I guess a good way to start this list would be to say, it is not easy getting old! Many of us have already come face to face with the realization that getting old sucks. Your body starts to hurt for no reason and you simply cannot do things that the younger you could do with ease. Now just imagine if you were a world class athlete. Your whole life would be filled with incredible athletic accomplishments and many moments of adoration from others. There is no escaping father time, and one way or another, and we all must come to grips with the fact that our bodies were not made to last forever.
As athletes age, many of them become delusional about what they are capable of, just like many of us regular folk. They tend to believe they are still capable of performing at the elite levels they once were able to years past. It can be a sad sight to see when, as fans, we are forced to watch our childhood hero become slow dinosaurs on the court. It is a shame to say, but many times the players who hold on too long are all time great players. That is what made them as great as they were, the belief that they could be stopped by no one, not even father time. But as we all know, father time is undefeated. So today we will countdown the 15 greatest players who couldn't face reality in time before it got sad to watch.
15 Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson began his extremely underrated career in 1987 when he was selected 18th overall by the New York Knicks. Jackson had incredible success as the floor general for many great teams, including the 2000 Indiana Pacers, who he helped lead to an NBA Finals appearance. When he retired in 2004, Jackson was the second all-time leading assist man in NBA history. Since his retirement Jackson has been passed on that list by two of the all-time great point guards, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, not bad company.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his best years came while he was playing for irrelevant franchises. It has long been a wonder how a point guard as good as Jackson could never find a true home and help lead a franchise for a decade of more. Players like Jackson do not come around very often, and when a team finds one, they usually do all they can to keep that player. Jackson could have easily retired after the 2000 season, but like many others, the hunt for a championship kept him coming back.
14 Paul Pierce
"The Truth" is one of the greatest players of the 2000s. Of course the 2000's were almost a decade ago, and Pierce is still in the NBA. A true Boston Celtic legend, Pierce has the resume of a first ballot Hall of Famer, and he will without question, be inducted when his time comes. Being drafted 10th overall in 1998, Pierce is gearing up for his 19th NBA season, hoping to land a spot with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he spent last season. He was brought to Los Angeles last season to provide some much needed leadership and clutch play down the stretch of games.
Sadly, it quickly became evident that Pierce was not the same player who went to 10 All-Star games, and won an NBA Finals MVP. He has become a shell of himself over the past five seasons. Pierce was never an overly athletic player, he was able to become a great player by using his craftiness and sneaky athleticism to beat opponents. We will see what Pierce does this season, but he proved during the NBA Finals last year that he could easily have a career in broadcasting when he decides to hang 'em up.
13 Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitski began his professional career in Germany in 1994, and he was drafted into the NBA in 1998. At 38 years old, Nowitzki is entering his 19th NBA season, and 22nd professional season. Dirk has done all there is to do in the NBA, he has 13 All-Star appearances, he has won a championship, and Finals MVP, he has won regular season MVP, as well as holding almost all the Dallas Maverick records. Dirk will go down as by far the greatest foreign born player in NBA history, but Dirk has a special kind of love for the game which prevents him from walking away.
His Mavericks are projected to be a fringe playoff team this coming season and Dirk is no longer the best player on his team. After he finally does retire, the NBA world will be losing a legend, but in the meantime, we are all watching an all time great rapidly decline before our eyes.
12 Dennis Rodman
"The Worm," was one of the greatest rebounders and scrappy players this league has ever seen. Rodman was never the greatest player on his team, but he always seemed to be on great teams. Rodman began his 20 year career in 1986 with the 'Bad Boy' Detroit Pistons, where he was part of two NBA Championships. He then went on to play with David Robinson and the mighty San Antonio Spurs organization before joining forces with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago. The Chicago big 3 would win three straight NBA Championships, but Rodman was not finished. He would then join the Los Angeles Lakers for a season in 1999 before wrapping up his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks.
After he was unable to latch on with an NBA team in 2001, Rodman couldn't just retire, instead he took his talents overseas where he spent his final five professional seasons.
11 Steve Nash
Nash spent 19 years in the NBA. The final few, however, should have never happened. Nash was a back-to-back MVP in Phoenix and retired as the 3rd all time leading assist man in NBA history. One of the greatest players of the 2000s, Nash will go down with players like Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, and Allen Iverson as players who shaped basketball for a decade plus. In 2012 Steve Nash joined the Los Angeles Lakers along with Dwight Howard, as the two superstars joined forces with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. This was supposed to be the ultimate super team and bring multiple championships to L.A. What was missed was that Nash had gotten old, fast, and Howard was just not ready to be part of something like this. Howard left the team after his contract expired, but Nash stuck around.
He ultimately played out the remainder of his contract, which lasted through the 2015 season. In his final season, Nash played in only three preseason games, before suffering a back injury that resulted in him spending the entire season on the bench.
