Ranking Best NBA Stars to Ever Wear No. 23

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

Ranking Best NBA Stars to Ever Wear No. 23

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    In the NBA, few numbers resonate like No. 23. 

    As soon as you see those two consecutive digits placed right next to each other, it's hard to avoid thinking of a certain Chicago Bulls legend. However, LeBron James is doing what he can to change that, as he's decided to switch back to No. 23 for his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    The four-time MVP announced his jersey decision on Instagram, and that got us thinking—who are the best players to ever put on a uniform proudly bearing this famous number? 

    LeBron and Michael Jordan are certainly two, but how many others can you come up with before clicking through to view the rankings themselves? There have been plenty of Hall of Famers, a few retired jerseys and tons of All-Star appearances made by standouts wearing No. 23, and Basketball-Reference.com shows that—as of the 2014 offseason—206 NBA players have claimed the number throughout NBA history. 

    In fact, the number is so loaded with quality players that some All-Stars and Hall of Famers can't even make the top 10, especially because it only takes one season with the number in order to qualify for these rankings. That will come into play on a few occasions. 

    Look beyond MJ vs. James. 

    Who else deserves a claim to No. 23 fame? 


    Honorable Mentions: Michael Adams (1994-96), Cedric Ceballos (1991-01), Anthony Davis (2012-14), Maurice Lucas (1981-82), Kevin Martin (2004-10, 2012-14) Frank Ramsey (1954-55, 1956-64), Jason Richardson (2001-13), Truck Robinson (1982-83), Wayman Tisdale (1985-97), Norm Van Lier (1969-72)

10. Marcus Camby, 1998-13

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 9.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.4 blocks, 17.8 player efficiency rating

    Career Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-Defensive team

    Yes, you can be a star even without scoring points in bunches. 

    Marcus Camby, who wore No. 23 for the vast majority of his lengthy NBA career, is a testament to that. Even though the big man never averaged more than 14.8 points per game—the mark he set during his rookie season with the Toronto Raptorshe was such a defensive force that he could swing a game without even finding the bottom of the net. 

    While establishing himself as a dominant rebounder, Camby also led the Association in blocked shots on four separate occasions, including a three-year stretch of dominance with the Denver Nuggets in which he averaged 3.4 rejections per game and earned his sole Defensive Player of the Year trophy. 

    Though he didn't bring the glitz and glamour that has tended to accompany the No. 23 uniform, Camby did bring the individual success. It just came in different, unorthodox fashion for a player who remains one of the best to never make an All-Star squad. 

9. Jeff Mullins, 1966-76

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 16.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 16.3 PER

    Career Accolades: One-time NBA champion, three-time All-Star

    Unfortunately, Jeff Mullins has faded away as the temporal gap between his retirement and the present day grows larger every day. 

    After two lackluster seasons with the St. Louis Hawks to start his NBA career, the 6'4" shooting guard joined the San Francisco Warriors, who would later become the Golden State Warriors. He immediately switched numbers, going from No. 44 to No. 23, and that was apparently all the impetus he needed. 

    Mullins scored at least 20.8 points per game during four consecutive seasons, three of which resulted in All-Star appearances, and he was one of those guards who were capable of contributing in multiple areas. Even though he wasn't rewarded for his 1971-72 efforts with an All-Star selection, it was arguably the best campaign of his career—21.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and earning an 18.0 PER, according to Basketball-Reference.com

    He'd go on to coach the UNC Charlotte 49ers, racking up wins and getting the program into the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. By doing so, he basically completed the trifecta—thriving as a collegiate player, enjoying an excellent NBA career and finding success as a coach. 

    If only he'd worn No. 23 throughout the journey, not just for one part. 

8. Metta World Peace, 2002-04

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 15.0 PER

    Career Accolades: One-time NBA champion, one-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, one-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-Defensive team

    Technically, Metta World Peace never wore No. 23. 

    But Ron Artest did. 

    During the early portion of his career, a two-year span with the Indiana Pacers that contained the only All-Star appearance of his basketball life, the defensive stopper donned the famous number and flat-out excelled. Things went south when he switched to No. 91 for the 2004-05 season, particularly when it ended up stretched out after journeying into the stands during the Malice at the Palace. 

    Despite the controversy that has seemed omnipresent during MWP's career, there's no denying that he was a dominant two-way stud during his prime. Not only was he good enough to win DPOY as a wing player, but the Artest formerly known as Ron could consistently put up 20 points per game when he was at his best. 

    Chances are that World Peace will end up as one of history's underrated contributors. The brawls, elbows and poor decisions overshadow just how good he was defensively, as well as the offensive performances he put up during the mid-2000s. 

