It’s a term of endearment to recognize those whose loyalty is enduring.
It’s the term that the Miami Heat applied to Dwyane Wade — and he applied to himself — prior to leaving the franchise for the Bulls this summer after 13 seasons, following a contract dispute in which he felt disrespected. It’s a term that could have been applied to Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose in Chicago, and Al Horford in Atlanta, and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City (by way of Seattle), but not anymore.
It’s a term that was appropriate for Kobe Bryant with the Lakers and Tim Duncan with the Spurs before each retired this offseason, after 20 and 19 seasons, respectively.
It’s a term that still applies to Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, as he enters his 19th season, with a two-year contract.
But it’s also a term that can be used so rarely that it emphasizes how few relationships in the NBA are truly long term. That’s what CBSSports.com found as we tried to identify the “Lifer” for each NBA team, with only one qualification:
The player cannot have played a single minute (or in Durant’s case, even signed a contract to play) for any other NBA franchise.
There aren’t as many of those guys as you might think. As we go through each team’s ultimate loyalist, we’ll start with the obvious ones, the Hall of Famers and other luminaries, and make our way down to the surprises, of which there’s a surplus, since there weren’t a surplus of options.
Los Angeles Lakers
- Magic Johnson
Like Hotel California, it’s the place you never leave. The Lakers are so deep in players with deep, and unbroken, connections that two Hall of Fame forwards, Elgin Baylor (14 seasons) and James Worthy (12), don’t crack the top three. Rather, it’s between Bryant (20), Jerry West (14) and Johnson (13), and the Showtime conductor’s transformative impact on the NBA puts him ahead of either the Mamba or the Logo.
- Larry Bird
It has been relatively rare for a star to bounce from Beantown. The Celtics can solely claim John Havlicek (16), Bill Russell (14), Kevin McHale (13) and Sam Jones (12), among others, and any might be the Lifer for another franchise. But it can’t be anyone but Bird (13), even if he’s really a Hick from French Lick, and has spent his days after playing in coach and executive roles for the Indiana Pacers.
- Reggie Miller
To think, Pacers fans wanted Steve Alford instead. This was among the easier selections, as the UCLA product made his share of magical moments over 18 seasons. Rik Smits earns honorable mention, but even the Dunking Dutchman wouldn’t expect to split the honors with one of the NBA’s clutch kings.
- John Stockton
The premier pick-and-roll point guard becomes the easy pick, largely because Karl Malone rolled out to Los Angeles for mercenary duty, a forgettable conclusion to a Hall of Fame career. Nineteen seasons of assists, steals and short shorts.
- Dirk Nowitzki
When his draft rights were acquired from Milwaukee — for Robert “Tractor” Traylor — and then he struggled early, it appeared the Mavericks had made a major mistake. But that one-legged jumper is still silky, nearly two decades later.
San Antonio Spurs
- Tim Duncan
The most consistent player of his era, and the easy choice, even with Hall of Fame competition. In 19 seasons, Duncan never played for a team with under a .610 winning percentage, many of those seasons with fellow (but not quite equal) Lifers like David Robinson (14 seasons), Tony Parker (entering 16th season) and Manu Ginobili (entering 15th season).
- Isiah Thomas
The fiery face of the Pistons’ franchise beats out his cool backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, even though Dumars played one more season (14) than Thomas did. Neither played for anyone else.
- Julius Erving
Sure, he was a Virginia Pilot and a New York Net in the ABA, but forget that. He was a 76ers Lifer in the NBA, for 11 floating, slamming seasons, and that’s enough to put him ahead of Hal Greer, who played for that franchise’s predecessor (Syracuse) before moving with it to Philadelphia in 1963.
- Wes Unseld
The rugged rebounder (14.0 per game) never represented the Wizards name, but he was a Baltimore Capital and Washington Bullet for 13 seasons. He had only one season in which he averaged fewer than 10.7 boards.
New York Knicks
- Willis Reed
Bill Bradley gives a better political speech, but Reed had the bigger numbers and the biggest moment among those who only played for the Knicks. Poor Patrick Ewing would be the guy, if not for those unfortunate Seattle and Orlando stops.
- Bob Pettit
OK, he never played for Atlanta. But the forward did accompany this map-crossing franchise from Milwaukee to St. Louis. He won the first NBA MVP award. And he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Golden State Warriors
- Paul Arizin
Surely there will be no shortage of outrage over this selection, given that some guy named Stephen Curry, with his two MVPs, all-time 3-point record and NBA championship, is a Warriors Lifer. But he’s not in the Hall of Fame yet, and Arizin is, having been inducted in 1978. Arizin was a Warrior well before they moved to the Bay Area, playing 12 seasons for the franchise in Philadelphia, where he averaged just under 23 points and nine boards for his career while posting a 108.8 win share mark by today’s metrics. By comparison, Curry’s career win share is 71.6.
Still, assuming Curry signs his next deal to remain in Golden State, which we have no reason to believe he won’t, Arizin’s name won’t be on this list for long.
- Calvin Murphy
Just 5-foot-9, and yet the colorful guard stands out here, playing five more seasons than the 7-6 Yao Ming (eight, prior to career-ending injury). Rudy Tomjanovich (11 seasons) is notable too, with two titles as a head coach, but Murphy edges him. Hakeem Olajuwon? Too bad he played in Toronto.
Another who played in the ABA, spending his last season there with Denver, before the franchise joined the more established league, where he played all of his NBA seasons with the Nuggets.
