An NBA team retiring the jersey of a legendary player is a time honored tradition. More often than not, it's the jersey of a guy who spent years donning that team's colors leading the franchise through numerous playoff battles while racking up the All-Star berths.
But sometimes it's not. And as you might have guessed by the title of this column - I'm here to evaluate the times when it's not.
Obviously, teams have different criteria and processes for retiring a jersey - for purposes of this column I'm not looking to analyze how beloved a fan favorite player was. In fact many of the players on the list are beloved players. I'm simply looking to pick the worst basketball players who have their jerseys retired by an NBA franchise. It's like the guy who finishes last in his med school class - he's still called "doctor" but that doesn't mean he can't be judged. I exist to throw stones, my friends.
As per most of my weird list columns there are a couple conditions which accompany my decisions. They are:
- We're using players that either had their number retired or were otherwise "honored" by the franchise. Some teams don't retire numbers - the Phoenix Suns are a prime example. The resource for all of this is the franchise index page of each team from Basketball-reference. Quibble if you like but I'm calling that the bible.
- We're only taking into account a player's contribution for that team. Since this is Bright Side of the Sun we'll call it the "Grant Hill Corollary". Lots of people seem to think the Suns should put Grant Hill in the Ring of Honor but if you take just his Suns years into account does he really stack up? (That was rhetorical. The answer is, no)
- The list doesn't include people who died and had their number retired. Unfortunately that's a list which is longer than I'd like - including Jason Collier (Atlanta), Reggie Lewis (Boston), Malik Sealy (Minnesota), Bobby Phills (New Orleans), and Wendell Ladner (Brooklyn).
- It also doesn't include numbers that teams retried for completely ridiculous reasons or announcers/owners/trainers. Like how the Hawks retired #17 to honor Ted Turner's years of owner service, how the Heat retired Michael Jordan's #23 and Dan Marino's #13 (seriously), or how the Magic retired #6 to honor their fans.
Before I begin I should note that four of the teams in the NBA have yet to honor any player in such a manner - that being the Clippers, Bobcats, Grizzlies, and Raptors. That's only pathetic for the Clippers who have been around since 1970. I'm sure all Bobcats fans anxiously await the day Bismack Biyombo's number "whatever it is" is raised to the rafters.
There are so many deserving people to go on my short list which is why a player as offensively inept as Bruce Bowen actually didn't crack the list. Trust me - as an incredibly biased Suns fan that wasn't easy to do but the litany of All-Defensive Team selections deterred me. Regardless of whether those selections were primarily due to him playing defense with brass knuckles (don't fact check it -- that's how I recall the situation).
I've decided not to number the list since it's sort of unfair but Brad Davis and the majority of the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers are tied for Number One anyway.
Here's the list:
Brad Davis (#15, Dallas Mavericks, 1980-1992)
- Why His Number is Retired: A guard Dallas signed away from Anchorage of the CBA in 1980. Davis played 12 seasons in Dallas debuting on their horrid 15-win expansion year, becoming a decent contributor on those forgotten but entertaining Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins playoff teams of the mid 80s, and book ending that riding with the franchise to 22 wins in his final season.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: Think of your favorite Brad Davis memory. Hell - Google Brad Davis and try to make up a memory. Derek Harper once called him the hardest working player in the NBA according to Wikipedia so that's sort of a thing, right? His peak in point production as a Maverick was 12.1 points a game and with assists it was 7.2. Shockingly, he was selected to zero All-Star teams. For his career in Dallas, Davis averaged 8.6 points and 5.1 assists per game. That's pretty impressive backup point guard production! Statistically he was super mediocre so I'm guessing they put him in the rafters due to his mustache & mullet combination.
Junior Bridgeman (#2, Milwaukee Bucks 1975-1984, 1986-1987)
- Why His Number is Retired: Bridgeman was a small forward who the Lakers picked eighth in the 1975 NBA Draft out of Louisville - 3 weeks later he was dealt to the Bucks in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trade. As a member of the Bucks, Bridgeman played on a number of playoff teams and did so as a reliable double-digit scorer, peaking at 17.6 points per game for the 1979-80 Midwest Division champions. He is Milwaukee's all-time leader in games played with 711.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: Despite being on those Bucks teams and being on the team primarily as a scorer - Bridgeman never lead the Bucks in scoring. He was also never an All-Star. When the two most famous things you're known for are being traded for Kareem and getting rich by owning fast food franchises a jersey retirement doesn't typically go hand in hand. Bridgeman gains the nod on this list over fellow Abdul-Jabbar tradee Brian Winters basically because Winters managed to crack 2 All-Star teams.
