The Best Player in Each NBA Franchise's History
Each NBA franchise has had several exceptionally talented basketball players pass through its locker room, though only one stands above the rest as the greatest player in the history of the franchise.
For some teams, like the Lakers and Celtics, there are several legends who must be considered for the prestigious title of "Greatest Player in the History of the Franchise," while younger teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats have less of a history and a smaller talent pool to draw upon.
Inherent in determining a team's greatest player is the challenge of comparing athletes from different generations. Should we evaluate players based upon the competition they faced or project how athletes from previous generations would stack up against the bigger, faster and more athletic players of today?
I weighed players' productivity based on the era they played in, as well as their longevity with the team. I also considered the players' contribution to the team's success, as well as their individual numbers and accolades.
Here are the best players in the history of each NBA franchise.
Atlanta Hawks — Bob Pettit
Honorable mention: Cliff Hagan, Lou Hudson, Lenny Wilkens, Dominique Wilkins and Pete Maravich
Bob Pettit is one of the forgotten stars of the NBA's early years. The 6'9'' forward played in the small market of St. Louis—the Hawks did not move to Atlanta until 1968—before the league developed a national television audience.
Pettit was named an All-Star in each of his 11 seasons in the league and averaged 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds per game for his career. He won two regular season MVP awards and was named MVP of the All-Star Game four times.
The Louisiana native's individual dominance translated into team success. The Hawks beat Bill Russell's Celtics to win the NBA championship in 1958. Pettit scored 50 points in the deciding sixth game of the series. He led the Hawks to the NBA Finals on three other occasions.
Boston Celtics — Bill Russell
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Honorable mention: Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens
Many Hall of Famers have donned the Celtic-green of the league's most storied franchise, though none greater than Bill Russell. After winning two national championships in college at the University of San Francisco, Big Bill revolutionized the NBA by dominating games in ways other than scoring.
Russell had a remarkable understanding of the game and knew what his team needed from him in order to win. He averaged 22.5 rebounds per game for his career and if he would have been named Defensive Player of the Year several times if the award had existed during his playing days.
Russell was the linchpin for 11 Celtics championship teams, including eight in a row from 1959-1966. The center's sheer will to win was often the difference in tightly contested series. His teams were 10-0 in deciding Game 5's or Game 7's.
Brooklyn Nets — Julius Erving
Honorable mention: Jason Kidd, Buck Williams, Vince Carter, Drazen Petrovic
Julius Erving played just three seasons for the New York Nets of the ABA—1973-1976—but they were spectacular. The man affectionately as Dr. J by basketball fans was named ABA MVP in each of his three seasons in New York.
Doc's numbers during that span are eye-popping. He averaged 28.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 steals assists, 2.3 steals and 2.1 blocks per game, and he led the league in scoring twice.
Erving led the Nets to the only two championships in franchise history in 1974 and 1976. He was named Finals MVP on both occasions.
Charlotte Bobcats — Gerald Wallace
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Honorable mention: Emeka Okafor and Raymond Felton
The Bobcats have struggled mightily since joining the league in 2004. They have made the playoffs just once and delivered the worst winning percentage in NBA history during last year's lockout-shortened season.
Charlotte missed out when the Orlando Magic decided to select Dwight Howard with the first pick in the 2004 draft. Charlotte ended up with Emeka Okafor with the second pick, who never developed into the perennial All-Star many scouts projected him to be.
Gerald Wallace was a high-energy player and tenacious defender during his seven seasons with the Bobcats. He made the lone All-Star appearance in team history in 2010, a season in which he averaged 18.2 points and 10 rebounds per game and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Chicago Bulls — Michael Jordan
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Honorable mention: Scottie Pippen, Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Artis Gilmore, Chet Walker and Derrick Rose
Commonly regarded as the greatest basketball player to ever live, Jordan literally and figuratively took the game to another level with his play above the rim. His fadeaway jumper was equally as devastating to opponents. He was arguably the premier perimeter defender in the game as well.
MJ was a ruthless predator on the court, willing to do whatever it took to win. That combination of athleticism and desire spurred the Bulls to six championships in eight years and they very well could have won eight in a row if Jordan had not taken a hiatus from basketball.
Michael was the Finals MVP for each of those championship runs. He also won five regular-season MVP awards and 10 scoring titles.
