Updated: Oct 15
The 2023 NBA season officially kicks off just weeks away from the time of posting. As the hype for the 78th season of The Association grows, we here at 4QWI are bringing you a fresh blog series where we give our takes on who is the best single player of all time from each NBA franchise.
In each installment, 4QWI members will be providing their takes. Some teams have a clear-cut GOAT in their histories, while others have a handful of contenders. Join Noah Drouin, Brett Shevlin, and Jay Rooney, along with the occasional guest, as we look at the All-Time MVPs of Every NBA Franchise. Bear in mind these are merely opinions, and not concrete listings. We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with us on social media, @4QWIHQ everywhere. And if you haven't already, check out Part 1 featuring the teams of the NBA's Atlantic Conference, and Part 2 featuring the Central Division.
Today we'll be going down to the NBA's Southeast division, made up of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards. For today's installment, our typical three panelists are joined by 4QWI member Tom Lapointe and Noah's father Dana, affectionately known as Big D. Big D has the advantage of having been alive for many of the player's runs that the others have not. Because he is old.
Anyhow, let's get into it!
First up we have the Atlanta Hawks, one of the elder statesmen franchises in the league. The Hawks have a history of generally solid success related to making it to the playoffs; winning is another story. Besides a drought between 1999 and 2007 Season, the Hawks have never gone more than five seasons in a row without a playoff berth. With that in mind, not many all-time superstars have plied their craft for the organization. There were only two real contenders for the GOAT of the Hawks organization, and despite a unanimous vote, we'd be remiss to not give an additional shoutout to Bob Pettit, one of the true superstars of the NBA from the mid 50's to mid 60's. Pettit played all 11 seasons of his career in the Hawks organization, averaging 26.4/16.2/3 on 43.6% career shooting. Notable events in his career include a Rookie of the Year-winning season with the Milwaukee Hawks before moving to St.Louis. Pettit was an 11-time All Star, two-time Scoring Champion and earned a ring in 1958 with the Hawks. Capping off with NBA 50th and 75th Anniversary Team nods make Pettit a true giant of the early days of the NBA.
Jay Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins Big D
With that, we take a look at Dominique Wilkins, whom we all chose as the GOAT of the Atlanta Hawks. Drafted 3rd overall by the Utah Jazz in 1982, Wilkins, not wanting to play for the Jazz, was traded to the Hawks just before the start of his rookie season. Being traded to the Eastern Conference meant Wilkins had to cut his teeth with the likes of Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Isiah Thomas on the other side of the court. In spite of this, Wilkins got to work quickly, averaging 175/5.8/1.6 on 49.3% shooting, landing on the 1982-1983 All-Rookie First Team. Wilkins quickly became the star player for the surging Hawks team, helping them make the playoffs six times in seven years, but unfortunately the Hawks were knocked out in the first or second round each year by either the Celtics (3 times), Bucks (2 times) or Pistons (1 time).
Although playoff success didn't get to where he wanted to be, Wilkins individually excelled. In 11.5 seasons with the Hawks, Wilkins averaged 26.4/6.9/2.6 on 46.7% shooting. Further, Wilkins tacked on 9 straight All Star seasons representing Atlanta, and seven All-NBA appearances, including First Team in 1986, Second Team in 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1993 and Third Team in 1989 and 1994. In the middle of the 1993-94 season, Wilkins was traded by the then-36-16 Hawks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning. As of writing, this is still the only time in NBA History a first place team has traded their leading scorer after the All Star break. Wilkins' time with Atlanta ended suddenly and with conflicting views as to why the trade happened in the first place. However, for keeping the Hawks a perennial playoff contender and providing over a decade of top tier scoring, Wilkins makes a tremendous case as the GOAT of the entire Hawks franchise. For his efforts, Wilkins was rightfully named to the NBA 75th Anniversary team after being famously snubbed from the 50th Anniversary squad in 1996.
Here we have the Charlotte Hornets: a tumultuous franchise that has existed in varying capacities throughout the decades, and the first of three teams we'll be talking about today that was incorporated in the late 1980's. The confusing, interweaving relationship between the current Hornets, the past Bobcats, the New Orleans Hornets, and the current New Orleans Pelicans is too much to explain here, but for our purposes, we are considering any team that WAS or is currently called the Charlotte Bobcats or Charlotte Hornets and the players that graced those rosters. The past New Orleans Hornets share lineage with the current New Orleans Pelicans, so when we get to the NBA Southwest division in a few weeks, we will revisit this then. Got it? Hopefully. Not even sure if we do.
