Sports Cards: The Most Iconic NBA Rookie Card for Every Team

Joel ReuterJune 7, 2022

Sports Cards: The Most Iconic NBA Rookie Card for Every Team

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 21: 1986/87 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan Rookie Card | PSA/DNA GEM MT 10 is on display during a press preview of The Olympic Collection at Sotheby's on July 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
    Cindy Ord/Getty Images

    Rookie cards reign supreme in the sports card collecting world.

    These days, most players have a wide variety of rookie card options, with everything from lower-end base cards to high-priced rookie patch autos, but there was a time when Topps was the only game in town. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the market expanded, there were still only a handful of companies.

    We have highlighted the most iconic rookie card in the history of each NBA franchise, with a healthy mix of retired legends, more recent stars and active players.

    Iconic doesn't always mean most valuable, and for some players, their flagship Topps rookie card got the nod over short-printed premium cards that few will ever have an opportunity to own.

    Included is a link to view each card, as well as some pertinent details about recent sales, grading history, and player background.

    Check out our other Iconic Rookie Card articles: Baseball, Football

Atlantic Division

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    Basketball: NBA Finals: Boston Celtics Larry Bird (33) in action vs Houston Rockets Calvin Garrett (00) at The Summit. Game 6.
Houston, TX 5/14/1981
CREDIT: Andy Hayt (Photo by Andy Hayt /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X25583 )
    Larry Bird (Set Number: X25583)

    Boston Celtics: 1980-81 Topps #6 Larry Bird RC/Magic Johnson RC/Julius Erving

    We kick things off with one of the most iconic vintage basketball cards of all time, as collegiate rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson shared a rookie card in the 1980-81 Topps set that also included Julius Erving. The Bill Russell rookie card in the 1957-58 Topps set is worth a mention here as well.

    Brooklyn Nets: 1986-87 Fleer #123 Buck Williams RC

    This was one of the toughest choices for any team. Derrick Coleman and Richard Jefferson had solid careers in a Nets uniform, but neither really fit the bill as iconic players. Forward Buck Williams is the franchise's all-time leader in Win Shares, and he averaged 16.4 points and 11.9 rebounds in eight years with the team.

    New York Knicks: 1986-87 Fleer #32 Patrick Ewing

    Get used to seeing the 1986-87 Fleer set on this list, as it features an abundance of legendary rookie cards. Center Patrick Ewing was the face of Knicks basketball for 15 seasons, averaging 22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks while earning 11 All-Star selections.

    Philadelphia 76ers: 1996-97 Topps Chrome #171 Allen Iverson RC

    Since Julius Erving was playing for the Virginia Squires (ABA) on his rookie card, this one came down to a toss-up between Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley. The No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft, Iverson won four scoring titles and an MVP award while leading the 76ers to the NBA finals in 2001.

    Toronto Raptors: 1998-99 SP Authentic #95 Vince Carter RC

    All due respect to Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, DeMar DeRozan and current stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, but the most iconic player in Raptors history is undoubtedly Vince Carter. The high-flying eight-time All-Star has 18 different rookie cards, and his 1998-99 SP Authentic is the most valuable of the bunch, thanks to a limited print run of 3,500.

Central Division

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    WASHINGTON - MAY 5:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on against the Washington Wizards in game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs on May 5, 2006 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.  The Cavs won 114-113 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    LeBron James (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Chicago Bulls: 1986-87 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan RC

    This is the most iconic sports card of all-time, period. Michael Jordan has some Star brand cards from as early as the 1984-85 set that are considered XRCs, but he only has one true rookie card. A PSA 10 version was sold on eBay for $218,602 last month, and only 318 of the 21,306 submitted have received a PSA 10 grade.

    Cleveland Cavaliers: 2003-04 Exquisite Collection #78 LeBron James JSY AU RC

    The 2003-04 Exquisite Collection set was a groundbreaking product in the hobby, laying the foundation for the ultra-premium market with a hefty $500-per-pack price tag. The LeBron James rookie/patch/autograph card in the set has a print run of just 99, and one sold for $2.03 million last August.

    Detroit Pistons: 1986-87 Fleer #109 Isiah Thomas RC

    Two of the greatest players in Pistons history have rookie cards in the 1986-87 Fleer set in Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, and Thomas gets the nod here from a wide variety of deserving options. Dennis Rodman (1988-89 Fleer) and Grant Hill (1994-95 Finest) are also worth a mention.

    Indiana Pacers: 1988-89 Fleer #57 Reggie Miller RC

    Who else? Reggie Miller is the Pacers all-time leader in games (1,389), points (25,279), 2-pointers (5,681), 3-pointers (2,560), assists (4,141), steals (1,505) and Win Shares (174.4), and he only has one rookie card in the 1988-89 Fleer set.

