Greatest NBA Players in Every Franchise’s History
Some NBA teams have had a ton of success throughout their history, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics leading the way in that category. A ton of great players have put on the uniform of each team, including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant for the Lakers and Kevin Garnett, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Bill Russell for the Celtics. But every NBA team has seen at least a few great players play in their arena, at one point or another. Here are the greatest players in franchise history for each NBA team, based on Value Over Replacement Player.
1. Atlanta Hawks – Dominique Wilkins
Small forward Dominique Wilkins was the third overall pick in the 1982 draft by the Utah Jazz, who traded him a few months later to the Atlanta Hawks for John Drew and Freeman Williams. The athletic Wilkins would throw down jaw-dropping dunks for 12 years with the Hawks, averaging 26.8 points, leading the NBA in scoring once, and making nine All-Star teams. Despite all of his regular season success, Wilkins was never able to lead his team beyond the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
2. Boston Celtics – Larry Bird
Drafted No. six overall by the Boston Celtics in 1978 behind such legendary names as Rick Robey and Phil Ford, Larry Bird developed into one of the best players of all time in Boston. In his 13-year career, Bird averaged 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. Over the course of his career, he developed into one of the better three-point shooters in the league. And as far as awards go, Bird has it covered — he was a three-time MVP, 12-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and three-time NBA champion.
3. Brooklyn Nets – Jason Kidd
Point guard Jason Kidd played seven seasons with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game from 2001-2008. Kidd was acquired from the Phoenix Suns in a deal that involved Stephon Marbury as the other main player, and Kidd immediately helped transform a bad franchise into back-to-back Eastern Conference champions. In what has been an overall stretch of bad basketball for the franchise, the Kidd era stands out for the Nets.
4. Charlotte Hornets – Gerald Wallace
It says a lot about the Charlotte Hornets’ franchise that forward Gerald Wallace is its greatest player. This actually includes the history of the current Hornets, the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Hornets team that moved to New Orleans. Even with great players of the past, such as Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice, and Larry Johnson, no one was able to edge out Wallace — he played seven seasons in Charlotte, averaging 16.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game.
5. Chicago Bulls – Michael Jordan
This name shouldn’t surprise anyone. Michael Jordan is not only the best player in Chicago Bulls history, but one of the biggest sports icons in the world. In his 13 seasons with Chicago, he averaged 31.5 points per game, won five MVP awards, and six NBA championships. Jordan led the NBA in scoring 10 times with the Bulls and oversaw the most successful run of basketball in the history of the franchise — the Bulls never made it to the NBA Finals before Jordan, and haven’t since he retired in 1998.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James
Another one that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. LeBron James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2003 with the first overall pick, in what might go down as the greatest draft of all time. Despite a brief four-year break in Miami, James has played 10 years in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. He’s averaged 27.3 points, leading the league in scoring once, and won two MVP awards in Cleveland. He even helped bring the first NBA championship to the franchise in 2015-16, and including his time in Miami has been to the NBA Finals six consecutive times.
7. Dallas Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki
Forward Dirk Nowitzki was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks back in 1998 but immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks in what is one of the worst draft-day trades of all time. Nowitzki transformed into one of the greatest players in NBA history, averaging 22.0 points and 7.9 rebounds in 19 seasons in the NBA — all with the Mavericks. Among the major notes in his NBA career are his 2006-07 MVP award and NBA championship in 2010-11. He’s also revolutionized the way players that are 7-foot or taller can play the game.
8. Denver Nuggets – Alex English
Traded by the Indiana Pacers to the Denver Nuggets in 1980, Alex English played long enough in Denver to qualify as the best player in franchise history. In 11 seasons with the Nuggets, English averaged 25.9 points per game on 50.9% shooting from the field. While English was never able to lead the Nuggets to a championship, he did get them to the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984-85, losing the best-of-seven series in five games.
9. Detroit Pistons – Isiah Thomas
Taken by the Detroit Pistons with the second overall pick in 1981, Isiah Thomas was a gifted point guard with the scoring abilities of a shooting guard. In his 11-year career, all with the Pistons, Thomas averaged 19.4 points and 9.3 assists per game. He made the All-Star team in each of his first 10 NBA seasons, made the All-NBA team five times, and won two NBA championships. His career ended prematurely at 32 years old after an Achilles injury.
