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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Selecting a "Franchise Four" for the NBA's Cornerstone Franchises

Taking a cue from Major League Baseball's "Franchise Four" concept, Mitch Lawrence selected a "Franchise Four" for a dozen NBA franchises. Lawrence's choices are pretty much on the money but I disagree with a few of his selections so I compiled my own list; players who both Lawrence and I selected are in bold. Lawrence did not explicitly state his criteria but I picked "Franchise Four" players based on their overall impact on a given franchise and I did not consider anything that they accomplished for other franchises; for instance, Michael Jordan is the greatest player who ever played for the Wizards but--only considering his accomplishments as a Wizard--he is not one of the four best players in franchise history.

1) Boston Celtics

Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy

Russell and Bird are Pantheon level players and Havlicek is not too far behind. Havlicek may be one of the most underrated great players in pro basketball history. He spent the first part of his career as a sixth man who was overshadowed by Russell, Cousy and Sam Jones. Then he had his best statistical seasons when the Celtics were not competitive right after Russell retired. Havlicek was a key member of two championship teams in the mid-1970s. Cousy is one of the few point guards to win an MVP and he was the face of the franchise before Russell arrived. Cousy's playmaking plus his often forgotten scoring (he ranked in the top 10 in scoring eight times) were crucial elements for six championship teams.

I also agree with Lawrence's honorable mention selections: Dave Cowens (who won a regular season MVP and two championships), Sam Jones and Bird's Big Three frontcourt partners Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, plus Paul Pierce. I assume that Lawrence left out Kevin Garnett because Garnett only played for the Celtics briefly and I concur on that score.

2) Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Artis Gilmore, Bob Love

Lawrence picked Derrick Rose and Dennis Rodman over Gilmore and Love. Rodman only played 199 regular season games in three years with the Bulls. Yes, Rodman captured three rebounding titles for three Chicago championship teams but he was also the third best player on those teams. Rose won the 2011 regular season MVP but during his eight injury-plagued seasons he has not had the overall impact on the franchise that Gilmore and Love did.

Gilmore was one of the top centers in the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He holds the franchise career records for blocked shots (1029) and field goal percentage (.587). He won two field goal percentage titles as a Bull (1981, 1982), made the All-Star team four times (1978-79, 1981-82) and twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting (1977, 1978).

Love was the best player for some strong Chicago teams in the early 1970s, a top notch scorer who was also an excellent defensive player. As a Bull, Love made the All-NBA Second Team twice (1971, 1972) and the All-Defensive Second Team three times (1972, 1974-75). Love holds the franchise single season record for minutes played (3482) and he ranks third on the franchise's career scoring list behind Jordan and Pippen.

Lawrence listed Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker and Artis Gilmore as honorable mentions. After moving Gilmore and Love up, I would tap Rodman, Horace Grant and Rose as honorable mentions in addition to Sloan, Van Lier and Walker.

3) Detroit Pistons

Isiah Thomas, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Joe Dumars

Thomas and Dumars were the starting guards for the "Bad Boys" Detroit teams that advanced to three straight NBA Finals (1988-90) and won back to back championships (1989-90). Thomas is arguably the greatest "little" player (under 6-3) in pro basketball history; in his early seasons he put up big numbers for mediocre Detroit teams but as the Pistons became stronger and deeper he willingly sacrificed his personal statistics so that the team could be more successful. Dumars was an outstanding two-way performer who won the 1989 Finals MVP and made the All-Defensive First Team four times (1989-90, 1992-93).

Bing starred for the Pistons during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a Piston, Bing won the Rookie of the Year award (1967), twice ranked in the top five in MVP voting (1968, 1971) and twice made the All-NBA First Team (1968, 1971).

Lanier made the All-Star team seven times as a Piston (1972-75, 1977-79), twice ranked in the top five in MVP voting (1974, 1977) and is among the franchise's top three leaders in career rebounds (second with 8063), points (third with 15,488) and blocked shots (third with 859; keep in mind that this statistic has only been "official" in the NBA since 1973-74, Lanier's fourth season in the league).

Lawrence's honorable mentions are Bill Laimbeer, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. I would add George Yardley from the Fort Wayne Pistons--the first NBA player to score 2000 points in a season (2001 in 1958)--and Grant Hill, who made the All-Star team five times in his six Detroit seasons (only missing out in the lockout-shortened 1999 season when the All-Star Game was not held).

