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The power of the modern NBA player is incredible.
This summer of sweeping, landscape-shifting movement proved as much. But so does this: Eight different players have rightful claims as a franchise’s greatest player of all time (one can say that about two teams), and only one still calls that club home.
Before bemoaning this climate of change and supposed lack of loyalty, take stock of what that means. Nearly 30 percent of NBA teams have their best player ever suiting up somewhere in the Association, and that number could keep climbing depending on how James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo handle their futures.
While those two missed the cut for now, the following eight players stand out as franchise GOATs for a variety of reasons.
Most are tied to statistics, specifically all-time rankings in key categories and their influence on team success. But other factors enter the discussion, too, like longevity and impact, a subjective measure that’s hard to define. You just know it when you see it.
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Vince Carter’s relationship with the Toronto Raptors is complicated. Their shared times were mostly good and always electric, but their split wasn’t particularly pleasant. (Then again, not many are.)
But he was the first player who forced NBA fans to pay attention north of the border. He had a viral game before that term had meaning, as his aerial acrobatics filled highlight reels on a nightly basis.
He was more than a high-flyer, too. His skill level stretched even further than his jaw-dropping vertical leap. By his second season in the league, he was one of only four players to average 25 points, five rebounds and three assists. By his third, he was the only one with a stat line featuring 27 points, five boards, three dimes and two triples.
Carter arrived during the organization’s fourth year of existence. At the time, it owned a total record of 67 wins and 179 losses. After he got his feet wet during a 23-27 strike-shortened rookie year, the team went 134-112 over the next three seasons, each punctuated by a playoff berth.
He exited during his seventh season in a December 2004 swap with the then-New Jersey Nets. By that point, he had already enjoyed five All-Star selections, which still stands as the organization’s high mark (he shares it with Chris Bosh and Kyle Lowry).
Carter’s 23.4 points-per-game average is more than three points higher than the next-closest Raptor (Bosh, 20.2). His 21.8 player efficiency rating is another franchise best. The only Raptor to mimic his level of production and stardom was Kawhi Leonard, who brought Toronto its first NBA title but only spent one season there.
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Does anyone remember the pre-Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors?
It’s OK if you don’t. They led a mostly anonymous existence, save for the Baron Davis-led “We Believe” run, which was a fun jaunt into the second round but also the organization’s only playoff appearance between 1995 and 2012.
Go deep enough into the Dubs’ history books and you’ll find a smattering of Hall of Famers like Chris Mullin, Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry and Paul Arizin. But if you narrow the focus to transformational talents, only two names appear: Curry and Wilt Chamberlain.
Comparing the two greats in an all-time capacity could be a fun debate, as each changed the way basketball was played. Comparing them as Warriors, though, puts Curry in a class of his own.
Chamberlain had the wilder individual statistics (41.7 points and 25.3 rebounds through his first five seasons), but Curry’s contributions mattered more.
During Curry’s tenure (10 years and counting), the Warriors took a stranglehold on basketball. They won three championships and have gone to (at least) five straight Finals. Chamberlain only advanced the Warriors to one Finals, 1964, during which they were knocked out of in five games by the Boston Celtics.
Curry has claimed two MVP awards (including the first unanimous honor in league history), while Chamberlain only captured one with the team. The point guard already owns the franchise’s highest box plus/minus and value over replacement player, and he should overtake the center in win shares over the next season or two.
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Set aside whatever bad blood has brewed between Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder since their 2016 split. When these two were together, they brought out the best in one another.
To be clear, the organization enjoyed league-wide relevance long before his arrival. Back in 1979, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams steered the then-Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA title. During the 1990s, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp transformed the team into a can’t-miss conference power, reaching the 1996 championship round and taking the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls to six games.
But Durant brought a different level of star power to Seattle—and later, the Sooner State.
While previous franchise stars ranked among the NBA’s elite, he was the first to challenge for the Association’s top spot. Payton had a single top-five finish in MVP voting (third in 1997-98); Sikma and Kemp didn’t have any. Durant had six during his nine-season tenure, thrice claiming silver before grabbing gold in 2013-14.
While Russell Westbrook later claimed the hardware, OKC wasn’t a title threat without Durant.
“I enjoy being a part of something like this, knowing that when we come into the arena, they’re going to love you no matter what,” Durant said during his MVP acceptance speech.
Durant and the Thunder grew together—he from a spindly scoring specialist to a powerful two-way force, they from a relocated small-market franchise to an NBA heavyweight contender.
OKC fans might regard Payton and Westbrook more favorably, but Durant leads the team’s all-time discussion. Among his many career accomplishments, he is the Thunder’s leader in points per game, player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes.
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Marc Gasol wasn’t the Memphis Grizzlies’ first All-Star. That distinction went to his older brother, Pau.
The younger Gasol wasn’t necessarily the face of the franchise for the whole grit-and-grind era, either. Tony Allen coined the term, and Zach Randolph embodied it with a bully-ball skill set that made him Memphis’ second All-Star representative.
But no one carried the Grizzlies higher than Marc Gasol, the defensive anchor—and often offensive fulcrum—of their most successful squads. His paint protection was elite, his hoops IQ was off the charts, and his ability to move the basketball gave life to this sometimes-stale attack.
Memphis zigged against a league-wide zag toward a smaller, faster style, and Gasol led the charge as a 7’1″, 255-pound plodder who routinely outwitted the opposition. His hard work endeared him to the Beale Street faithful, and the native of Barcelona, Spain, became perhaps Memphis’ most unlikely adopted son.
