When an NBA player gets his number retired, it's usually because of his contributions to his team for a long period of time. Far more often than not, they deserve this honor and have the talent and numbers to back it up. Coaches, announcers, and team executives can also get numbers or microphones retired, and again, they're almost always deserving. And sometimes a player tragically passes away while in the prime of his career and is honored with a retired number. With that out of the way, there will be no disputing the late Bobby Phills' and Malik Sealy's number retirements, as these were two starting-caliber players taken from us at a shockingly young age.
But sometimes, there are individuals whose numbers get retired even if they belong to good, but not-quite-great players. They may have spent the requisite long tenures with their respective teams, but may not have put up strong numbers for a long period of time. And while some may have a ton of championship rings, their roles may not have been as significant as teammates whose numbers were also retired.
Join us now as we look at 15 (+1) NBA numbers that shouldn't have been retired, and why we believe their numbers should have been worn by someone else instead of hanging up in the stadium rafters.
15 LIONEL HOLLINS (#14) AND BOB GROSS (#30) (PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS)
This list is chock full of Portland Trail Blazers who aren't named Bill Walton, and it's largely because the Blazers went overboard in recognizing the men who got the minutes on their 1976-77 championship team. But aside from Mo Lucas, no one else on that team truly had the stellar careers one would expect from players whose numbers can no longer be used in the team.
Bobby Gross and Lionel Hollins make for two of the more borderline cases on that 1977 NBA Finals-winning Blazers team. Gross, a small forward, was known for his pinpoint field goal shooting, sharp passing, and defensive abilities, but was mostly a high-level role player in his eight-year NBA career. Future Memphis Grizzlies coach Hollins was a combo guard and a pretty good defender in his early years with the Blazers, but had outlived his usefulness for the team when they traded him to Philadelphia early in 1980, at the tender age of 26. Good players? Yes, at the time. Number retirement-worthy? Not really.
14 JON MCGLOCKLIN (#14, MILWAUKEE BUCKS)
You probably remember Jon McGlocklin as the "other" starting guard on the Milwaukee Bucks' NBA Championship-winning team of 1971, which also featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. At that point, he was a one-time All-Star and a feared outside shooter, but he was also heading for an early decline at the age of 27, as the Bucks had higher hopes for reserve point guard Lucius Allen, a high draft pick and Abdul-Jabbar's teammate at UCLA.
After the Bucks' 1970-71 championship run, McGlocklin was demoted to the bench, and to be fair, he soldiered on as a Bucks reserve until his retirement in 1976. Like many other players on this list, Jonny Mac was a good player who had a successful pro career, but might not have been good enough to get his number retired.
13 BYRON BECK (#40, DENVER NUGGETS)
If Brian Scalabrine played in the late '60s to the '70s and spent his entire career with one team, he'd probably be up for Hall of Fame consideration. That said, Byron Beck was much better than the White Mamba, but he came from a similar mold — big, unathletic role player-type who works his butt off and mainly gets by on hustle. Oh, and they both went to high school in the state of Washington, to say little of their similar first names.
Modern-day comparisons aside, Beck was a solid forward/center in his ten seasons with the Denver Nuggets. He was a local product (from the University of Denver) who played in two All-Star Games. But did he deserve to be the first Nugget to get his jersey retired? Based on those factors, he might have. But in terms of talent and contributions, he certainly pales in comparison to great Nuggets big men such as Dan Issel and Dikembe Mutombo.
12 JOHN WILLIAMSON (#23, BROOKLYN NETS)
They called him “Super” John Williamson because of his “super” jump shot. As a member of what was then known as the New York Nets, Williamson lived up to his high-scoring reputation in the old ABA, and was still quite the threat when the league merged with the NBA for the 1976-77 season. He also averaged a whopping 29.5 points per game after being traded back to the Nets (from the Pacers) midway through the 1977-78 season. Clearly, the man could score.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else that Super John was super at. He didn’t do much rebounding and wasn’t really the type to pass the ball. And despite all those prolific scoring performances, he was never named to an ABA or NBA All-Star Game. He retired in 1981, shortly before his 30th birthday, and while there’s no doubting how well he put points up on the board, he was just too one-dimensional to be considered worthy to have his jersey retired.
