As the old adage goes, the only thing that’s certain is change. There was an era when quite a few major NBA stars started and finished their professional careers under the same team’s banner, out of a combination of loyalty on behalf of the player, and a more balanced league in which teams had their stars and built around them. So it is that we have a number of legends synonymous with a particular franchise, like Larry Bird and Bill Russell with the Celtics, Magic Johnson with the Lakers, John Stockton with the Jazz, or Isiah Thomas with the Pistons. There are some relatively recent examples, too, like Tim Duncan’s historic run with the Spurs, Kobe Bryant’s with the Lakers, or Dirk Nowitzki’s ongoing tenure with the Dallas Mavericks.
However, the NBA landscape has changed. While trades and free agency are not new, now more than ever stars have a significant hand in dictating their own fates in terms of where they end up playing. LeBron James helped establish the era of the super teams, by becoming the first player to widely be recognized as the best as the league to hop teams as he went championship hunting, highlighted by this summer’s move to Los Angeles.
So where can we expect top players to wind up their careers? There are those cases in which stars seem to have found their homes and there’s little reason to think they’ll migrate elsewhere before they hang up their sneakers. There are, however, other cases in which things could get quite interesting in the years ahead. This article predicts where twenty NBA stars will end their careers.
20 Steph Curry – The Golden State Warriors
Call him old school, but Steph Curry may well emerge as his generation’s longest tenured bona fide superstar to spend his entire pro career in the same place. He debuted with Golden State in 2009 and was immediately slotted in featured scoring position as a starter. The franchise has since built around him, accumulating star power to emerge as the dominant team of the last five years with little clear sign they’ll slow down.
Curry and the Warriors seem like a very happy, successful marriage and it’s hard to imagine them parting ways.
Perhaps if Curry tries to extend his career too long, there will come a time when he, like so many stars, spends a quiet last year or two elsewhere. The smart money, however, seems to be with him staying put for the long haul.
19 LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James did the unexpected when he left his home state of Ohio hanging and went from the star of the Cleveland Cavaliers to the leader of Miami’s Big Three alongside friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Even more surprising was James’s return to Cleveland to make good on old promises and ultimately bring home a championship.
James is off again for the Lakers. With rumors that he plans for his kids to have their school experience in Los Angeles, James may well run out the clock on his career in Hollywood. However, his most recent tenure with the Cavs suggests he has some loyalty to the franchise. While it’s far from a sure thing, James still considers Ohio his home, and he may well have one last farewell tour there.
18 Kevin Durant – Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin Durant made one of the most blockbuster moves in NBA history when he took his talents to Oakland. Golden State was already quite arguably the best team in the NBA when he signed on.
Now that Durant has a couple of championship rings, the question is how loyal will he be to Golden State? Even without Durant, the Warriors would remain a championship favorite, so might Durant pursue a new challenge, or a bigger piece of the spotlight?
One real possibility would be for Durant to make his way to Los Angeles when he becomes eligible for free agency again. Pairing with LeBron would offer just the combination that perhaps could surpass the Warriors, and could moreover set up Durant to be the franchise guy in L.A. for the latter stages of his prime years.
17 Carmelo Anthony – Chicago Bulls
Carmelo Anthony is a great scorer and a star, but also player who just doesn’t seem to jive with others. His years with the Knicks were a failure. As the franchise player, he failed to consistently lead the team to the playoffs, and all that amidst strife with teammates and team management.
Anthony left for Oklahoma City last year, only to meet disappointment there as well. He's now committed to one season with the Rockets, and perhaps he could find a fit there.
More likely, though, he’ll wind up his career as the star player for a big market team with middling success.
As the Bulls struggle to rebuild, their needs and ‘Melo’s interests may coincide for the twilight of his career.
16 DeMar DeRozan – San Antonio Spurs
After another All Star season, DeMar DeRozan has made no bones in the press about his resentment for the Raptors dealing him to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. DeRozan considered himself a loyal franchise player, and resented being discarded.
For a star in search of loyalty from his team’s management, he probably couldn’t have found a better team to land with than the Spurs, a team unusual and celebrated for holding onto top stars like David Robinson and Tim Duncan for their whole careers. With some of the league's most respected executives and long tenured coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, it’s very realistic to expect DeRozan to spend the rest of his career in San Antonio.