    Milwaukee Bucks: 2013-14 Panini Prizm #290 Giannis Antetokounmpo RC

    There are some big-ticket Giannis Antetokounmpo rookie cards on the market, including a 1-of-1 logo man RPA that sold for $1.812 million in 2020, but his Panini Prizm rookie is one of the most recognizable cards of the last 20 years. A PSA 10 version sold for $1,175 on eBay earlier this month.

Southeast Division

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    HOUSTON - JUNE 14:  Shaquille O'Neal #32 of the Orlando Magic attempts a shot against Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets in Game Four of the 1995 NBA Finals played June 14, 1995 at the Summit in Houston, Texas.  The Rockets won 113-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1995 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Shaquille O'Neal (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Atlanta Hawks: 1986-87 Fleer #121 Dominique Wilkins RC

    As one of the most underrated players in the hobby, Dominique Wilkins was a nine-time All-Star who poured in 26.4 points per game during his 12 seasons in a Hawks uniform, including an NBA-leading 30.3 points in the 1985-86 season. Tip of the cap to Hall of Famer Bob Pettit (1957-58 Topps).

    Charlotte Hornets: 2020-21 Hoops #223 LaMelo Ball RC

    It's not the most valuable LaMelo Ball rookie card on the market by a long shot, but the 2020-21 Hoops card was the first LaMelo card to hit the market after he went No. 3 overall in the 2020 draft. That helped it become one of the most recognizable cards of the year at a time when many were flooding back into the hobby space.

    Miami Heat: 2003-04 Topps Chrome #115 Dwyane Wade RC

    There's little question Dwyane Wade is the best homegrown player in Heat history. He was part of the same rookie class as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, and his 2003-04 Topps Chrome is the best of the bunch among his base rookie options. If you're looking for a great card for under $1, Glen Rice's 1990-91 Hoops rookie is worth a look.

    Orlando Magic: 1992-93 Upper Deck #1b Shaquille O'Neal RC

    We explored this card in detail in our "10 Basketball Cards Every 90s Kid Should Own" article, but the short version is that Shaquille O'Neal had an exclusive deal with Classic and therefore was not initially eligible to be included in 1992-93 products. Most companies waited to include him in their Series 2 release, but Upper Deck found a loophole in the form of a redemption card for the "No. 1 Draft Pick," and it was a hot commodity when he burst onto the scene.

    Washington Wizards: 1969-70 Topps #56 Wes Unseld RC

    Wes Unseld was one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history and began his NBA career with the Baltimore Bullets, who would eventually become the Washington Bullets. The oversized 1969-70 Topps set is stacked with notable rookie cards, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek, Walt Frazier, Jerry Lucas, Willis Reed, Elvin Hayes and Earl Monroe.

Northwest Division

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    LANDOVER, MD - APRIL12:  Kevin Garnett #21 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket for a layup against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game at the Capital Center on April 12, 1996 in Landover, Maryland. The Bullets defeated the Timberwolves 116-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1996 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Kevin Garnett (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Denver Nuggets: 2015-16 Panini Prizm #335 Nikola Jokic RC

    With back-to-back MVP awards on his resume, Nikola Jokic already has a strong case for being the greatest player in Nuggets history. His 2015-16 Panini Prizm is the best of his base-level rookie cards, and it's still relatively affordable, with raw copies selling for just north of $100 on eBay.

    Minnesota Timberwolves: 1995-96 Finest #115 Kevin Garnett RC

    The Topps Finest product line premiered with the 1993-94 release, and while the first two years featured rookie cards of Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, the top early rookie card from Finest belongs to Kevin Garnett in the 1995-96 set. It's the most valuable and most recognizable of KG's 15 different rookie cards.

    Oklahoma City Thunder: 2007-08 Topps #112 Kevin Durant RC

    Are we counting the Seattle SuperSonics as part of OKC history? Since Kevin Durant played for both teams, he feels like an acceptable stretch back through history. His 2007-08 Topps rookie is one of the most recognizable cards of the 2000s, and it comes in a wide array of parallels.

    Portland Trail Blazers: 2012-13 Panini Prizm #245 Damian Lillard RC

    We could have gone with yet another card from the famed 1986-87 Fleer set in Clyde Drexler's rookie card, but, instead, current superstar Damian Lillard and his Panini Prizm rookie is the pick. If you have a few extra dollars left over, grab one of the 11 different Arvydas Sabonis rookie cards in his collection.

