison.
Silas was a solid contributor, though, especially on defense, earning five All-Defensive team honors. He was also a two-time All-Star and a three-time NBA champion.
28. Andrew Lang
Honorable Mention: Ian Mahinmi
Lang had one season in which he averaged double figures. Mahinmi did not. This has not been a popular number.
27. Rudy Gobert
Honorable Mention: Jack Twyman
It will be interesting to see if Gobert can ever shake the stigma of being the NBA’s Patient Zero during the coronavirus pandemic. It was inevitable that someone would test positive, but it didn’t have to be someone who thought it would be funny to touch every reporter’s recording device.
Prior to that PR nightmare for Gobert, he was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most valuable players in the league on an annual basis. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Twyman—a Hall of Famer—is more deserving of this spot, but Gobert is on the fast track to joining him in Springfield.
26. Kyle Korver
Honorable Mention: James Robinson
Korver and Robinson are the only two players to wear No. 26 for at least five seasons, so this wasn’t a tough decision, considering Robinson had 5.8 career win shares.
Korver is one heck of a shooter, though, canning 2,437 three-pointers in his career at a 42.9 percent clip.
25. Chet Walker
Honorable Mention: Gail Goodrich
Welcome back to the “great players” portion of the program. Numbers that require the referees to make multiple hand gestures when signaling fouls have never been popular, but 2-5 is fair game and features several Hall of Fame players.
Walker takes the cake, though, as a seven-time All-Star who helped lead the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers to a title. Despite sharing the floor with Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham, Walker managed 19.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game that year. He averaged 18.2 and 7.1, respectively, in his career.
24. Rick Barry
Honorable Mentions: Sam Jones, Bobby Jones, Kobe Bryant (only considered for No. 8)
Same as Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant was an all-time great who split his career between multiple numbers. Because there are more deserving candidates at No. 24 than at No. 8, we’ve opted to put Bryant in the latter bucket.
With the Black Mamba out of the conversation, Barry was the obvious choice.
Sam Jones and Bobby Jones were each great in their own way. Both were five-time All-Stars. Sam played for 10 NBA champions. Bobby was named to 11 All-Defensive teams. Both are in the NBA Hall of Fame.
Barry was a 12-time All-Star, though, who averaged 35.6 points per game in his second season in the NBA, sat out the following season while waiting to “transfer” to the ABA and averaged 34.0 points in his first season in that league. He averaged 24.8 points per game in his career, and that number was actually diminished by his final two, less effective seasons. Prior to those, he was at 26.9 points per game and was an All-Star in every season.
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Michael JordanBETH A. KEISER/Associated Press
23. Michael Jordan
Honorable Mention: LeBron James
This debate has been raging for years, and no matter what is said here, it will inevitably rage in the comments.
Thus, let’s keep this short and sweet: MJ gets the edge because he won twice as many titles, 10 times as many scoring crowns and because LeBron spent four of his best years in Miami wearing No. 6. Jordan would win the debate regardless, but that final factoid made it an even easier decision.
22. Elgin Baylor
Honorable Mention: Clyde Drexler
Before looking through the full list of candidates, this impressionable-child-in-the-early-’90s author figured Clyde the Glide was the obvious pick for No. 22. But Baylor averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds in his career while earning 10 All-NBA honors. Not only did Drexler lose the fight, but it wasn’t even close.
Those career numbers include some mid-to-late-30s seasons when Baylor wasn’t quite as effective, too. In his second-fourth seasons in the NBA, he averaged 33.8 points and 18.3 rebounds. Basketball was a much different game in the early 1960s. I get that. But it’s still hard to process those numbers.
21. Tim Duncan
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Garnett, Dominique Wilkins
Duncan was the best of a dying breed. He made just 30 three-pointers in his entire career, which is basically an unforgivable crime these days. But he had such a great mid-range jumper, such a tenacity on the glass, such a motor on defense and such a willingness to share the spotlight that he never had to expand his game.
