The Case For and Against Three 50/50 Jersey Retirements
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1
With the Boston Celtics holding their jersey retirement ceremony for Kevin Garnett earlier this week, my thoughts were turned to the greatest honour a team can bestow upon a player – hanging their jersey in the rafters and honouring it by forbidding any future player for the franchise suiting up with the same number for the rest of time.
There is, and rightfully so, a high threshold to reach for anyone to receive this honour. Garnett may not have played his entire career with the Celtics, but due to resetting the culture of the franchise after several seasons of mediocrity prior to his arrival, Garnett got the tick of approval from Celtics administrators and fans. Oh yea, he also bought a Championship to the team in 2008 – something that never hurts your case.
I wanted to take a look at the case for and against three potential jersey retirements, and give my verdict on whether they actually happen when these players are eligible for the honour.
Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder
To say this will be a controversial decision when the time comes would be an understatement.
For all the good Durant accomplished while with Oklahoma City, his decision to leave the franchise and join up with the record setting 73-9 Golden State Warriors following the 2015-16 season will be arguably what he is remembered for most. The fact the Warriors were the team that eliminated the Thunder from the 2016 Playoffs rubs salt into the wound too. What remains undisputable, however, is the player he was while with the team.
Drafted by the Seattle Supersonics (who later became the Thunder) second overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, Durant’s career started with a bang, winning Rookie of The Year honours and quickly rising to become one of the league’s elite scorers. He lead the league in scoring four times while wearing a Thunder jersey, including three consecutive seasons from 2010-2012, in addition to racking up multiple All-Star appearances, an All-Star game MVP and numerous All-NBA First Team honours during that stretch.
During that same stretch, Durant lead the franchise to the NBA Finals in 2012, and despite losing to the Miami Heat and their big three, averaged 30 points per game on better than 50% shooting. He was, in fact, arguably the best player in that series despite playing on the losing side and the Thunder losing the series in just five games.
Durant was the undisputed leader of the Thunder during his time there, and won the 2014 MVP. Credit: Jesse D Garrabrant via Getty images
Following a losing Finals appearance, in 2014, Durant took home the most coveted individual award in basketball, judged as the Most Valuable Player in the association that season. He also lead the team in win shares each season from 2008-09 up until he left at the end of 2016 with one exception – the 2014-15 season in which he only played 27 games due to injury.
In terms of where he is sitting amongst all Thunder players in history, Durant ranks top-two in most categories. He’s second in points, rebounds, assist, steals and blocks, while taking out the top gong for three-pointers made. He also owns four of the top-ten scoring games in franchise history (the other six belong to former teammate Russell Westbrook)
It’s hard to know which was this one goes to be honest. Durant’s achievements while with the Thunder make him more than deserving of having his jersey retired, but the way he left the franchise and the animosity of fans towards him cast a shadow about his legacy with the team he is yet to (and seems uninterested in) stepping out of. It’s also worth noting that former teammate Russell Westbrook has similar honours and left the team under far better circumstances.
IF the Thunder retire his jersey, and I ultimately don’t think they will, it will have to be after Westbrook and at that point, you’ve already remembered that period of time in the team’s history with someone who is still beloved by fans.
Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers
The way things ended for Griffin in Los Angeles was unfortunate.
Ultimately traded mere months after re-signing with the franchise to continue being it’s face under the promise of a jersey retirement during an off-season pitch, Griffin’s departure may have accelerated the rebuild and lead to the version of the Clippers we see now, but it wasn’t a good look.
Nonetheless, Griffin arrived in Los Angeles to the Clippers with the first overall pick in 2009, only to injure his knee-cap in the pre-season and subsequently miss his entire rookie season. The wait was well worth it though, with Griffin winning Rookie of The Year honours in 2010, taking out the Dunk Contest and becoming an All-Star (the first rookie to do so since Shaquille O’Neal) in his first campaign.
Blake Griffin’s (32) high-flying style of play helped make the LA Clippers relevant across the league. Credit: Ballislife.com
This set the tongues of LA wagging with anticipation of what might become in the years ahead. While Griffin and the team failed to make any substantial gains in terms of wins, the culture and perception of the Clippers began to change and with the infamous trade that landed Chris Paul in a Clipper uniform in 2011, Griffin’s career soared to new heights.
Between 2011-2015, Griffin achieved six All-Star selections and made a total of five All-NBA teams, in addition to finishing third in MVP voting during the 2013-2014 season. Those achievements on their own may not stack up to some others around the league who have had their jerseys retired, but Griffin’s contribution was far greater than anything felt on the court.