While franchises tend to associate — and be associated — most closely with their stars, not every organization was able to keep its premier player for that player’s entire career. In a way, it’s even more remarkable when a solid role player can stick around a while, because it speaks to that player’s locker room presence, outlasting more talented teammates.
The Old Standbys
- Brad Daugherty
The center was the No. 1 overall pick and he made five All-Star teams in eight seasons, but this should have been someone else, had LeBron James not taken his talents to South Beach. James happened to take Zydrunas Ilgauskas with him to Miami too, thus eliminating Big Z from this huge honor.
- Udonis Haslem
After the Wade debacle, Haslem, a three-time NBA champion, is the last man standing in Miami. Now entering his 14th season, he’s had more than 100 teammates, and all have been frightened to cross him. He’s so revered in South Florida that he’s considered Mr. 305 even when his house is in the 954 area code.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Russell Westbrook
Thanks to Durant’s decision to bolt, Westbrook sits atop this list. He’s clearly the best Thunder player to have never signed a contract with another franchise, but remember, this franchise was once the Seattle SuperSonics, and in Seattle the best guy was “Downtown” Freddie Brown (13 seasons), a long-range, streak shooter extraordinaire.
Of course, if you want the one player that stretches across both franchises, it’s Nick Collison, who is still setting professional picks — though mostly in practice — after four seasons in Seattle and eight in Oklahoma City.
- Alvan Adams
It’s odd how few standouts stick around one of the NBA’s preferred homes, which has a reasonably rich winning history. And yet the only Sun who has played double-figure seasons, without playing for anyone else, is the alliterative Alvan Adams, who played 13 years in the desert and averaged 14.1 points.
- Jack Twyman
A six-time All-Star who never played as a King in Sacramento, or even Kansas City, but did average 19 points for the Rochester and Cincinnati Royals from 1955 to 1965. In the current era, no one comes to mind, though DeMarcus Cousins has already outlasted six coaches in six seasons, so maybe Mr. Mercurial is inching closer to being our man.
- Mike Conley
The NBA’s first $30 million man (per season) gets the edge over Marc Gasol because he’s played one more season (entering 10th) than the skilled center. Now he just needs to make his first All-Star team.
- Brook Lopez
This could change any minute but, for now, the current Nets center is the closest thing this franchise has had to a legit Lifer. And with no Lifer on the horizon, with the Celtics seemingly picking in Brooklyn’s spot until the end of the century, he could be here for a while if he isn’t dealt. But that’s a big if.
Unfortunately, not every franchise can claim a legit Lifer, particularly ones that haven’t been very good in the free-agent era. If you don’t win, players move on. Particularly the good ones. And oftentimes, you;re left with someone you’ve never heard of as the portrait of franchise loyalty — or maybe worse, a guy who’s only been around a few years.
Portland Trail Blazers
- Larry Steele
Who? Well, it can’t be Clyde Drexler (who got his title in Houston), Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter or LaMarcus Aldridge, and too many guys (including Brandon Roy) got hurt before playing enough. So it’s Steele, a noted defensive specialist who averaged 8.2 points during nine Blazers-only seasons in the 1970s.
- Larry Sanders
Yes, he stepped away from the team and game in 2015. No, Milwaukee won’t be producing a tribute video if he returns with someone else. But he’s one of only two players in franchise history, out of 37, who played at least five seasons without playing for another team. The other is someone named Mickey Davis.
Sorry Oscar Robertson, Sidney Moncreif (probably the most recognizable Buck) and Lew Alcindor.
- Tom Boerwinkle
Of course. The bullish center who averaged nine rebounds over the course of his careers. It had to be, based on team monogamy and longevity, because while Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen lead the red and black in seasons played, their lives also led them to Washington, Houston and Portland. So Air Boerwinkle it is.
- DeMar DeRozan
The only Toronto player in the organization’s history dating back to 1995 who has played at least seven seasons without playing for anyone else. The big surprise is that he chose to stay, after other Raptors stars (Chris Bosh, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady) bolted.
- Ricky Rubio
Can we pretend Kevin Garnett never picked pretend fights with anyone while in Celtics green? If not, the default choice is the Spanish point guard who never wanted to be in Minnesota in the first place, but is now the only player to spend all of his seasons (minimum five) in the franchise’s employ.
- Elfrid Payton
How bereft was this list for a franchise that has now existed for nearly three decades? Pat Garrity would have been the guy, if not for spending his first season in Phoenix. Payton is entering his third season. But everyone else who has played more has played for another team, too.
- Kemba Walker
What to make of this mess, with the original Hornets leaving for New Orleans in 2002, before becoming the Pelicans in 2013, and the Bobcats starting in Charlotte in 2004, then taking back Hornets history in 2014? Walker’s entering his fifth season. That makes him the only player in Charlotte NBA history to get to five without playing elsewhere. So, sure.
New Orleans Pelicans
- Anthony Davis
He’s entering his fourth season. That’s three seasons longer than he was at Kentucky. So the Lifer title is his. The league might be his someday, too, health and teammates permitting. Though he may not be playing for this franchise by then.
Los Angeles Clippers
- DeAndre Jordan
It couldn’t be anyone else. Really. It can’t be. Oh, maybe he changed his mind during the free agent moratorium and had to barricade himself in a house to keep the Mavericks from changing it back. But he’s legitimately the only appropriate Lifer for one of the NBA’s least historically stable franchises. This season will be his ninth, more than anyone has been a Clipper without experiencing anything else. He strayed, yet stayed. In the modern NBA, that may be the truest test of loyalty.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Magic, Bird and … Udonis? Best single-franchise player for each NBA team