7. Calvin Murphy, 1970-83

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 17.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, 18.0 PER

    Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, one-time All-Star

    Calvin Murphy is one of only two players in this countdown who never wore a different number. 

    Even during his incredible collegiate career at Niagara—one in which he was a three-time All-American and finished his career averaging 33.1 points per game, according to Sports-Reference.com—the diminutive guard put on the No. 23 jersey for each and every contest. 

    Murphy made the Hall of Fame despite earning selection onto only one All-Star Game in his career, but his prime was still quite impressive on the offensive end of the court. From the beginning of 1973-74 through the conclusion of 1979-80, he averaged 20.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game for the Houston Rockets, shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 89.7 percent at the charity stripe. 

    It's his free-throw shooting that still resonates to this day. 

    Steve Nash, Mark Price, Rick Barry, Peja Stojakovic, Chauncey Billups and Ray Allen are the six qualified players with higher career free-throw percentages, and only Jose Calderon has topped Murphy's single-season percentage in 1980-81. That year, the 5'9" guard went to the stripe 215 times and missed on only nine occasions, good for a 95.8 percent clip. 

6. Mark Aguirre, 1988-92

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 19.0 PER

    Career Accolades: Two-time NBA champion, three-time All-Star

    Mark Aguirre's career was a nice contrast between individual and team success. 

    From the moment he broke into the league as a 22-year-old rookie out of DePaul, the high-scoring small forward had no trouble putting up points for the Dallas Mavericks. He'd spend the first seven full seasons of his career with the team, making three All-Star appearances, averaging at least 20 points per game six times and winning exactly zero championships. 

    In fact, the Mavs—who were basically an expansion team when he joined them—advanced to the Western Conference Finals just once while he was on the team, and that was the furthest they got. 

    But when Aguirre was traded to the Detroit Pistons for Adrian Dantley—a controversial trade that gets quite a bit of discussion in Cameron Smith's The Franchise, which is a fantastically detailed book on general manager Jack McCloskey's successful attempt to build a championship team in Detroit—everything changed. 

    No longer was he an individually dominant player, as he had to cede touches to the incumbent stars on the Bad Boys, but he did manage to win two championships right off the bat.

    Coincidentally, that was the period of his career when he put on No. 23 for the first time. 

5. Lou Hudson, 1966-79

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 20.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 17.4 PER

    Career Accolades: Six-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA 

    Before Michael Jordan came around, Lou Hudson owned No. 23. 

    Sweet Lou, who was known for his perfectly consistent stroke and ability to rain in perimeter jumpers long before there was a three-point arc to aid his efforts, wore the number throughout his entire career. Whether he was playing for the St. Louis Hawks, Atlanta Hawks or Los Angeles Lakers, those two digits were always embroidered on his jerseys. 

    Unfortunately, Hudson doesn't get as much respect as he deserves. 

    Despite his run of six consecutive All-Star appearances in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as his prolonged dominance in the scoring column, Hudson never won enough playoff games to make the Hall of Fame. And as Dominique Wilkins told The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, after the 2-guard passed away at 69 from a stroke, that's a shame:

    Young people today don't know how good Lou Hudson really was. He was a hell of a player. The guy could score with the best in history. He was a phenomenal basketball player.

    He should be a Hall of Famer and it's amazing to me he's not. He was one of the best (shooting) guards and that's a fact. You go back and look at his career and look at the numbers and see what he did and you understand.

    Wilkins also shared the following anecdote, which is a great lesson for all burgeoning scorers with promising basketball careers: 

    At the beginning of my career, he became a very close friend. He gave me a lot of positive advice about how to play the game. One thing he told me early on, he said you work very hard when you're trying to score points. He said look at the game like this: 'If you score three buckets a quarter, how many points is that?' I said 24. He said, 'That's right and you haven't even worked hard yet to get to the free throw line. That's the way you should look at the game.'

    He said, 'The game should be easy for you because of the way you play the game with your ability,' and that stuck with me my whole career.

    Hudson may not be No. 1 in these rankings, but he was the first to truly dominate while wearing the number in question.

4. Mitch Richmond, 1988-91 and 2001-02

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 21.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 17.6 PER

    Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, one-time NBA champion, six-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA 

    Perhaps Mitch Richmond never should have worn No. 23. 

    He did so during the beginning of his career, when he helped form Run TMC for the Golden State Warriors, along with Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin. He also did so at the very end of his NBA tenure, playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in an extremely minor role, albeit one that let him win a championship. 

