Hardwood Stars of the NBA's Western Conference
As I continue to name the best players ever in pro basketball, Part II concludes the series by taking a look at the Western Conference teams. As it was with the Eastern Conference, teams are reviewed in alphabetical order which means we begin in the state of Texas.
Since 1980 the Dallas Mavericks have been to the playoffs 21 times. That’s a pretty good track record that includes an NBA title in 2011. Of course, leading the way in scoring for Dallas was a future hall of famer Dirk Nowitzki, perhaps one of the best players ever. There is no need for discussion here as the Wurzburg, Germany born Nowitzki is easily the greatest player in the history of the Mavericks. Other notable players have been Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Mark Aguirre, and Jason Kidd.
The Nuggets are another ABA castoff who joined the NBA for the 1976-77 season. For every season Denver was in the ABA they made the playoffs. Their first season in the NBA they also got there winning 50 of 82 games. In their first 15 seasons in the National Basketball Association, the Denver Nuggets were in the playoffs all but three years including a string of 10 straight appearances. If you know anything about the Nuggets you will remember that they had a man named David Thompson who in 1978 was gunning for a scoring title and nearly won it by dumping in 73 points against the Detroit Pistons on the final game of that season. But the great George Gervin scored more points but only by a percentage margin as Gervin poured in 63 on that same day. Thompson is in the Hall of Fame and spent seven seasons with Denver. Was Thompson their best player ever? Perhaps it was Dikembe Mutombo. Or Alex English? Don’t’ forget Dan Issel. On the team’s leaderboard for history, Alex English leads in most categories and by the numbers he would be the greatest player in Denver Nuggets history.
Golden State Warriors
From the 2012-2013 season until the finals of the 2018-2019 season, the Golden State Warriors were one of the most dominant teams in the NBA. In that span, they reached the league championship finals five straight seasons and won the NBA title three times. This year they’ve done a complete reversal and of this writing find themselves in dead last in their division and conference by winning only 12 games while losing 46. Stephen Curry has been the main wheel in their winning ways for the last eight seasons except for this year as he is injured and not playing. But the original Philadelphia Warriors played next in San Francisco before settling in Golden State. Along the way, their team gave us Rick Barry who made famous the two-hand underhand free throw that he nearly never missed. In fact, for his career, Barry made 89.3% of his freebies. It would be hard to argue against Wilt Chamberlain as the team’s best player ever so he gets the nod here but worth mentioning are Chris Mullin, Nate Thurmond, and Paul Arizin.
The Houston Rockets were once based out of San Diego, California before making Houston their home. While Rudy Tomjanovich may not have been one of the Rockets’ best players ever, the former player experienced one of the darkest moments in NBA history. If you are unfamiliar with this unfortunate confrontation with Kermit Washington, Google it. During a game with the Lakers, there was some physicality taking place on the basketball floor and Tomjanovich went to intervene only to get sucker-punched by Washington. The strike to the face of the Houston player essentially caved his face in and altered his career forever. Some of the best players for the Rockets have been Hakeem Olajuwon, the current James Harden, Calvin Murphy (who was a champion baton twirler…no joke! Murphy even performed on ABC’s Wide World of Sports), Moses Malone, Yao Ming, Otis Thorpe, Robert Reid, and Elvin Hayes. Best ever? With Harden still active, he’s making a solid argument for being the best player in Houston history, but Hakeem Olajuwon would edge him out if not considering players still in the league.
Picking themselves out of the basement where the Los Angeles Clippers used to be the worst team in the NBA, the Clips are now perennial playoff contenders and qualifiers. L.A. has been in the postseason seven of the last eight seasons after spending 15 straight years without a playoff appearance from 1976 until they finally got back there in the 1991-92 season. In that non-playoff span, the Clippers lost 50 or more games in every one of those seasons except three. The team began in Buffalo as the Braves, moved to San Diego as the Clippers then to Los Angeles to say in 1984. Their best players have been Chris Paul, Elton Brand, Blake Griffin, Bob McAdoo, Danny Manning, and Swen Nater among others. A name not mentioned above is that of Randy Smith who played with the Clippers when they were in Buffalo and with San Diego for one season and holds most of Los Angeles’s team records. For that reason, Smith becomes the best player in the history of the Buffalo/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers.