Kemba Walker Big D
Glen Rice earned one vote from our panel. Spending just three years in Charlotte, Rice made the most of it with three dynamite seasons that also included playoff success for the Hornets in the 1990s. Those three years in Charlotte included 23.5/4.4/2.4 splits on 46.9% shooting, and these stellar stats lended to Rice's only three All Star appearances, all while missing just six regular season games in those seasons. The peak team success Rice enjoyed in Charlotte was in the 1997-1998 season, wherein they advanced to the second round before losing to the eventual NBA Champion Chicago Bulls in 5.
Earning one vote also was Rice's teammate for one season, Larry Johnson. Selected first overall by the Hornets in the 1991 NBA draft, Johnson, nicknamed 'Grandmama', took home the 1992 Rookie of the Year award averaging 19.2/11/3.6. Johnson went on to spend exactly half of his 10 year NBA career with the Hornets from 1991 to 1996. In that time, the 6'7, 250 lb Power Forward was a consistently productive presence, sporting 19.6/9.5/4.1 splits on 49.6% shooting in five seasons in Charlotte. For his efforts, he earned two All Star nods in 1993 and 1995. The 1993 season also included Johnson earning an All-NBA Second Team selection. Playoff success was minimal but included a second round appearance in 1993, where Johnson and the Hornets were eliminated by the Knicks in five. Johnson went over to the Miami Heat for the 1996-1997 season, and spent the remainder of his career there.
Earning three votes is Kemba Walker, and this is where we need to remind you that the Charlotte Bobcats lineage does indeed align with the current Charlotte Hornets. Selected out of UConn 9th overall in 2011, Walker began his career as a Bobcat and was unfortunately part of the Bobcats roster that 7-59 in the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 NBA season, and was definitely slow to start, averaging 12.1(3rd most on team) on just 36.6% shooting. Walker took a huge leap in his Sophomore season, becoming the leading scorer on the Bobcats (17.7 ppg) and improved his field goal percentage to 42.3%: a huge jump that was an extremely encouraging sign for the Bobcats, who made the playoffs in 2014 off a 43-39 record. Despite a sweep by the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat, this was quite a three-season turnaround for Charlotte from Kemba's draft day to that playoff appearance.
The Bobcats take on the Hornets name going into the next season and Walker would go on to be a fixture of Charlotte for the remainder of his time there. In 8 seasons in Charlotte, Walker would average 19.8/3.8/5.5 on 41.8% shooting. His final season in Charlotte would prove to be his best, starting all 82 games and averaging a career best 25.6 ppg, good for 11th in the entire league and a spot on the All-NBA Third Team; all of which would lead to a sign and trade deal that landed him with the Boston Celtics, ending his time in Charlotte. Those 8 years included three straight All Star appearances as a Hornet and two playoff appearances for a franchise that had been in the doldrums for quite a while. The Hornets to date have not made it to the playoffs since Kemba was a part of the team.
Next we have the Miami Heat, a franchise that has only missed the playoffs 11 times since its inaugural season in 1988, and in this span has boasted some of the best players of all time en route to three total NBA Championships, and only two men were present on all three Heat championship runs: Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade.
Unanimously, the panel selected Shooting Guard Dwayne Wade as the greatest Heat player of all time. Wade was selected 5th overall out of Marquette in the legendary 2003 NBA Draft and immediately made his mark landing on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Wade went on to find playoff success almost immediately, when he and costar Shaquille O'Neal (more on him later in this article) captured the 2006 NBA Championship and Wade earned the Finals MVP in a 6-game series over the Dallas Mavericks. This happened in just his third season in the NBA, and despite that, Wade would average 27.2/5.7/6.7 on a highly efficient 49.5% shooting average. Wade would go on to spend 15 total seasons in Miami, and in that time earned three total NBA Championships, a scoring championship in 2009, and eight All-NBA team selections including First Team honors in 2009 and 2010 and in total, 13 All Star appearances.
The addition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the early 2010s led to increased team success for Miami at the cost of individual production from Wade, as he was not needed to carry from a statistical standpoint anymore. Wade boasts 22.7/4.7/5.6 splits on a sterling 48.3% shooting with all of his years in Miami accounted for. Wade goes down as likely the third-best Shooting Guard in NBA History, possibly the best shot-blocking guard ever, a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary team and undisputably the greatest player in Miami Heat History.