10 Moses Malone
Moses Malone began his career in the ABA, way back in 1974. His 21 year career saw him bounce to a total of 10 different franchises, including Philadelphia where he teamed up with Dr. J and won an NBA championship. One of the greatest rebounders in basketball history, Malone is often overlooked for his abilities as a scorer, as he finished his 21 seasons with a career average of over 20 points per game. When people debate the greatest players of all time, Moses Malone is often left out of the discussion, however he was a champion as well as a three time NBA MVP.
The reason he may be left off many people's list of greats is because he hung around a little too long. Malone didn't retire until after the 1995 season. One of the reasons he was able to hang around so long was because Moses began his career at the tender age of 19, much younger than most players who entered the league in his era. Regardless of how it ended for Malone, he should always be considered one of the greatest big men the game of basketball has ever known.
9 Karl Malone
From one Malone to another, we now look at 'The Mailman' Karl Malone. Malone is the second leading scorer in NBA history, and to get there you must play for a long time. Malone played 18 stellar years with the Utah Jazz, and along with John Stockton formed arguably the greatest duo to ever play together, and easily the greatest duo to never win a championship together. After 18 magnificent seasons with the Jazz, Malone decided to chase a ring. In 2003, at 40 years old, Malone joined Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles for one last run at a title. The team of seniors was unable to win the title, mainly due to injuries to Payton and the team's inability to gel together.
That season Malone averaged a career low 13 points per game, dropping more than 7 per game from the season previous. Malone is the perfect example of a player wanting to win a championship so bad that they tarnish their brilliant legacy chasing that ring. Malone still averaged 25 points per game in his career, which is a testament to how great he actually was during his time in Utah.
8 Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing resurrected basketball in New York City. He was selected number 1 overall in 1985 and he immediately brought respectability and buzz to the Mecca of basketball. During his brilliant career in New York, Ewing averaged over 22 points and 10 rebounds. The only thing Ewing was unable to accomplish with the Knicks was to bring a championship to the city. He along with many other greats of the era were left without a championship by Michael Jordan. After 15 years with the Knicks, Ewing should have retired, but he was simply too dedicated to the game to hang it up. He would spend a season in Seattle where he averaged a pedestrian 9 points per game. The following season, finally his last, Ewing played for the Orlando Magic. That season Ewing averaged only 14 minutes per game, and 6 points. Ewing should always be remembered for his great years in NY but it is hard to ignore the fact that he was unable to call it a career at the right moment.
7 Allen Iverson
A career of constant turmoil and controversy was what Allen Iverson created for himself. He was one of the most talented players the game has ever seen, but his inability to conform and figure out what he wanted proved to be his ultimate downfall. Iverson was the number 1 pick in 1996 by the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was able to single handily carry the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001, winning league MVP along the way. He is widely respected by his peers and most basketball fans have a special place in their hearts for Iverson. LeBron James was once quoted as saying, "Iverson is the greatest pound for pound player of all time." There is no questioning his heart and his will to win, however, what could be questioned were his decisions.
After spending his first 12 seasons in Philly, Iverson bounced around to three teams in five seasons. In 2006 Iverson joined Carmelo Anthony in Denver. Things never panned out for the team and Iverson ultimately moved on to Detroit in 2008. In 54 games with Detroit he averaged only 16 points per game. The final chapter for Iverson was the worst. He signed with the Grizzlies in 2009, and he only played three games with the team, before refusing to play for them. It was a sad way for a true legend to go out, but hopefully people will always remember Iverson as the warrior he was during his days in Philadelphia.
6 Shaquille O'Neal
Shaq played in the NBA for 20 seasons. He teamed with most of the great players of his generation, including, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Dwyane Wade. Along the way, O'Neal captured four NBA Championships, three Finals MVPs, and a regular season MVP. He also was one of the greatest personalities in the game. Towards the end, however, Shaq, became a shell of his former self, and on some occasions he was reserved to simply becoming a role player. O'Neal's prime lasted until about 2006 when he helped D-Wade and the Miami Heat win an NBA Championship. After that it all went south for the big diesel.
After Miami, Shaq spent a couple seasons with the Phoenix Suns, where he averaged only 16 points in less that 30 minutes per game. After his time in the desert was over, he moved on to the Cavaliers, where he was teamed with LeBron James. Unfortunately for James, Shaq was well passed his prime by the time he arrived in Cleveland. With the Cavs, O'Neal averaged just over 20 minutes per game and a measly 12 points. Shaq called it quits after his final stop, which was in Boston. While in Boston it finally became clear to him that it was time to call it a day. In Boston, Shaq averaged under 10 points per game for the first time in his career and he realized it was time, only four seasons too late.
5 Kevin Garnett
'The Big Ticket' burst onto the scene in 1995 when he was selected 5th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett was a pillar for the Wolves franchise for 14 seasons, helping lead them to many deep runs into the playoffs, as well as winning the league MVP award in 2004. Garnett averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Timberwolves during his first stint with he franchise. After 12 seasons with Minnesota, and not a whole lot to show for it, Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics and became part of the big 3, with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. The trio was able to bring a championship back to Boston in 2008.
