Kevin Durant is a free agent this summer, in case you haven’t heard, and while most experts seem to agree that Oklahoma City is still the front-runner to hold onto the former MVP, that doesn’t mean much once the recruiting process gets underway. Just about every NBA player ever interviewed about free agency and trades has said something to the effect of, “The NBA is a business first and foremost,” because they understand that it’s extremely unlikely that a player will spend his entire career in one city. A lot of these guys don’t even buy houses until after they’ve retired.
While the players understand and appreciate the business aspect of the game, fans don’t always take free agency quite so well. Occasionally, a player burns his former city so badly by leaving that it takes years for fans to forgive them, if they ever do. Hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned. We don’t always take breakups well.
Knowing that, here are five of the worst breakups in the history of free agency:
#5 – Tracy McGrady, Toronto Raptors/Orlando Magic – While no Raptor will ever be more despised than Vince Carter, McGrady definitely is up there in terms of fan ire because of how he bolted for Orlando the second his rookie contract ended in 2000, a year that also saw the Raptors make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Fans saw McGrady and Carter as the foundation of a team that could compete perennially for championships, but when T-Mac so hungrily embraced free agency that summer the narrative quickly settled into his heading to either Chicago or Orlando. The Raptors are obviously missing from that list.
To this day, McGrady says he would have stayed in Toronto had he been a little more mature and self-aware at the time, but a 21-year-old dealing with that kind of money doesn’t always make the best decisions. Frankly, 21-year-olds without that kind of money don’t always make the best decisions.
McGrady helped usher the Raptors toward their first taste of credibility, only to skedaddle as soon as humanly possible, right before he hit the peak of his career. Chris Bosh, for what it’s worth, is pretty detested in Canada too, but at least he played out a full post-rookie contract with Toronto before leaving. McGrady was a ghost long before that.
#4 – Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic/L.A. Lakers – It’s always easy to tell just how bitter a free agency divorce is based on the way the player talks about his old city. O’Neal, when he made the decision in 1996 to abandon the team that drafted him in favor of Hollywood, called the city of Orlando a “dried up pond,” which is no way to endear a fan base to you on your way out the door.
O’Neal, despite missing 28 games in 1995-1996, was coming off a monster year in which he averaged 26.6 PPG and 11 RPG and led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. His departure meant Orlando lost arguably the best player in the game at the time for absolutely nothing. That endears a fan base to you even less than petty insults.
#3 – Carlos Boozer, Cleveland Cavaliers/Utah Jazz – Imagine that there’s an NBA team today with a player on the roster who just put up 15.5 PPG and 11.4 RPG, and the team has a $695,000 option on that player to bring him back for another year at a bargain-basement price. That’s what the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing following the 2003-04 NBA campaign, when Carlos Boozer put up a superb season as LeBron James’ sidekick, looking for all the world like the start of something really special in Cleveland.
Boozer and his representation begged and pleaded with the organization to deny that option, which would make him an unrestricted free agent, but with the promise that Boozer would sign right back with the Cavaliers for something in the neighborhood of six years and $39 million. The Cleveland front office, trying to do right by their burgeoning young star, made the handshake deal and turned down the option.
Boozer, however, did not immediately sign the aforementioned deal. How could he with so many other teams showing interest and lobbing numbers his way significantly higher than those offered by the Cavs?
Ultimately, Utah signed Boozer to a six-year, $70 million deal that proved too rich for the Cavaliers to even attempt to match, let alone exceed. It was an immensely painful situation for Cavs fans, and for Boozer and James in particular, who both played in the Olympics together that summer despite the nasty breakup. It was awkward, and for what it’s worth, that Olympic team was the only one not to win gold since 1988.
#2 – LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers/Miami HEAT – All is forgiven now that LeBron has returned to Cleveland and won the city its first championship in over half a century, but back in 2010 James inadvertently initiated the most public and heart-wrenching free agency burn the basketball world had ever seen.
It started off the way Kevin Durant’s free agency is shaping up this summer, with a list of potential teams and plans to interview with each of them, but as the wooing process lingered on, the decision quickly became “The Decision,” an impromptu half-hour television special that turned LeBron’s choice into a major prime-time event. There, with millions of people watching, Cavaliers fans waited with baited breath as James announced, after 20 minutes of televised stalling, that he would be taking his talents to South Beach.
Looking back now, with two rings and four Finals appearances to show for his time in Miami, we can understand why he made the choice he did. He, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were a formidable trio there. What hurt Cleveland so badly was the public and humiliating way with which he abandoned ship. Dan Gilbert took a lot of grief for his Comic Sans opus of an owner scorned (the eventual sign-and-trade earned Cleveland only a traded player exception and a couple of bum draft picks), but he spoke for a lot of Cavs fans at the time. They were mad, and rightfully so.
They’re less mad now, and LeBron righted his wrong when his free agency reoccurred four years later, but that doesn’t change just how brutal his exit was back in 2010.
#1 – DeAndre Jordan, Dallas Mavericks/L.A. Clippers – Perhaps this wound is the most painful because it’s the freshest, but history will probably prove this to be the harshest free agency burn the game has ever seen.
The Mavericks heavily, heavily wooed Jordan in the summer of 2015, making him feel like the belle of the ball with trips to fancy restaurants, exclusive clubs and talk of transforming him into the best center in the NBA. They promised him an increased role in the Mavs’ offense, something he would never see as a member of the Clippers, and Chandler Parsons took it upon himself to be the team’s biggest recruiter, relentlessly hounding Jordan with the fun and entertainment that could be berthed from a career working for Mark Cuban.
It all worked, too, as Jordan agreed to terms on a contract with the Mavericks during the seven-day free agency moratorium, that long week between when teams can negotiate with free agents and when they can actually sign them, which means it would be a few days before he could actually sign on the dotted line.
In the days before the expiration of the moratorium, Jordan talked with people close to him and realized that maybe he wasn’t suited for a larger role in the offense. He didn’t like the idea of taking double-teams every night, of shooting even more free-throws as poorly as anybody in the NBA this side of Andre Drummond. Clippers boss Doc Rivers eventually reached out and persuaded Jordan that he’d gotten caught up in the process, and that L.A. was still the best fit for him as a professional.
And then Jordan changed his mind. He ended up signing with the Clippers, leaving Cuban and the Mavericks with zilch entirely too late in the free agency process to pursue any backup plans. Dallas ended up having a much better year than anybody expected, but that summer gut punch would have made a lost year completely understandable. Dallas’ hate for DeAndre isn’t anywhere near as strong as Toronto’s hate for McGrady and Carter and Bosh, but that spurn was so nasty that it may eventually prompt changes to that moratorium system.
A spurn that changes the rules is an epic one. Jordan broke hearts all over Central Texas.
Kevin Durant has a fantastic opportunity to jilt a committed Oklahoma City fan base and join this list of harsh free agency burns, and if he does leave there’s very little reason to believe those people won’t be deeply, deeply upset, no matter how it happens.
For now, though, it looks like there’s a good chance that Durant stays off of this list. For the sake of his likeability and Oklahoma City’s ability to enjoy basketball, let’s hope so.
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