Cleveland Cavaliers — LeBron James
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Honorable mention: Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Austin Carr
King James was not able to lead the Cavaliers to the promised land before he bolted for South Beach, though it is a testament to his greatness that he was able to get them as close as he did.
LeBron did not play with an All-Star caliber player during his entire tenure in Cleveland. The second best player on the 2007 Cavs team that advanced to the NBA Finals was an aging Zydrunas Ilgauskas. James made the players better around him.
The Akron, Ohio product won back-to-back MVP awards in 2009 and 2010 and was named an All-Star in six of his seven seasons with the Cavs.
Dallas Mavericks — Dirk Nowitzki
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Honorable mention: Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Jason Kidd
A lethal shooter from any spot on the floor, at 7'0'' Dirk Nowitzki is able to get his shot off whenever he chooses. During the 2006-2007 season, Dirk was named league MVP and shot over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 90 percent from the line.
However, the 2006-2007 season ended in heartbreak for Dirk and the Mavs, like the year before. In 2006, the Mavs surrendered a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat in the Finals and in 2007 they were upset by the No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2011, Dirk put all questions about his mental toughness to rest when he carried the Mavs to their first championship, turning the tables on the Heat in the Finals. Dirk knocked down countless difficult shots on his way to earning Finals MVP honors.
Denver Nuggets — Alex English
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Honorable mention: Carmelo Anthony, David Thompson, Dan Issel and Dikembe Mutombo
The Nuggets franchise—originally known as the Denver Rockets of the ABA—has had its share of dynamic scoring forwards, including David Thompson, Dan Issel, Kiki Vandeweghe and Carmelo Anthony. However, Alex English was the cream of the crop.
English did not receive as much recognition as other of his generation because he was not super-athletic and did not call attention to himself. He was more of a quiet assassin, slowly carving you up over 48 minutes.
From the moment the Nuggets acquired the lanky forward from the Indiana Pacers during the 1979-1980 season, English unloaded on the rest of the league.
He scored over 20 points per game in each of the next nine seasons and averaged over 28 ppg three times, including a league-leading 28.4 in 1982-1983.
Detroit Pistons — Isiah Thomas
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Honorable mention: Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Joe Dumars, Chauncey Billups
Isiah Thomas was the heart and soul of the "Bad Boys" Pistons teams that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. He and fellow Pistons guard Joe Dumars gave the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers backcourts fits in the NBA Finals.
Isiah was a wizard with the ball in his hands and a toughness which belied his diminutive frame. He was the quintessential point guard, always looking to penetrate and set up his teammates, though like any superstar, he carried the scoring load when necessary.
Zeke had the quickness to take his man off the dribble and the ingenuity to finish among the trees in the paint. He could also pull up and knock a step-back jump shot.
Golden State Warriors — Wilt Chamberlain
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Honorable mention: Joe Fulks, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Neil Johnston, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, Paul Arizin
Wilt Chamberlain joined the then-Philadelphia Warriors in 1959—they moved to San Francisco in 1962—as a "territorial pick" since he was from Philadelphia and immediately set the NBA on fire.
"The Stilt" averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game in his first season with the Warriors, earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.
He led the league in scoring in each of his five-and-half seasons with the team and rebounding for his first four. Wilt's most productive season came in 1961-1962, when he averaged an astonishing 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and 48.5 minutes—including overtimes—per game.
However, Wilt's dominance was not enough to defeat his rival Bill Russell and the Celtics. It was not until he returned to Philadelphia as a member of the 76ers that he won his first championship in 1967.
Houston Rockets — Hakeem Olajuwon
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Honorable mention: Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, Elvin Hayes, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Rudy Tomjanovich
Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon's assortment of pump fakes, spin moves and shimmies left the game's elite defenders flat-footed as he knocked down fadeaway jumpers and mini hooks.
It is easy to forget what a sensational defender he was as well. Hakeem's size, instincts and leaping ability made him an excellent shot-blocker, and he used his feline quickness to step into passing lanes and switch onto guards.
Olajuwon established himself as the premier big man of his generation by dismantling the league's other elite centers on the way to leading the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.
Hakeem severely outplayed Patrick Ewing in the 1994 Finals. Then he destroyed regular-season MVP David Robinson when their teams faced off in the playoffs the following year, before the Rockets swept Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
Indiana Pacers — Reggie Miller
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Honorable mention: Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, Roger Brown, Jermaine O'Neal
The Indiana Pacers were an ABA dynasty in the early 1970s—winning three championships in four year—1970, 1972 and 1973. Their star players, Mel Daniels and George McGinnis, won a combined three ABA MVP awards.
