Which NBA franchise players deserve their own statues?
With the unveiling of Shaquille O’Neal’s statue by the Lakers, we’re in the bronze age in the NBA.
Shaq became the fourth Laker to be immortalized with a 1,200-pound, nine-foot statue now hovering over Star Plaza at Staples Center.
"I still think there’s a couple other guys that probably deserve a statue more than me," Shaq said, mentioning Wilt Chamberlain and James Worthy. "But I’m honored. They’re giving me a statue in front of the place I like to say I built. Staples does start with 'S.'"
Staples is also getting crowded when it comes to housing statues. The Lakers have Shaq, Magic Johnson, Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in bronze. They’ll no doubt add a fifth statue when they decide it’s time to honor Kobe Bryant. That got us thinking: Bryant is an absolute lock to get a statue. West calls him the greatest Laker ever. But who else in the NBA is a no-brainer?
Then we’ve taken it even further, looking for the top four players who just fall short of a statue. No disrespect, but we’re talking about the ultimate honor. Lastly, we’ll go out on a limb and forecast the four players we believe will one day be immortalized in bronze.
1 Lock: Kobe Bryant, Lakers
When it comes to shooting guards, the Mamba takes a back seat to only one, Michael Jordan. There never was another Jordan, but Bryant arguably came the closest. He arrived right out high school ready for the challenge. His private workout for the Lakers at the age of 17 became the stuff of legend, with Jerry West, then GM, departing after 15 minutes convinced that Bryant was better than anyone on L.A.’s roster.
"At 17 years old," West later said, "I'd never seen anyone with the skill level that he had."
Bryant also proved to have what all the great ones possess — the desire to excel and a love for the game. During 20 seasons in LA, he racked up the third-highest point total in league history, with 33,643. Among his bold-type achievements: One regular-season MVP, two Finals MVPs, five championships, a record 15 All-Star Game starts and 24 50-point games, third only to Jordan and Chamberlain. His 81-point blitzing of Toronto is No. 2 on the NBA’s scoring list for a single game.
2 Lock: Tim Duncan, Spurs
Dave Odom gave the Spurs a scouting report on his senior All-American that was simply too good to be true. Not long after taking Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, Odom ran into VP/coach Gregg Popovich.
"You lied," Pop told him. Odom shot him a perplexed look. Explained Pop: "He’s even better than you said he was."
Arriving to a team that had never played in a championship series, Duncan put small-market San Antonio on the pro sports map and did more on the court than anyone else to transform the Spurs into the NBA’s model franchise.
By his second season, he led San Antonio to its first title and finished up with five championships, three Finals MVP awards and two regular-season MVP awards. He’s considered the greatest power forward to ever play, although he starred for a good chunk of his career in the middle.
Regardless of how he’s viewed, he’s most responsible for the Spurs’ amazing near-20-year run of excellence. During his 19 seasons, the Spurs never missed the playoffs once and posted a 1,072-438 regular-season record. That’s the best 19-year stretch in NBA history and No. 1 in the four major U.S. pro sports during that time period.
3 Lock: LeBron James, Cavs (and Heat?)
He could have two statues and among today’s players is the only one who merits an argument for the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. He delivered two titles in Miami during his four seasons with the Heat, when he won two MVPs, two Finals MVPs and led Miami to four straight Finals appearances.
James also should be cast in bronze for what he did for his home-area Cavaliers, delivering their first ever title in historic fashion during his second tour of duty. At age 22 and in only his second postseason, the Akron native carried the Cavs to their first-ever Finals berth.
He highlighted his return to the Cavs in 2014 by taking the team to its second Finals, in 2015. Then he delivered on his promise to bring Northeast Ohio a pro sports title, its first since the Browns in 1964, when he led the greatest Finals comeback in history after the Cavs trailed the Warriors last June, 3-1.
James is one of only a handful of players to win four MVPs, to go along with three Finals MVPs. He is favored to make it to his seventh straight Finals this June and is fast closing in on being only the seventh player in history to score at least 30,000 points. On the dual statue issue, the only question is do they forgive him in Miami for leaving?
4 Lock: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs
Mark Cuban might chisel this one himself. Over Nowitzki’s 20 years in Dallas, the Wurzburg, Germany product has become the one of the NBA’s all-time leading scorers and is known as the greatest international player in league history. When he arrived via a draft-day trade with the Bucks in 1998, foreign-born NBA players were still a rarity.
Coming to a franchise that had been to only one Western Conference Finals since its inception in 1980-81, Nowitzki led the Mavs to their first-ever NBA Finals berth in 2006, a year before he won the regular-season MVP.
He solidified his place as the greatest Maverick ever when he led the team to its only title, in 2011, when underdog Dallas fell behind 2-1, but went on to defeat Miami’s "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. For his Finals performance he was named the series MVP.
Armed with one of the game’s greatest shots, a near-unblockable jumper, the 12-time All-NBA selection and 13-time All-Star recently moved into sixth place among all-time NBA scorers. He became only the sixth player in history to cross the 30,000-point plateau.
5 Just Short: Dwyane Wade, Heat
Miamians will be up in arms over this snub, as many feel that he’s been the greatest pro athlete in South Florida, including the beloved Dan Marino, who made it to one Super Bowl for the Dolphins but never won a championship.
There’s no doubt Wade will get his jersey retired, joining Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, who only had a three-plus season stopover in South Beach after his Laker playing days. If Shaq could get his number retired with such a small Heat resume, then it stands to reason that Wade one day will merit a statue.
