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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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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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