Up next is the Orlando Magic: another relatively new NBA franchise. Established in 1989, the Magic have had mixed results to say the least. However, the two men the panel bring up today are both responsible for leading the Magic to their two NBA Finals appearances in 1995 and 2009 respectively.
Jay Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal Big D
First, yours truly voted for Dwight Howard. Drafted first overall straight out of high school in 2004, Dwight Howard made an immediate impact in Orlando, averaging a double double on 12.0/10.0 stats along with 1.7 blocks per game, good enough for the NBA All-Rookie First Team. After three straight losing seasons out the gate, Howard and the Magic found playoff success heading into the late 2000's, culiminating in an NBA Finals berth in 2009 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite losing the series in five games, it was certainly an encouraging time in Orlando, and was oddly reminiscent of another big man making the team a title contender again. An Eastern Conference Finals venture followed the next season in 2010, but the Magic lost to the Celtics in six.
This ascension for the Magic directly coincided with Howard's ascension as one of the best big men and defensive players in the entire NBA. Six straight All Star appearances also led to five straight All-NBA First Team nods for Howard between 2008 and 2012 and three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009 to 2011. In 8 seasons and 621 regular season games with the Magic, Howard was a statistical monster on both sides of the ball: 18.4/13.0/1.5/1.0/2.2 on 57.7% shooting. In his final season in Orlando, Howard averaged 20.6 points per game and grabbed a career high 14.5 boards per game. Contention with the front office in Orlando led to Howard departing from the organization for the Lakers prior to the 2012-2013 season. Despite not quite having made it to the mountaintop in Orlando, Howard is one of the longer-tenured members of the All-Time Magic roster and was undoubtedly one of the best players in the entire NBA during his time there. Looking back, it is sad to think that Howard and the Magic left so much on the table together.
The four other members of the panel selected the first true superstar of the Orlando Magic's entire history: the one and only Shaquille O'Neal. Going 70-176 in its first three seasons as an organization, the Magic found themselves with the sought-after first overall pick for the 1992 NBA Draft; a pick in which they selected the LSU product O'Neal without hesitation. To say Shaq's rookie season is one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever is almost an understatement: O'Neal hit the scene and put the NBA on notice with a 23.4/13.9 season while including a juicy 3.5 blocks per game. Shaq and the Magic turned the franchise's fortunes around in short order and capitalized on Michael Jordan's first retirement by finding themselves in the NBA Finals in 1995, Shaq's third season. The Magic would go on to be swept by the Rockets and fellow legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon, and despite the upsetting outcome, the team was 21-61 just three seasons ago so there was so much to build off of for the squad. Along with costar Penny Hardaway, O'Neal and the Magic seemed primed to be the team of the future in the NBA.
The following season saw the Magic win 60 games: a franchise record that still stands today. Unfortunately, this aligned with the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls winning a then-NBA record 72 games in the regular season. Dominating the Eastern Conference in tandem while staring each other down the whole season, Orlando and Chicago met in the Eastern Conference finals, where the Magic got swept out of the playoffs a second year in a row. The Bulls, of course, went on to win the NBA Championship. Shaq would then go to the Lakers and make history there. In just four seasons with Orlando, Shaq averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game on 58.1% shooting: immediately proving that he was going to be a force in the NBA for years to come. To do so in Orlando was not to be, but Shaq almost singlehandedly put the new expansion team on the map and introduced himself as the heir apparent to the sport of basketball for the next decade to come while in a Magic jersey; for that, he makes a great case as the best Magic player of all time.
Finally for today's installment, we have the Washington Wizards. Established in 1961 as the Chicago Packers, the present-day Wizards have seen many amazing talents grace their courts throughout the years, though only has one NBA Championship to their name. Two out of three players our panel voted for were part of that team.