11 DOUG MOE (#432, DENVER NUGGETS)
Maybe it's just my personal preference for defensive chess matches as opposed to 130-120 shootouts, but it may have been too much for the Denver Nuggets to retire #432 in honor of Doug Moe's 432 wins as the team's head coach. Moe had a lot of success coaching the Nuggets in the 1980s, but he seemingly neglected the defensive end when it came to his game strategies. Even with the defensively-sound likes of Bill Hanzlik and T.R. Dunn complementing Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Dan Issel during the Nuggets' run-and-gun heyday, they gave up way too many points and didn't look too organized when playing "D." That resulted in the team consistently finishing at or near the bottom in terms of points allowed AND defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.
To be fair, Moe's run-and-gun style was fun for a lot of fans to watch, and the Nuggets of the '80s were mostly good. But you've got to excel at coaching both ends of the floor, and not just stay with your team for several years, to realistically get your number of coaching wins "retired" by your team.
10 BRAD DAVIS (#15, DALLAS MAVERICKS)
Just because you’re the first player from your team to get his number hung up on the home stadium rafters doesn’t make you a great player. Case in point would be Brad Davis, a seldom-used backup guard and CBA alumnus who was an immediate starter after joining the Dallas Mavericks as a free agent in 1980. For the next six seasons, he had served as the Mavs’ starting point guard before turning the reins over to the younger, more talented Derek Harper, and had remained in Dallas as a backup until 1992.
Davis retired after the 1991-92 season, and later in ’92, he got his jersey number retired for his contributions as a Maverick. Fair enough, but he was an average point guard at best, and Dallas wanted someone with more talent and upside as early as 1983, when they drafted Harper in the first round.
9 THE SIXTH MAN (#6, ORLANDO MAGIC)
The Orlando Magic have yet to retire any one player's number, and if you come to think of it, this relatively young NBA team should have a couple of player numbers in their rafters. How about Shaquille O'Neal, who was the team's first franchise player, and played a large part in making Orlando a winning team in just their fourth season? He may have played only four seasons for the Magic, but he was far more dominant than he was in four seasons with the Heat, who will be retiring his number before Christmas 2016.
Or what about Penny Hardaway, who, for all the what-could-have-been scenarios caused by his injury woes, was an elite point guard for most of his six seasons with the Magic? We can get why some teams want to retire #6 in honor of the fans — the figurative "sixth men" driving their home team to victory through their support — but Shaq and Penny should have gotten their numbers retired first.
8 LARRY STEELE (#15, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS)
One of five 1976-77 NBA Championship-winning Portland Trail Blazers in this list, Steele had one of the most meaningful NBA names of all time. That's because he was the NBA's first-ever steals leader, and quite the pesky ballhawk for all of his nine NBA seasons, all with the Blazers. We'd want to give him a pass because of his tenure and because of his championship ring, but then again, we won't.
The Blazers valued their first-ever (and only so far) NBA Championship so much that all the top contributors on that winning team got their numbers retired. But Steele was a backup at that time — a pretty good backup, but proof that Portland's decision to retire the numbers of all the starters, and even the top reserves, on the 1976-77 team, was overkill.
7 JIM LOSCUTOFF ("LOSCY," BOSTON CELTICS)
"Jungle Jim" Loscutoff was right — it would have been a waste for the Boston Celtics to retire his #18 jersey. That number was eventually retired in recognition of Dave Cowens' dominance at center in the 1970s, but Loscutoff was hardly a dominant Celtic. He was a defensive enforcer who grabbed tough rebounds, set menacing picks, and made good use of his six fouls. More so than the other Celtics of his era, he was known around the young NBA as one of its dirtiest players, but except for his first two seasons, he was not a starter, and his game had many holes.
To use a modern comparison, retiring Loscutoff's number, or retiring his occasional nickname as it turned out to be, would be like retiring Reggie Evans' number. He was a great rebounder and defender, but apart from his reserve status for most of his career, he had never once shot over 40 percent from the field, despite playing what is now known as the power forward position. Again, Loscutoff was right in asking the Celtics to let someone else wear #18 after he retired.
6 NATE THURMOND (#42, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS)
Just to clarify things, Nate Thurmond definitely deserved to get his #42 jersey retired by the Golden State Warriors. Nate the Great was at his greatest playing for the Warriors and starring for them after Wilt Chamberlain was traded to the 76ers. He was a true force on rebounding and on defense, as one of the few shot blocking monsters of his time that weren't named Russell or Chamberlain. But when he arrived in Cleveland midway through the 1975-76 season, he was 34 years old, and while still a strong veteran presence and a threat on "D", he was a shadow of his old self.