In 2013 the big 3 was finally dismantled completely when the Celtics traded Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets. This would have been a very appropriate time for KG to retire, but of course he didn't. He spent parts of the next two seasons in the purgatory that is the Nets organization. In 2015 Garnett waived his no trade clause and was traded back to his original NBA home, Minnesota. He vows to return to the Wolves next season for his 21st run. Garnett now serves as a mentor to the young Wolves team and his production is minuscule at best. Obviously there is a coaching spot waiting, as soon as Garnett decides to officially retire.
4 Hakeem Olajuwon
One of the saddest images in NBA history is one of Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon in a Toronto Raptor uniform. Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets franchise for 17 seasons, winning an MVP, two Championships, and two Finals MVP awards along the way. You will be hard pressed to find a player who represents a team better than Hakeem did for the Rockets. Over his 17 years Hakeem averaged over 22 points and over 11 rebounds for the Rockets, and his 'dream shake' became the most unstoppable shot in the NBA while in Houston. As the 1990s ended and the 2000s got underway it was clear that Olajuwon's prime was over and his production steadily slipped each progressive season.
In 2001 the Rockets let Hakeem go, and it was the ideal time for the Rocket legend to call it quits and receive the love and praise he deserved. Olajuwon was not ready for that yet, and he ended up playing his final season in Toronto where he averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds. It was a sad ending to an amazing career, however Olajuwon will always be remembered as "The Dream" and his legacy is supplanted as one of the greatest big men the game has ever seen.
3 Kobe Bryant
'The Black Mamba' finished his Hall of Fame career just the way we all thought he would, he dropped 60 points! In his final game he put up 60, yet we still say he hung on too long. One thing to remember about that amazing 60 point performance was that Kobe jacked up 50 shots that night. Without a doubt, Bryant is one of the greatest players in NBA history, but his career lasted maybe two seasons too long. Bryant had several opportunities to call it quits, but time after time he refused to let go. After tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013 Bryant could have easily given in to father time and called it a day, but that is not Mamba! Bryant vowed to come back stronger than ever, and he almost did. He worked himself back into amazing shape and was able to get back on the court, however, it was clear that his skills had diminished and his time in the upper echelon of players had come to an end.
Kobe ended up leading the league in missed shots his final two seasons, as well as having the worst shooting percentage in the NBA. He was also the highest paid player in the league. Bryant did go out with a bang, and that symbolizes what we will always remember about Kobe, he did it his way and he usually won doing it his way.
2 Magic Johnson
From the day he stepped foot in the NBA, Magic was simply.... Magic. He led his teams to nine finals appearances, winning five of them. He won three MVP awards, as well as three Finals MVP awards. As a rookie, Magic subbed in at center in the Finals, earning him his first championship and his first finals MVP. Magic is without question a top 5 great in NBA history, however most of us know the story of how it ended for Johnson. In 1991 Johnson received the news that he was HIV positive. He immediately held a press conference to announce the news to the world, and also announce his immediate retirement from the game of basketball. Johnson missed out on some of his prime years due to the HIV virus and the stigma that surrounds it. Johnson was forced to miss four seasons from 1991-1995, and his early 30s were spoiled.
But Johnson was left with an empty space in his life for those four years, and in 1995-96 Johnson tried to make a comeback to the NBA. He played for the only team he ever knew, the L.A. Lakers, but things were not the same. As Johnson received large amounts of playing time, teammates began to rumble and disapprove of Johnson being back. Ultimately the Lakers lost in the 1st round of the playoffs. After the loss, Magic immediately expressed interest in coming back for yet another season or even going to another team who would allow him to play point guard. Shortly after the season ended, however, Magic decided his playing days were through and he didn't want to put his body through another season. Magic's career was cut short due to HIV, but he ended up getting caught up in the unfairness of it all and tried to make a comeback that he didn't need to make.
1 Michael Jordan
Even the greatest of all time had trouble knowing when to retire for good. After winning the NBA title in 1993 Jordan retired for the first time. This retirement lasted all of one full season, and Jordan came back to dominate the NBA again in 1995. We all remember Jordan as the six time NBA champ and the six time NBA Finals MVP. We all remember his tongue hanging out as he soared through the air for breathtaking slam dunks, and that is how it should be.
However, there is a chapter at the end of his career that should have never happened. Jordan was the ultimate competitor and he had confidence in himself that not many people possess. That confidence ended up tarnishing a flawless legacy. In 1998, after a second three-peat, Jordan decided it was time to walk away from the game of basketball for the 2nd time. Some could argue that MJ had a few great years left in him and he, again, retired prematurely. After the '98 retirement Jordan spent three years away from the game, enjoying his post-basketball life.
But in 2001, at 38 years old, Jordan decided he wanted to give it another go. Coming out of retirement was becoming Jordan's theme. He joined the Washington Wizards and spent two full seasons with the franchise. He had some ups, but mostly downs in the nation's capital, both seasons the team ended with a sub .500 record and missed the playoffs. The climax of Jordan not being Jordan came in the 2002 All-Star game when MJ had a break away dunk and he somehow, someway, missed the dunk. It was clear at that moment that MJ not only missed the dunk, but he missed the chance to retire on top.
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