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NBA AM: The Most Tragic Early Retirements

Rumor has it Derrick Rose recently considered retiring. Joel Brigham explores other NBA careers that ended too soon.

Joel Brigham

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Say what you will about Derrick Rose, but he has not had it easy over the course of the last six years, both in terms of his health and his waning popularity with fans and the media. All of this makes it fairly believable that he really was considering leaving the game of basketball during his recent unannounced trip back home to Chicago.

According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, “Rose’s state of mind was such that for a brief time he talked about walking away from basketball for an extended period of time to clear his mind.”

This is unlikely, obviously, but the idea of a 28-year-old former MVP quitting basketball at such a young age, particularly just as he was starting to look as though he’d gotten his legs back, was shocking. Stars that big just don’t retire this early.

More accurately, they don’t retire this early often. It does occasionally happen, with big NBA stars (or potentially big NBA stars) calling it quits much younger than most of their colleagues. It’s usually some injury or another that does it, not a nervous breakdown, but not all of the most heartbreaking early retirements were due to bum knees. In fact, many of the most memorable are among the most heart-breaking stories in league history.

Magic Johnson, age 31

To this day, Magic Johnson remains one of the league’s most beloved personalities while boasting one of the most successful post-basketball careers of anybody who has ever played the game. Back in 1991, however, most fans didn’t think Johnson would come close to seeing 2017 after contracting HIV, a diagnosis that forced him into retirement not so much because he physically couldn’t play the game, but because he must have believed at the time that his life was essentially over. In the midst of that sort of revelation, it had to have been difficult to continue playing a silly game night-in and night-out.

Johnson didn’t quit playing basketball, however. He was written in as an All-Star starter in 1992 and then played with the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics later that summer. He staged a comeback with the L.A. Lakers in 1995, just two years after coaching the team, but at age 36 he was nowhere near as spry as he was in his prime. There were more good years left in Magic had he not retired in the first place, but he didn’t want to put other players at risk of contamination and at the time he almost certainly thought his days were numbered. Now that 26 years have come and gone Johnson looks as healthy as he ever has, but it doesn’t make his early retirement any less tragic.

Michael Jordan, age 30

There’s a conspiracy theory that suggests Michael Jordan originally retired from basketball in 1993 because the league was trying to covertly and unofficially suspend him for a gambling problem, but there’s zero evidence to support this, obviously. What did factor into Jordan’s retirement after his third consecutive championship in Chicago was extreme exhaustion, both in terms of his play on the court and in terms of living his life as the biggest celebrity on the planet. Jordan’s father, with whom he was close, also was murdered earlier that year, which he says played an integral part in his decision.

Obviously Jordan came back 18 months later and won another trio of rings, but nobody knew that was a realistic possibility at the time. All anybody saw was one of the league’s all-time greats quitting the game a good six-to-eight years before he should have. To this day, it’s fascinating to consider how many championships Chicago might have won had he never taken his hiatus.

Yao Ming, age 30

Few players have had the international reach as Yao Ming, a man beloved by his home country of China for his contributions to the sport of basketball and the prestige he helped bring his homeland. As an NBA player, Yao always was just on this side of great, averaging 19 PPG and 9.2 RPG for his career. His international fame, however, put him in the mix for the popular All-Star vote every single year despite constant nagging injuries.

Those injuries absolutely were the reason that he was forced to retire. Not only did he grind for the Houston Rockets for the better part of nine seasons, he also spent his summers going all-out for the Chinese National Team. While most NBA players use their offseasons to rest their bodies and maybe go on vacation with their families, Yao kept on keepin’ on, and all that running and jumping took a predictable toll on the feet and joints of a 7’6, 310-pound man. After playing just five games combined his last two seasons in Houston, he and his broken body really had no choice but to quit basketball.

Jay Williams, age 21

Williams, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2002 NBA Draft right behind Yao, was a phenomenon at Duke, where he averaged over 21 PPG for both his sophomore and junior seasons while chipping in six assists and 3.7 rebounds over his three years there. He was lightning quick and considered more of a sure-thing NBA stud than even Yao, and frankly had any team other than Houston been picking first that year, Williams very likely could have been the top selection.

He started as a rookie in Chicago, playing for one of the franchise’s more dismal teams. And while he often struggled the way rookie point guards tend to do, he looked better – more like the player scouts thought he’d be – by season’s end.

And then he crashed his Yamaha R6 motorcycle into a streetlight. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he didn’t have a license to drive a motorcycle in Illinois, and he also broke the terms of his contract with the Bulls, which stipulated he could not use that particular mode of transportation. The damage to Williams’ body was immense; he severed a main nerve in his leg, fractured his pelvis and absolutely destroyed the ligaments in his left knee.

Williams didn’t officially retire at that point, likely because at 21 years old he still envisioned himself getting better and playing meaningful basketball in the NBA again, but that day would never come. He did stage a comeback with the New Jersey Nets for a month in 2006 and tried out for the Miami HEAT in 2010, but he never came anywhere close to regaining form, leaving behind little other than one of the league’s most intriguing what-ifs.

Bobby Hurley, age 26

Now the head coach at Arizona State University, Hurley was at one point the most Dukiest of Duke point guards ever to have played for Mike Krzyzewski. Hurley’s Blue Devils made the Final Four three times in his four years there, winning the National Championship twice, and to this day he remains the NCAA’s all-time leader in career assists with 1,076.

Of course, he was a lottery pick in 1993, but only a few months into his first NBA season he ended up hurting himself pretty badly in an automobile accident. One day, after a December practice, Hurley’s SUV was smashed into while the player was not wearing his seat belt. He was thrown completely from the vehicle, and the injuries were so bad that for a time it was no sure thing that he would even live.

Hurley did live, obviously, and made it back for the 1994-95 season, though he never was the same following the accident. Four years later, he retired, ending a short, uneventful NBA career after boasting one of the best college careers in modern basketball.

Brandon Roy, age 26

To this day, it remains an absolute tragedy that Brandon Roy only got five full seasons in the NBA. In that time he was named an All-Star twice and earned spots on two All-NBA Teams. As one of the league’s most likeable and promising young stars, Roy looked as though he had a long and perhaps even legendary career ahead of him in Portland. But then his knees started to go, and everything went downhill from there.

In fact, his knees got so bad by 2011 that doctors told him he simply could not hope to play basketball again, so he retired that year while the rest of the league dove headfirst into a lockout, right before turning 27 years old.

Roy sat out that season and attempted a comeback in 2012-13 after undergoing a procedure on his knee, but only five games into his brief stint with the Timberwolves, he suffered a setback and was forced to call it quits for good.

***

Rose isn’t going to retire in the middle of a season that will determine how many tens of millions of dollars he’ll make in his next contract, but if he did retire it certainly would place him among this list of great NBA players who walked away much earlier than expected.

Thankfully, he hasn’t yet stepped away, but even if he did at least he could take solace in the fact that it was his choice. Too many before him called it quits early because their bodies just wouldn’t let them play anymore.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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