15 Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Lakers
After LeBron announced his move to Los Angeles, the rumor mill started up in its speculation about who would come to join his latest Championship contending super team effort. Surely, James would need at least one bona fide star to really challenge Golden State.
Kawhi Leonard’s came up in a lot of those rumors. The Spurs star was, instead, dealt to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan. While there’s little to no chance Leonard will be wearing purple and gold by the 2019 playoffs, he is due for free agency next offseason and there are a lot of indications he’ll go home to Los Angeles to go ring hunting with King James.
14 Kyrie Irving – Boston Celtics
Kyrie Irving looked to be half a sensational duo with LeBron James when the two teamed up in Cleveland, While the did win a Championship together, the general consensus was that their style of play was too similar to really complement one another, and they wound up stepping on each other’s toes instead.
Now, Irving and James stand on opposite sides of the NBA’s greatest traditional rivalries—the Celtics vs. the Lakers.
There’s no guarantee of them clashing in the Finals, particularly with the Warriors standing in the Lakers’ way out west. Nonetheless, Irving may well have found the team to ride out his career with, particularly now that Boston is favored to rule the Eastern Conference in James’s absence.
13 James Harden – Houston Rockets
There was a time when James Harden played in Kevin Durant’s shadow, as a pair of young guns for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden has since found his place in the league, not as a supporting player, but as the man for the Houston Rockets. He’s not only the featured star for that team, but now the league’s reigning MVP.
Harden seems to have found a home in Houston, and while, even in his best season with his best supporting cast, he wasn’t able to overcome Golden State last year, there’s plenty of reason to think he’ll stick it out in Texas, and keep trying.
12 Joel Embiid – New York Knicks
In his first two seasons in the NBA, Joel Embiid has emerged a star for a young, resurgent Philadelphia 76ers team. But will he ride out his career in Philly?
In this era of stars chasing rings, big money, and celebrity, Embiid can likely better his prospects all around with a move to the New York Knicks. The embattled franchise may not seem like a desirable destination, but as a media epicenter, and with a budget that will allow them to pay top dollar, New York could make life quite comfortable for Embiid starting in the not too distant future.
11 Kristaps Porzingis - Boston Celtics
Kristaps Porzingis has been a rock for the New York Knicks for the past three seasons, leading the team out of the Carmelo Anthony era. He’s not the flashiest of superstars, but he is a consistent, skilled performer who gets the job done on the court.
Porzingis’s style of play may well be best suited to a scenario in which he’s not the top star, nor playing under one of the brightest spotlights in the world.
A such, leaving Madision Square Garden behind may well be best for him. A move to a team like the Celtics, for which he can be a key role player to make the team competitive for championships against the top teams from the west could make a lot of sense.
10 DeMarcus Cousins – Golden State Warriors
While LeBron dominated headlines this offseason with his move to Los Angeles, there may have actually been another free agent signing to exert an even bigger influence on the league. No, DeMarcus Cousins isn’t as great of a player or as big of a star as James. Cousins is, however, one of the best centers active in the NBA today.
In moving to Golden State—already the reigning champions, favored to repeat in 2019, Cousins has shored up their line up one step further, bolstering one of the few relative weak spots on their roster. While he probably has a number of years left in his NBA tank, it wouldn’t be a shocker for Cousins to stay put in Oakland—in support of what may well be a dynasty—for the rest of his career.
9 Vince Carter - Atlanta Hawks
For a number of casual basketball fans, the news that Vince Carter had signed with the Atlanta Hawks this summer was a surprise. It was not a surprise because of any seismic shift in the league or the Hawks’ chances at winning, but rather for the sheer fact that Carter is still playing.
Carter was the number five pick in the 1998 Draft, going to the still fledgling Toronto Raptors. Now, he’ll become that rare player—much less star—to see his career eclipse the two decade mark in the NBA. Carter is hardly the force or the explosive dunker he once was, but in the role of veteran locker room leader, he still has value. The human body can only weather NBA basketball for so long—expect this to be his last go-round.
8 Damian Lillard – Golden State Warriors
In the era of the super team, a team like the Portland Trail Blazers feels like a bit of a relic. They’re a perfectly good team that wins more than it loses, makes the playoffs, and features good talents, but that nonetheless doesn’t stand any real chance of making the Finals so much fire power contending with them in the Western Conference.