Thurmond spent one and a half season with the Cavaliers as a backup center, but if we were to put things into a more modern perspective, retiring his number as a Cav is similar to retiring Robert Parish's number for his off-the-bench contributions to the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls' championship run, which the Bulls thankfully haven't.
5 DAVE TWARDZIK (#13, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS)
As we mentioned, the Portland Trail Blazers wanted to recognize all the key players on their 1976-77 championship-winning team by retiring their numbers over time. Of course, we can get why Bill Walton's and Maurice Lucas' numbers are retired, and that's because they were great in their prime. But in this case, Dave Twardzik wasn't much more than an average point guard for the Blazers, though he did have the rather unusual selling point of shooting at a ridiculously high clip (61.2 percent from the field in '76-'77) for a little guy. He was also quite the pest on defense, averaging 2.0 steals per 36 minutes over his career.
Take away the high field goal shooting percentage and defense, and Twardzik wasn't starting material. Remember — when retiring numbers, you want to do so because of a player's greatness, not because of how average he was, championship rings notwithstanding.
4 BOB LANIER (#16, MILWAUKEE BUCKS)
Bob Lanier during his time with the Detroit Pistons was a beast of a player. He regularly averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and was a fixture in the All-Star Game as one of the NBA's best centers. It's that time with the Pistons that serve as a reminder of why he's in the Hall of Fame. But his time with the Milwaukee Bucks serve as a reminder of how injuries ate into his productivity as he entered his 30s, and why contributions to a memorably successful era in a team's history can be overrated.
As the Bucks' starting center from the middle of the 1979-80 season to his retirement in 1984, Lanier was a subpar rebounder and defender, and while he could still put the ball in the hole, he wasn't quite the player he was as a Piston; slightly above-average, but no longer a franchise center. Yes, it's true that he was the designated big man in Don Nelson's earliest "small ball" setups while with the Bucks, but he was also an example of why Nellie didn't have the best of luck with centers during his time as a head coach.
At least he was much better than the guy the Bucks traded to Detroit in order to get him — underachieving first-overall draft bust Kent Benson.
3 BILL BRADLEY (#24, NEW YORK KNICKS)
If we are to compare Bill Bradley's gaudy college numbers at Princeton with his solid-at-best numbers for the New York Knicks, it's probably fair to call him a borderline bust as the top pick of the 1965 NBA draft. But he's got his #24 jersey hanging up there at Madison Square Garden, and older fans still remember him as one of the top contributors on the Knicks' 1970 and 1973 NBA Championship teams.
On the plus side, "Dollar Bill" was a great natural shooter, had a basketball IQ right up there with his actual IQ, and was the Knicks' starting small forward in all but his first (1967-68) and last (1977-78) years with the team. But he was typically fifth in the pecking order behind Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, and Dick Barnett/Earl Monroe, and though we can't dispute his ability, he was probably too complementary a player to get his number honored years after he retired.
2 BRUCE BOWEN (#12, SAN ANTONIO SPURS)
Technically, this number is currently unretired, as LaMarcus Aldridge now wears #12 for the Spurs. And if Aldridge remains a Spur in the years to come, he would make a much worthier candidate to have #12 retired than the man it was originally retired for — Bruce Bowen.
It's impressive how Bowen, an undrafted journeyman who spent his first few post-college seasons playing in Europe, earned notoriety as San Antonio's defensive enforcer, making numerous All-Defensive teams and winning three championships during his eight seasons with the team. But apart from the argument that his brand of defense included a generous helping of thuggery, the numbers show us the proof that Bowen was only good for defense and the occasional trey. At least Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace were tremendous, league-leading rebounders on top of their defensive contributions.
1 LLOYD NEAL (#36, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS)
Get this — Lloyd Neal, a 6'7" (!!!) center who gave up a lot of size to the average five even back in his heyday, got his number retired by the Portland Trail Blazers before that of Bill Walton. That's not to say Neal was a bad player — despite his lack of height, he was a strong rebounder who could block a few shots and score quite decently. But he only got starter's minutes in three seasons out of seven for the Blazers, and was so gimpy in his seventh season that he only suited up in four games.
That doesn't exactly sound like any team's all-time great, but that's just part of what made retiring his number such a bad idea. See, Neal wore #36, and that isn't a very common number in the NBA; usually, teams utilize any number from 0 to 20, then 21-25, 30-35, 40-45, and 50-55. Why retire a number if the player wasn't that great, and why retire it if the number isn't too common to begin with?
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