But there’s a case against Wade getting the ultimate honor. He never was a league regular-season MVP, finishing in the top three in voting only one time. To get a statue, a player should have won the regular-season award at least once and been among the top voters a handful of times. On our scorecard, players who get statues are all-time greats, preferably candidates for Mt. Rushmore. We love Wade, but he’s not in that rarified air.
In addition, two of Wade’s three titles came as he was cast as the No. 2 option behind James. He was Finals MVP in 2006 when the Heat defeated Dallas. But he led the NBA only once in scoring and was 40th in scoring when he left, with a shade over 20,000 points. When he’s through, he’ll likely finish out of the top 30 all-time in that department. Sorry, no statue in Wade County.
6 Just Short: Steve Nash, Suns
There’s a good chance that Nash will get statues in two countries — in Canada, where he is Mr. Basketball, and in Phoenix. But we’re not so sure that the greatest player in Suns history merits more than having his number 13 retired by Phoenix.
Nash has won all of the Suns’ top franchise honors. He’s in their Ring of Honor and made their 40th anniversary team in 2008. As only the second Sun, with Charles Barkley, to win a regular-season MVP, we’ll admit he’s probably going to get a statue.
But we’re setting a high bar. Despite his back-to-back MVPs, Nash’s playoff resume is holding us back from having him cast in bronze. In 2005 and 2006, when he won the award, the Suns never advanced to the NBA Finals. They never even got to a Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, losing to San Antonio in five games and Dallas in six games.
We’ve got no trouble with Canada giving him a statue. How many basketball guys qualify for one up there, anyway?
7 Just Short: Allen Iverson, 76ers
Wilt Chamberlain has a statue in Philadelphia, and all you have to do to see why is take a gander at the NBA record book, aka "The Wilt Chamberlain Story." He owns almost all of the league’s major records, making Michael Jordan look like just another hoopster. As the gold standard, he deserved his statue.
The Sixers lowered the bar more than a few rungs when they honored Julius Erving with his likeness in bronze. So there’s always a chance that Iverson one day will get a statue. He’s already had his number 3 retired, justifiably, winning one MVP award and four scoring titles.
But he’s not one of the NBA’s immortals and when you’re talking about a statue, that is one of our prerequisites. No, it didn’t apply when Dominique Wilkins was cast in bronze by the Hawks, so there’s always a chance that the Sixers pay homage to Iverson. But other than his MVP season in 2001, he had no other top-three finishes in his career. He went to one Finals and didn’t win a ring. He’s also 24th all-time in scoring, but soon to be 25th with Carmelo Anthony closing in fast. We just don’t see bronze in AI’s future.
8 Just Short: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
Garnett’s best days were with the Timberwolves, his original team, where he won the 2004 MVP and established himself as an elite defender and perennial All-NBA selection. But he got Minnesota to one Western Conference Finals, never to a Finals and didn’t do his big winning until 2008 when he was traded to Boston. With the Celtics he won a title in ’08 and advanced to one other Finals in ‘10.
So if he’s going to be considered for a bronzing, it has to be on the basis of what he accomplished in his first 12 seasons with the T'Wolves. There’s no doubt he did more as a player there than anyone else in history; he had two second-place finishes in the MVP (losing to Shaq in 2000 and Duncan in 2003). But in terms of where he stacks up in NBA history against the all-time greats, his Hall of Fame candidacy in 2021, when he’ll be an automatic first-ballot selection, is going to be his crowning achievement. Great worker and terrific competitor. But sorry, no statue.
9 Future: Stephen Curry, Warriors
This one’s easy. The Warriors might be taking measurements for his statue as this is being written. Curry is the franchise’s first two-time MVP, the league’s only unanimous selection in history and has proven to be a transcendent offensive talent with his remarkable range and record-setting 3-point shooting.
His one glaring weakness: No Finals MVP hardware. Yet. But he intends to re-sign with the Warriors this summer, and with Kevin Durant likely also there for the long haul, there’s a good chance that the Warriors are fixtures in the Finals and one day Curry adds a Finals MVP to his Hall of Fame-worthy resume. Yes, the statue is coming, right around 2035.
10 Future: James Harden, Rockets
Harden has a great chance to be named the MVP this season. In Mike D’Antoni’s point guard-friendly system, he’s resurrected his career while driving the Rockets to an unexpected top-three finish in the Western Conference.
Harden already has finished second in one MVP race (2015) and would be the third Rocket to win the MVP award. Hakeem Olajuwon, the 1994 MVP, has a bronze monument. Dream led Houston to its only two titles. So they might have to waive that as a requirement for Harden to get a similar bronze structure in 2040.
11 Future: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
Minnesota’s second-year center is the one player most GMs and coaches would love to build their franchise around. He’s got the entire package, never gets hurts or misses a game and has the look of a big winner/future champ. Dare we say he’ll replace Garnett as the greatest player in Timberwolves history and be the one who gets a statue in 2045?
12 Future: Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Don’t know where he’ll end up or if he’ll even hold up. But just going on the scouting reports that he’s got a lot of Jason Kidd in him, with a better shot, we’re going to go out on a limb and say he’ll be a transcendent playmaker at the next level.
In 2050, we can see Lonzo at a ceremony where they unveil his likeness in bronze. And yes, LaVar will be there to tell the world, "I told you so!"