4) Golden State Warriors

Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Stephen Curry

Despite playing less than six full seasons with the Warriors, Chamberlain dominates the franchise's record book, posting the top four single season totals in points and the top five single season totals in minutes and rebounds. He holds the franchise's career scoring record (17,783) and ranks second in career rebounds (10,768) to Thurmond (12,771).

Thurmond spent more than a decade with the team while perennially ranking among the league leaders in minutes and rebounds. He is second on the franchise's career games played list (757) to Chris Mullin (807).

Barry starred for the Warriors in the late 1960s, jumped to the ABA and then made a triumphant return to the Bay Area, leading Golden State to the 1975 NBA title. He won the 1967 NBA scoring title and later established himself as one of pro basketball's best passing forwards.

Curry has taken the league by storm, winning the 2015 regular season MVP, leading the Warriors to the 2015 NBA title and looking better than ever during the early part of the 2015-16 season.

Lawrence chose lefty sharpshooter Mullin as an honorable mention.

5) Houston Rockets

Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, Elvin Hayes

Olawuwon paired with "Twin Tower" Ralph Sampson to lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals--where they lost to a stacked Boston team--and then nearly a decade later he carried Houston to back to back titles (1994-1995). He won the 1994 regular season MVP and a pair of Finals MVPs (1994, 1995).

Malone won two of his three regular season MVPs (1979, 1982) as a Rocket while capturing three rebounding titles (1979, 1981-82) and lifting the 40-42 Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals.

Murphy is one of the greatest 5-9 and under players in pro basketball history. The Hall of Famer averaged a career-high 25.6 ppg for the Rockets in 1977-78.

Lawrence picked Rudy Tomjanovich as an honorable mention.

6) L.A. Lakers

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West

Abdul-Jabbar has to be mentioned prominently in any greatest basketball player of all-time conversation.
After starting his career excellently in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar won five championships, three regular season MVPs (1976-77, 1980) and a Finals MVP (1985) as a Laker. He has held the overall NBA regular season career scoring record for more than 30 years (38,387 points) and he ranks third on the Lakers' career scoring list with 24,176 points. Abdul-Jabbar scored, rebounded, passed and defended at a very high level.

Johnson made a huge splash in his rookie season, as the flashy 6-9 point guard substituted at center for an injured Abdul-Jabbar in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals and walked away with the Finals MVP after producing 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Lakers' 123-107 series-clinching victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnson led the Lakers to the Finals nine times and won five championships. He earned three Finals MVPs (1980, 1982, 1987) plus three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90).

Bryant remains a polarizing figure in the 20th season of his amazing career. He deserved several regular season MVPs but only received one (2008). He won two scoring titles (2006, 2007) and set a slew of scoring records. Bryant's 81 point game versus the Toronto Raptors is topped only by Chamberlain's 100 point outburst--and even in an era that favors three point shooting and minimal defensive resistance on the perimeter, it is unlikely that Bryant's total will be approached any time soon. During his prime, Bryant had some remarkable extended scoring sprees, including averaging 43.4 ppg in January 2006, the highest scoring average by an NBA player in a calendar month since Chamberlain averaged 45.8 ppg in March 1963. Bryant was a high level performer during the Lakers' 2000-02 championship run before being the dominant force as the Lakers made it to three straight Finals (2008-10) and won two championships (2009-10) after the franchise parted ways with Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant is one of the few players in pro basketball history who had no skill set weaknesses: he could score inside or outside, he could rebound, he could pass, he could defend, he could handle the ball and he possessed excellent leadership qualities that are reflected by the outstanding results of his teams over the years; Bryant's teams rarely if ever underachieved relative to their overall talent level and they often achieved more than could have been reasonably expected.

No franchise has more legitimate greatest player of all-time candidates than the Lakers. Lawrence chose O'Neal for the fourth spot but I prefer West because West was the face of the franchise for more than a decade as a player in addition to later serving as the team's coach and then helping the Lakers return to prominence during his tenure in the front office by acquiring both O'Neal and Bryant. West's silhouette still serves as the logo for the entire league, so it would be strange to not rank him as one of the four most influential players in the history of the franchise for which he played his entire career. West is one of three players who have won both a scoring title (31.2 ppg in 1969-70) and an assist title (9.7 apg in 1971-72), joining Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Archibald. He made the All-NBA First Team 10 times and the All-Defensive First Team four times even though that squad was not created until near the end of his career. West never won a regular season MVP but he finished second four times while competing with the likes of Chamberlain, Russell and Oscar Robertson for that honor. West remains the only player from the losing team to win a Finals MVP (1969). He won his first and only NBA title in 1972.

