A few weeks ago, Udonis Haslem accepted a relatively modest one-year deal to return to the Heat for his 16th (and presumably final) NBA season. Haslem represents a rarity—an NBA player who has played his entire long career for a single franchise. U told ESPN that his longevity and exclusively Miami Heat-based career has significant meaning to him: “It’s about my love for the organization and my love for the guys. It wasn’t about me. If I was looking for playing time, I could have gone someplace else or played in China or something. But at the end of the day, would it have made me as happy as being around this organization and being around these guys? No, I don’t think it would.”
Haslem’s ability to stick with one organization so long got me wondering about a couple of things. First, how many franchises have players who were able to stick around and have a long career with only one franchise? Second, who were these players? Sure, Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson come to mind as stars but do we have a bunch of journeymen like Haslem on the list?
We did some digging to look for such players who played ten seasons with only one team (with the help of Basketball-Reference.com). We were sticklers on the exclusivity part of this inquiry. Bob Cousy was nearly totally a Celtic but his seven-game comeback in 1969-70 knocked him off the list. Similarly, Julius Erving only played for the 76ers in the NBA but he had a long non-Philly ABA career that disqualifies him as well but we’ll give a pass to players who played in Europe (a la Manu) or the minor leagues of the pre-NBA such as the BAA. With these conditions, here is the list by franchise:
-Lakers: Kobe Bryant (1996-2016), Elgin Baylor (1958-1971), Jerry West (1960-1974), Magic Johnson (1979-1996), Michael Cooper (1978-1990), James Worthy (1982-1994), Vern Mikkelsen (1949-1959)
-Celtics: John Havlicek (1962-1978), Bill Russell (1956-1969), Satch Sanders (1960-1973), Larry Bird (1979-1992), Kevin McHale (1980-1993), Sam Jones (1957-1969)
-Thunder: Nick Collison (2004-2018), Fred Brown (1971-1984), Nate McMillan (1986-1998), Russell Westbrook (2008-present)
-Jazz: John Stockton (1984-2003), Mark Eaton (1982-1993), Darrell Griffith (1980-1991)
-Spurs: Tim Duncan (1997-2016), Manu Ginobili (2002-2018), David Robinson (1989-2003)
-Pacers: Reggie Miller (1987-2005), Jeff Foster (1999-2012), Rik Smits (1988-2000)
-76ers: Dolph Schayes (1949-196), Hal Greer (1958-1973), Al Bianchi (1956-1966)
-Rockets: Calvin Murphy (1970-1983), Rudy Tomjanovich (1970-1981), Allen Leavell (1979-1989)
-Detroit: Joe Dumars (1985-1999), Isiah Thomas (1981-1994)
-Grizzlies: Mike Conley (2007-present), Marc Gasol (2008-present)
-Hawks: Bob Pettit (1954-1965), Al Bianchi (1956-1966)
-Kings: Jack Twyman (1955-1966), Bobby Wanzer (1947-1957)
-Warriors: Al Attles (1960-1971), Paul Arizin (1950-1962)
-Knicks: Willis Reed (1964-1974), Bill Bradley (1967-1977)
-Heat: Udonis Haslem (2003-present)
-Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki (1998-present)
-Wizards: Wes Unseld (1968-1981)
-Suns: Alvan Adams (1975-1988)
-Bulls: Tom Boerwkinkle (1968-1978)
The list reveals a hodge podge of franchise lifers. 19 franchises have at least one player with a player who was exclusive for ten seasons or more. The top of this group are the best franchises in the NBA. The Lakers and Celtics were really good at keeping their stars over their best runs.
After the Lakers and Celtics, we see that in the 1960s and 1970s there was less player movement. The salaries were also low enough that there were players who had shorter careers and no desire to move their families. The most prominent example is Arizin, who actually retired after an All-Star season because he chose to work at IBM in New Jersey instead of moving to San Francisco with the Warriors.
There are also a few random lifers. Nick Collison and Mark Eaton were decent players who just happened not to move teams because their employers valued their presence when others might’ve cut bait earlier. The most random of the random lifers is Jeff Foster, who was a good bench player but not exactly a Pacer legend (the Pacers were nice but not exactly effusive in their press release regarding his retirement). Unlike Haslem, Collison, or Eaton, Foster doesn’t have even have an outside shot of getting his jersey retired by the franchise. It is also worth noting that the Grizz’s exclusive players are active and could very well end their careers elsewhere.
Finally, we have 11 teams with no lifers so far. Let’s find the player with the most games played only for that franchise (ordered by most games played):
-Blazers: Larry Steele, 610 games
-Magic: Pat Garrity, 552 games
-Cavaliers: Brad Daugherty, 548 games
-Bucks: Dave Meyers, 281 games (Giannis Antetokounmpo, 393 games active streak)
-Wolves: Nikola Pekovic, 271 games (Gorgui Dieng, 376 games active streak)
-Nets: Josh Boone, 256 games
-Clippers: Lancaster Gordon, 201 games
-Nuggets: Bo Ellis, 168 games (Gary Harris, 255 games active streak)
-Hornets: Tony Bennett, 152 games (Kemba Walker, 523 games active streak)
-Pelicans: No player has played at least 82 games with franchise and not played elsewhere besides current drafted players (Anthony Davis, 410 games active streak)
-Raptors: No player has played at least 82 games with franchise and not played elsewhere besides current drafted players (Jonas Valanciunas, 440 games active streak)
This is not an inspiring list. Daugherty was a really good player whose career was ended prematurely by a back injury. Garrity and Steele were decent role players. Most of the rest of the group are players who were draft picks who washed out or cup-of-coffee guys that never hooked on elsewhere.
At the end of the day, does having a franchise guy mean anything? On the one hand, it is worth noting that none of the 11 teams without a franchise player has won a title since the 1970s. But that appears to be a junk stat. Unless the player who spends his whole career with you is Magic or Dirk, the long tenure is mostly meaningless. For example, the Bulls have six titles but their only franchise player is Tom Boerwinkle, whose tenure has no relationship to the title era in Chicago.
The Heat could have employed several other backup forwards that last ten years instead of Haslem and probably been just as successful. Still, there is something nice about having a player for the fans to hang their hats on, as opposed to using a whole bunch of Josh Boones or Lancaster Gordons over that time.