10 Most Successful Jersey Numbers in NBA History
Numbers aren't just numbers in the NBA.
Sure, some players might pick their uniform number out of a hat or show no care whatsoever, taking whatever's available.
But for others, the numbers they wear night in and night out might hold a great deal of meaning.
I've heard of people who wouldn't sign with a team because they didn't have a particular jersey number. It could be a deal breaker, and I totally understand why. A number is a big thing for athletes. At the end of the day, a lot of people won't know your name because people associate you with a number. You associate yourself with a number and a lot of things in your life may go around that.
The reasons behind numbers are purely anecdotal, but they've still led to some digits and combination of digits that have emerged as the most successful jersey numbers in NBA history. There are some numbers that have experienced far more success than others, thanks to the decisions of legends to put them on night after night.
There is no metric behind these rankings; it's purely subjective, based not only on the names who put the uniforms in question on, but also when they did so and for how long. It's not enough for a Hall of Famer to wear a certain number in the twilight of his career, unless he also did the same in his prime.
So, even without using numbers, let's move on to...the numbers.
Note: All uniform information comes from the Basketball-Reference.com uniform archives, which are wonderful rabbit holes if you need to waste time.
10. No. 22
Over the course of NBA history, 272 different players have thrown on the No. 22 jersey, including 16 members of 2013-14 rosters (Isaiah Thomas, Matt Barnes, Rudy Gay and Taj Gibson, most notable among them).
However, some have worn it better than others.
Though Clyde Drexler isn't far behind, Elgin Baylor is the headliner for this group, a Hall of Famer from the Los Angeles Lakers who stands near the top of the pack of players who never managed to win a championship. The versatile 6'5" swingman excelled in so many facets of the game, but he always went to work with No. 22 plastered across his chest, even if that number came in multiple colors as the Lake Show changed locations.
Ed Macauley, Slater Martin, John Drew and Dave DeBusschere were other old-school standouts who claimed No. 22, while Larry Nance and Rolando Blackmon ushered it into the next era of the NBA. In modern times, Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd have been the standard-bearers, though some of the aforementioned players from 2013-14 could pick up the torch sooner rather than later.
No. 44 (Danny Ainge, George Gervin, Elvin Hayes, Dan Issel, Rick Mahorn, Pete Maravich, Jerry West, Paul Westphal)
9. No. 3
This number has been all about the modern standouts.
Guys like Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, John Starks and Gerald Wallace played excellent basketball while wearing the No. 3 jersey, but they've paled in comparison to a trio of threes who thrived/are thriving after the turn of the century.
"The Answer" had No. 3 embroidered on his jersey for the vast majority of his stellar career. He wore it when he scored over 30 points per game four times over the course of six seasons, and he managed to complete his memorable crossover and stepover against Tyronn Lue in the exact same jersey. The only time he put on anything else was during his brief time with the Detroit Pistons in 2009, when he dropped down to No. 1 for less than a single season.
CP3 and Wade may still be playing ball, but they've already put together Hall of Fame legacies. And neither has worn anything but the number you can see up above.
Paul's father and older brother had the same initials as him (CP1 and CP2), so Paul basically had to choose No. 3. As for Wade, the Heat's official website explains: "The No. 3 is a significant for Wade, and the number has become a common thread in his life. Wade, a devoted Christian, picked his jersey number in honor of the 'Holy Trinity.'"
No matter the reason behind the number, quite a few No. 3s have excelled in the NBA.
8. No. 1
As you might expect, plenty of people have picked No. 1.
It's only natural, as this is the digit commonly associated with someone who's the best at their craft. It represents victory, which is obviously quite important at basketball's highest level.
However, No. 1 doesn't finish No. 1 in these rankings, as there have been fewer transcendent superstars who have donned it. Plenty of great players, sure, but other than Oscar Robertson—who wore No. 1 only in the twilight of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks—there aren't any players commonly viewed as one of the top 10 in the sport's history.
So, who are those greats?
Back in the day, Tiny Archibald and Gus Williams dominated with this digit on their chest and backs. In the late 1980s and early '90s, it was Muggsy Bogues and Rod Strickland who carried the torch, which was soon passed on to Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups.