Garnett and Wilkins were fantastic players, but 15-time All-NBA and five-time NBA champion Duncan is somewhere in the Nos. 5-9 range on any reputable ranking of the NBA’s greatest of all time. He ended up with more than 25,000 points and more than 15,000 rebounds, which puts him in a five-person club. Factor in the more than 4,000 assists and you’re talking Duncan, Kareem and Wilt. That’s it.
20. Gary Payton
Honorable Mention: Manu Ginobili
Ginobili was underrated for most of his career, but can we all agree we kind of overcorrected that error toward the end of his run? Best sixth man of all time? Maybe. Top 50 player in NBA history? Come on, be serious. He’s a two-time All-Star who was clearly the third-best player (at best) on his team behind Duncan and Tony Parker. He’s a better version of Toni Kukoc.
But Payton was a nine-time All-Star and an elite defender. His first three and final four seasons weren’t great, but The Glove was a stud in between, averaging 20.8 points, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game over the course of a full decade.
He was also one half of everyone’s favorite NBA Jam duo. Payton and Shawn Kemp were basically a cheat code. Throw in a few years of Detlef Schrempf and it’s hard to believe those SuperSonics never won a title.
19. Willis Reed
Honorable Mention: Vern Mikkelsen
Reed will forever be a folk hero for the 1969-70 season, in which he won the MVP and famously played in Game 7 of the NBA Finals with a torn thigh muscle.
He was bordering on all-time greatness before that, though. In addition to being named Rookie of the Year in 1964-65, Reed averaged 20.1 points and 13.8 rebounds in his first seven seasons in the NBA. Injuries rapidly derailed his career from there, but the five-time All-NBA big man did enough in seven years to secure a spot in the Hall of Fame.
18. Dave Cowens
Honorable Mention: Phil Jackson
If we factor in championships won as a head coach, the Zen Master would be the obvious choice here. Based solely on playing career, though, Cowens is the only option.
An eight-time All-Star in the disco era, Cowens averaged 17.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in his career. He went for 17.0 and 15.0, respectively, in 81 games as a rookie, and that wasn’t even one of his All-Star years. He was the league MVP two years later with marks of 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds per game.
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Wilt ChamberlainBill Ingraham/Associated Press
17. John Havlicek
Honorable Mention: Chris Mullin
Mullin had a remarkable five-year peak, averaging better than 25 points per game in each season from 1988-89 through 1992-93. He was an All-Star for all five seasons, All-NBA for the first four and was at least among the list of viable candidates for league MVP in 1991-92.
Havlicek was better for longer, though. Hondo only had two seasons above 25 points per game, but he was a 13-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA and an eight-time champion. In Boston’s well-decorated history, he’s a top-five Celtic along with Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Paul Pierce.
16. Pau Gasol
Honorable Mentions: Bob Lanier, Cliff Hagan, Jerry Lucas, Al Attles, Tom Sanders
This one had significantly more candidates than anticipated. Six Hall of Famers spent at least five seasons in No. 16, the best of which was arguably Jerry Lucas. In the mid-’60s, he had back-to-back seasons averaging at least 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. Prior to a pair of lackluster years to close out his career, he averaged 18.8 points and 17.6 rebounds in his first nine seasons.
But it’s a likely soon-to-be member of the Hall of Fame who gets the nod here. Gasol racked up 144.1 win shares in a career that spanned almost two decades. He was never named first-team All-NBA—he did earn four second-team or third-team honors—and he never received a single vote for MVP, but Gasol made up for his lack of a peak by delivering solid B-plus work for 17 years.
Excluding his final 30-game season at the age of 38, Gasol averaged between 14.6-20.7 points and 8.2-12.5 rebounds in every year. He was the basketball version of a metronome.
15. Vince Carter
Honorable Mentions: Earl Monroe, Hal Greer, Tom Heinsohn, Dick McGuire
Once again, we’re going with a soon-to-be HOFer over a collection that has been in the Hall for decades.
Forced to choose one of the former greats, Greer would have been the pick. He was an All-Star every year from 1961-70 and scored more than 21,000 points in his career.
Carter is an all-time great, though, who managed to stick around for 22 seasons. Vinsanity was a high-flying dunking machine for the first half of that era. He averaged better than 20 points per game for 10 consecutive years. And in the latter half, he became more of a cagey veteran who was content to play a smaller role for less money, so long as he got to keep playing the game that he loves.
