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The Best Uniform Numbers in NBA History

Posted by Neil Paine on November 2, 2010

Here's a fun question: Which uniform number is the best in NBA history? As in, which number has seen the most production from the men wearing it?

For the answer, let's turn to our uniform number database and use Win Shares, which includes defense and does a good general job of separating out the good players from the bad ones. You may quibble with WS when it comes to individual players, but over huge samples of many different players, it's the perfect tool for a question like this.

Here are the most productive numbers in NBA history (not including 1950 or '51, since they didn't track minutes those years):

Uni # WS Signature Players
#33 1936.2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing
#10 1870.0 Walt Frazier, Maurice Cheeks, Tim Hardaway
#32 1745.6 Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale
#24 1695.9 Sam Jones, Rick Barry, Bobby Jones
#21 1692.8 Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dominique Wilkins
#4 1679.2 Dolph Schayes, Adrian Dantley, Sidney Moncrief
#34 1616.1 Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Paul Pierce
#3 1567.2 Allen Iverson, Dale Ellis, Dwyane Wade
#22 1526.0 Clyde Drexler, Larry Nance, Elgin Baylor
#11 1433.1 Elvin Hayes, Paul Arizin, Detlef Schrempf
#12 1430.8 John Stockton, Dwight Howard, Derek Harper
#14 1402.8 Oscar Robertson, Jeff Hornacek, Bob Cousy
#44 1383.7 Jerry West, George Gervin, Dan Issel
#23 1376.6 Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Calvin Murphy
#42 1364.2 P.J. Brown, Elton Brand, James Worthy
#15 1363.6 Hal Greer, Vince Carter, Tom Heinsohn
#20 1336.9 Gary Payton, Manu Ginobili, Allan Houston
#5 1281.0 Dick Van Arsdale, Jason Kidd, Juwan Howard
#31 1240.4 Reggie Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry
#25 1203.1 Chet Walker, Mark Price, Doc Rivers
#1 1195.0 Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups, Rod Strickland
#7 1140.7 Kevin Johnson, Lamar Odom, Toni Kukoc
#13 1130.4 Wilt Chamberlain, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson
#8 1060.3 Walt Bellamy, Kobe Bryant, Marques Johnson
#6 1005.2 Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Neil Johnston
#30 967.9 Terry Porter, Rasheed Wallace, Bernard King
#2 926.1 Alex English, Moses Malone, Larry Johnson
#9 905.1 Bob Pettit, Dan Majerle, Tony Parker
#40 825.5 Bill Laimbeer, Shawn Kemp, James Donaldson
#16 793.3 Bob Lanier, Pau Gasol, Peja Stojakovic
#41 750.9 Dirk Nowitzki, Wes Unseld, Glen Rice
#35 728.5 Rudy LaRusso, Clarence Weatherspoon, Paul Silas
#45 695.1 A.C. Green, Rudy Tomjanovich, Bo Outlaw
#43 666.2 Jack Sikma, Brad Daugherty, Grant Long
#50 659.1 David Robinson, Corey Maggette, Steve Mix
#17 581.0 John Havlicek, Chris Mullin, Mario Elie
#18 546.3 Bailey Howell, Dave Cowens, Hot Rod Williams
#52 507.1 Buck Williams, Brad Miller, Jamaal Wilkes
#54 496.9 Horace Grant, Ed Pinckney, Charles Smith
#19 469.2 Willis Reed, Don Nelson, Vern Mikkelsen
#53 420.9 Artis Gilmore, Darryl Dawkins, Mark Eaton
#55 414.8 Dikembe Mutombo, Kiki Vandeweghe, Louis Orr
#00 296.6 Robert Parish, Benoit Benjamin, Johnny Moore
#0 206.9 Gilbert Arenas, Orlando Woolridge, Olden Polynice
#27 145.1 Jack Twyman, John Johnson, Joe Caldwell
#36 74.5 Rasheed Wallace, Lloyd Neal, Etan Thomas
#51 71.7 Reggie King, Lawrence Funderburke, Michael Doleac
#47 65.9 Andrei Kirilenko, Scott Williams, Dave Lattin
#26 55.4 Kyle Korver, Coby Dietrick, James Robinson
#29 53.4 Paul Silas, Hank Finkel, Pervis Ellison
#28 51.1 Andrew Lang, Arron Afflalo, Quinn Buckner
#09 33.7 Bobby Wanzer
#77 32.6 Gheorghe Muresan, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jake Voskuhl
#90 30.2 Drew Gooden
#99 28.7 George Mikan, Roy Rogers
#91 21.4 Dennis Rodman, Ron Artest
#93 14.1 Ron Artest, P.J. Brown
#39 13.1 Greg Ostertag, Zeljko Rebraca, Tom Tolbert
#70 9.2 Chuck Share, Frank Selvy, Dennis Rodman
#88 8.4 Nicolas Batum, Antoine Walker
#49 7.4 Shandon Anderson, Mel McCants
#56 6.8 Francisco Elson, Brandon Hunter
#37 6.5 Ron Artest, Nick Van Exel
#03 5.9 Jack McMahon, Sam Ranzino
#96 5.5 Ron Artest
#62 5.4 Scot Pollard
#89 5.2 Clyde Lovellette
#38 4.0 Viktor Khryapa, Kwame Brown, Ron Knight
#84 3.3 Chris Webber
#76 2.4 Shawn Bradley
#73 0.8 Dennis Rodman
#66 0.6 Scot Pollard
#72 0.4 Jason Kapono
#48 0.2 Walt Gilmore
#71 0.2 Willie Naulls, McCoy McLemore, Bob Wiesenhahn
#92 -0.1 DeShawn Stevenson
#46 -0.1 Bo Outlaw, Dennis Bell, Tod Murphy
#61 -0.2 Bevo Nordmann, Dave Piontek