Bingo Smith (#7, Cleveland Cavaliers 1970-1979)
- Why His Number is Retired: He was a dog that belonged to a farmer, a farmer with a propensity for spelling his dog's name aloud. Wow that was a bad joke. In reality he's the sixth leading scorer in Cavs history - a designation which is easier to achieve when you're third in franchise history in games played. Smith had eight seasons of double-figure scoring with the Cavs and didn't appear to do much else statistically with the Cavs.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: It seems like a lot of teams will retire the number of the best player from a crappy expansion team which stuck with their franchise for a few years. Those first guys are always remembered so fondly. By the time the Cavs were a playoff team, Smith was no better than the third option. Frankly I'd have done it for his afro alone.
Jeff Hornacek (#14, Utah Jazz 1993-2000)
- Why His Number is Retired: He was a one-time All-Star (1992) who had the best years of his career in Phoenix before being traded to bring Charles Barkley to Phoenix. After a season and a half long sojourn in Philadelphia he was dealt to Utah for their second best Malone (Jeff). Hornacek spent seven seasons in Utah, playing on both Jazz teams that made the NBA Finals. In his time in Utah, Hornacek averaged double figures every season but no one year in Utah exceeded his best four years elsewhere from a points perspective.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: He was the third-best player on a team that is highly beloved in Utah. That, plus he could score and was a really swell guy. Obviously, he could have scored more had he remained on a bunch of crappy teams. His career wide body of work if taken as a whole would be enough to keep him off this list but we're talking only the basketball he played with Utah - all occurring after his 30th birthday.
Don Nelson (#19, Boston Celtics 1965-1976)
- Why His Number is Retired: Nelson spent 11 seasons as a forward with the Celtics during a good chunk of their glory years. He debuted with the Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek squad in 1965 and stayed all the way through the Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, and old Havlicek team in 1976 that defeated our fair Phoenix Suns. Nelson was a valuable bench player for the majority of his career. Check out this free throw form!
- Why It Shouldn't Be: As with a few of the approximately 10,000 numbers retired by the Celtics (I'm pretty sure Gerald Wallace is going to wear an ampersand on his jersey), Nelson was on a team that won and won a lot. In his 11 seasons with the Celtics, Nelson was a part of five NBA Champions. I assume that makes up for the fact that by his final season in the NBA he had the body of a guy you'd see playing noon ball at the YMCA. I think the Celtics basically just retired everyone's number who played on more than one title team in the 60s or 70s.
Avery Johnson ( #6, San Antonio Spurs 1991-92, 1992-1993, 1994-2001)
- Why His Number is Retired: A diminutive squeaky-voiced point guard who carried the hilarious nickname of ‘Little General'. Johnson was an NBA vagabond for the early part of his career, ping ponging from Seattle to Denver to San Antonio to Houston to San Antonio again to Golden State and then finally back to San Antonio. It was in San Antonio where he settled in nicely as the guy who passed the ball to David Robinson and eventually Tim Duncan. The future Mavericks coach was a full-time starter for the Spurs from 1994 through 2000 and a part of San Antonio's first title team in the strike shortened 1998-1999 season. His personal peak season was in 1995-96 when he averaged 13.1 points and 9.6 assists per game while starting all 82 contests. Basically he was a fan favorite on a title team and he hit the game winning shot in the NBA Finals.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: He hovered around low double digits in scoring the majority of his time in San Antonio and flirted with 10 assists per game only once. Also he shot a scalding 17% from three in his Spurs career - actually making three less of them as a Spur than David Robinson (22 to 25). Even during that title year he was only the fourth-best player on his own team and that was during one of the worst seasons in NBA history. Nobody can defend the 50-game lockout year. Nobody.
Vlade Divac (#21, Sacramento Kings 1998-2004)
- Why His Number is Retired: Divac was a chain-smoking Serbian center with deft passing touch. Vlade had the unenviable task of replacing Kareem in the middle for the Lakers in 1989 and spent seven seasons in Los Angeles before being dealt to Charlotte for Kobe Bryant. After two seasons in Charlotte he returned to California to play for the Kings. He played in Sacramento for 6 seasons averaging 11.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per games. Divac was a key cog on Sacramento's almost title contenders of the early 2000s and did manage to be an All-Star in 2001.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: You know who else was an All-Star in 2001? Antonio Davis and Anthony Mason. And sure averaging a near double-double for a year was pretty impressive (14.3/10.0 in his first year in Sacto) but that's basically Marcin Gortat production (albeit with a significantly better team). Given that he could have legitimately coughed up a lung during an NBA game it's pretty impressive that he managed to miss just seven games during his Kings reign.