Gilbert Arenas Big D
Tom casted his vote for Mr. Gilbert Arenas, a mainstay of the 2000’s Wizards teams. The 6’4, 190 lb Point Guard couldn’t be more different in stature and style than the two other Wizards players we’ve yet to mention, but carved out a legacy in the franchise worthy of a spot on this list. Drafted with the 31st pick by the Golden State Warriors in the 2001 NBA Draft, Arenas’s career began in earnest, averaging 10.9 points per game in his rookie season. He then took a big leap his sophomore season in 2002-2003, jumping to 18.3 points per game on 43.1% shooting along with 4.7 rebounds and 6.3 assist per game: culminating in Arenas being recognized with the Most Improved Player Award in 2003. Following this, Arenas landed in Washington to begin his third season, where he played an integral part in the Wizard’s offense and took a particular liking to the three point shot, attempting 6.1 per game, up from 3.8 the previous season in Golden State. The increase in three balls per game coincided with a big improvement in three point efficiency as well, as Arenas shot up to 37.5% from 34.8% the previous season.
Arenas’s second season in Washington and fourth in the league was his true breakout campaign, where he averaged 25.5 points per game, earning his first All Star appearance and a spot on the All-NBA Third Team to boot. Arenas would repeat these same accomplishments in 2005-2006, this time dropping 29.3 points per game on 44.7% shooting, the second highest in his career next to his rookie season. Arenas third straight and final All Star season occurred in the 2006-2007 season, wherein he averaged 28.4/4.6/6.0 along with 1.9 steals on 41.8% shooting. In terms of playoff success, Arenas and the Wizards had several competitive seasons but were not able to outlast other juggernauts of the decade such as the Cavaliers and Heat. The best showing Arenas’s Wizards team had was in the 2004-2005 season where they advanced to the second round of the playoffs but lost to the Heat in a four game sweep. All told, Arenas averaged 25.0/4.2/5.7 on 42.2% shooting as a Wizard. His exit from the team was encapsulated in controversy and his descent in the sport of basketball was just as quick as his climb up to be one of the NBA's leading scorers for half of the 2000s.
Next is Elvin Hayes, who earned two votes as the Wizards' MVP. Hayes spent nine of his 16 professional seasons with the then-Bullets across three different cities. Taking on the Power Forward position after having played the first seasons of his career as a Center for the San Diego/Houston Rockets, Hayes excelled statistically. In those 9 seasons, Hayes averaged 21.3/12.7 on 45.8% shooting, and also included 1.1 steals and 2.4 blocks per game. Such good play landed him eight straight All Star appearances from 1973 to 1980, and three appearances on the All-NBA First Team in 1975, 1977 and 1979, and three Second Team nods in 1973, 1974 and 1976.
"The Big E" was also an integral part of the Washington Bullets team that took home the 1978 NBA Championship as an unlikely 8th seed that finished the regular season with just a 44-38 record, which remains the "worst" record for an NBA Championship team. For his part in this championship run, Hayes led the entire NBA in playoff points scored and win shares, and he led the Bullets in points scored and total rebounds in the NBA Finals, finishing the 4-3 series win over the SuperSonics with averages of 20.7/11.9 along with 2.0 blocks per game over the seven-game series. Despite such a stellar performance, the Finals MVP Award would go to Hayes' teammate, whom we'll meet shortly. Elvin Hayes goes down as one of the most underappreciated players in the history of the NBA, and has been given his due as a selection for the NBA's 50th and 75th Anniversary teams. "The Big E" remains a legend in both Washington and Houston lore for his contribution.
And the final player we have to discuss today is Wes Unseld, another man who was part of the 1978 Bullets improbable NBA title run. Unseld, being just 6'7, was ceded the Center role by Elvin Hayes upon his arrival, and despite giving up two inches to Hayes, this was not without cause. Unseld goes down as one of the great rebounders of NBA history, and is ranked seventh all time in total rebounds per game, with a clean 14.0 average to his name. Selected second overall by the Baltimore Bullets in 1968, Unseld spent his entire career with the team, good for 13 seasons. From a hardware srandpoint, Unseld had one of the most lucrative rookie years in the history of the NBA, becoming the second person in NBA history after Wilt Chamberlain to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Unseld finished the 1968-1969 campaign averaging 13.8 points per game and 18.2 rebounds per game on 47.6% shooting. Though never an offensive monster, Unseld held his own when it came to contributing through the hoop and averaged 10.8 points on a solid 50.8% average. Over his career with the Bullets, Unseld was selected to the All-NBA First Team in his rookie season, and was a five-time All Star 1969, 1971-1973 and 1975. We mentioned earlier that a man other than Elvin Hayes took home the 1978 NBA Finals MVP trophy, and that man was Wes Unseld himself. In his tenth season with the Bullets, Unseld showed poise in the tough Finals matchup against the Sonics, averaging 9.0/11.7/3.9 on 52% shooting.