14. Oscar Robertson
Honorable Mention: Bob Cousy
Quite the tandem here. Big O was a 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA and league MVP in 1963-64. Cooz was the MVP in 1956-57 and has Robertson bested by one in both All-Star Games and All-NBA rosters. He also won six NBA championships. The two elite point guards combined to lead the league in assists 14 times.
But while Cousy was an outstanding facilitator for a team that won a ton, Robertson’s individual stats are too ridiculous to ignore. He ended up finishing ahead of Cousy by 9,750 points, 3,018 rebounds and 2,932 assists. In four of his first five seasons in the NBA, Robertson averaged at least 30 points, 9.5 assists and 9.0 rebounds per game. The only other player to hit those plateaus for even one season was Russell Westbrook in 2016-17.
13. Wilt Chamberlain
Honorable Mentions: Steve Nash, James Harden
When we inevitably do a fictitious tournament of teams broken up by jersey number, No. 13 is going to be a sneaky candidate to win it all. Only two Hall of Famers on the roster, but give me a starting five of Nash, Harden, Chamberlain and two warm bodies and I could coach that team to a few wins. Considering Paul George, Mark Jackson, Mehmet Okur, Marcin Gortat, James Silas and Tristan Thompson rank among the top options for those warm bodies, even better.
Wilt the Stilt is obviously the MVP of that team, though. The man averaged 42.9 points and 26.0 rebounds per game in his first four seasons in the NBA. He’s No. 1 all time in rebounds, No. 7 in points, and he’d surely be top five in blocks if that had been a stat tracked during his 14 seasons of pure dominance.
With all due respect to two of the best big men of the past 15 years, this was in no way a difficult decision.
After a slow start in his first three seasons, Stockton was the NBA assist champ in nine consecutive seasons, averaging better than 14.5 points and 11 dimes in all nine years. At 15,806 assists, he is the career leader by a country mile. Jason Kidd (12,091) is the only player within 5,000, and even if Kidd had four more years at his apex—his career high was 808 assists in a season—he still would’ve finished almost 500 shy of Stockton.
We never did quite settle the chicken-or-egg debate as far as whether he made Karl Malone great or vice versa, but the end result is that Utah had one of the best point guards and one of the best power forwards of all time for 17 seasons…and still never won a title.
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Kobe BryantDANNY MOLOSHOK/Associated Press
11. Isiah Thomas
Honorable Mentions: Yao Ming, Bob McAdoo, Arvydas Sabonis, Paul Arizin, Elvin Hayes, Harry Gallatin, Klay Thompson
This list is bonkers. Twelve Hall of Fame players spent at least five seasons in No. 11, not to mention respectable current players like Klay Thompson, Mike Conley Jr., Jamal Crawford and Brook Lopez. Never mind a starting five, it would be tough to get down to the roster limit of 17 for this number.
With a most honorable mention for Elvin Hayes—who was a 12-time All-Star with more than 27,000 points and 16,000 rebounds in his career—we’ve got to give the nod to Isiah Thomas here. The Pistons point guard was also a 12-time All-Star in just 13 career seasons. Detroit had a bunch of great players during its impressive nine-year playoff run (1984-92), and Thomas was the glue that held it together, averaging 19.2 points and 9.3 assists per game for his career.
10. Walt Frazier
Honorable Mentions: JoJo White, Maurice Cheeks, Dennis Rodman, Louis Dampier, Tim Hardaway, DeMar DeRozan
Not quite as deep as No. 11, but still a more than ample supply of talent here. DeRozan has averaged at least 20 points in each of the last seven seasons, and he’s still probably the seventh-best option for this number.
The obvious choice is Frazier, though. The seven-time All-Star is one of 20 players in NBA history with at least 15,000 points, 5,000 assists and 4,800 rebounds—and he got there while playing in fewer games (825) than anyone else on that list. Even more impressive, he led the New York Knicks to their only two NBA titles in franchise history.