I was always partial to #21 when I played, since it belonged to my favorite player Kevin Garnett, so it's nice to see it rank so high on the list. Where does your favorite number stand? And if you were a rookie, would you rather honor the tradition of a number like 33, or take a number like 61 and make it your own?

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41 Responses to “The Best Uniform Numbers in NBA History”

  1. Ben Says:

    Lol at Artest on there 4 times!

  2. Luke Says:

    Are the players listed in order of most win shares? It seems like it, but it's weird that P.J. Brown is ahead of Elton Brand and James Worthy for #42.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    Strange but true: Brown had 89.8 career win shares, Brand has 86.7, Worthy had 81.2. Brand and Worthy never wore any number but #42, and all but 0.5 of Brown's WS came in #42, so Brown is considered the most productive wearer of the number Jackie Robinson made famous.

  4. Jason J Says:

    How are the "signature players" sorted? I ask because I'm pretty sure Billups ranks ahead of TMac in total win share. Seems like McGrady missed a lot of seasons while Chauncey's been leading 50 win teams forever.

  5. Jason J Says:

    whoops! should have refreshed.

  6. Seth Says:

    Kidd should be listed ahead of Van Arsdale

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    The Signature Players are sorted by WS while wearing that number. So while Kidd ranks ahead of Van Arsdale in total career WS, not all of Kidd's WS came wearing #5 -- some came in #32, and some came in #2. Same goes for Billups, who put up 26.7 of his career WS in numbers 3, 4, and 7.

  8. Dascenzo Says:

    No Isiah Thomas for #11?

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Let's just say Win Shares doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom about Isiah's value to those Pistons teams (he's 5th for #11, behind the 3 listed + McAdoo).

  10. Ray Says:

    From a Heat fan's perspective, interesting that in addition to Hardaway's #10, Zo wore #33 (for 89.7 career WS), and Shaq wore #32 as a Heat (although he's changed numbers too many times to qualify), with Wade's #3 not much further down the list. We know how to pick our numbers. :)

  11. Greyberger Says:

    I just love the number psychology on display here. Some numbers have a tradition obviously but others just look or sound better, it seems, and attract more players. For some reason (almost) everybody either picks a single-digit jersey number or a double digit number where both digits are below 6. Maybe it's just that basketball teams are small and the smaller numbers go first.

  12. Neil Paine Says:

    From personal experience, I think that happens for a different reason...

