Hardwood Stars of the NBA's Eastern Conference
In naming the greatest players on professional sports teams, thus far I've tackled football, threw out the diamond's best, and in this version, I turn to the hardwood floors of the National Basketball Association and attempt to list who I believe have been the greatest talents for all 30 teams that comprise the NBA.
When I began to follow sports baseball was my first love. Then came football and then my interests spread to the other major sports (basketball, hockey, boxing, golf, and now the world of MMA). With the NBA, I've never been that big of a fan, more of an occasional witness but I can attest to the fact that I got to see a handful of star players when they were in their prime.
I think the entire world has seen Michael Jordan play but I also remember watching Julius "Dr. J" Erving play especially his All-Star game performances. I recall the collegiate national championship when Larry Bird's Indiana State University tried to topple Ervin "Magic" Johnson and his Michigan State squad to no avail but both men went on to become superstars in the NBA.
I've watched Karl Malone and his pass-happy teammate John Stockton. I remember the physicality of Dennis Rodman and the bullying of his teammates that made up the Detroit Pistons, winners of a league championship. Those who grew up in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era can never forget the "skyhook." That shot was nearly impossible to defend. For short guys like me (5'5 ½") we marveled at the talents of Mugsy Bogues (5'3") or Monte Towe (5'7").
One of my favorite players to watch was Darryl Dawkins or by some who knew him, called him "Dr. Dunkenstein." Dawkins named his dunks ("Chocolate Thunder"). His dunks came with such force that in 1979 Dawkins twice broke the glass backboard. This prompted the league to create a rule where anyone breaking the backboard was subject to a fine and possible suspension. But Dawkins' Chocolate Thunder dunk was not the only dunk with a name. There was "The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam." Or the "Rim Wrecker", "Go-Rilla," "Look Out Below," "In-Your-Face Disgrace," "Cover Your Head," "Yo-Mama," "Spine-Chiller Supreme," and the "Greyhound Special."
Aside from all the dunking names, Darryl Dawkins was, in fact, a force on the court. I enjoyed watching Moses Malone play as well as Hakeem Olajuwon who hailed from Lagos, Nigeria. Another player from Africa I watched play but was more of a novelty rather than a great player was Manute Bol who towered over the competition at 7'7" and weighing just 200 pounds. A good shot blocker was about the only talent Bol had. So to name the greatest players team-by-team, I will begin in the east, taking on the 15 teams that make up the Eastern Conference. I'm sure there will be plenty of disagreements on the players I tab but there can be no disagreeing that the players named are stars in their own right.
In Part I we begin with the Eastern Conference.
As the Hawks call the state of Georgia home these days, their origin began in Moline, Illinois. But for a little over a month before moving to that location, this team was playing out of Buffalo, New York. The name "Hawks" was always a part of the nickname but before becoming just the Hawks, the franchise was known in Moline as the "Tri-Cities Blackhawks." That first season came in 1949 and for the 1951-52 season, a new city was home and it was in Milwaukee. Only four seasons were played in Wisconsin before the team packed up and headed to St. Louis. The Hawks would last there until 1968 when they arrived in Atlanta where they remain to this day.
Stars? Try Dominique Wilkins on for size. Of his 16 seasons in the NBA, Wilkins spent a doze of them in Atlanta. For those 12 seasons, Dominique Wilkins averaged 26.8 points-per-game. His athleticism and flashy style of play made him a star. Just shy of his career point total was that of Bob Petit who finished with a mark of 26.4 and his entire career was with the Hawks. Like Wilkins, Petit is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. In picking one player that is the greatest Hawk ever it comes down to Wilkins or Petit and for me, athleticism wins out making Dominique Wilkins the greatest Hawk in history.
There are two teams in the NBA that are much like the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball. In other words, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have had so many superstars that it's extremely difficult to name one man as the greatest player ever on either team. In 73 seasons, the Celtics have won 17 league titles. This includes having won the NBA title eight straight years from the 1958-59 season until they lost in the Eastern Division finals in 1967. From 1956 through the finish of the 1968-69 season Boston won 11 titles which might be the most dominant era of any professional sport before that and since.