After that, Amar'e Stoudemire switched from No. 32 to No. 1 after establishing himself as an All-Star with the Phoenix Suns, and the number is now in great shape going forward. Between Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic, Chris Bosh, Lance Stephenson and Michael Carter-Williams, this digit will be on display in plenty of prominent situations throughout the foreseeable future.
7. No. 6
Can Bill Russell carry this number all by himself?
Probably, seeing as his fingers—and toes, since he's not Antonio Alfonseca—are filled with more rings than any other player in NBA history can claim.
Russell is one of the greatest players of all time, a man who finds himself on most every version of basketball's Mount Rushmore, even if he seldom earns the No. 1 spot in any ranking. He's widely viewed as arguably the greatest defender of all time, and he's without question the biggest winner in the annals of this sport.
Even still, he doesn't have to carry No. 6, shouldering a massive burden, without the help of any other standouts.
Looking past guys like Tyson Chandler, Walter Davis and Neil Johnston, there are still two Hall of Famers who have put on No. 6 for a significant period of time. Well, technically one isn't in the Hall right now, but he could retire and get there as soon as he's eligible.
That would be LeBron James, who wore No. 6 throughout his four years with the Miami Heat, which resulted in four Finals appearances and two titles. Whether or not you consider him a top-10 player at this stage of his career—top 10 all time, not in the current Association—there's no denying he put up some of his greatest years ever in this uniform.
The other Hall of Famer is Julius Erving, who put on No. 6 when he joined the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and left his ABA career in the past. Obviously, he'd go on to do big things, recording plenty of highlights and winning titles with that number stitched onto his Philly uniform.
6. No. 21
When you close your eyes and think of an NBA jersey number, one iconic image can often pop into your head, assuming you're well versed in the history of the sport.
But that doesn't happen with No. 21.
Instead, there are three conflicting images.
As a fan of the Atlanta Hawks, I usually end up letting Dominique Wilkins reign supreme, pushing aside the other pictures with his powerful dunks and that awesome Pacman jersey from the 1980s. He might not be a historic great on the level of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, but he's a bona fide Hall of Famer who played in a ton of memorable games and remains one of the sport's all-time offensive talents.
Why doesn't he always come to mind first?
Well, Tim Duncan—who has worn No. 21 during every single game of his career—and Kevin Garnett just refuse to let that happen. KG might have thrown on No. 5 with the Boston Celtics and No. 2 with the Brooklyn Nets, but he was wearing the number of a perfect blackjack hand when he was winning MVP with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Those are the three biggest standouts, but it's not as though they're the only big names. We can't forget about Dave Bing, Michael Cooper, Sleepy Floyd, World B. Free, Jamaal Magloire, Alvin Robertson and Bill Sharman.
So, who's going to take up the mantle when Duncan finally retires? Unless it's a new player emerging as a dominant No. 21, the best current standard bearer is David West, though Iman Shumpert, Thaddeus Young and Jimmy Butler will be hoping to change that in the near future.
5. No. 24
That same image test is easy with No. 24.
Kobe Bryant. Duh.
The Mamba began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers wearing the No. 8 jersey, but he put on the new one in 2007 and has yet to look back.
Now, it's the number he wants to have retired when that day inevitably comes. Per Kevin Ding, then writing for the Orange County Register: "When the day comes that Kobe Bryant's jersey is retired by the Lakers, it will go on the Staples Center wall as No. 24, not No. 8. That's Bryant's preference, and so it shall be."
Why? Bleacher Report's Sean Hojnacki has an idea:
Kobe ascended to greatness as No. 8. He won three titles in that uniform, and one night in January of 2006, he sliced up the Toronto Raptors for 81 points.
No. 24 did it without Shaquille O'Neal, delivering two more titles to Jerry Buss, the last one coming in a sublime seven-game series against the rival Boston Celtics.
Bryant understandably feels more ownership over No. 24, much like an adolescent who changes his or her name. He's also donned the triple-eight for many of his career milestones, such as passing the late, great Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the all-time scoring list.
Just as with the other numbers, though, we can't focus on only one player. No. 24 wouldn't rank this far up in the proceedings without plenty of other stars laying claim to it.