    I wore 9 on my 6th-grade team because Michael Jordan wore it on the Dream Team. That fact was pretty irrelevant all season long, until one road game where I was issued a technical after my first personal -- for an illegal number. It turns out that at certain levels of the game, you can't have any digits above 5 (that goes for the leading or the trailing digit). 9 was an illegal number, so every time I committed a personal it would also result in a technical against my school. Needless to say, I didn't play the rest of that game and switched to 21 for the next game.

    That's why I think the pattern you observed exists. NBA players tend to wear the number they had their whole career, going back to high school or even middle school, and at those levels you're technically (no pun intended) not allowed to wear digits greater than 5.

  13. Will Says:

    Greyberger,

    with regards to a 'double digit number where both digits are below 6.'; I think (I can be wrong about it, and a quick google search didn't find anything that was conclusive) that up until recently [I think this was the 90s] players were only allowed to wear numbers above 55 in very limited circumstances. One reason for this [there may be others], is that it's more difficult for referees to give the identifying jersey number when calling fouls.

  14. Will Says:

    Haha,

    Neil just gave the reason (and a more logical one) before I could.

  15. J.D. Says:

    Turns out the worst "traditional" number (both digits less than or equal to 5) is 51. I always thought Lawrence Funderburke looked sort of funny despite his awesome name.

  16. P Middy Says:

    32,33,34 all in the top ten. I got some good birthdays coming up.

  17. Matt Says:

    I was a statkeeper in highschool for my basketball team, so I can confirm that the reason numbers have to be of a combination of single digits of 5 or below is so referees can signal the number with only one hand. If a ref shows 4 on one and 5 on the other, it's too ambiguous as to whether it's 45 or 9, so they simply use one hand to show each digit.

  18. Luke Says:

    Professional basketball is the only level where you can have a number above 5 on your jersey. This is because the refs need to signal to the scorer's table for fouls, and use their hands for the jersey number for who the foul is against, and obviously can't go above "5." They signal with one hand "hold up 2 fingers for the first digit" and keep that hand held up, then signal with the other "hold of 5 fingers for second digit." (They also just make a fist for "0") I think most players just tend to keep the numbers they wore in high school/college even though they could wear higher numbers if they wanted to in the NBA.

  19. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    Any chance you can do WS/48?

  20. hanafi Says:

    33 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing are the best player ever
    i love number 33

  21. kunkun Says:

    number 33. I love number 33 and i wear it on my senior high school team . number 33 have double digit maybe have a charm

  22. EJ Says:

    Number 3 FTW. Doesn't matter if 33 has the most win shares, number 3 has the most ankle breakers with AI and DWade.

  23. x Says:

    kobe's not listed as having used the #24. ron artest was on the list 4 times!

  24. Gil Meriken Says:

    How about WS per player to get an idea of the average player wearing that number? I'm assuming the numbers between say, 4 through 45, make up the bulk of the players, so they will naturally have more Win Shares in total.

  25. Gil Meriken Says:

    Expanding on my comment in 24, I'm going to take a guess that the most worn jersey numbers also correlate highly to the top 10 WS, which is why I'd like to see the average WS for each uniform number.

  26. Max Says:

    #33 is remarkable. In addition to Kareem, Bird and Ewing, it's also got Pippen, Mourning, Grant Hill and David Thompson as well as other Hall of Famers and all-stars who wore it at some point, including Earl Monroe, Shaq, Antawn Jamison, Stephon Marbury, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Danny Granger, Maurice Lucas, Charles Oakley, Otis Thorpe, and Cazzie Russell.

    No surprise that it's 1st on this list.

  27. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    This is why MJ wore 45 while getting used to the NBA again.

  28. Rad E. Cool Says:

    Strange about the "no numbers above 5" thing. I remember in FIBA rules - which included high school and domestic competitions over here in Australia - said that you could only have a number between 4 and 15 inclusive.

    #1, #2, and #3 were out because they were the same signals as a score and numbers were signaled with two hands, but in a cumulative way except for the numbers above 10.

    What I mean is the ref would use, say, his left hand to signal #4 and #5 and for #6, #7, #8, and #9 would use the whole left hand and the fingers on the right hand. #10 was both hands, but when it got to #11, it would be one finger on the left hand and one finger on the right all the way to #15 being one finger on the left and the whole right hand.