9. Bob Pettit
Honorable Mentions: Tony Parker, Andre Iguodala, Richie Guerin, Rajon Rondo, Dan Majerle
Pettit only played 11 seasons, but he was All-NBA for all 11 of them, earning MVP honors in 1955-56—the first NBA MVP ever awarded—and 1958-59. He also finished either second, third or fourth in that vote six other times. He averaged 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds for his career. He and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players to average better than 25 and 15, respectively.
Pettit was one of 13 players to accumulate at least 20,000 points and 12,000 rebounds, and he did it in 792 games. The other 12 each played in at least 1,000 games.
Tony Parker was a great point guard and all, but not enough people talk about this pioneer of early basketball.
8. Kobe Bryant
Honorable Mentions: Walt Bellamy, Marques Johnson, Deron Williams
As previously discussed, we could’ve gone with either No. 8 or No. 24 for Bryant, as he spent 10 seasons in each. But calling four-time All-Star Walt Bellamy (No. 8) an honorable mention was easier to live with than the thought of calling 12-time All-Star Rick Barry (No. 24) an honorable mention. So this is where we landed.
Frankly, though, it was tempting to throw out the rule book and let Bryant count for both numbers. As No. 8, he averaged 23.9 points per game, was an eight-time All-Star, won three NBA titles and one scoring crown. In No. 24, he averaged 26.3 points per game, was an All-Star all 10 years, won two more titles, another scoring crown and an MVP.
Each half of his career deserves Hall of Fame consideration. The full career is just mind-boggling. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19) was on more All-Star rosters. Bryant was All-NBA 15 times and finished top five in the MVP vote 11 times. His early career was overshadowed by Michael Jordan; the late career by LeBron James. But he legitimately might be one of the 10 best to ever play in the NBA. He was certainly the most dedicated to kicking as much ass as possible.
7. Carmelo Anthony
Honorable Mentions: Tiny Archibald, Pete Maravich, Lamar Odom, Brandon Roy, Jermaine O’Neal, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Johnson
A bunch of pretty good players were No. 7 for most of their careers, and a couple of Hall of Famers spent about half of their careers wearing the lucky number. But none of them have accolades quite like Hoodie Melo. (And we’re not even counting what he did in his four stints with Team USA in the Olympics.)
Even Anthony only wore No. 7 for nine of his 17 seasons in the NBA, but at least that includes his best year. He won the scoring title in 2012-13 at 28.7 points per game and finished third in the MVP vote while leading the Knicks to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They only made it to the second round, but that was also the only time they have won a playoff series in the past two decades.
Anthony has averaged 23.6 points per game for his career and didn’t have a single year below 20.8 points per game until his 15th season in the league. He is currently 20th on the all-time leaderboard with 26,314 points, and he’s only 632 points away from leapfrogging up to No. 13. He probably still has at least a year or two left in the tank to get there, considering he made 50 starts and scored 763 points (thus far) in the 2019-20 season.
6. Bill Russell
Honorable Mention: Julius Erving
Dr. J was a three-time ABA MVP and a one-time NBA MVP who was selected to the All-Star Game in each and every one of his 16 seasons. The only other players with at least 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. (LeBron James is a few hundred rebounds away from joining the club.)
But Russell was a five-time MVP and an 11-time NBA champion. People always want to bring up rings when arguing whether MJ or LeBron is the greatest of all time, but Russell has two more than the two of them combined. Throughout his 13-year career, Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game. With 21,620 career boards, he and Wilt Chamberlain (23,924) are the only players in NBA history with at least 18,000.
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Russell WestbrookMichael Wyke/Associated Press
5. Jason Kidd
No, we didn’t suddenly forget to include honorable mentions. There’s just not another No. 5 worth comparing to J-Kidd. He played 19 seasons in the NBA, and it wasn’t until the final two that it became abundantly clear he was approaching 40 years of age.
Kidd’s full-career numbers are a bit lower than this, but there was a 13-year stretch (1995-96 through 2007-08) in which he averaged 14.4 points, 9.4 assists, 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He was both a five-time assist champ and a nine-time member of the All-Defensive team—plus six-time All-NBA, the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year and an NBA champ near the end of his run.
