Late-Career NBA Team Changes


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Dwyane Wade in Chicago, even after that 2010 Slam Magazine cover that featured him in a Bulls jersey, is one of the most disorientating things current NBA fans have ever seen. After 13 seasons, three NBA championships, one Finals MVP award, 12 All-Star appearances and eight All-NBA team appearances with the HEAT – not to mention a handful of important team records including the most points in Miami history – it’s an odd thing to even imagine Wade in a different uniform, but here we are. D-Wade is a Chicago Bull.

Pat Riley can gripe all he wants to about how sad it is that Wade left Miami, but there was no way he could have paid what he felt was beyond market value for a player who no longer was someone he felt could keep them in the hunt for an NBA championship. Not with LeBron James gone, and certainly not with Chris Bosh’s playing future in jeopardy.

So Riley let Wade go, and now we’ll spend the next nine months adjusting our eyes to one of the most shocking late-career team changes in league history.

The thing about that, though, is that this isn’t remotely close to the first time a superstar has had to change teams late in his career. Plenty of them have simply outlived their usefulness on their most iconic teams, which has led to some truly strange end-of-career team changes for Hall-of-Fame superstars. Wade’s switch to Chicago is jarring, but by no means the most jarring we’ve ever seen.

Those honors go to the following players:

#5 – Bob Cousy, Cincinnati Royals– Cousy couldn’t have asked for a better send-off to his NBA career, retiring as a Boston Celtic at age 35 after having won six NBA championships and an MVP trophy there. Six years later, however, he was offered a job to coach the Cincinnati Royals, and as a ruse to boost ticket sales Cousy hit the court once again at age 41 after a six-year layoff. He barely played, but sales jumped 77 percent, so while he undoubtedly made some great money in those final games in Ohio, the price paid was a Cousy-sized chunk of dignity. If we can pretend like Michael Jordan’s Washington thing never happened, however, we can surely strike this Cousy stuff from the record too.

#4 – Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors – In 2001, Olajuwon was unable to negotiate a new contract with the Houston Rockets because the team was ready to rebuild around Steve Francis, who had just won Rookie of the Year the previous season. Since the Rockets were so far removed from winning a title (their last one had been six years prior), the team decided it was time to start from scratch. Despite all of that, “The Dream” wasn’t ready to quit basketball, so he ended up getting himself a reasonable deal to play one final season in Canada, where he averaged career-lows of 7.1 points and six rebounds per game.

#3 – Shaquille O’Neal, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics – When the Miami HEAT traded O’Neal in February of 2008 they were a league-worst 9-37, leading them to make a deal with Phoenix to acquire Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, serving the purpose of getting younger and off-loading O’Neal’s massive contract. Phoenix didn’t make the playoffs in 2009, the first time since Shaq’s rookie season in 1993 that he’d failed to make the postseason, so the Suns shipped him to Cleveland that summer to pair him with LeBron James. O’Neal hoped to win his fifth ring there, but he didn’t, so the next summer he signed the smallest contract of his career to chase a ring in Boston, which once again would prove fruitless. Three teams in three years for one of the most legendary centers in the history of the game, and to this day it still looks odd to see him wearing Phoenix purple, Cleveland wine or Boston green.

#2 – Allen Iverson, Detroit Pistons & Memphis Grizzlies – It was kind of weird seeing A.I. in a Nuggets jersey, but we got used to it. Same thing with him in a Pistons uniform. Those three games for the Grizzlies, however, never really resonated, which might be why he left the team after so short a tenure. He didn’t like his life as a bench player, so he quit. Three days of Iverson in any unfamiliar uniform is an unceremonious way to end a career, and while he got to retire as a Sixer (thank goodness), his exodus at the end of his most productive years was sad to say the least.

#1 – Patrick Ewing, Seattle SuperSonics & Orlando Magic – In making a pretty atrocious trade that returned New York Glen Rice, Luc Longley and a bunch of detritus, the Knicks gave up on a roster centered around Ewing by sending him to Seattle. A year later though, the Sonics decided they didn’t really need Ewing, either, so he finished his career with the Orlando Magic, wearing #6 (Grant Hill had #33 at the time) and stinking up the joint. He ended up averaging career-lows of six points and four rebounds per game that season and started only four out of the 65 games he played.

What makes this the worst is that nobody wanted or needed one of the best centers of his era at his age. In other situations, you’ve got guys who are being given a shot by a team who still really believes there’s gas in the tank, and often the veteran star knows and understands his decreased role on his new team. Ewing never really had that after leaving New York and Seattle, which is part of what made it so sad.

Honorable Mention:

Moses Malone, San Antonio Spurs – San Antonio thought they’d get some bargain frontcourt help by signing a 40-year-old Malone in 1994, but he ruptured a tendon in his leg early in the season and missed all but 17 games. A solid season the year before in Philadelphia told him he still had something left in the tank, but 17 games at 2.9 points apiece proved otherwise.

Dominique Wilkins, Orlando Magic – After the 1994-95 season, the market for ‘Nique was so bad that he actually had to take his talents to Greece and then later Italy. His last playing season, however, was with the NBA’s Orlando Magic, where he played in only 27 games and averaged a meager five points and 2.6 rebounds per game. At least he got to play that last year with his brother, Gerald.

Dave Bing, Washington Bullets & Boston Celtics – An all-time favorite in the minds of long-time Pistons fans, Bing spent his last three seasons split between the Bullets and Celtics. His scoring and assist numbers dropped considerably those last couple of seasons, but Bing was still a respectable role player.

Tiny Archibald, Milwaukee Bucks – After his Celtics were swept in the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1983, that’s who Archibald decided to sign his final NBA contract with. He played 46 games with Milwaukee that season, averaging single-digit scoring numbers for the first and only time of his career before retiring mid-season.

Dave Cowens, Milwaukee Bucks – After retiring from the Boston Celtics in 1980, Cowens took a couple of years off before being goaded by buddy Don Nelson into returning for one more run, this time with the Milwaukee Bucks. He played in only 40 games that season, putting up the worst numbers of his professional life, but he did manage to sweep Boston out of the postseason. After getting bumped in the next round that year, Cowens retired for good.

George Gervin, Chicago Bulls – Iceman came to the NBA with the rest of the ABA studs in 1976 and saw a ton of success with the San Antonio Spurs. His final year in the NBA, however, was with the Chicago Bulls, who were grooming reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Jordan at the time. Luckily for Gervin (but not for Jordan), MJ broke his foot that season and missed all but 18 games, giving Iceman the opportunity to remain productive. Had Jordan played all year, who knows how frustrating that final season would have been for Gervin?

Karl Malone, L.A. Lakers – The man wanted a ring before he retired, and he gave it a good shot. He really did. But if he wasn’t going to win a championship, it would’ve been nice if he could’ve retired ringless in Salt Lake City. His injured knee sunk the team and his career in the NBA Finals that year, and the Mailman finally sent it in following that season. He announced his retirement from the Delta Center, Utah’s arena, in February of 2005.

Robert Parish, Chicago Bulls – Brought in to give Michael Jordan’s 1997 Bulls a little extra size off the bench, a 43-year-old Parish hardly played, but did earn himself the unique distinction of having played on championship teams with both Jordan and Larry Bird. He did get his fourth ring out of the deal, but he looked as though he’d snap in half like a dusty twig any time he got into the game. In and of itself, a little depressing, but there was certainly more good than harm done in The Chief’s last go-round as a professional basketball player.


There aren’t a whole lot of career one-team superstars left in this league, particularly now that both Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have retired. At least we didn’t have to see those guys change teams late in their careers, right?

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.