Vinnie Johnson (#15, Detroit Pistons 1981-1991)
- Why His Number is Retired: His nickname - "The Microwave" - was intended to describe how Johnson could come off of the Pistons bench and immediately pour in points. Johnson did a pretty swell job of that given he is seventh on the Pistons all-time scoring list with 10,146 and did that despite starting more than 28 games in a season just once. He was also a member of the Bad Boy Pistons back to back titles which if this list is any indicator is almost automatic entry into jersey retirement.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: On those title teams Vinnie Johnson played 25 minutes per game during the first Piston's title run and 24 minutes per game during the second and was fifth and sixth on the team in scoring respectively during those years. It also didn't help that at that point he was already in his 30s. And while he's seventh on the franchise all-time scoring list, he's nowhere near the Top 10 in points per game. Sometimes it pays off to be somewhere at the right place and right time (for an appropriate length of time).
Nate McMillan (#10, Seattle Supersonics 1986-1998)
- Why His Number Is Retired: McMillan was a lock-down defender of a guard who ranks third in Sonics history in games played and fifth in minutes played accumulated during his 12 seasons in Seattle. The future Sonics coach played on a number of contending teams throughout the 80s and 90s - including the 1996 NBA Finals team that fell to the Bulls. He even made the All-Defensive second team during 1993-94 and 1994-95.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: McMillan was Seattle's primary distributor before Gary Payton showed up (even averaging 9.3 assists in the 1988-89 season) - after Payton arrived he basically became a bench guard for the Sonics. By the time that 1996 Sonics Finals team rolled around, McMillan was a 22 minute per game player. While McMillan did play a pretty good brand of defense and wasn't relied on for his scoring, his career averaged of 5.9 points per game is relatively comical but on the plus side it is exceeding by his 6.1 assists per game average. As a reference point - he was a less prolific scorer than Dennis Rodman (7.3) and barely above Ben Wallace (5.7). Those guys paltry scoring being offset by the piles of NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards they claimed.
1977 Portland Trail Blazers Division:
I basically had to single out Portland and make them their own category as the Blazers retired the numbers of what amounts to effectively their entire 1977 rotation.
Larry Steele (#15, Portland Trail Blazers 1971-1980)
- Why His Number is Retired: He's the first in a line of several "he was on the Blazers championship team, so let's retire his jersey" honorees Steele was drafted by the Blazers in 1971 and spent his entire nine-year career with the team. His rookie season was Portland's second in the NBA and he remained there when the team won a championship behind Bill Walton in 1977. Steele's primary statistical accomplishment is that he lead the NBA in steals from 1973-74 so that's probably all you need.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: I guess I can't totally blame them for retiring almost everyone on their title team, if the 2010 Suns had won the championship I'd be beating the drum for Jarron Collins to get the honor he so richly deserves. In 610 career games, Steele averaged 8.2 points and 1.8 steals per game. He's also the Blazers all-time leader in fouling out with 45. Injuries forced Steele to retire after 1980 - a shame since I'm almost certain he would have broken out in his second decade of play.
Bob Gross (#30, Portland Trail Blazers 1975-1982)
- Why His Number Is Retired: During the Blazers title run in 1977, Gross was in his second NBA season and bumped his scoring production by nearly 25 percent in the playoffs to help Portland to their championship. Even further, Gross scored 25 points in Game 5 and 24 points in the clinching Game 6 - doing so on scalding 22 of 29 shooting. Bill Walton has even gone on record as saying the Blazers don't win the championship without Gross.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: The small forward played only seven seasons and 486 games with Portland and during that time averaged a whopping 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. I feel that I'm speaking purely technically when I say that makes him the most mediocre mediocre that ever mediocered. But he played a large role on a title team so he's still better than Brad Davis.
Lloyd Neal (#36, Portland Trail Blazers 1972-1979)
- Why His Number Is Retired: Look at the years he played for the Blazers. Why the hell do you think his number is retired? Neal actually had a really solid rookie campaign, averaging 13.4 points and 11.8 rebounds which put him on the All-Rookie team and helped him finish second to Bob McAdoo in the Rookie of the Year voting. He enjoyed another couple productive years before injuring his knee during the 1975-76 campaign in which he averaged 15.5 points and 8.6 rebounds. He came back the next year to play on Portland's title team.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: Other than the fact that he was a role player that played more than 70 games in a season only 3 times and only played 435 games for his career? That should cover it.
Dave Twardzik (#13, Portland Trail Blazers 1975-1980)
- Why His Number is Retired: Again, do you really need me to point this out to you? The Portland Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977 perhaps you'd heard.
- Why It Shouldn't Be: He played four seasons for Portland, averaged below 10 points per game and was a point guard that managed to averaged less than 3.5 assists per game. Jason Quick ranked him the 26th best Blazer of all-time - which reminds me of how Charley Steiner ranked Evander Holyfield in this Sportscenter commercial. If you don't believe me take it from Twardzik himself who sums up the majority of players on this list and gives us a pretty good ending point:
"I was a decent player on a very good team, and I'm very thankful for that," Twardzik said.