It is very tough to leave out Elgin Baylor, who spent his entire magnificent career with the Lakers. He is one of just three players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving are the other two) who averaged at least 24 ppg, 10 rpg and 4 apg overall during their first seven seasons. Knee injuries hampered Baylor during the second half of his career but he still ranks third in pro basketball history in career regular season scoring average (27.4 ppg) and 10th in career regular season rebounding average (13.5 rpg).

Chamberlain, who spent the final five years of his career with the Lakers, is another greatest player of all-time candidate but Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Bryant and West all spent much more time with the Lakers and each of those players spent some--if not all--of their prime years with the Lakers.

George Mikan was voted the greatest basketball player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press. He was the first dominant big man in the sport's history but he thrived in the pre-shot clock era and struggled a bit--albeit as an older, past his prime player--once the shot clock was introduced, so it is often assumed that he would not have been as dominant in subsequent eras. Comparing players from the pre-shot clock, pre-integration era to players from later periods is a very difficult if not impossible task. Mikan deserves full credit for everything that he accomplished and I think that he would fare better in today's game than many other people may think that he would. Lawrence did not even give Mikan an honorable mention, which is a terrible oversight.

Lawrence's honorable mentions went to Chamberlain, Baylor, West and James Worthy, while I would select Mikan, Baylor, Chamberlain and O'Neal and Worthy.

7) Miami Heat

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning

James is the obvious first choice here. He led the Heat to four straight NBA Finals (2011-14) and two championships while winning two Finals MVPs (2012-13) and two regular season MVPs (2012-13).

Wade won the 2006 Finals MVP while guiding the Heat to the franchise's first championship and he was a vital performer for the 2011-14 Finalists as well. He holds most of the franchise's career records, including points, assists, steals, games played and minutes played.

Lawrence chose Tim Hardaway over Shaquille O'Neal but O'Neal was arguably the best player in the NBA during his first season with the Heat (2004-05, when he finished second in the MVP voting to Steve Nash). O'Neal was the All-NBA First Team center in 2005-06 when the Heat won their first championship. Without O'Neal commanding defensive attention in the paint, Wade would not have had the necessary openings to average 34.7 ppg in the Finals. Hardaway had a very good Heat career but O'Neal had a transformative effect on the franchise.

Mourning joined Miami prior to his fourth season in the NBA (1995-96) and he spent the bulk of his career with the franchise. He twice won the Defensive Player of the Year award (1999, 2000) and even though a kidney ailment slowed him down he was still an important reserve player for the 2006 championship team. 

Lawrence's honorable mentions are O'Neal and Chris Bosh. My honorable mentions are Hardaway and Bosh.

8) New York Knicks

Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing, Bernard King

Reed, also known as "The Captain," was the heart and soul of the Knicks' 1970 and 1973 championship teams, winning the Finals MVP both years. In 1970, Reed won the regular season MVP, the All-Star Game MVP and the Finals MVP, the first player to accomplish this feat in the same year. Reed ranks second in franchise history in rebounds (8414) and third in franchise history in points (12,183).

While Reed won the 1970 Finals MVP, Frazier was undoubtedly the best player on the court in the seventh game of that series. With Reed hobbled by a hip injury and limited to four points, Frazier took over, producing 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds as the Knicks defeated the L.A. Lakers 113-99. Frazier made the All-NBA First Team four times (1970, 1972, 1974-75) and the All-Defensive First Team seven times (1969-75).

The New York Knicks' record book could be renamed "The Patrick Ewing Story." Ewing holds the franchise career records in almost every category, including points (23,665), rebounds (10,759), blocked shots (2758), minutes played (37,586) and games played (1059).

King ranks second in franchise history with a 26.5 ppg career scoring average. He won the 1985 scoring title (32.1 ppg) but his New York career was cut short at the absolute height of his powers by a devastating ACL injury that season. King played just six more games as a Knick (averaging 22.7 ppg in those contests) before joining the Washington Bullets and eventually becoming the first player with a completely reconstructed knee to play in an NBA All-Star Game (1991).

Lawrence listed Dave DeBusschere as an honorable mention who finished "a hair" behind King.