However, neither could match Reggie Miller's longevity as a great player. Known for his limitless range, Miller shot 40 percent on three-point attempts and 89 percent from the free-throw line over 19 seasons with the Pacers.
Reggie was the centerpiece of an Indiana team that were annual contenders in the Eastern Conference for over a decade and advanced to the NBA Finals in 2000. His late-game heroics made for some of the most memorable moments in NBA history.
Los Angeles Clippers — Bob McAdoo
Honorable mention: Chris Paul, Danny Manning, Elton Brand, Randy Smith
The Los Angeles Clippers franchise joined the NBA in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves and have had little to cheer about since. One bright spot in the hapless history of the team was the stellar play of Bob McAdoo.
McAdoo was one of the first big men to step outside and face the basket. He led the league in scoring three consecutive seasons—1974-1976.
The Braves' forward/center averaged 30.6 points and 15.1 rebounds during the 1973-1974 season, while leading the franchise to its first playoff appearance. The following season he was named NBA MVP after contributing 34.5 points and 14.1 rebounds per game.
After one more superb campaign in Buffalo, the Braves traded their star to the New York Knicks during the 1976-1977 season.
Los Angeles Lakers — Magic Johnson
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Honorable mention: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan
The Lakers' annals are replete with names that any casual basketball fan would recognize, though one Laker star shined brighter than the rest, Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Magic burst onto the Hollywood scene during his rookie season with an epic performance in the NBA Finals. The Lakers led the 76ers 3-2, but the series appeared to be in jeopardy when Laker captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar badly sprained his ankle in Game 5.
With the captain looking on, Magic jumped center. The rookie scored a game-high 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists while leading the Lakers to victory. Magic and the Lakers won four more rings over the next eight years.
Memphis Grizzlies — Pau Gasol
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Honorable mention: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay
The expansion Grizzlies played six forgettable seasons in Vancouver before moving to Memphis in 2001. It was that year that the Grizzlies traded Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the Atlanta Hawks for the rights to the third pick in the 2001 draft, Pau Gasol.
Gasol averaged 17.6 points and grabbed 8.9 rebounds per game during his first season in Memphis and was named Rookie of the Year. Over the next five seasons, the Spaniard averaged over 20 points per game on three occasions and shot over 50 percent from the field in all but one season.
Pau was named to the Western Conference All-Star team in 2006. Two years later, the Grizzlies traded him to the Lakers in a cost-saving move.
Miami Heat — Dwyane Wade
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LeBron James is the best player on the Miami Heat right now and will likely go down as the greatest Heat player ever when his career is over, but at this time, no player has done more for the Miami Heat franchise than Dwyane Wade.
Wade refused to allow the Heat to lose to Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals. With Miami down 2-0 in the series and trailing by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter, D-Wade spearheaded a 22-7 run which won the game and turned the tide of the series. Fifteen of his 42 points came in the fourth quarter.
The Heat shooting guard followed that up with 36 points in Game 4 and 43 in Game 5. The Heat pulled out the series in six games and Wade was named Finals MVP.
Wade led the league in scoring in 2008-2009, averaging 30.2 points per game and he helped Miami secure its second title in June by scoring 22.6 points per game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee Bucks — Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Honorable mention: Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Ray Allen, Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the most indefensible shot in the game, the skyhook, and he rode it to the most points in NBA history. Kareem, or Lew Alcindor, as he was called prior to 1971, played his first six seasons in Milwaukee.
Abdul-Jabbar won three MVP awards, two scoring titles and made six All-Star appearances during that span. In 1971, he and Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to the only championship in franchise history and Kareem was named NBA Finals MVP after Milwaukee swept the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals.
In 1974, Kareem informed the Bucks that Milwaukee did not satisfy his cultural needs and asked to be traded to Los Angeles or his native New York. A year later, the Bucks complied, trading him to the Lakers, where he would go on to win three more MVP awards and five additional championships.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Kevin Garnett
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Honorable mention: Kevin Love and Al Jefferson
Despite posting gaudy numbers season after season in Minnesota, many basketball fans did not realize what an exceptional player Kevin Garnett was because his team routinely failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. The problem was not Garnett; it was a weak supporting cast.