In comparison, the Lakers have won it all 16 times but never won more than three in a row. But the list of stars on both teams consist of Hall of Fame players and so much talent that all other teams pale in comparison. So on the topic of the Celts from Boston, who would be their best player ever?
I mean, just listen to the names…Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy (who's image is the NBA logo), Dave Cowens, Bill Sharman, this just to name a few. WHEW. Tough choices. Aside from Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell might be the most dominant force in NBA history. A defensive guru, Russell had Chamberlain's size and strength. Not as much a prolific scorer as "Wilt the Stilt" Russell bested Chamberlain in championships. Russell was the starting center on all of the 11 championship runs spoke about previously. Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game in the 963 games he played. Boston's career leaderboard is a mix of Bird, McHale, Isaiah Thomas, Russell, Cousy, Parish, Pierce, and Havlicek in the major categories and while Larry Bird was a scoring machine with an uncanny ability to make the difficult assists and shots, I'd give the nod for the Boston Celtics to one of the best all-around players in NBA history, Bill Russell.
After many years in New Jersey, the Nets now reside in Brooklyn, New York where they rival the long-standing New York Knickerbockers. The Nets do own league titles but not in the NBA. They won the American Basketball Association title twice led by none other than one of the greatest players in history, Julius Erving, a.k.a. "Dr. J." Those titles came in the 1970s before the NBA brought the Nets into their league. Early on in the franchise history, the team did play in New York and their very first season the team nickname was the "Americans." Dr. J. got his start with the ABA, a league that used a red, white, and blue basketball. Erving's talents are well known. He was the "Michael Jordan" of basketball before Jordan came along.
Flashy with incredible leaping abilities and amazing dunks, Erving was a blast to watch play. He was highlight-reel material in almost every game. There have been other great players on the Nets (Jason Kidd, Buck Williams, Jayson Williams) but none, not one can even come close to rivaling Julius Erving as the greatest Net in history.
The Hornets are one of the newer franchises of the NBA, an expansion team that entered the NBA for the 1988-89 season. That very first team had one of its biggest stars in the short history of the Hornets but as big a name as he was, Muggsy Bogues was also one of the shortest NBA players in history standing just 63" in height (5'3"). Playing alongside Bogues was Rex Chapman who probably never lived up to the full potential expected of him. Dell Curry was on that team and was a pretty good scorer. Coming on in later years was Larry Johnson and Glen Rice. Who can forget the "Grandmama" commercials Johnson did for Converse? On their leaderboard for career numbers, however, Kemba Walker is on top in most categories which for me makes him the best player in history for the Charlotte Hornets.
Do we need to review the best players in Chicago Bulls history? Come on now…Michael Jordan…Michael Jordan…Michael Jordan. All day long. With Jordan, you have by many estimations the greatest pro basketball player to have ever taken the court for the NBA. Jordan was just flat out amazing. His circus-style maneuvers were ridiculous and no one except perhaps the aforementioned Dr. J. has ever come close to playing the electrifying way Jordan did. MJ could score from anywhere at any point in a game. As great as Jordan was, there are players worth mentioning that stood out on the hardwoods of the NBA: Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, an old-timer in Artis Gilmore who I just learned the other day played for Jacksonville University here in Florida where I reside and got his alma mater to the 1970 NCAA championship game only to lose to UCLA. There is Bob Love and Jerry Sloan along with Toni Kucoc. But this is a slam dunk for the Chicago Bulls … "Air Jordan."
LeBron James anyone? Just call him "Mr. Cavalier" since he is easily their best player in history. Who else is there? Mark Price? Brad Daugherty (hardly)? "Hot Rod" Williams was a decent player as was Larry Nance. For a team that came into the NBA around the same time as the New Jersey Nets, they have just one NBA title and that is owed to the play of James. For four straight seasons, LeBron and his team advanced to the championship round only to lose three times on those four trips. Now James has played for Cleveland, Miami, and the last two seasons, the Lakers. A hot topic around NBA water coolers for the last several years is who is better, James or Jordan? My vote goes to Jordan ALL DAY. But for the Cavaliers, LeBron James is, in fact, their greatest player ever.