    Utah Jazz: 1988-89 Fleer #115 John Stockton RC

    If the 1988-89 Fleer John Stockton rookie card is No. 1 on the Utah Jazz list, then the 1986-87 Fleer Karl Malone rookie card has to be considered No. 1A as they played 18 seasons together in their Hall of Fame careers.

Pacific Division

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    INGLEWOOD, CA - JULY 12:  (L-R) General Manager Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Head Coach Del Harris of the Los Angeles Lakers stand together to present Bryant at a press conference on July 12, 1997 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this  photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Juan O'Campo/ NBAE via Getty Images)
    Kobe Bryant (Juan O'Campo/ NBAE via Getty Images)

    Golden State Warriors: 2009-10 Topps #321 Stephen Curry RC

    Recency bias reigns supreme here as Stephen Curry gets the nod over Wilt Chamberlain, whose rookie card is part of the 1961-62 Fleer set when he played for the Philadelphia Warriors. The 2009-10 Topps Curry rookie card is as basic as it gets, but it's one of the must-own cards of this generation, and it also has a high-end Topps Chrome version with a print run of 999.

    Los Angeles Clippers: 2009-10 Topps #316 Blake Griffin RC

    The Clippers don't exactly have a long, illustrious history of success and superstar talent, and arguably the best player in franchise history, Chris Paul, began his career elsewhere. Instead, we'll go with the Topps rookie card of Blake Griffin, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and a bona fide superstar at his peak.

    Los Angeles Lakers: 1996-97 Topps Chrome #138 Kobe Bryant RC

    If the 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card is the iconic card of the 1980s, then the 1996-97 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant rookie sits atop the 1990s list. A PSA 10 version sold on eBay for $9,100 on May 17, and only 833 of the 6,135 submitted to PSA have received a PSA 10 grade.

    Phoenix Suns: 1996-97 Topps Chrome #182 Steve Nash RC

    Originally drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the No. 15 pick in the 1996 draft, Steve Nash spent two seasons with the Suns and six seasons with the Dallas Mavericks before returning to Phoenix and winning back-to-back MVP awards. His rookie plays second fiddle to Kobe Bryant in the 1996-97 Topps Chrome set, but it's plenty valuable in its own right.

    Sacramento Kings: 1961-62 Fleer #36 Oscar Robertson RC

    Before they were the Sacramento Kings, they were the Cincinnati Royals, and that's who "Big O" Oscar Robertson played for during the bulk of his Hall of Fame career. The 1961-62 Fleer set also has rookie cards of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. If you're looking for a true Kings player, Peja Stojakovic has 11 different rookie cards in 1998-99 products.

Southwest Division

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 1: David Robinson #50 of the San Antonio Spurs battles for position against the Charlotte Hornets on December 1, 1993 at Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, NC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1994 NBAE (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NBAE via Getty Images)
    David Robinson (Gregg Forwerck/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Dallas Mavericks: 1998-99 SP Authentic #99 Dirk Nowitzki RC

    Dirk Nowitzki or Luka Doncic? There might not be a better long-term investment right now than Doncic rookie cards, but until he delivers a title to Dallas, it's hard to put him ahead of Nowitzki in terms of iconic status. With a print run of 3,500, Nowitzki's top rookie card is part of the 1998-99 SP Authentic set.

    Houston Rockets: 1986-87 Fleer #82 Akeem Olajuwon RC

    Few No. 1 overall picks have done more to shape a franchise than the Rockets selecting Hakeem Olajuwon atop the 1984 draft. He spent 17 seasons in Houston, averaging 22.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks while delivering a pair of NBA titles.

    Memphis Grizzlies: 1996-97 Topps Chrome #128 Shareef Abdur-Rahim RC

    Marc Gasol or Mike Conley Jr. would both be solid choices here, but we're going with the Grizzlies first legitimate star in Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He averaged 20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in five seasons with the team before he was traded to Atlanta on draft night in 2001 in exchange for Pau Gasol.

    New Orleans Pelicans: 2005-06 Topps Chrome #168 Chris Paul RC

    Chris Paul is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history and still going strong running the Phoenix Suns offense, but his career began with the Hornets. He is the headlining rookie in 2005-06 products, and his Topps Chrome rookie card is still extremely affordable.

    San Antonio Spurs: 1989-90 Hoops #138 David Robinson SP RC

    Until David Robinson was included in the 1989-90 Hoops set, rookies were generally not included in sets until after they debuted. However, since he was actually drafted in 1987 before fulfilling a two-year military commitment, his rookie card was ready to roll when the 1989-90 set was released. It was the peak of the basketball card market at the time and remains an iconic 1980s card, even if it only sells for a few dollars now due to mass production. Sorry, Tim Duncan.

    All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.