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The Inexact Science of NBA Jersey Retirements

A look at the inconsistent way that our favorite teams honor their greatest players

The way that we immortalize athletes is always a sticky subject. We see this on an annual basis when players are voted into the Hall of Fame in their respective sports. There is a constant back and forth of who is deserving and whose accolades mean more. Speaking for the sport of basketball specifically, there is another level of enshrinement: having your jersey retired. This is the ultimate nod from a franchise to a player as a thank-you for everything that they gave the team and the city. That the levels of greatness achieved by that player are so high that it feels disrespectful to have another player wear that number in the future.

The merits of enshrining a player’s number in the rafters have come up recently when Cavs forward Kevin Love was asked if the franchise should retire Kyrie Irving’s jersey after he retires. To Love the answer was simple: he hit the biggest shot in franchise history and one of the most iconic NBA Finals shots ever so he should be immortalized by the Cavaliers. But many hold the guard's exit from Cleveland to Boston and eventually Brooklyn against him. This moment led me to wonder, what are the prerequisites, if any, to have your jersey retired by a team? Does tenure matter? Or is it just a gut feeling from ownership and the fan base?

Mixed Bag of Qualifications

There have been 75 players who entered the league after the three-point line was introduced in 1980 that have had their jerseys retired by their teams. These players vary in positions, skill sets, and overall success. Some numbers were retired due to the player passing away tragically like Drazen Petrovic’s #3 for the Nets or Malik Sealy’s #2 for the Timberwolves. Others were virtual no-brainers like Michael Jordan for the Bulls or Tim Duncan for the Spurs.

Then others were honored for what they meant to the team and the area. Nick Collison’s #4 was the first number retired by the Oklahoma City Thunder after the team relocated from Seattle. He never won any awards or accolades of note as a pro and never averaged double digits in points or rebounds but the Thunder chose to retire his jersey. It was his 15-year career as a hard worker who was loyal to the franchise for the entirety of his career that warranted enshrining his number in the eyes of Thunder fans and management. The San Antonio Spurs have also retired numbers for players more so for their team contributions than individual skill in point guard Avery Johnson (#6) and defensive specialist Bruce Bowen (#12). These players were integral parts of the Spurs dynasty but were never regarded as world-beaters during their playing days.

Personal accolades are not as common of a thread with the jerseys that have been retired. Of the 75 players, 13 of them never made an All-Star team and 22 were never selected to an All-NBA team. Winning championships isn’t a prerequisite either as 38 of the players to have their number retired never won an NBA championship, and even fewer were ever considered the best in basketball with 62 players never having won an MVP award. Ironically, 30 of the players that have their numbers enshrined are not in the Hall of Fame and will likely never get there (excluding Pau Gasol, Dwayne Wade, and Dirk Nowitzki as they will likely be enshrined within the next 5 years).

There is some nuance to this as different teams will prioritize different reasons to immortalize a player's jersey. The Detroit Pistons are a great example of this. The team since 1980, has had two incredibly well-liked teams by their fanbase: The Bad Boy Pistons of the late 80s and the Going to Work Pistons of the early 2000s. They have retired 8 jerseys from these two eras with players that resonated with fans such as Bill Laimbeer and Chauncey Billups. While they achieved greatness it is their folklore and mythology that helped to seal their legacy as great Pistons players. This leads us to wonder if it is tenure or impact that is more important in the calculus of retiring a jersey.

Would You Look At The Time

The question of time served with a franchise as it relates to the impact on that team is an interesting one. Is a player deemed impactful simply because he played for over a decade with the team? Conversely, if a player only played one or two seasons with a team is his number worth retiring? Consider these two players: Udonis Haslem and Kawhi Leonard.

Udonis Haslem has spent his entire 19-year career with the Miami Heat. Fans of the Heat always talk about their organizational culture and stability, and Haslem is one of the reasons for these claims. He is the definition of loyalty, hard work, and a winning teammate. He has been a part of all of the Heat’s championships and has now evolved into a mentor role over the last few years. Similar to Nick Collison, it is not difficult to see the Heat retiring Haslem’s #40 jersey to honor this long of a commitment to the franchise.

Then, on the other hand, you have Kawhi Leonard. A superstar player that forced his way out of San Antonio and landed in Toronto. The Raptors had no guarantees that Kawhi would stay there long-term, and he ended up spending just one season in Canada before signing with the LA Clippers the next season. But in that year he was magnificent, leading the Raptors to their first title and winning Finals MVP. Despite leaving after just one year, there is a case to be made that he is the most important Raptor of all time because he delivered a title. Interestingly, the Raptors are one of two teams (along with the Clippers) that have not retired a player's number. There are worthy candidates like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady. But because of what Leonard accomplished in Toronto and how crucial he was to the team winning, there is a case for his number to be retired.