9) Philadelphia 76ers

Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley

Chamberlain put up awesome all-around numbers (24.1 ppg, 24.2 rpg, 7.8 apg) for the 1966-67 championship team, which was voted in 1980 as the greatest single season team in NBA history.

After starring in the ABA--winning three MVPs, three scoring titles and two championships--Erving landed in Philadelphia and led the 76ers to the best aggregate regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83. Erving's 76ers made it to the NBA Finals four times (1977, 1980, 1982, 1983) and his 1983 championship team is on the short list of greatest single season teams in pro basketball history. Erving won the 1981 regular season MVP, becoming the first non-center to earn that honor in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in 1964 and paving the way for non-centers like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to win MVPs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Malone joined Erving in Philadelphia for the 1982-83 season, forming one of the top duos in pro basketball history. Malone won the 1983 regular season and Finals MVPs as the 76ers went a then-record best 12-1 in the postseason, while Erving made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting.

By the time Barkley arrived in Philadelphia, Malone and Erving were still good but past their primes. Barkley emerged as an undersized force of nature at power forward, able to score, rebound and pass.
Lawrence chose Barkley plus George McGinnis, Chet Walker, Bobby Jones and Allen Iverson as honorable mentions, while including Hal Greer in the Franchise Four.

Lawrence's picks are fine but Maurice Cheeks should be an honorable mention as well. Doug Collins and Andrew Toney, two All-Stars whose careers were cut short by injury, also merit honorable mentions.

10) Phoenix Suns

Steve Nash, Charles Barkley, Paul Westphal, Walter Davis

Nash captured two regular season MVPs (2005, 2006), while Barkley won the 1993 regular season MVP as he led the Suns to the franchise's second trip to the NBA Finals.

Former Celtic reserve Westphal starred for the 1976 Suns, who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Before being slowed by injuries, Westphal made the All-NBA Team four straight years (1977-80, including First Team honors in 1977, 1979 and 1980).

Davis won the 1978 Rookie of the Year award while also finishing fifth in MVP voting. He made the All-Star team six times, all as a Sun.

Lawrence put Amare Stoudemire in his Franchise Four and did not mention Westphal in his honorable mention group (Jason Kidd, Alvan Adams, Kevin Johnson). I would slide Stoudemire into the honorable mention category and add Connie Hawkins as well.

11) San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan, David Robinson, George Gervin, Tony Parker

Duncan, the 2002 and 2003 regular season MVP, is probably the greatest power forward of all-time.
The main argument against that premise is that Duncan should be classified as a center, not a power forward. Robinson won the 1995 regular season MVP and teamed up with Duncan to lead the Spurs to the first two championships (1999, 2003) of the Duncan era (Duncan also won titles in 2005, 2007 an 2014).

Gervin starred in the ABA before winning four scoring titles (1978-80, 1982) in the NBA. He finished second in MVP voting in 1978 and 1979 and third in MVP voting in 1980.

Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP and has been the starting point guard for four championship teams (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Lawrence tapped these honorable mentions: "From the pre-Duncan Era: James Silas. From the Duncan Era: Sean Elliott and Manu Ginobili."

12) Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson

Unseld (1969), Wilt Chamberlain (1960), Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA) and Artis Gilmore (1972 ABA) are the only players who won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Unseld never again finished in the top five in MVP voting but he won the 1978 Finals MVP as the Bullets captured the first and only championship in franchise history. Hayes is one of the top scorers/rebounders/shot blockers in pro basketball history. He is also the first player to accumulate 50,000 career regular season minutes and he still ranks fourth on the career minutes list. Monroe won the 1968 Rookie of the Year award, electrifying fans with his flashy scoring moves and deft passing before being traded to the Knicks and winning a title with his former arch-rivals.

Lawrence's sole honorable mention is Jeff Malone. I would also include Walt Bellamy, Bobby Dandridge and Phil Chenier. Bellamy is a Hall of Famer who put up big numbers for this franchise, Dandridge was a key member of the 1978 championship team and Chenier was one of the league's top guards in the 1970s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM



At Thursday, November 26, 2015 11:04:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Cool article! Are you planning to do the other 18 teams at some point?

As for the individual picks, I mostly agree, though I quibble here and there.

I think Paul Pierce has to be on the Celtics list, both for longevity and contribution. I'd probably knock Cousy down to honorable mention in his favor.