It's a long list—Mark Aguirre, Rick Barry, Bill Bradley, Bill Cartwright, Tom Chambers, Spencer Haywood, Richard Jefferson, Dennis Johnson, Bobby Jones, Sam Jones and Moses Malone, among others.
4. No. 23
What? No. 23 isn't the top-ranked number in this countdown? How dare you disrespect Michael Jordan like that?
Yeah, yeah. The flocking to the comment section is inevitable, but it's tough to make a convincing argument that the NBA's most famous number belongs above any of the remaining three candidates for top honors.
Jordan is the greatest player of all time and helped No. 23 enjoy quite a bit of success, but fame isn't going to win this conversation.
This set of digits simply doesn't have as much depth of talent as the three remaining numbers.
Beyond MJ and LeBron James, who wore No. 23 during his initial tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers and will put it back on once he rejoins the team, there aren't too many superstars. Lou Hudson, Mark Aguirre, Calvin Murphy, Jeff Mullins, Marcus Camby, Jason Richardson, Cedric Ceballos and Wayman Tisdale just don't move the needle as much as the groups of players who put on the other top contenders.
Sure, there are guys like Alex English who wore No. 23 for a single season, but that's pretty irrelevant in this conversation. He put it on, but he didn't exactly experience much success wearing the NBA's most famous number. Mitch Richmond, who claimed No. 23 during his Golden State Warriors days before switching to No. 2 with the Sacramento Kings, can't push the number over the top either.
If you're still not convinced, well, get ready for some talent overload on the next three slides.
3. No. 34
Let's pretend that positions don't exist for a brief spell.
If that were the case, you could form a five-man lineup with Ray Allen (the early-in-his-career version), Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal (on the Los Angeles Lakers), Hakeem Olajuwon and Paul Pierce, and everyone would be fighting over the same numbers.
Plus, you'd have a star-studded bench doing the same, one comprised of Austin Carr, Terry Cummings, Mel Daniels, Clyde Lovellette and Charles Oakley.
See what I mean about the talent disparity between No. 34 and No. 23? The former doesn't have Jordan or LeBron, but it sure has a great deal of talent on its side. And in this competition, that's enough to become a trump card for this bigger—and better—number.
Now, here's hoping Giannis Antetokounmpo is destined for a future spot in that hypothetical starting five.
2. No. 32
Magic Johnson is absolutely amazing.
To prove that without even linking to a single highlight produced by the legendary point guard or listing any of his numerous achievements, let's make use of two techniques utilized earlier in these rankings—the image test and the hypothetical positionless starting five.
The latter produces quite an impressive group of players: Magic, Shaquille O'Neal (Orlando Magic version), Karl Malone, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, while the Julius Erving (the ABA version), Bill Bridges, Fred Brown, Billy Cunningham, Blake Griffin, Jerry Lucas, Amar'e Stoudemire and Rip Hamilton are filling out a 13-man roster.
Stacked. That's the only word you can use to describe that group of players.
And yet, Magic still stands out as the unquestioned, unchallenged holder of the No. 32 title. His Los Angeles Lakers jersey is just that iconic, though it's aided by a number of factors. Malone's lack of titles, McHale's status as a Robin to Larry Bird, Walton's injuries and Shaq's other jerseys all play into that status.
But still, Magic was just that good.
1. No. 33
One more time with the five-man lineup game.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing and Larry Bird holding down the fort in a supersized frontcourt, Grant Hill helping the cause from the wings and Scottie Pippen running the show as a point forward.
That's an unbelievable group of players, and somehow, the team would still have Hersey Hawkins, Calvin Natt, David Thompson, Alonzo Mourning, Otis Thorpe, Alvan Adams and Danny Granger—the pre-injury version—coming off the pine to provide relief.
There's no numerical group of players who can hope to touch that. Magic and the No. 32s get fairly close, but even they fall short of this collection of Hall of Famers that features two top-10 talents.
It'll be a long time before the NBA produces enough new legends to someday top this bunch, although the current crop of No. 33s is rather weak, which helps the process.
Beyond Marc Gasol and Ryan Anderson, there isn't too much talent, and neither of those players is still brimming over with upside. Fortunately, while taking on No. 33 requires guts, someone is bound to accept the challenge before too long.
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