“Marc won’t tell you, but he’s from Memphis,” longtime running mate Mike Conley told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck in 2015. “We say that all the time, man. He embodies everything this city is about—the toughness, the blue-collar work ethic, all those things that this city’s about, is how Marc carries himself.”
While Gasol left the Grizzlies this past trade deadline—and was backed by Bluff City throughout his run to the title with the TorontoRaptors—his imprint on the organization could last a lifetime. He’s the franchise leader in a boatload of career categories (including boards, blocks and win shares) and its first All-NBA first-teamer, All-Star starter and Defensive Player of the Year.
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That collective groan you’re hearing? It’s booming out of Disney’s capital and serving as a reminder that a franchise GOAT isn’t always the most popular player in franchise history.
Dwight Howard’s split from the Orlando Magic was problematically messy. (Diet Pepsi cans still make me cringe a bit.) But life is about the journey, not the ending. And Howard’s journey with the Magic was nothing short of incredible.
A prep-to-pro leaper and the top pick in 2004, he averaged a double-double as a teenaged NBA rookie. By his fourth season, he bumped his numbers north of 20 points and 14 rebounds per game, a line only 23 players have ever reached. He simultaneously grew into the league’s most intimidating stopper and had three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year trophies to show for it.
He made six All-Star trips over his eight seasons in Orlando, and even though he was only joined by Magic teammates once—2008-09, when Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis made the cut—he established this team as an Eastern Conference elite. Orlando made six playoff appearances during his tenure, twice reaching the conference finals and even securing a spot in the 2009 NBA Finals.
In terms of individual achievement, Howard never climbed quite as high as Shaquille O’Neal, who put the Magic on the map after arriving as the top pick in 1992. But Howard lasted twice as long in Orlando and enjoyed similar team success despite having less help around him.
The gap between them is thin—as it is between either center and Tracy McGrady—but Howard earns the odd for longevity.
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For most players, franchise GOAT is a designation beyond their wildest imagination. For LeBron James, it feels like an underselling of his impact on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He wasn’t a franchise great; he was a franchise transformer—or, more accurately, a region transformer. His impact on the area economy alone reached hundreds of millions of dollars.
On the court, Cleveland metamorphosed from overlooked to overpowered.
The Cavaliers were a 65-loss mess right before his arrival. Almost immediately, they became appointment viewing, then playoff regulars, then beasts of the East and, finally, in 2016, champions of the basketball world, realizing a destiny James had spoken into existence.
“What’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio,” James wrote in his “I’m Coming Home” essay for Sports Illustrated in 2014.
James spent 11 seasons with the Cavaliers, bolting once for South Beach and later for Los Angeles. During that time, he made the franchise record books a collection of his personal works. Basketball Reference lists the franchise leader in 51 different statistical categories; James holds the top spot in 28.
The Cavaliers might permanently record the organization’s calendar in three periods: Before LeBron, With LeBron and After LeBron.
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Chris Paul’s reign as the NBA’s undisputed Point God forever altered the path of two franchises.
The New Orleans Pelicans may not exist without him. That might sound hyperbolic to those residing outside the Big Easy, but those inside hold that statement as fact.
“Chris Paul saved basketball in New Orleans,” WDSU’s Fletcher Mackel wrote. “He led the Hornets back to the city after Hurricane Katrina and gave fans a reason to come to games. The success of the team in 2007-08 helped keep the franchise in New Orleans.”
Is Paul the most talented Hornet/Pelican of all time? He has an argument, although Anthony Davis probably takes the title for his absurd size-skill combination. But the franchise GOAT discussion goes beyond talent.
Is Paul the most important Hornet/Pelican ever? No question. If his impact on the city weren’t enough, he also quarterbacked the winningest seasons in franchise history and owns several all-time marks, including win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player.
Paul’s claim to the Los Angeles Clippers’ throne comes from a similar place, although he faces more competition from players such as Blake Griffin, Elton Brand and Bob McAdoo.
But Lob City never takes flight without Paul in the captain’s seat.
During his six seasons with the franchise, he made five All-NBA teams, led the league in steals per game three times and assists per game twice, guided six playoff runs and helped the Clippers compile a 313-163 record (tied for third-best over that stretch).
It’s no surprise, then, to see him perched atop the franchise’s all-time leaderboard with 78.2 win shares.
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The initial iteration of the Charlotte Hornets featured several All-Stars, but none were long for Buzz City. Larry Johnson spent his first five seasons there, which gave him a longer tenure then the club’s other early stars: Alonzo Mourning (three), Glen Rice (three) and Eddie Jones (one-plus).
Longevity was never a mark of a Hornets star until Kemba Walker came in and broke the mold.
The ninth overall pick in 2011, Walker poured his heart and soul into the city while blossoming into a big-time baller who snapped the club’s seven-year All-Star drought with his initial appearance in 2017. He returned to the festivities in 2018, then he cracked the starting lineup in 2019 when the city just so happened to host the event.
“I’m excited,” Walker told USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt in February. “This city is excited. … Charlotte means a lot to me. This city has embraced me—allowed me to be who I am, allowed me to grow as a man. I just love the city.”
The issue was this franchise couldn’t follow Walker’s lead up the NBA hierarchy.
Over his eight seasons, the Hornets missed the playoffs six times and never won a postseason series. During his three All-Star campaigns, they lost at least 43 games and were denied entry to the big dance each year.
The relationship finally became untenable this summer when his competitive itch led him to the better-built Boston Celtics. He left as Charlotte’s all-time leader in a slew of categories, including points, win shares and value over replacement player.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.