The Detroit Pistons might be the most enjoyable team to discuss in this article. That's because while they were in the playoffs every year from the 1983-84 season until they got bumped from the postseason in 1992 they won back-to-back NBA titles in the time frame in 1989 and 1990. But what makes the subject of the Pistons during this era fun is their nickname and style of play. "Bad Boys" are what other players, teams, and fans were calling the lineup from Detroit in that span and deservedly so. The Pistons won titles not with finesse but by physically beating up opponents.
Leading the smothering defense for Detroit was 6'11" Bill Laimbeer who very well might be the most hated person in pro basketball history. The other starting four players were John Salley, Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, and Dennis Rodman who might be the most bizarre character the NBA has ever seen. For their history, the Pistons have had some excellent talent in the likes of Bob Lanier (who had the largest shoes ever to grace a basketball floor, size 22 and a pair of his sneakers were set in gold and put on display in the basketball Hall of Fame. There is the unfulfilled talent of Grant Hill whose career was plagued with injuries. Ben Wallace was a great player as was Joe Dumars. Other players ranking right up there were Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Dave Bing. For me, the best Piston ever was Isiah Thomas.
The Indiana Pacers are another ABA castoff and import with their first season in the NBA coming in 1967. The NBA adopted the Pacers nine years later. Indiana has three league titles to their name but all came in the ABA. They won back-to-back championships in 1972 and 1973.
In the NBA the Pacers have had plenty of success however, they've been to the NBA finals just once in 2000 where they lost. When you think Indiana Pacers the first name that comes to mind will almost always be Reggie Miller. A three-point wizard, any basketball fan will remember when Miller iced the New York Knicks in the playoffs with back-to-back three-point field goals. Miller scored eight points in just nine seconds. Miller's name is all over the record books for the Indiana Pacers and while Chris Mullin was a great shooter as well, Miller has left no doubt that he is the team's best player ever.
One of the NBA's expansion teams is the Miami Heat coming into the league for the 1988-89 season and winning just 15 games their first time out. But the team slowly rose to the top winning the league title in 2006 and then again in consecutive years from 2012-2013 led by LeBron James. The Heat has suited up some great players like James, Dwyane Wade, Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, and Chris Bosh. As for Wade, you could probably call him "Mr. Heat" because, without a doubt, he is their best player ever.
The Bucks left the 2018-2019 season behind with a bad taste in their mouth after winning their division and 60 games only to lose in the Eastern Conference finals. This season they are tearing it up again with a record as of this writing at 49-8. The Bucks joined the NBA 52 years ago and had a superstar in the making named Lew Alcindor. If you don't know the name then you will know him by his Sunni Islam name which is Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Jabbar converted to the religion in 1968 and officially switched his name in 1971. What you have in Jabbar is the NBA's all-time scoring leader whose arsenal included a shot he called the "Sky Hook" that was virtually indefensible. None of Milwaukee's best players in history can compare to Jabbar although he made his mark mostly with the Los Angeles Lakers. But some of the big stars that have played in Milwaukee include Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Bob Dandridge, Ray Allen, Terry Cummings, Junior Bridgeman, and Ricky Pierce. Even though most of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career was spent out west in L.A. he still reigns as the best Buck ever.
New York Knicks
This year the fabled New York Knicks are enduring years of frustration and angst among their fans for the team's failure to improve the talent on the team and put a good product on the floor at Madison Square Garden. A once very proud franchise has quickly become a league joke. Many point the finger at management more than coaching and this season there have only been 17 victories and 40 defeats at the time this article was written. Last season saw a last-place finish and a fourth-place the year before that. Big-name players are a thing of the past with the last real star to take the floor being Patrick Ewing.
