One of the all-time great centers, Nate Thurmond never made an All-NBA Team. That tends to happen when you play in the same era as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Walt Bellamy, and then in the same era as Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Elvin Hayes. Thurmond was always great but just a smidgen below the best centers of the era.
But that All-NBA designation was only given to two centers every year during Thurmond’s career. Not being one of the two best centers is nothing to sneeze given the talent mentioned above. Nonetheless, the man made seven All-Star Teams in his career and when All-Defensive Teams were debuted in 1969, Thurmond found himself a regular fixture. From that point until he retired in 1977, Thurmond was a five-time selection to those squads.
Defense, rebounding, and shot-blocking were the best attributes Thurmond brought to the table for the San Francisco (and then Golden State) Warriors throughout his career. During his 10 years as a starter with the club, Thurmond averaged a robust 18.5 points and a gaudy 17.5 rebounds. Blocks were first kept in his final season with the Warriors (1974) and at age 32 Thurmond was swatting three a game.
Like Chamberlain and Russell, one can only imagine just how many blocks Thurmond was getting a decade earlier as a spring chicken.
The spring was so good in Thurmond that midway through the 1964-65 season, the Warriors weren’t that heart-broken to trade Wilt Chamberlain to the Philadelphia 76ers. Thurmond and Wilt got along very well, personally, but the Warriors ball club was looking to move the expensive established star for the more inexpensive up-and-comer Thurmond.
(Thurmond would find himself in Wilt’s role a decade later.)
The Warriors, after drafting Rick Barry in the 1965 draft, recovered quickly and made the Finals in 1967 against the 76ers. Thurmond (relatively speaking) successfully guarded Chamberlain and the Warriors put up a good fight, but that Philly team was of legendary stock and won the series in six tough games.
Thurmond continued playing his heart out on defense, but the Warriors suffered from Barry’s jump to the ABA and the prime of Thurmond’s career was spent with Jeff Mullins barely lugging the Warriors into the playoffs. By the time Barry returned in the mid-1970s, Thurmond was aging and the Warriors were looking to revamp their squad.
After the 1974 season, Thurmond was traded to the Chicago Bulls, a veteran club that had for years been on the brink of making the Finals. Thurmond’s first game with the Bulls turned out to be an historic one…
On October 18, 1974, Thurmond recorded 22 points and 14 rebounds. Not surprising for Thurmond. He also swatted 12 shots, also not that unusual for Thurmond, if only we had the 1960s game logs to back it up. And he also had 13 assists. Thurmond was always a decent post passer.
Put it all together and Thurmond had accomplished the NBA’s first recorded quadruple-double.
But in the postseason, Thurmond suffered a cruel irony. In the Western Conference Finals, his new team, the Chicago Bulls, lost to his old squad, the Golden State Warriors, in a seven-game brawl of a series. The Warriors would then go on to win the NBA title. That proved to be Thurmond’s and the 70s Bulls final great year. Thurmond lasted two more seasons in the NBA between the Bulls and his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
Despite his sometimes mediocre scoring (career 42% shooting, but he had a good mid-range jumper), Thurmond was a legendary and monster defender of tremendous strength. His career didn’t quite unfold as you’d like it, always in the shadows or just missing out on a title. But Thurmond’s career still remains one of the best you could hope for.
Ditto for his fantastic beard.
Years Played: 1963 – 1977
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1969, 1971)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1972-’74)
7x All-Star (1965-’68, 1970, 1973-’74)
NBA – 964 Games
15.0 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.1 BPG, 42.1 FG%, 66.7 FT%
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1976-77 through 1989-90 season)
2nd Rebounds, 6th RPG
18th Points, 17th FGs Made
12th FTs Made
7th Blocks, 6th BPG
5th Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played