NBA

What is the most decorated jersey number in NBA history?

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has done it again, reportedly switching from his iconic No. 23 back to No. 6, which he made iconic during his four years with the Miami Heat.

When you think about the most iconic players in NBA history, they've become synonymous with the number they chose to wear throughout their careers.

There are, of course, some exceptions. LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal are just four of many examples of players that have made their mark wearing different numbers across their chests.

On the other hand, the league's brightest young superstar in Luka Doncic has already made the No. 77 - a figure typically reserved for NFL lineman - look cool in just two short years.

With all that goes into players selecting their jersey number, it got our NBA.com staff thinking, what is the best jersey number in NBA history?

Seeing as though LeBron and Michael Jordan - arguably the two best players to ever touch a basketball - both wore No. 23, it's a no-brainer, right? Between the two, there are seven MVPs, eight NBA titles and eight NBA Finals MVPs, not counting LeBron's accolades while wearing No. 6, of course.

Had LeBron been able to wear No. 23 as a member of the Miami Heat, perhaps the answer would be a no-brainer, but after Jordan and James, the list of players to wear the number don't exactly measure up to some other numbers, though three-time champion Draymond Green and Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy add to the legend of No. 23.

With that in mind, I decided to take a deeper look at some of the most regal numerals in the history of the NBA. The first criteria for consideration? Multiple MVPs had to have worn the number. What better way to start than by looking at the numbers worn by the league's best?

MVP Awards by number
No. Total MVPs Winners
6 8 Bill Russell (5), LeBron James (2), Julius Erving
13 7 Wilt Chamberlain (4), Steve Nash (2), James Harden
21 3 Tim Duncan (2), Kevin Garnett
23 7 Michael Jordan (5), LeBron James (2)
24 3 Moses Malone (2), Kobe Bryant
32 6 Magic Johnson (3), Karl Malone (2), Bill Walton
33 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Larry Bird (3)
34 5 Giannis Antetokounmpo (2), Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon
41 2 Dirk Nowitzki, Wes Unseld

Coming into this, I thought that either No. 6 or No. 13 might reign supreme, but I quickly realized just how much competition would come in the 30s.

There's 34, the number that is currently worn by the league's most recent back-to-back MVP, along with three of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History during their MVP campaigns. Four different players won MVP while wearing No. 34, the most of any number.

Then there's 33. Nine MVP trophies - the most of any number - split between Kareem, who has been named MVP more than any other player in league history, and Bird, who is the only player in league history to win MVP in three consecutive seasons.

And last but certainly not least is 32. Magic won three MVPs and revolutionized the game. Malone won two MVPs and is second on the all-time leading scorer's list, and Walton won an MVP while delivering the Trail Blazers franchise its lone title. Three more names featured on the list of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History named in 1997.

If it was purely based on MVPs, No. 33 would run away with the title, but that was just the first criteria for consideration. In order to come to a conclusion on which number is the best, I took a deeper look into some of the most memorable figures to wear each of the above numbers, based on their impact on various levels.

Here's how it broke down, number by number:

Notable players, by number
No. Players
6 Andrew Bogut, Walter Davis*, Julius Erving*, LeBron James, Avery Johnson*, Bill Russell*
13 Bam Adebayo, Wilt Chamberlain*, Paul George, Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Joakim Noah
21 Dave Bing*, Vlade Divac*, Tim Duncan*, Joel Embiid, Kevin Garnett, Dominique Wilkins*
23 Draymond Green, LeBron James, Michael Jordan*, Calvin Murphy*, Lou Williams
24 Rick Barry*, Bill Bradley*, Kobe Bryant*, Spencer Haywood*, Bobby Jones*, Sam Jones*, Moses Malone*
32 Billy Cunningham*, Blake Griffin, Richard Hamilton*, Magic Johnson*, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone*, Kevin McHale*, Shaquille O'Neal*, Amar'e Stoudemire, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bill Walton*
33 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*, Larry Bird*, Patrick Ewing*, Marc Gasol, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning*, Scottie Pippen*, Charlie Scott, David Thompson*
34 Ray Allen, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Austin Carr*, Shaquille O'Neal*, Hakeem Olajuwon*, Paul Pierce*
41 Dirk Nowitzki, Glen Rice, Wes Unseld*

*Denotes retired number

From there, it became pretty clear: It's either No. 32 or No. 33.

For those that might object to Kidd, Shaq or Amar'e being on as No. 32, take this for consideration:

  • J-Kidd was an All-Star in each season he spent wearing No. 32 in Phoenix, averaging 14.7 points, 9.8 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game.
  • While he couldn't wear it in LA, Shaq took the league by storm as No. 32, winning 1993 Rookie of the Year and leading the Orlando Magic to the Finals just two years later at 23 years old. It all came full circle when he won his fourth and final title wearing No. 32 with the Heat in 2006, and the number now hangs in the rafters of AmericanAirlines Arena.
  • Stoudemire switched to No. 1 after an injury-riddled start to his career but let's not forget that No. 32 Amar'e was named Rookie of the Year, fresh out of high school.

As for No. 33, it's a heck of a list. Kareem, Bird, Ewing, Mourning, Pippen and Thompson have all seen their number retired by their respective franchises while Hill and Scott are each members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Oh, and the Memphis Grizzlies plan on retiring Gasol's No. 33 once his NBA career comes to an end.

With it down to two numbers, all that was left was to compile some of the accolades of the players on the above list. And, as a reminder, I only considered what was accomplished while they wore each number.

No. 32 vs. No. 33
No. 32 No. 33
12 Championships 17
6 MVPs 9
4 (Griffin, O'Neal, Stoudemire, Towns) Rookies of the Year 4 (Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Ewing, Hill)
4 (Johnson x3, Walton) Finals MVPs 4 (Abdul-Jabbar x2, Bird x2)
54 All-Star Selections 73
0 Defensive Players of the Year 3 (Gasol, Mourning x2)

Based on volume, I actually thought the nod was going to go to No. 32, but as you can see, it's really not close outside of Rookie of the Year and Finals MVP. 73 (!) All-Star selections, 17 titles, nine MVPs and a 3-0 sweep of the Defensive Player of the Year award?

It's a wrap.

No. 33 is the greatest number in NBA history, at least based on the above criteria. I mean, what else really matters?

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