KG was a defensive standout with the Timberwolves. His long wingspan enabled him to disrupt pick-and-rolls and sweep rebounds off the glass. Garnett was named to seven first or second All-Defensive Teams during his tenure in Minnesota and led the league in rebounds per game for four consecutive seasons, 2004-2007.
With the addition of veterans Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, KG had the best season of his career in 2003-2004, averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, five assists and 2.2 blocks per game. KG was named NBA MVP and the T-Wolves advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
New Orleans Hornets — Chris Paul
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Honorable mention: Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Baron Davis, Glen Rice
Chris Paul is a genius on the basketball court. He appears to have complete control of the game at all times.
Despite his small frame, he can get to whatever spot he wants and has an uncanny knack for delivering the ball to the right teammate at the exact right moment. Paul's efficiency is demonstrated by his assist-to-turnover ratio, which is regularly at the top among NBA point guards.
CP3 led the league in both assists and steals in consecutive seasons in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. 2007-2008 was his best all-around season. He led the Hornets to the Western Conference Finals, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and finished second in the MVP voting.
New York Knicks — Patrick Ewing
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Honorable mention: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bernard King
Willis Reed and Walt Frazier both have legitimate claims to the title of "greatest Knick ever." Reed was named MVP in 1970 and won Finals MVP in both of the Knicks' championship season, but Willis was only healthy for seven seasons.
Frazier made the NBA All-Defensive First Team seven times, was named All-NBA First Time four times and turned in one of the greatest Game 7 performances of all time with 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals in the 1970 NBA Finals, though Clyde only played 10 seasons for the Knicks.
Patrick Ewing's sustained greatness earns him the nod for the top spot. He made 11 All-Star teams with the Knicks, went to two NBA Finals and remains the franchise leader in many categories, including points and rebounds.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Kevin Durant
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Honorable mention: Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Jack Sikma, Spencer Haywood, Dennis Johnson
Kevin Durant is only 24 years old, but he has already established himself as the greatest player in the history of the Oklahoma City franchise. KD has led the league in scoring the past three seasons and as of Dec. 5, 2012, is third in the league this season.
The 6'10'' forward with the silky-smooth jump shot continues to improve his all-around game as he matures. His rebounds per game have increased over each of his five seasons and is currently averaging career highs in assists—4.4—blocks—1.6—and steals—1.6—per game.
Orlando Magic — Dwight Howard
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Honorable mention: Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady
The battle for greatest Orlando Magic player ever comes down to two imposing big men who claim to be superman and eventually left Orlando for the glitz and glamor of L.A., Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaq had the more refined offensive game during his days with the Magic, though Howard was a far superior defender. Both led the Magic to the NBA Finals and came away unsuccessful.
Ultimately, the edge goes to Howard because he was in Orlando for eight seasons compared to Shaq's four. During that time, Howard led the league in rebounds per game four times, blocked shots per game twice and was named Defensive Player of the Year three times.
Philadelphia 76ers — Julius Erving
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Honorable mention: Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Dolph Schayes, Allen Iverson, Hal Greer, Charles Barkley
Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone may have had better seasons with the 76ers than Julius Erving did, but each only played for the Sixers for four seasons. Erving spent 11 seasons with the team and was named an All-Star in each of them.
Dr. J joined the 76ers in 1976 after the merger between the ABA and NBA and quickly became the leader of a very good Philadelphia squad. Erving won NBA MVP honors in 1981 and was named to the All-NBA First Team five times.
He developed an intense rivalry with Larry Bird, whose Celtics usually got the best of the 76ers in the early 1980's. With some help from Moses Malone, Doc and the 76ers finally got over the hump and won the NBA championship in 1983.
Phoenix Suns — Steve Nash
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Honorable mention: Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Kidd
Steve Nash was the perfect fit for Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less offense, a quick point guard who likes to dominate the ball and create off the dribble, but can also knock down an open shot.
Nash led the league in assists five times during his eight seasons in Phoenix and won back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. He also surpassed the 40, 50, 90 mark—shooting percentages from three-point range, field goals and the foul line—a record four times.
Nash and teammates Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion won a lot of games, but a series of tough breaks and freak plays kept them from advancing to the NBA Finals.
Portland Trail Blazers — Clyde Drexler
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Honorable Mention: Bill Walton, Terry Porter, Maurice Lucas, Brandon Roy
Bill Walton had the two greatest seasons of any Portland Trail Blazer when he led the Blazers to the championship in 1976-1977 and followed it up with an MVP season in 1977-1978. Unfortunately, chronic foot problems prevented Walton from fulfilling his potential.