It seems wrong that Grant Hill isn't on the Pistons list, but I'm not sure who you'd knock off for him. At the very least he should rate an honorable mention.

I'd probably agree with the original writer take Shaq over Jerry West (It seems blasphemous to leave West off the list, but Shaq was LA's best player for 8 years and lead them to three titles while West was probably no longer their best player when he finally won his lone title. Shaquille's personality was also the best match for LA's media-centric culture since Magic; he absolutely embodied the Lakers during his eight years there.

I'd also take either Cheeks or Iverson over Barkely, who played well for Philly but accomplished very little while there.

I might take KJ over Walter Davis but don't really feel strongly about it, but I would add Van Arsdale and Marion to your list of honorable mentions.

I'd be tempted to take James Silas over Tony Parker on a skill-level basis (plus I really dislike Tony Parker the human, though that is beside the point) but that's not really what this exercise is about.

Finally, I'd reluctantly take Gilbert Arenas over Bobby Dandridge. Dandridge was great, but was a third banana in his relatively short Washington stint (though he'd absolutely make my list for the Bucks) but, for all his faults, Gilbert Arenas *was* The Washington Wizards in the early 2000s. That said, there are certainly fewer negative memories of Bobby Dandridge on that team than Gilbert's, so I don't fault the choice.

At Thursday, November 26, 2015 2:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have been working on this piece, off an on, for months, so I would not be able to write about the other 18 teams at the level I would want to write any time soon.

Leaving Pierce off was a close call for me but ultimately I think that Cousy had a greater impact on the franchise.

Grant Hill should have received an honorable mention. That is a large enough oversight on my part that I am actually going to go back and put his name in the article.

To me, West is Mr. Laker as a player, coach and executive. I cannot see making an all-time Laker team without him. Granted, it is hard to make an all-time Laker team without O'Neal but if one strictly limits the list to four players--as is the case here--then not just one but several deserving players will be left by the wayside.

I see your point about Barkley and, considering duration spent with the team, you may be right.

KJ versus Davis is a close call, as you suggest. Van Arsdale and Marion are worthy of consideration as honorable mentions.

Silas is very underrated and I probably would take the healthy version of him over Parker but, as you said, that is not really what the Franchise Four concept is about.

Yes, Dandridge would be a lock for the Bucks. Arenas is an overrated player and just did not have the positive, long-term effect on the franchise that the listed players did.

At Thursday, November 26, 2015 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I suppose I agree with you about West if we factor in off-the-court contributions, but then in that case I think that Red Auerbach and Greg Popovich must also supplant Cousy and Parker, respectively. There are probably other off-court gurus I'm less familiar with who would similarly warrant a spot (if we did 4 for Utah, for example, I think Jerry Sloan would definitely warrant a spot alongside Stockton, Malone, and Maravich).

I agree that Arenas is overrated but the Wizards frankly aren't spoiled for choice; given the length of Dandridge's tenure and his role as third banana it's tough for me to take him over the team's A#1 option of the 00s. That said, now that I look at it I see that I was mistaken anyways and Dandridge did not make your list except as an honorable mention; I don't think Arenas should outrank any of the four you picked, but I do think he probably warrants an honorable mention.

At Friday, November 27, 2015 12:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Auerbach and Popovich never played for their respective franchises. I used coaching/executive service as somewhat of a tiebreaker for West in terms of overall franchise impact but I would probably take him over O'Neal--purely as a Laker--based on playing career alone. West played for the franchise much longer than O'Neal did and he led the Lakers to nine NBA Finals, compared to O'Neal's four Finals as a Laker. Yes, O'Neal won three titles but O'Neal did not face the Russell Celtics or a New York team with multiple HoFers.

It is a tough call and I can appreciate arguments in O'Neal's favor but all things considered West had a greater impact on the Laker franchise than O'Neal, particularly considering that not long after O'Neal left the Lakers built a new dynasty from scratch with Jackson and Bryant being the only significant remaining pieces from the 2000-02 dynasty. It took the Lakers nearly a decade--and the addition of KAJ plus Magic--to get back to the Finals after West and company won in 1972.

Overall, Arenas set the Washington franchise back more than he moved it forward. His peak team accomplishment was a visit to the second round of the playoffs and one could argue that nearly a decade later the franchise is still recovering from his tenure there. Trying to build a championship team around him turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. If I were a Wizards fan there is no way he would make my All-Time team. The players I selected all had a positive impact on the franchise.


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