Put simply, he made the team relevant. He made them must watch viewing during his first few seasons in the league and when Paul arrived in Los Angeles, he formed a duo on par with Stockton and Malone or Payton and Kemp which not only kept eyes on screens and bums on seats, but he did it while helping the team rocket up the standings. He was also the main reason behind the cultural phenomenon “Lob City”, the moniker those Paul and Griffin teams went by for several seasons.
After Chris Paul left the franchise via trade, Griffin became the undisputed leader of the team. Credit: Josh Leftowitz via Getty Images.
When Paul left via trade to Houston, Griffin remained the undisputed face of the franchise and took on a leadership role on-court before he was blindsided by a trade that sent him to Detroit. There were many
uncomfortable moments in the months that followed between Griffin and the franchise, including this infamous incident in which he snubbed Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer in his first meeting against LA with Detroit, but he remains a fan favourite in spite of this.
Griffin represented everything that changed with the Clippers from the time he was drafted until the time he left. The team became relevant and more than a punch line across the city and the league. He is a major reason why Chris Paul, who may go down as the greatest point guard to ever play the game, agreed to go to the Clippers. He helped navigate the team out of the Donald Sterling era and helped usher in the Steve Ballmer era which is the foundation for the franchises current successes.
Griffin may not have been perfect as a player, and he was often injured throughout his Clippers tenure. His play overrides any grievances though and I’d fully expect the Clippers to retire his jersey as they promised during the 2017 off-season.
The real question is whether he is still bitter towards the franchise, or whether he has moved on and will let the fans celebrate his career in Los Angeles?
Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
This is probably the potential jersey retirement that intrigues me the most.
After being drafted by Indiana with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Leonard was quickly traded to the San Antonio Spurs and, more or less, instantly was set up to be Tim Duncan’s Heir apparent. He had all the skill, the ‘boring’ Spursian personality (sorry San Antonio fans) which placed the team above all else, and was what most would consider a perfect fit to help an aging Spurs roster.
Leonard developed nicely before a break-out 2013-2014 season saw him named to the All-Defensive Second team. In that same season, Leonard, at just 22 years of age, won Finals MVP and lead the team as they knocked off the much fancied Miami Heat, whom they had lost to in the Finals the year prior. Leonard’s performance in the Finals made him the third youngest Finals MVP ever (Magic Johnson, 1980 and 1982) and he also became just the second player in history to win Finals MVP without being an All-Star (Chauncey Billups, 2004) in the same season.
Kawhi Leonard (left) receives the Finals MVP Trophy from Bill Russell (right) during the Spurs 2014 Championship. Credit: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
This set in motion a new era in Leonard’s play, seeing him named Defensive Player of the Year the following season, and unquestionably taking the mantle from Tim Duncan as the team’s leader and best player. Spurs fans could not have been more in love with and supportive of him, and this adulation continued until the 2017-2018 season, where a quad injury in the off-season would not only temporarily derail Leonard’s career, but would fracture his relationship with the Spurs beyond repair.
Following over a season of drama with Leonard’s injury and his self-management of it (a point of contention among the Spurs front office and fans at the time), Leonard requested a trade, and was sent packing to Toronto, bringing to an end a messy chapter in Spurs basketball history.
How do you evaluate the contribution of a player who was once the face of the franchise, the heir apparent to the greatest player in the team’s history, and helped them win a Championship while becoming the third youngest Finals MVP ever? It gets even harder when you consider that, among Leonard’s years playing for the Spurs, he was twice an All-Star, twice named to the All-NBA team, a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year winner, named to the All-Defensive team four times and also lead the league in steals once.
Despite achieving so much in a short amount of time with the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard forcing his way out of the franchise when they were turning over the team to him may see the team opt to not retire his jersey. Credit: SBNation
I have a feeling the Spurs may opt not to retire Leonard’s jersey when all is said and done. While the Spurs hold themselves as a pinnacle of class and professionalism in nearly every way, they also have the highest standards for their players. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all exemplified a team-first attitude their entire careers, and never brought negative press to the franchise. Leonard on the other hand bought a negative media spotlight to the franchise though his relationship with Coach Popovich (the winning-est coach in league history) and ultimately wasted a season of his prime by sitting out when many at the franchise believed he could be playing.
It’s one thing to change the path of your career, but by leaving, Leonard changed the course of the Spurs franchise. A model of consistency for two-decades plus behind Tim Duncan, Leonard was supposed to usher in a new era as its leader. Instead, the Spurs have failed to make it out of the first round of the Playoffs since he left, and have failed to make even the Play-In game for the past two seasons.
For changing the course of the Spurs franchise, I can’t imagine the front office will forgive him and retire his jersey, even if the fans might and may call for it.
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