    So calling a foul on #6 and #15 would be different as the former would be whole left hand and index finger of right, and the latter would be whole right hand and index finger of the left.

    We always thought it was strange (and cool) that NBA seemed to go from 1 to 55 (and 0 and 00) and as kids, as soon as we could get away with it we bought uniforms with numbers in this range but outside FIBA's range (I went for #50). Refs grumbled, but no techs like Neil got. Then Shawn Bradley and Gheorghe Muresan entered the league with #76 and #77 and it was like "whoah".

  29. Patrick Amstutz Says:

    The best and third best uniform numbers are the most retired too. #32 is retired 9 times and #33 8 times.

    I was surprised to see that the uniform #8 was never retired in any team. I think Walt Bellamy should deserve it. But maybe Kobe's #8 will be the first, if they don't retired just the #24...

  30. Neil Paine Says:

    If it's his choice, I think Kobe would ask for #24 to be retired. The accomplishments he values most -- the past 2 seasons' championships, plus a Finals berth in 2008, without Shaq -- came wearing 24, not 8.

  31. Patrick Amstutz Says:

    So then it's up to Deron Williams to fill this hole in retired numbers... I think he has a very good chance at it!

  32. Neil Paine Says:

    Totally agree.

  33. slotto Says:

    Hey, don't forget Earl the Pearl had his best years--at least statistically--as #10.

  34. Luke Says:

    Neil, as far as the retired numbers go, do you have any idea which teams have which rules for which players can have their numbers retired? I know the Lakers require a player to make the Hall of Fame, but the Celtics seem to retire anybody's that they feel like. Do you know any of the "rules" for any other teams?

  35. BSK Says:

    It'd be most interesting to see the top 3 or top 5 at a given position.

    Then again, with the retired numbers, some of these numbers have little chance to grow.

  36. taheati Says:

    I like win-shares because it supports without replacing your eyes (what you see is what WS also & usually gets), filters glare (of inefficient or defensively indifferent volume scorers) sharpens distant objects.

    That's also why I'd prefer WS/48 to identify the most productive 3-player numbers after you've qualified eligible players (min. games, minutes). Otherwise straight WS says as much (maybe more) about longevity as it does productivity.

  37. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #34 - I did a little digging around, but I couldn't find any other franchise who only retires a player's jersey once they reach a specific requirement. I think other teams have some standard that must be met as well, but they're basically unwritten rules, and they probably don't write them in case they want to break them later.

    Btw, if there ever was a case where the Lakers should break their own rule, it's gotta be for Derek Fisher, right? The Red Sox have a similar rule about the HoF, but they made an exception for Johnny Pesky. The Lakers should probably do the same for Fisher after the shots he's made that helped them seal championships.

    And no, I can't believe I compared the Red Sox and Lakers either... Excuse me while I throw up.

  38. Luke Says:

    Fisher is exactly who I was thinking of for the Lakers to break that rule, but I really don't know if they'll do it considering all of the other really good players they've had on title teams in the past... I mean, they didn't even retire Goodrich's number until he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996, almost 20 years after he had retired.

    Personally, as a Lakers fan, it'll just seem weird to me when I look at their rafters 20 years from now and see Shaq's #34 (which I think they will, and probably should, retire) but not Fisher's #2. It'll also be weird if Gasol doesn't make the Hall of Fame and doesn't get his number up there either. I'd say he's about 50/50 if he stopped playing today. Probably hasn't done enough just on NBA accomplishments, but he'll get lots of bonus points for the international flavor.

  39. taheati Says:

    WS v WS/48 example.

    WS/48

    #33/Abdul-Jabbar (.231), Bird (.203), Ewing (.150) = .584

    #23/Jordan (.250), James (.224), Murphy (.132) = .606

    n.b. when you compare top WS/48s, qualified for games (min. 500) & average-minutes (min. 25 mpg), HOFers like Bird & Ewing don't resonate quite as loudly as their media-amplified resumés suggest.

  40. danny95207 Says:

    No Isiah Thomas for #11? Yes . Isiah Thomas is not good enough to be on the list :)

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