Clyde Drexler was an elite player over his 11-plus seasons in Portland. "The Glide" was a spectacular athlete, who used his quickness and athleticism to steal passes, run the break and then explode to the basket for an acrobat finish around the rim.
He contributed in all aspects of the game. The Glide was an excellent rebounder for a guard and always a willing a passer. The Blazers made it to the NBA Finals twice—1990 and 1992—with Clyde as their leading man, but it was not until Drexler reunited with his college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston that he won that elusive ring.
Sacramento Kings — Oscar Robertson
Honorable Mention: Nate Archibald, Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber, Jerry Lucas, Jack Twyman, Maurice Stokes and Sam Lacey
The Sacramento Kings originally entered the NBA in 1947 as the Rochester Royals. In 1957, they moved to Cincinnati, before moving to Kansas City in 1972, where they changed their name to the Kings and eventually went out west to Sacramento in 1985.
Oscar Robertson joined the Royals in Cincinnati in 1960. The "Big O" is best known for being the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double—double figures in points, rebounds and assists—for an entire season, though few people realize that he averaged a triple-double over his first five seasons in the league.
Oscar was the prototypical big guard. His height allowed him to see over the defense and create passing angles, while he used his strength to get where he wanted to go on the court. He was named All-NBA First Team in each of his first nine seasons in the league before being traded to Milwaukee in 1970, where he won a championship in 1971.
San Antonio Spurs — Tim Duncan
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Honorable mention: David Robinson, George Gervin, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili
Tim Duncan is a coach's dream. He has been a model of efficiency throughout his 16-year career. There is no flash or unnecessary movements to his game. He is unselfish, always plays hard and all he does is win.
San Antonio has won four championships with Duncan as the team's defensive anchor and primary offensive threat. As recently as last year, they had the best record in the league during the regular season.
Duncan has adapted his game as his skills have diminished. He uses his instincts to remain an elite help defender and effortlessly morphed into a secondary option offensively. Last season, at age 35, his points and rebounds per 36—19.7 and 11.5 respectively—were right around his career averages of 20.6 and 11.6.
Toronto Raptors — Vince Carter
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Honorable mention: Chris Bosh and Damon Stoudamire
The Toronto Raptors joined the NBA in 1995 and have only had two great players in their history, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh—Tracy McGrady had only scratched the surface of his potential when he departed via free agency.
Given the way Vince Carter left the Raptors, after dogging it for the better part of a season, it is easy to forget what an explosive scorer he was for six-plus seasons in Toronto.
"Air Canada's" game was not limited to electrifying dunks. Carter had three-point range, a nearly unstoppable pull-up jumper and a unique ability to hit shots when off balance or from poor angles. He was also a very good passer for a player his size.
Carter averaged over 20 points for the Raptors on five occasions. His best season was 2000-2001, when he delivered a career high 27.6 points per game and shot 41 percent from downtown.
Utah Jazz — Karl Malone
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Honorable mention: John Stockton, Adrian Dantley, Pete Maravich and Deron Williams
Karl Malone is an great example of how hard work can improve your game. He came into the league as a raw athlete and molded himself into a basketball player. "The Mailman" developed a reliable elbow jumper and was a top-notch post defender by the end of his career.
He retired with the second most points scored in NBA history. Along the way, he won two MVP awards, made 14 All-Star games was selected to 11 All-NBA First Teams.
He and pick-and-roll partner John Stockton took the Jazz to the NBA finals in consecutive seasons, but like so many other great players of their era, they fell short against Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Washington Wizards — Wes Unseld
Honorable mention: Walt Bellamy, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson and Elvin Hayes
Wes Unseld became the first NBA player to be named MVP in his rookie season—Lew Alcindor did it the following season and they remain the only to players to do so. That year, the bruising forward/center for the Baltimore Bullets scored 13.8 points and grabbed 18.2 rebounds per game.
In the golden age of NBA centers, the undersized Unseld—he was 6'7''—battled with the likes of Willis Reed, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a nightly basis. He managed to average double-digit rebounds in each of his 13 seasons with the Baltimore/Washington Bullets.
Unseld played on some very talented Bullets teams in the 1970s. They won the franchise's first and only championship in 1978, defeating the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in the Finals. Unseld was named Finals MVP.