    However, he wore No. 2 every other season of his career, and those got him into the Hall of Fame. With the Sacramento Kings, Richmond made all six of his All-Star squads, largely because he started playing better defense than during the high-scoring start of his life in the Association.

    It also helped that he became one of the trend-setters in the league, using the three-point arc quite frequently long before most thought it was so beneficial to spend an inordinate amount of time downtown. 

    As NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote after Richmond was elected to the Hall of Fame in April of 2014, "Richmond was a pure and dependable scorer, ranking 12th all time with 10 seasons averaging at least 21 points per game. For a while, he and Reggie Miller vied for the title of No. 2 shooting guard in the world behind Michael Jordan."

    Apparently, he's finishing behind Michael Jordan in one more ranking. 

3. Alex English, 1976-77

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks, 19.9 PER

    Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, eight-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA, one-time scoring champion 

    This is strange. 

    Alex English's No. 2 jersey with the Denver Nuggets is an iconic one, the most famous of the uniforms bearing that pixelated rainbow coloration. No one scored more points during the 1980s than the man with the high-release jumper, one that was remarkably good at connecting from mid-range. 

    The Hall of Famer even made eight All-Star teams in a row during the late '80s, averaging 27.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the field. He might not have had a glamorous, high-flying style, but he was pretty darn good at putting the ball in the basket. 

    And all the while, he wore No. 2. 

    In fact, English only put on the No. 23 jersey—which, though obscured, you can see up above—during his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks. He'd switch to No. 22 as a sophomore, keep that number when he joined the Indiana Pacers and then switch to the famous No. 2 as soon as he became a part of the Mile High City representatives. 

    Interestingly enough, English really didn't do anything notable while wearing the number that earned him a spot on this list. He played in only 60 games as a rookie, averaging just 5.2 points per game while failing to make the All-Rookie team in 1977. That honor went to Adrian Dantley, Scott May, Mitch Kupchak, John Lucas and Ron Lee. 

2. LeBron James, 2003-10

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 27.8 PER

    Career Accolades: Two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, four-time NBA MVP, 10-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA, six-time All-Defensive, one-time scoring champion

    There's a pretty big gap between LeBron James and English. 

    Now that he's returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, James has a chance to build his resume in an entirely new way. He's already teamed up with a few stars—please, tell me who hasn't needed stars surrounding him when earning multiple titles—to win a pair of championships in South Beach.

    While doing so, he continued racking up even more honors and helping the Miami Heat put together a nearly unmatched stretch of dominance. But if he brings a title to Cleveland...

    That's the goal of his return, and there's definitely enough talent in place to get there eventually. Even if his quest is unsuccessful, though, LeBron is already a lock for the Hall of Fame and will retire as one of the five best players to ever put on an NBA uniform. 

    Is he there yet? It depends on who you ask, but there are two certainties. 

    One, he'll get there if he continues this career trajectory. Two, he's a long way away from matching the legacy of the most famous No. 23 in basketball history. 

1. Michael Jordan, 1984-93, 1995-98 and 2001-03

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    Career Per-Game Averages: 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 27.9 PER

    Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, six-time NBA champion, six-time Finals MVP, five-time NBA MVP, 14-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA, one-time Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time All-Defensive team, 10-time scoring champion

    We all know how good Michael Jordan was. Let's not focus on that, as the topic has been beaten to death (justifiably) over the years. 

    Instead, how many of you know why the G.O.A.T. chose to put on the number that's become so famous? 

    Jordan told the world during an exclusive interview with the producers of NBA 2K14

    In high school, I played with my brother. My favorite number was 45, and his favorite number was 45. But we were on the same team, so he had seniority. He had the option to wear 45, so I just figured 23 was half of 45 ... 22-and-a-half. So I grabbed 23, and 23 has kinda stuck with me the whole time.

    Yeah, I'd say it "kinda stuck." 

    Even if Lou Hudson, Calvin Murphy, Frank Ramsey and so many others had excelled before Jordan, the number became unequivocally his. In fact, it's become so associated with MJ that LeBron once stated the NBA should retire the number entirely, per ESPN.com news services

    He [Jordan] can't get the logo [Hall of Famer Jerry West's silhouette adorns the NBA's logo], and if he can't, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23. I'm starting a petition, and I've got to get everyone in the NBA to sign it. Now, if I'm not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it.

    Well, James followed through with the switch to No. 6 while he was in Miami, but no action has been taken by the league.

    Now that the game's current best is once more replicating the best of the past, it's up to you whom you associate with No. 23. Just don't make the mistake of thinking anyone who has worn it throughout NBA history has enjoyed a better career than this particular legend. 


    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.