You can make cases for both of these players because the idea of jersey retirement is emotional and abstract. Voting a player into the Hall of Fame is all about accolades. How many championships did they win, how pivotal were they to winning those championships, and how awards did they win? Where the Hall of Fame thinks about the macro, jersey retirement is more about the micro. It is about the impact that they left their cities with regardless of tenure.

Playing to the Crowd

One of my favorite teams to watch when I was growing up was the Seattle Supersonics of the 1990s. The team featured exciting players like Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton along with some interesting role players that equated to a fun watch in the 90s. Yet when it came to jersey retirement, only backup point guard Nate McMillan had his jersey retired from that team. McMillan was affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Sonic” as he spent 19 years with the team as both a player and head coach. He was immortalized because of what he meant to the team and the city of Seattle, it was more than just numbers.

The New York Knicks have only retired one jersey in the last 40 years: Patrick Ewing. Ewing brought the Knicks back into title contention, despite never winning a title in his 15 years with the team. Two other players that Knicks fans have wanted jersey retirements for are Bernard King and Carmelo Anthony. Both of these players were masterful scorers as Knicks with Carmelo averaging 24 points per game as a Knick and King averaging 26, but neither could get the team into the conference finals. Other teams might deem that good enough to retire a jersey, we saw a similar situation with the Jazz and Adrian Dantley. Dantley played 7 seasons in Utah, where he averaged nearly 30 points per game, but only won two playoff series. The Jazz deemed his contributions worthy of retiring Dantley’s number 4 jersey.

This speaks to different clubs having different standards. The Knicks (whether fairly or not) judge jersey retirement on title contention. A team like the Jazz might look for individual greatness that elevated the team to respectability. The Houston Rockets retired Clyde Drexler’s jersey despite only four years of service, but he was the team's second-best player on their 1995 championship run. For a team like Houston that had never experienced success until then, retiring Clyde’s number was a no-brainer.

Emotion comes into play when it comes to jersey retirement, there is no formula to get your jersey retired. But as we continue down a path of player movement through trade demands and free agency, the calculus might need to change for teams that are looking to retire a great player’s number. Players by and large are not staying with their teams for their whole careers anymore like Reggie Miller, Tim Duncan, and Joe Dumars did. So with that in mind, how teams react to this generation of players in their rafters should be interesting, to say the least.

Looking Up and Ahead

If we circle back to the question of Kyrie Irving, the element of fallout is part of the equation. For all the good and accolades that Irving did in Cleveland alongside LeBron James, the way he left with a surprise trade request to be his own man in Boston left a bad taste in the mouths of Cavs fans. But he did make the biggest shot in Cavs history to win the 2016 NBA title, was the only Cavs player besides LeBron James to win Rookie of the Year, and is in the top 10 in Cavs history in points, assists, steals, and three-pointers made. That resume alone should indicate that he deserves to have his number retired alongside LeBron James when they both retire.

If we look around the rest of the league, there are still tenured players that seem like obvious selections to have their jerseys retired. Portland will likely retire Damian Lillard’s number 0 as he stayed with the franchise when he could have left multiple times and is the team's all-time points leader. The Golden State Warriors will retire the numbers of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green as the foundation of the dynasty that has seen the franchise win 4 titles since 2015. The same goes for Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo who will likely lead the team in total points, rebounds, and assists by the time he retires cementing himself as the greatest Bucks player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But then there are the players that have moved around. How will Kevin Durant’s jersey retirement be handled? You can certainly make a case for his number to be retired by the Thunder, Warriors, and Nets. But the backlash that he faced after leaving his first two stops brings into doubt if either franchise (particularly Oklahoma City) will be petty and hold a grudge over a perceived lack of loyalty. LeBron James will likely have his number retired by both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers as he has done well to repair any damage done by his exit from both franchises.

So what is the ultimate formula for jersey retirement? Like abstract art, it is in the eye of the beholder. But a simple parameter is that a player leaves a franchise in better shape than when they first arrived. As player tenures with individual teams become shorter thanks to player mobility, the impact is more important than ever. Tenure can no longer be the sole reason for immortalization and what has been done with the time with the team has never been more important. By this definition, Kyrie Irving should have his number retired by the Cavs. The decision to retire a jersey will always be emotional, unscientific, and filled with subjective logic. In that way, it is perhaps the last part of basketball that is more gut feeling than a measured statistic, which makes it equal parts intriguing, imprecise, and captivating.

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