10. Golden State Warriors – Stephen Curry
It’s only been eight years, but Stephen Curry already has a claim on the best player in Warriors franchise history — something that Chris Mullin might want to have a discussion about. In his career, Curry has led the NBA in scoring once, free throw shooting percentage three times, and has won two MVP awards and one NBA championship. In addition to all of that, he’s revolutionizing the way the game is played and shattering records for made three-pointers.
11. Houston Rockets – Hakeem Olajuwon
Drafted in 1984 just two spots ahead of Michael Jordan, center Hakeem Olajuwon turned into a great player for the Houston Rockets. Olajuwon’s accolades include being a 12-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA team, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, one MVP award, and two NBA championship rings. The Hall of Famer ended his Rockets career with averages of 22.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game.
12. Indiana Pacers – Reggie Miller
Shooting guard Reggie Miller had an 18-year career with the Indiana Pacers, becoming well known for his clutch shooting and penchant for the three-point shot at a time when it wasn’t that common for players to launch a lot of threes. He averaged 18.2 points per game in his career and shot 39.5% from downtown, leading the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals five times and to the NBA Finals once — losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999-00.
13. Los Angeles Clippers – Elton Brand
Power forward Elton Brand was originally drafted by the Chicago Bulls, No. one overall in 1999, only to be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers two seasons later for center Tyson Chandler. He spent seven seasons in Los Angeles, having the best season of his career in 2005-06 when he averaged 24.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, leading the Clippers to their first playoff appearance in over a decade and into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
14. Los Angeles Lakers – Magic Johnson
Point guard Magic Johnson had an amazing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, having been drafted first overall in 1979 and leading the team to an NBA championship along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his rookie season. Johnson led the NBA in assists per game four times in his career, ending with three MVP awards, five NBA championship rings, and averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game. He retired for health reasons in 1992, but returned to the court again briefly in 1996.
15. Memphis Grizzlies – Marc Gasol
With the Memphis Grizzlies, it really comes down to two players: Pau and Marc Gasol. In this instance, Marc gets the edge. In nine seasons in the NBA, Gasol has averaged 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds, making two All-Star teams during his time as the starting center in Memphis. Gasol helped lead the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals in 2013, being swept by the Spurs but achieving the most success of any team in franchise history.
16. Miami Heat – Dwyane Wade
After being drafted fifth overall in 2003 by the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade helped transform the franchise into one of the elite in recent NBA history. He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to win a championship in 2005-06, and again with LeBron James in 2012 and 2013. In his Heat career, Wade averaged 23.7 points and 5.8 assists per game, winning an NBA Finals MVP in 2006 and making the All-Defensive team three times. Wade’s career with the Heat appears to be over now that he’s signed with his hometown Chicago Bulls.
17. Milwaukee Bucks – Sidney Moncrief
Sidney Moncrief was a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1980s, averaging 16.7 points and 3.9 assists per game in 10 seasons. Moncrief had a great peak before injuries took a toll on his athleticism, averaging 21.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists and making five All-Star teams from 1982-1986. He ended up retiring at the age of 31 after the 1989 season, returning after a year off to play a single season with the Atlanta Hawks.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves – Kevin Garnett
After coming straight out of high school into the NBA, forward Kevin Garnett took the league by storm at just 19 years old. He ended up playing a total of 14 years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 19.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game during his tenure in Minnesota. Garnett led the T-Wolves to the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons — the only years in which they’ve made the postseason — and finally got them out of the first round and into the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04, before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
19. New Orleans Pelicans – Chris Paul
In the short, official history of the franchise, nobody has been better than point guard Chris Paul. Although he plays for the Clippers now, Paul spent the first six seasons of his career in New Orleans and averaged 18.7 points and 9.9 assists per game. He didn’t have a ton of playoff success while there, making it to the postseason only three times and leading his team out of the first round only once. He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers prior to the 2011-12 season, where he’s played ever since.