4. Dolph Schayes
Honorable Mentions: Adrian Dantley, Jerry Sloan, Joe Dumars, Sidney Moncrief, Carl Braun, Chris Webber, Paul Millsap
Quite a few intriguing candidates here, but it’s a two-horse race between Schayes and Dantley.
A.D. averaged 24.3 points for his career, including four straight seasons (1980-84) above the 30-point threshold. He was a six-time All-Star who accumulated 134.2 win shares in 15 seasons.
Schayes has Dantley slightly beaten in that category with 142.4 win shares in what was also a 15-year career. But while Dantley was named All-NBA twice in his career, Schayes received that distinction a dozen times.
Granted, there were only eight to 10 teams in the NBA for the vast majority of Schayes’ career, compared to 22-27 during Dantley’s run. All-NBA wasn’t as hard to get in the 1950s as it was in the 1980s. But it’s a little late in this process to decide to pull out the “vastly different eras” card. We’ll just roll with the 12-time All-Star and move along.
3. Chris Paul
Honorable Mentions: Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Dennis Johnson, Ben Wallace, Steve Francis
This was, by far, the toughest decision of all.
Iverson, Paul and Wade were each All-Stars 11-13 times and All-NBA seven to eight times. AI was on the low end in both categories, but he was also a four-time scoring champ, a three-time steals champ and the league MVP in 2000-01.
Paul is also a four-time assists champ and six-time steals champ and almost won MVP in 2007-08. Wade finished third in 2008-09 and was the scoring champ that year. Each elite guard received at least some share of the MVP vote exactly eight times.
In the end, it was only fair to trust the win shares. Paul is at 179.5 and is No. 4 in NBA history in WS/48, trailing only Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain. Wade (120.7) is well behind Paul, and Iverson (99.0) is even further back.
2. Moses Malone
Honorable Mentions: Mitch Richmond, Alex English, Kawhi Leonard, Joe Johnson
Malone wore eight different numbers throughout the course of his 21-year career, and No. 2 was his longest-tenured jersey (nine seasons). Two of his three MVP seasons came in No. 24, but whatever. We’re only considering the Chairman of the Boards for No. 2.
At his seven-year peak (1978-85), Malone averaged 25.9 points and 14.8 rebounds per game. The man was putting up 1950s numbers in the 1980s, and he was the rebounding champ in six of those seasons. All three of his MVP seasons came during that window, as did seven of his eight All-NBA honors.
English and Richmond were great. Both Hall of Fame inductees. But neither was that close to topping Malone here. And even if Leonard plays at a high level for another 12 years, he probably won’t get there, either.
1. Zion Williamson
Just kidding. Calm down.
1. Tracy McGrady
Honorable Mentions: Penny Hardaway, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Muggsy Bogues
Billups was a good player for longer than McGrady was, but Mr. Big Shot’s peak doesn’t even hold a candle to T-Mac’s. That’s why the latter was an obvious choice for the Hall of Fame while the former might get there one day.
In his age-21-28 seasons, McGrady averaged 26.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. He was the scoring champ in both 2002-03 (32.1 PPG) and 2003-04 (28.0 PPG). He was an All-Star in seven of those seasons, All-NBA seven times and finished top eight in the MVP vote six times.
McGrady battled back spasms for the final few years of that peak, but adding knee and shoulder injuries to his list of ailments left him a shell of his former self by the age of 29. He had the talent to be a no-brainer top 25 player of all time. He just couldn’t stay healthy enough to get there.
0/00. Russell Westbrook
Honorable Mentions: Robert Parish, Damian Lillard, Gilbert Arenas
Parish is a nine-time All-Star and a Hall of Famer with four NBA titles—four more than Westbrook has.
But Brodie averaged a triple-double in three consecutive seasons after Kevin Durant jumped ship for the Warriors, either leading the league in scoring or assists in each of those years. Parish was more of a durable big man (he played until he was 43) who never led the league in anything.
Westbrook is already one of just three players with at least 20,000 points, 7,000 assists and 6,000 rebounds. The others are LeBron James and Oscar Robertson. And Westbrook has quite a few years left to potentially bypass Big O in all three categories.
Whether he gets a ring at some point or not, he’s easily a top-50 all-time player who could climb into the top 20 before all is said and done.