Los Angeles Lakers
Talking about the Lakers is like talking about the Celtics the way I did in Part I of this column. So many stars, like the New York Yankees in baseball. Impossible to name who’s the best all-time. Since joining the NBA in 1949, the Lakers have been to the playoff round 60 times. That means they only missed the postseason 10 times. Incredible. Along the way, they’ve won 16 NBA titles. Only the Celtics have more and it is by just one championship. Where do you start when naming Laker greats? We can start with the late Kobe Bryant who will be in the Hall of Fame sooner than expected. Jerry West? Let’s go on…Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, one of the early days’ great stars in George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, and last but in no means least, the amazing Wilt Chamberlain. The records for the Lakers are mostly held by Bryant but a few belong to Magic Johnson and Elgin Baylor. Based on overall talent, if you like scoring and dominant play, then the greatest could be Jabbar or Chamberlain. If you like team play and incredible individual talent than it leans toward Bryant and Magic. If I was forced to pick just one (and for this article, I am being forced), given the demand to name one L.A. Laker player as best ever, I would take Magic Johnson. Kobe Bryant liked to have the ball in his hands more and have the destiny of a game in his hands. Magic enjoyed the no-look passes and dishing off to a teammate to garner points. There was not a selfish bone in his game and therefore I say the greatest Laker ever also was “Magic-al.”
As the Toronto Raptors are the defending NBA champions as well as the only team that calls home outside of the United States, the Grizzlies once called Canada home as well. Playing out of Vancouver from 1995-2001, the Grizzlies had a nice string of playoff appearances in consecutive seasons from the 2010-2011 season until they failed to make the postseason in the 2017-18 season. In their short history, they’ve suite up some pretty good players like Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Pau Gasol, Zach Rudolph, Shane Battier, Rudy Gay, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. In naming one of these players as the best Grizzly ever, my vote goes to Mar Gasol who played his first 11 seasons with Memphis and averaged 15.2 points-per-game as well as 7.7 rebounds.
For the T-Wolves of Minnesota, they enjoyed an eight-season streak of playoff appearances in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks in large part to the play of Kevin Garnett. Then the playoff slide began without another playoff game until two years ago. That came on the heels of 13 straight seasons going home after the regular season. The biggest stars in Minnesota since the team’s inception in 1989 have been Garnett, Kevin Love, Christian Laettner, and Wally Szczerbiak. But the nod for best ever has to go to the “The Big Ticket” Kevin Garnett.
New Orleans Pelicans
This year the Pelicans have a rising superstar in rookie Zion Williamson. 5-10 years from now we may realize he is the greatest basketball player in team history. Williamson has torn it up thus far in his NBA debut season, but for a team that has only existed since 2003 and played as the Hornets and shared time in Oklahoma City, Chris Paul may have been their biggest star to date. Anthony Davis is another outstanding player who has taken the court for the Pelicans. Emeka Okafor is another standout as well as Baron Davis. Choosing one player for me boils down to Paul or Davis and I’d have to cast my vote for Anthony Davis.
Oklahoma City Thunder
For the Thunder, their history dates back to the west coast where they got their start in Seattle as the SuperSonics. When in Seattle, there was great success in the postseason. An NBA title was claimed in Seattle in 1979. Since 1967 when the ‘Sonics began their NBA progression, there have been only 14 seasons where the team failed to qualify for the playoffs. That means they’ve been to the postseason nearly 75% of the time since joining the league. Owners of the SuperSonics sold the team to some businessmen in Oklahoma City in 2006 and the team moved there and has been in Oklahoma City since. There have been many great players both in Seattle and Oklahoma City beginning with names like Gary Payton, Jack Sikma, Russell Westbrook, the very great Kevin Durant, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, and Gus Williams. I think there can be no questioning that the greatest to play for this team was, in fact, Kevin Durant.
