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Tim Duncan Moved The Spurs Up The Retired-Jersey Rankings

While he was playing, Tim Duncan lifted the San Antonio Spurs up the list of the most successful teams in NBA history. Now that he has retired, Duncan — thanks to his recently retired jersey — has also made the AT&T Center rafters among the most talent-filled in the league.

To rank every team’s group of retired numbers, I grabbed data from Basketball-Reference.com’s franchise pages and then filtered out honored non-players — like longtime Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (who has a microphone-themed banner hanging alongside the jerseys of Magic Johnson and company) or the No. 6 in Orlando, which is retired “in honor of the fans.” (Because they’re the “sixth man.” Get it?) For each team, I added up the total amount of value above replacement (VAR)1 generated by those players, both over their entire pro careers (across all franchises)2 and during their time with the specific franchise in question. Here’s the list, ranked by the latter category, to avoid ridiculous situations like the Miami Heat’s getting credit for Michael Jordan, whose jersey the team retired even though he never played for it.

COMBINED VALUE ABOVE REPLACEMENT OF RETIRED JERSEY PLAYERS
FRANCHISE SEASONS PLAYERS W/ RET. JERSEYS CAREER WITH FRANCHISE
Celtics 67 20 521.8 491.7
Lakers 67 14 672.8 471.7
76ers 67 10 502.2 295.2
Spurs 50 8 254.4 250.7
Jazz 43 7 277.6 232.0
Pistons 67 9 252.2 206.6
Suns 49 9 266.1 173.5
Kings 67 9 229.6 173.4
Knicks 67 8 198.5 162.9
Bucks 49 8 313.6 150.7
Rockets 50 5 224.7 144.8
Bulls 51 4 153.2 143.8
Trail Blazers 47 10 181.0 135.5
Warriors 67 6 210.4 133.7
Hawks 67 5 157.3 131.8
Nuggets 50 5 165.8 111.5
Pacers 50 4 126.3 111.0
Thunder 50 6 145.8 100.8
Cavaliers 47 7 139.0 99.2
Wizards 56 4 103.3 79.4
Nets 50 7 163.8 74.9
Heat 29 3 149.1 39.4
Mavericks 37 2 34.1 32.7
Pelicans 29 1 13.3 4.9
Timberwolves 28 1 2.2 1.4
Hornets 13 1 5.8 1.4
Magic 28 0 0.0 0.0
Clippers 47 0 0.0 0.0
Grizzlies 22 0 0.0 0.0
Raptors 22 0 0.0 0.0
With Duncan, the Spurs have elite laundry hanging in the rafters

1951 to present. Includes franchise lineages as defined by Basketball-Reference.com (e.g., the Oklahoma City Thunder entry also includes players whose numbers were retired by the Seattle SuperSonics)

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Before Duncan’s number was retired, the Spurs’ retired-jersey crew ranked ninth all-time; now it’s in fourth place, behind the Boston Celtics and the Lakers — no shock there — as well as the Philadelphia 76ers, who’ve had a surprising number of truly great players contribute for them over the years. But if San Antonio eventually retires the numbers of current Spurs Manu Ginobili (38.1 VAR with the club) and Tony Parker (37.0), the Spurs could pass the 76ers for third, particularly because the closest Philadelphia has to a jersey-retirement candidate is ex-Sixer (and current Warrior) Andre Iguodala (17.5) — and because Iggy was no fan favorite, I doubt he’ll even be considered for the honor.

Duncan also gives the Spurs an average of 31.3 VAR per honored player, which ranks fourth among all franchises — and is higher than that of both Boston (24.6) and Philly (29.5). The gold standard in this department belongs to the Chicago Bulls (36.0), who’ve retired only four players’ numbers — Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and multi-time All-Stars Bob Love and Jerry Sloan. (Artis Gilmore and Chet Walker must be wondering what they have to do for their numbers to be taken out of circulation.) But the Spurs’ retired-jersey strategy has struck a nice balance between upholding quality and not being overly picky; San Antonio has discontinued a player’s number every 6.3 years, more than twice as frequently as Chicago’s 12.8-years-per-player ratio. (Duncan’s No. 21 became the eighth number the Spurs have retired.3)

Other teams have less lofty standards of inclusion. As part of their apparent plan to commemorate every single member of their Bill Russell-era teams, the Celtics honored “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff despite his career average of 6.2 points per game, to go with a miniscule 8.3 lifetime Player Efficiency Rating (15.0 is league-average) and .017 Win Shares per 48 minutes (average is around .100). (In fairness, Loscutoff’s number was later kept active for Dave Cowens, a much better player.) Utah enshrined Darrell Griffith, whose nickname (“Dr. Dunkenstein”) was far superior to his stats (14.6 PER, .049 WS/48), and Portland honored Lionel Hollins (13.0 PER, .059 WS/48) even without a cool moniker to point to. Nate Thurmond became a Hall of Famer because of his performance as a Warrior, but his number was retired by Cleveland even though he played fewer than 12 percent of his career games as a Cav.

Of course, winning titles like the Spurs have (five since 1999) is a surefire way to grease the wheels of jersey-retirement. It’s no coincidence that the bottom seven teams in the list above have won zero combined championships, and they’ve only retired three jerseys in total: One for a beloved local legend who played for a different franchise in the same city, and two for players who died during their careers. (Meanwhile, take the Knicks as a counterexample: They’ve won only two titles, and seven of their nine retired jerseys honor a player or coach4 from those championship squads.)

San Antonio wasn’t scrounging for numbers to retire before Duncan came along — it had already raised George Gervin’s iconic No. 44, and David Robinson’s No. 50 was well on its way, to go with some of their less-heralded teammates. But like he did for the Spurs as a franchise, Duncan has now elevated their honorees to the upper echelon of the NBA.

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Footnotes

  1. A cumulative value statistic based on a combination of Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares per 48 minutes.

  2. For my purposes, ABA statistics were given the same weight as NBA ones, because most former ABA teams that joined the NBA have retired the numbers of their ABA-era stars.

  3. At least, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Technically, Bruce Bowen allowed San Antonio to unretire his No. 12 for LaMarcus Aldridge to wear, although I still included Bowen in the Spurs’ VAR total.

  4. Yes, 12 coaches have had their “jerseys” retired, with the number often taking the form of their coaching victory total with the franchise (i.e., the number 832 is “retired” for Phoenix in honor of Cotton Fitzsimmons’s 832 career coaching wins).

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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