20. New York Knicks – Patrick Ewing
The first 15 years of center Patrick Ewing’s career were spent with the New York Knicks, averaging 22.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Ewing made 11 All-Star teams in New York, was on the All-Defensive team three times, the All-NBA team seven times, and was a part of two Knicks teams that made it all the way to the NBA Finals. They lost to the Houston Rockets in 1994, and again to the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 when Ewing was injured and unable to play.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder – Kevin Durant
If you count the history of the entire franchise, the best player would have to be Gary Payton of the Seattle Sonics. But since Payton refuses to accept the Oklahoma City Thunder as the same team, we have to go with Kevin Durant as the best of the Thunder. Although he’s now with the Golden State Warriors, Durant had an excellent run with the Thunder — averaging 27.4 points in nine seasons, making seven All-Star teams, winning an MVP award, and leading the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012-13 against the Miami Heat.
22. Orlando Magic – Dwight Howard
After losing Shaquille O’Neal in free agency, it took nearly 10 years for the Orlando Magic to get back on their feet as a franchise. It all ended when they landed high school center Dwight Howard in the 2005 draft, with the teenager immediately turning into one of the best defensive players in the league. Howard averaged 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game in eight seasons in Orlando, leading the team to the 2009 NBA Finals and winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
23. Philadelphia 76ers – Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson was a unique talent, standing at just 6-feet tall and 165 pounds but crashing his body into the lane against forwards and centers on a nightly basis. Iverson averaged 27.6 points per game in his 12 seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, leading the league in scoring three times. He won the MVP award in 2000-01 at the age of 25, leading the Sixers almost single-handedly to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers that year. Iverson returned to play out one final year in Philly before retiring in 2010.
24. Phoenix Suns – Shawn Marion
There have been a lot of great players in the Phoenix Suns’ history, including Steve Nash and Charles Barkley, but the longevity of Shawn Marion’s career gives him the edge here. Marion played nine seasons in Phoenix, averaging 18.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. He was one of the most athletic players in the league in his prime, making four All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams during his career.
25. Portland Trail Blazers – Clyde Drexler
A little footnote in NBA history is that the presence of shooting guard Clyde Drexler on the Portland Trail Blazers’ roster is the reason why the team passed on Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Drexler was a great player in his own right, averaging 20.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game in 12 seasons in Portland. Drexler helped lead the Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, losing both years. The team began to slip in talent and he was traded to the Houston Rockets in the middle of the 1994-95 season.
26. Sacramento Kings – Chris Webber
The Sacramento Kings revamped their roster in the summer before the 1998-99 season, with the big move coming in the form of a trade with the Washington Wizards for 25-year-old power forward Chris Webber. He’d help transform the franchise in his seven seasons in Sacramento, averaging 23.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game during that time and leading the Kings to the Western Conference Finals once. The greatest success the franchise ever had was under the leadership of Webber.
27. San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
In his 19-year career with the San Antonio Spurs, center Tim Duncan absolutely compiled awards and accolades. He was a 15-time All-Star, two-time MVP, 15-time All-NBA team, 15-time All-Defensive team, and five-time NBA champion. Duncan averaged 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game and never had a season in which the Spurs didn’t make the playoffs. His time in San Antonio ranks as one of the more dominant periods in any franchise in NBA history.
28. Toronto Raptors – Vince Carter
In the wake of Michael Jordan’s retirement after the 1998 season, the NBA found its next big, exciting player in the Toronto Raptors’ Vince Carter. The forward was a high-flyer in the image of Jordan, throwing down amazing dunks and scoring in high volumes. Carter spent seven seasons with Toronto, averaging 23.4 points per game and making six All-Star teams while leading the Raptors to the playoffs for the very first time in franchise history in 1999-00.
29. Utah Jazz – Karl Malone
Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone is one of the most successful players in NBA history. Despite the fact that he never won a championship, of course. Malone averaged 25.4 points and 10.2 rebounds in 18 seasons with the Jazz, winning the MVP award twice, leading the team to the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls twice, and making 14 All-Star teams and four All-Defensive teams. Malone was amazingly durable in his time in Utah, missing a total of 10 games over 18 years.
30. Washington Wizards – Elvin Hayes
Again, we have a debate. Wes Unseld would likely take this crown if we were including the time that the franchise spent in Baltimore, but we’re not going to. That means that Elvin Hayes is the greatest player in franchise history, averaging 21.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game during his stint in the nation’s capital. Hayes made seven All-Star teams in his eight seasons in Washington and helped lead the Bullets (later renamed the Wizards) to the franchise’s only NBA championship in 1978.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.