For more than half the life of their existence, the Phoenix Suns have experienced at least one playoff series. 52 seasons and 29 postseason appearances but not a single NBA title. It all began for the Suns in 1968 and Phoenix has always been home. Twice the team finished a season 62-20 (2004-05 and 1992-93) but failed to win the title. In 1993 they made it to the final round only to lose. In 2005 it ended in the conference finals. Some great players have graced the floor for Phoenix and the names just roll off the tongue…Shawn Marion, Kevin Johnson, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Walter Davis, Dick Van Arsdale, Larry Nance, Dan Majerle, Paul Westphal, Charles Barkley, and Jeff Hornacek. It’s a tough call from this group but my pick would be Kevin Johnson who played 12 seasons in Phoenix averaging 18.7 points-per-game.
Portland Trail Blazers
When the Portland Trail Blazers won the only title in the history of the team back in 1977, they were led by the big man from UCLA, Bill Walton. It’s hard to believe that the big redhead is now nearly 70 years old. His son Luke was not as good a player as his father and was under a microscope as the head coach of the Lakers. But for the senior Walton, he is a member of the hall of fame and had a stellar career. The Blazers reached the playoffs many times since that sole title but have never won another NBA crown and made it to the championship round just twice more (1990 and 1992). As for the men who put on a Trail Blazer jersey, how about Clyde Drexler. “The Glyde” was one of the smoothest operators on the court during his era. Other big names include Terry Porter, Rasheed Wallace, Buck Williams, Jim Paxson, Arvydas Sabonis, and Damon Stoudamire. Despite Bill Walton’s greatness, I think most Portland fans would put Clyde Drexler at the top of the heap and I concur.
The Sacramento Kings’ story is about relocation. Originally based out of Rochester, New York, the Kings in 1949 were called the “Royals.” From there the team moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where in time the legendary Oscar Robertson joined the club. From 1957 until they were on the move again in 1972, the Royals stayed in Ohio. But for the 1972-73 NBA season, ironically enough, the Royals moved to the Kansas City-Omaha area where a baseball team would exist called the Royals. However, the NBA Royals became the Kings and that nickname has stuck since. The city location for the team was shortened to just Kansas City in 1975 but in 1985 the moving trucks were filled again as the Kings headed west to their current city. This franchise claims just one NBA title that coming in the 1950-51 season. Even with the great Oscar Robertson, the Royals/Kings could never win another championship. Currently, the team is mired in a playoff drought not having earned a spot in the postseason since 2006. Oscar Robertson is the easy pick as greatest ever but other stars include Jack Twyman, Jerry Lucas, Tiny Archibald, Mitch Richmond, Bob Davies, and Chris Webber.
San Antonio Spurs
Just recently former Spurs player Tim Duncan fill in for head coach Paul Popovich. Duncan may very well be one of the greatest underrated players in NBA history. His career was spent as a quietly dominating center who won multiple NBA titles. In some circles, fans will tell you he owned former great center Patrick Ewing when those two matched up in a game. But Duncan shared greatness in San Antonio with David Robinson, Tony Parker, George “Iceman” Gervin, Manu Ginobili, James Silas, Kawhi Leonard, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and Artis Gilmore. While we mentioned Clyde Drexler and his nickname “Smooth” George Gervin may be more deserving after watching him run up and down basketball courts slicing through defenders like they were butter. Deciding who was the better all-around player between Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan is a difficult task. Duncan was certainly the most dominating of the three and Robinson showed consistency while Gervin simply shot the daylights out of the basket. I believe given his impact in winning NBA titles along with his consistent dominating play, best ever should go to Duncan.
We’ve reached the end of naming the NBA’s greatest players team-by-team and so we can now mail it in with “The Mailman” Karl Malone. Malone in his heyday was like a heavyweight boxer, using his big frame and strength to power his way around the hardwoods of professional basketball. At 6’9” and 250 pounds, Malone was an intimidating presence who unfortunately never tasted an NBA championship. Still, he averaged 25 points-per-game along with 10 rebounds each time out. His nickname is attributed to his consistent style of delivering plays. Of course, Malone’s success could not have come without some assistance and who better to dish off to Malone than John Stockton (Hall of Fame member) perhaps the greatest passer in NBA history. Other Jazzy players worth mentioning are Adrian Dantley (Hall of Fame), Jeff Hornacek, Mark Eaton, and Truck Robinson. If you want to name the greatest ever as a team player, you go with Stockton. If you want the more dominating scorer and defenseman it’s Malone. I’ll put my vote in the mail and say Karl Malone is the greatest player in Utah Jazz history.