Damian Lillard has proven himself at the fore of the Blazers, as a scoring point guard consistently good for twenty plus points per night.
There may well come a time when he seeks to shore up his NBA resume, though, with a ring.
Lillard and Golden State don’t necessarily fit each other’s needs now, but don’t be shocked if he migrates that way in his twilight years in the league.
7 Russell Westbrook – Houston Rockets
While James Harden once played in the shadow of Kevin Durant, it’s noteworthy that Russell Westbrook—now a bona fide All Star and top talent in the league, stood behind both men as, at best, Oklahoma City’s third option.
The rumor mill most recently has Kevin Durant heading back to the Thunder to reunite with Westbrook sooner than later. Their relationship has apparently been repaired. In time, though, Westbrook may well follow the path blazed by his former teammates and go ring shopping with a powerhouse super team. Westbrook could do a lot worse than winding up with the Rockets.
6 LaMarcus Aldridge – Dallas Mavericks
While the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets have assembled more impressive Finals and Playoff resumes than the Dallas Mavericks over the years, it’s a mistake to overlook the third team from Texas which won a title of its own in 2010 and made the Finals in 2005. Besides that, they’ve been a winning, playoff team most of the last two decades. Despite a more recent slump, you can expect them to become a threat again sooner than later.
The Mavericks could prove a nice fit for a talent like LaMarcus Aldridge, a Western Conference mainstay and top tier big man of his generation, whom Dalas would be shrewd to go after as they rebuild.
5 Paul George – Los Angeles Clippers
Paul George was an emerging star for the Indiana Pacers for years, before winding up with Oklahoma City. The unlikely followed as, despite his explicit statements that he wanted to play in Los Angeles, he wound up singing an extension with the Thunder.
Some suggest that George is still ultimately going to head to the Lakers to realize his ambitions and move closer to his family.
However, as the Lakers build their new era, George may find that by the time he is ready to relocate back to California, he doesn’t quite fit there. While Clippers aren’t a dream destination for many stars, they could fit George’s preference for the city where he’ll play and offer him opportunities to lead the way in the final years of his career.
4 John Wall – Washington Wizards
While the Washington Wizards aren’t exactly the most electric team in the NBA, they have emerged in the past five years as a a steady Playoff team. A big part of that success can be attributed to John Wall, good for around twenty points and ten assists per game.
There are few certainties in the NBA these days, as stars are notorious for hopping teams. Wall has been a Wizard since his professional debut, though. A native of the southeast, he has some motivation to stay put geographically, besides staying loyal to the team that took him first in the draft.
3 Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors
Though Steph Curry more often than not has gotten the spotlight in Golden State, and Kevin Durant made the team a bona fide juggernaut, no one should overlook the importance of Klay Thompson. Thompson was drafted by the Warriors just two years after Curry and has been a steady twenty points per game asset from the two guard position.
We never know where a star’s career might take him, but Thompson joined the Warriors as they were becoming a real threat, and has been there for all three of their championships from the last four years. All indicators are that it’s a happy marriage, and there are more rings to win together in the seasons ahead.
2 Kevin Love – Cleveland Cavaliers
After starring for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Love’s career entered the spotlight with his move to the Cavaliers. Cleveland may not traditionally be a much bigger market than Minneapolis, but Love was sharing court time with LeBron James and competing for championships.
With James gone, the Cavs are likely out of the hunt for rings, but for Love’s individual play, he may be in his ideal position, reasserted as the star and primary scoring option for a lower level.
Love could quite reasonably ride out his career in that position, and perhaps reunite with King James if he ever does make his way back over to Ohio.
1 Nikola Vucevic - Brooklyn Nets
Swiss center Nikola Vucevic has spent most of his NBA career with the Orlando Magic. He’s a talent for sure, and there are few centers who can pass the ball as well as him today. However, the writing is on the wall that the Magic will move Mohamed Bamba into the starting center role before too long, and the general consensus is that Vucevic will be moving elsewhere next off season.
After their initial three seasons in Brooklyn as a legitimate playoff team, the Brooklyn Nets have largely floundered. With big money behind them, and playing in New York, you can expect the team to make big moves in the near future to shake things up. Vucevic probably isn’t going to be the dominant star of a winning team in today’s NBA, but he could be a key role player for the Nets to rebuild with.