Card collecting always evolves. Every generation has a different way of determining which cards are the ones to have. In the past, nothing was as exceptional as a complete set. But times have changed, and as collectors focus on rarer inserts it leaves many unwanted common cards. That can provide an opportunity for collectors who aren’t hung up on the autographs, relics and parallels to acquire cheap basketball card sets that offer a nice representation of the NBA during a particular season.
A collector can buy sets that have already been completed, open a few low-priced boxes and do it the old-fashioned way or even buy factory sets that were issued for some products. You can consider sets that were considered game-changers when they first appeared or those that represent a famous year in the NBA or maybe those that are filled with great rookie classes.
Vintage basketball cards and sets were very inexpensive back in the 1970s and 80s but began to rise as Michael Jordan propelled the league to new heights. Card sets in the late 1970s and early 1980s remain very affordable, except for the 1980-81 set that has the Bird-Magic rookie card that also features Julius Erving.
Since the players featured in the 1981-82 Topps set were more of a part of the big NBA boom a decade later, it could be the cheap set from that time for collectors to consider. The rookie cards include Kevin McHale and dunking Darrell Griffith who used to catch passes from John Stockton in Utah. There are a bunch of future Bad Boys too. Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Rick Mahorn have their first NBA cards in this set. Best of all, there are also multiple cards of superstars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the unique ‘regional’ distribution of the cards that make up the master set. You can own a very nice set for $75 or less.
1989-90 Hoops was all about one thing when it arrived: the David Robinson rookie card. It was the start of a new era. Instead of just the one basketball card set from Fleer there were now two available. Card collectors at the time were happy to have choices when it came to buying packs. A complete set of 352 cards from the Hoops debut set will sell today for less than The Admiral’s rookie did back in the day. Fans of the new expansion teams may also enjoy this set, and how far their team has come since those times. The Heat and Hornets had been in the NBA for one season and cards of the Timberwolves and Magic have a special note on the front indicating it was their first season. A complete set of Series 1 and 2 with both Robinson rookie cards is under $20.
When Upper Deck entered the world of basketball cards they took the hobby to another level. It must have been a simpler time as people were amazed by the little Upper Deck hologram on the back of each card. There are 500 cards in the 1991-92 set, for Series 1 and Series 2, and while it took opening many packs back then to complete the set they are nearly given away now. With so many cards in the set, which was usual for those times, a collector will learn a lot about the NBA and the teams that were challenging the Bulls for supremacy of the league during Michael Jordan’s prime. Factory and hand-collated sets can be had for under $10.
When 1993-94 Topps Finest appeared it was just as big for collectors as when Exquisite arrived a decade later. There are some who focus on the sometimes pricey Refractors to have a complete set but the more affordable base set is also worth pursuing. There are 220 cards and some of the rookies include Penny Hardaway, Chris Webber and Toni Kukoc. Bird and Jordan also have cards in the set although they were not on NBA courts that year. Complete sets are under $35 with Refractor sets of 220 cards usually going for $700 and up.
1996-97 E-X2000 is one of the smaller sets from the year that Kobe and other stars of the day made their NBA debut. The base set is only 82 cards but it includes a design unlike any other up to that time with a sort of clear background for the player picture. Some of the rookies with cards in the E-X2000 set are Bryant, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. Some of the veteran superstars are Jordan, Pippen, Kemp, Payton, Hardaway and Dennis Rodman. Complete sets usually sell for $60-100.
The 1998 NBA Draft added some exciting superstars to the NBA and then right after that there was a lockout. The shortened season did impact the hobby but eventually the rookies in their NBA uniforms would be pictured in games on cards. 1998-99 Black Diamond was an exciting new card release back then. It was also somewhere to find a Vince Carter rookie, who was thought to be the heir to Air as Jordan had just retired. Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, they all had rookie cards that collectors wanted. There was also a Michael Olowokandi rookie card, which was not very popular. The base set is around $25.
Every now and then the card companies go back to the past and forget about the glossy finish and gold foil and just use old-fashioned cardboard. 2001-02 Topps Heritage is one set to consider. Rookie cards of Shane Battier, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker are there plus card #264, the last in the set, is Michael Jordan. Based on the 1974-75 Topps set, the cards have full NBA statistics and the funny cartoons Topps used to have in the past. Heritage and Hoops didn’t last long so this is a nice recollection of when a popular brand was featured in basketball and those who remember the 1970s Topps basketball sets should appreciate it. Full sets are $75-100 on eBay.
The 2003-04 season was all about the arrival of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Kirk Hinrich, Chris Kaman, David West and even Darko Milicic. A set from this season is a way to remember the famous draft class. 2003-04 Topps is an affordable set and has a name that many card collectors know. There are some excellent pictures of in-game action, lots of statistics on the backs of the cards and the LeBron rookie card in the set shows him holding up a Cavs jersey while wearing his bright, white suit. A 265-card factory set and hand collated sets are usually under $50.
Upper Deck collectors will want to consider their last NBA set (at least for the time being), which was produced in 2009-10. It has 295 cards, with retired stars as well as the best active players and a lot of rookies from that NBA season, although you can purchase a set with base and rookies only.
You’ll find Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry have rookie cards in the set. Many of the photographs are action shots with players attacking the basket. James’ card shows him about to score two with a two-handed dunk and the Kevin Durant card with a picture from above shows him about to slam it down.
2012-13 Totally Certified is a recent set to consider. Produced the year after the lockout, it was issued during the year of the ‘double rookie class’. Some collectors open Certified products to find the low-numbered parallel cards, especially the Green and Gold, so there are plenty of common cards around for those who prefer the basics.
A recent trend by Panini has been to start each new season with Hoops. One incentive that card collectors have to open lots of Hoops boxes, apart from the lower price compared to most other Panini releases, is the inclusion of the first NBA autographed cards of that season’s rookie class. That means there are plenty of sets and lots available online for next to nothing. Set collectors also get a set that has a larger player selection than most of the other Panini brands.
Another cheap set from the present to consider is Prizm. The chrome look of the base cards has proven popular and although collectors and flippers go through plenty of packs looking for the Prizm parallels in their many different colors, the base set has a high-end look to it because of the Prizm technology. Fans with an appreciation for the past and present like that Prizm sets contain a mix of stars, rookies and retired players. The 2013-14 set had a diverse checklist of players that included LeBron James and Kevin Love, rookie cards of Michael Carter-Williams and Kelly Olynyk and retired legends Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen and even little Muggsy Bogues and very tall Manute Bol. Base sets are often available on eBay for under $50.