The Knicks have been to the playoffs many times in their 74 season history, and the older generation remembers well when an injured Willis Reed limped onto the floor to help his New York team win a championship. While Patrick Ewing was a stud center, Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Earl Monroe starred with Reed back in the 1970s. Other standouts were Bob McAdoo, Charles Oakley, Harry Gallatin, Bill Cartwright, and Bernard King who scored 60 points in one game against the New Jersey Nets on Christmas Day 1984. John Stars was also an excellent player. Greatest ever? My pick would be Ewing. He was dominant and strong as a center and had many classic battles against the centers around the league during his stay in the NBA. Unfortunately, despite appearing in two league championship finals, Ewing retired without a ring.
One year after the Miami Heat was added to the NBA, the state of Florida landed another pro team for basketball this one from the land of Disney. The Orlando Magic entered the league and soon would bring one of the most intimidating players since the days of Wilt Chamberlain into the league and he soon became known by four letters…"SHAQ." Shaquille O'Neal was a monster at center taking the hardwood floor with a 7'1" frame and carrying 325 pounds with him. The LSU product even starred in the movie "Blue Chips" with Nick Nolte as a terrifying hoop player. Joining O'Neal in the movie was another Magic standout, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. Orlando has had their share of outstanding players in Dwight Howard, Nick Anderson, Tracy McGrady, and Horace Grant. Most of the career leading stats for the Magic belong to Howard and O'Neal and as Shaq was such a force in the league, although he played as a Laker too, he is the best to ever play in Orlando.
Previously mentioned as the greatest New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets player was Julius Erving. But Dr. J. also played in Philadelphia where he finished his career with 11 additional seasons. It would be hard not to name Erving again for the 76ers except one very big man spent some of his career with the Philadelphia franchise as well and he too is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. That would be "Wilt the Stilt" Chamberlain. Chamberlain is the only man in NBA history to score 100 points of his own in one game when he did it on March 2, 1962, while playing the New York Knicks in Herse, Pennsylvania. The Sixers have had numerous players worth mentioning: Dolph Schayes (in the Hall of Fame), Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, the controversial Allen Iverson, Billy Cunningham, and Moses Malone. All great players in their own right but to name just one? Because of his domination and the fact that for his career he averaged 30.1 points-per-game as well as hauling down an incredible 22.9 rebounds-per-game, Wilt Chamberlain is the pick here as the best all-time 76er.
In the history of the NBA, there has been just one team that won a league title and whose home city was not in the United States. That was the Toronto Raptors who won the title last season. That they won the title is not as impressive as is the fact the Raptors have only been in the league for 24 seasons before this year. Toronto has made it to the postseason for six straight seasons and this year they are rolling again with a 42-16 record at the time of this writing. Some of the big names that have suited up for Toronto are Chris Bosh, Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, Kyle Lowry, and Doug Christie. Little known DeMar DeRozan who spent nine seasons in Toronto has better numbers than the great Vince Carter so it would be hard to say that Carter was the better player although on the surface he might appear to be. Because of the numbers, I'll say that DeRozan has been the best player for the Toronto Raptors in their short history.
We've reached the final team in the Eastern Conference and it's a franchise that felt obligated to change its nickname because of violence in their city. The Washington Wizards used to be the Bullets but in 1995, the owner of the team was Abe Pollin and he made the decision to change to the Wizards because "Bullets" in his words, "acquired violent overtones that had made him increasingly uncomfortable over the years, particularly given the high homicide ad crime rate in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C. But even before the team was called the Bullets they were in Chicago, Illinois known as first the "Packers" in 1961 and then the "Zephyrs" before moving to the nation's capital and becoming the Bullets. In 1978 led by Elvin Hayes, the Bullets won the NBA title, their only championship in team history. The stars in our nation's capital have been many. Wes Unseld, Hayes, Walt Bellamy, John Wall, Phil Chanier, and Gus Johnson. "The Wide U" as a nickname, Wes Unseld with his 984 career games all with the Bullets, should be considered as the best player ever that played for the Washington Bullets now the Wizards.
That is a wrap on the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association as the best players ever have been named at least in this writer's opinion. In Part II I'll bounce the ball around the Western Conference teams of the NBA.