The NBA: Where Fading Away Happens…Instead of Burning Out

Yesterday, veteran center Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Boston Celtics, further cementing Shaq as one of several NBA greats who spent the twilight of their careers bouncing from team to team, only to tarnish their greatness.

People who’ve paid attention to sports over the years know plenty about athletes who prolong their careers after their abilities fade beyond recognition. So, naturally, news of O’Neal’s move to Boston brought to mind the many other NBA legends who overstayed their welcome in the league, and these legends are the focus of this Thursday’s Top.

Shaquille O’Neal

NBA seasons played: 19

NBA championships won: 4 (2000, 2001, 2003, 2006)

Salad days

Shaq took the league by storm in 1992 with the Orlando Magic, soon becoming one of the most dominant big men in the history of the sport. His forays into music and movies, as well as his corporate marketability, made him a household name long before he became an NBA champion.

Life was good in Hollywood

As the nucleus of the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led the team to three consecutive NBA championships (2000-2002). Having peaked with the Lakers, Shaq set out to play a more supporting role to younger stars as a means of building upon his legacy as one of the league’s all-time great champions. And despite a rumor-riddled exit from Los Angeles, O’Neal took his talent to South Beach and won another NBA championship with Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat.

What a bust THIS project was

Injuries and mediocrity have since dulled his career, including two seasons with the Phoenix Suns and two with LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, none of which resulting in trips to the NBA Finals. With Shaq signing with the Boston Celtics, he will most likely end his career as a washed-up reserve on a team that ultimately comes up short in the postseason. Even a championship ring with the Celtics will be marred by his role as a reserve of marginal impact, a far cry from his role as a perennial All-Star.

Bill Walton

NBA seasons played: 10

NBA championships won: 2 (1977, 1986)

Where Teen Wolf's inspiration happens

If not for the relevance of the Boston Celtics, Bill Walton wouldn’t be on this list because I do not consider him an NBA legend. Statistically, there were several pros with better careers than Bill Walton, championship rings notwithstanding (e.g. Artis Gilmore, Dominique Wilkins, Spencer Haywood).

Now he and Shaq have something in common

Although Walton didn’t really miss a beat upon entering the league as a Portland Trailblazer, his professional career didn’t flourish for long. After winning an NBA championship in 1977, the rest of his career consisted of injury-addled seasons. After spending a few seasons with the San Diego Clippers, he retired as a benchwarmer for the Larry Bird’s 1986 NBA Champion Boston Celtics.

Walton’s storied contribution to college basketball (as a record-breaking center for the UCLA Bruins) cannot be denied, but his career after Portland was far from remarkable. His place on the list of the Top 50 best NBA players of all time (as of 1996) demonstrates how his college career unjustly influenced voters to consider him as an all-time great, although his achievements paled in comparison to many of his NBA brethren not included on the list.

Dominique Wilkins

NBA seasons played: 16

NBA championships won: 0

This Air Force brat was born to fly

Speaking of worthy players left off of the Top 50 list of 1996, Dominique Wilkins could be considered the prototype of LeBron James: a terrific scorer, a spectacular dunker, a more than respectable rebounder…and plagued by having no team support to speak of.

Unfortunately for “The Human Highlight Film,” he played during an age where superstars rarely joined forces once they became the ‘it’ guy for their teams. The Miami Coup of 2010 is truly the only story element that sets Wilkins apart from LeBron James in a comparative success assessment. Still, James’s future (new most hated status aside) is now brighter than Wilkins’s. And if you followed ‘Nique at all, you know that the storybook that was his career had an atypically lackluster ending.

We know, man, we know...Boston is a terrible place

After 12 seasons as an Atlanta Hawk, never reaching the NBA Finals, Wilkins was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers (the NBA’s basement), and his descent into obscurity continued with the Boston Celtics (I’m sensing a pattern here), the San Antonio Spurs and the Orlando Magic.

Aside from his two Slam Dunk Contest wins and his World Championship win with Dream Team II, Wilkins spent a couple years abroad in search of on-court success. As the star of Panathinaikos in Greece, he won the Euroleague Championship in 1996.

Stateside, Wilkins never reclaimed the glory that he flirted with as a nine-time NBA All-Star. Alas, most NBA fans don’t remember what happened to Dominique during those final years, which isn’t to say that his story isn’t worth telling.

Patrick Ewing

NBA seasons played: 17

NBA championships won: 0

Knicks fans haven't been happy since

As a New Yorker, I must admit some bias when it comes to Patrick Ewing. I am not alone in believing that the first mistake that the Knicks organization made over the past ten years was trading Ewing to the Seattle Supersonics.

The quality of the deal is irrelevant. Frankly, it’s tough to call which team got the crappier end of the trade (if that tells you anything about it). But shipping a player out of town after 15 seasons of service is just bad karma for any professional team. Can you imagine the Indiana Pacers letting Reggie Miller leave? Of course not (and not just because some nutcake burned his house down as a threat to make him stay.)

This doesn't even look right

I don’t know if Knicks fans are crazy enough to commit felonies to keep their star players in town, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t deserve to keep Ewing at Madison Square Garden to finish out his career as any slowing, big man would: quietly and tearfully.

Not convinced, Patrick

That the Knicks only reached the NBA Finals twice (and never won) during Ewing’s time as a Knick demonstrates that he meant more to the city than winning rings. Ewing’s Knick teams were playoff mainstays with an identity of hard-nosed play and oft-maddening entertainment.

No one should be able to blame Patrick Ewing for staying with the Orlando Magic, as an assistant coach, where he ended his playing career after being run off. But all Knicks fans know that it would have been much better if Ewing had retired wearing the royal and orange. And sorry, James Dolan, retiring his jersey just doesn’t make up for it.

Meanwhile, Knicks benchwarmer Herb Williams has been on the Knicks coaching staff, enduring every coaching change since then. How often does that happen?

Moses Malone

NBA seasons played: 19

NBA championships won: 1 (1983)

Looking at a rebound that's three plays away

Moses Malone was a special player. In at least two instances, he proved the exception to the rule in the NBA. He was only the fifth player to go directly from high school to the pros, and perhaps the only one of those five to demonstrate that the transition could be a good idea. In large part, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James have Malone and his success to thank for the age minimum not being instated sooner.

At least his game made up for that ugly uniform

Malone spent his longest tenures with the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers, winning a championship in Philly. With stops in Washington and Atlanta, Malone made strong contributions to all of the teams he played for from 1976 until 1992, when he was a Milwaukee Buck. His productivity waned significantly in his second season in The Good Land, and it didn’t improve during his return to Philadelphia or his last stop as a San Antonio Spur.

In retrospect, Malone’s best days were gone years before he retired. Unfortunately, it seems as if the inability to stay with one organization may have taken away from the fanfare that he deserved upon retirement. Still, the numbers don’t lie. The man was one of the greatest…and definitely better than Bill Walton.

1 Comment

  1. Wow Great Post! Indeed Shaq’s injury made a big impact in his career, but it’s good to know that he is doing his best to battle and overcome this trials. I wish him all the best with his decision and I hope It’s worth it.

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