In today’s NBA we are surrounded by shoe deals, twitter accounts, highlight reels, and ridiculous press conferences. Basically whatever keeps our attention is what is put up on ESPN for a few days. Big dunks, fancy passes, huge contracts, and pretty much every aspect of LeBron James is the face of the league. Just the same, many fans try not to be caught up in the hype.
They love the 80’s players. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, and of course Charles Barkley are all considered some of the all-time greats, and to appreciate their game is to be an old school fan. So as fans we only love the Jordan’s and the LeBron’s? The Carmelo’s and the Bird’s? The Bryant’s and the Barkley’s? Something is missing here. What happened to those players that fit into an odd category? Those players that were on the not-so-great Olympic team in 2004 and the players who were rookies when Jordan retired? We all assumed they had retired by now or maybe just clogged up some dusty chunk of bench on some small market team somewhere. The trouble with this group is that they are too old to be considered stars, yet too young to be in the hall of fame. Many of the “Forgotten Stars” are still hanging around, still balling, all with the same determination they displayed on draft day. The spotlight on them may have gone out, but the drive inside them never did.
Vince Carter, SF, Dallas Mavericks, 35
Vince Carter is one of the more forgotten stars in this list, which surprises me, based on the explosive nature of his game. His dunks became legendary during his time in the spotlight, and quite frankly, made anything Blake Griffin does now look like child’s play. Known as “Half Man, Half Amazing”, the 8-time NBA All Star and Slam Dunk Champion has been widely forgotten by the league and the fans. Carter was originally drafted by the Toronto Raptors, and provided the franchise with one of the few bright spots in its not-so-illustrious history. After leaving the Raptors for New Jersey in 2004, Vince Carter stayed with the Nets until 2009. He has been on the move ever since, picking up a new team everywhere he goes. After New Jersey it was Phoenix, then Orlando, and now Dallas.
In Dallas, Carter puts up a cool 10 points per night with a .411 fg percentage for good measure. While these are hardly the numbers of the VC of old, Air Canada is still producing night in and night out. Don’t expect the former Rookie of the Year to do much more than that now anyway. Carter is 35 years old, and while he is still starting, he does lack that incredible energy he once had. Just the same, If 35 year old players are supposed to be irrelevant and slow, someone forgot to tell Vince Carter. Players more popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s are often clumped into the same group as Allen Iverson. I actually was unaware that Carter was anywhere in the league, much less starting on a championship team until recently. I assumed he was some 40 year old washed up bum wringing out the last of his stardom for money playing on some small team in China. Little did I know, Vince Carter is a very legitimate player, and still quite the force to be reckoned with. While he never could capture a championship ring, Carter has resigned with the Dallas Mavericks for another season. They might not be the Miami Heat, but don’t count him out yet. Carter could still be quite the acquisition if he did not decide to stay in Dallas too. There are a number of teams that would benefit not just from his veteran leadership, but his high accuracy 3-point shot, and his incredible defensive presence. We might not see Vinsanity in a dunk contest anytime soon, but you will see him giving those younger stars a run for their money. Defenders have learned forgetting about Carter will put them in his highlight reel. Fans have learned forgetting about Carter will deprive them of a still very active, electrifying, and interesting player.
Jermaine O’Neal, C, Phoenix Suns, 33
While Jermaine O’Neal is widely considered one of the most washed-up big men in the NBA, he practically in the middle of his career. Based on the way he has played the past few seasons, and his seemingly infinite injuries, one might think O’Neal is on the verge of retirement. Surprisingly, he is not, and still has quite a career in no only his rearview mirror, but ahead of him as well. The 6-time All-star is a perfect example of a player whose career has been stinted by injuries. As a big man, O’Neal was prone to getting injured, and apparently by being Jermaine O’Neal, he is prone to being injured as well. It never ceases to amaze me how some players can be so blatantly unlucky.
At his finest, O’Neal was putting up 26 ppg with the Indiana Pacers, then proceeding to win the Most Improved Player award for the 2006 season. 2006 JO was truly a thing of beauty. Fast-forward 4 years, and the dominant big man he was so promising to become is nowhere in sight. 2010 JO is sitting on a bench in Boston, completely forgotten about by the league and fans, putting up a measly 5 ppg. For whatever reason, Indiana just treated O’Neal well. After being drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1996, O’Neal found himself on the Pacers in 2000. The change was instantaneous. Instead of simply scoring more than a point or two, O’Neal became a very excellent player and was feared and revered throughout the league. In his 8-season career in Indiana, JO became the player the draft analysts said he would be. Look ahead to today. Injuries still plague the defensive-minded center, but he appears to be on the right track. As of August 15th of this year, O’Neal announced he was signing a one-year contract with the Phoenix Suns. This makes for an excellent fit for O’Neal as the Suns’ Marcin Gortat could use some help in the front court. After the loss of Steve Nash, they’ll take what they can get. After O’Neal’s shoulder injury, he’ll take what he can get. Watch out for Jermaine O’Neal, there is plenty of room inside of a 6’11 man for a Cinderella story.
Tracy McGrady, SG/SF, Free Agent, 33
The story of Tracy McGrady is a very unusual one. However, if it had to be compared to anything, it is eerily similar to the Jermaine O’Neal story. 7-time All-Star McGrady was one of the first players in history to come directly out of high school and into the NBA. His incredible talent and extremely young age made him an instant fan favorite. He was essentially the LeBron James of his short era. He was projected to be incredible, and lead whatever team lucky enough to acquire him to victory. At first, it looked as if things would go that way. However, through his career, McGrady had a hard time finding decent teams, spending 3 seasons in Toronto, 4 in Orlando, 6 in Houston, followed by one year stints in New York, Detroit, and Atlanta.
It is plain to see while an incredible player, McGrady did not appear as though he could find a team to truly make his own. T-Mac’s first two years in the league were on par with any other well-hyped rookie. He hovered around five points from game to game. By his third season in the league, and final one with the Raptors, he exploded scoring 15 ppg with a .541 FG percentage. At his best, McGrady was putting up 32 points a night! Say what you want about him now, but those are not washed up numbers by any means. IN fact, T-Mac’s production was steady ever since.
He was putting up big numbers for Atlanta and Orlando in the prime of his career. Much like JO, that all changed once he suffered injury to both his left shoulder and knee. He has not been the same player ever since. How the mighty have fallen. A player once expected to be the biggest star in the league had it all wiped away due to injury early on in his career. This is one thing about the game that is impossible to understand: The creation of heroes of some, and the destruction of others. McGrady experienced both. We may never see T-Mac in all his potential. His was a career robbed not only from himself, but from the fans. It may very well be we will never see the Tracy McGrady that could have been. On the other hand, McGrady is only 33 years old. Last season he actually put up a career high .455 shooting percentage from behind the arc. Could this be some sign of life from the superstar that never was? McGrady was last seen working out for the New York Knicks. A return to the Madison Square Garden could be beneficial for both parties, as McGrady would be a good fit athletically, as well as a solid veteran locker-room presence. T-Mac has been having sporadic 20 point outbursts here and there. His jump shot is looking good, and he is interested in a slowly but surely developing team. While McGrady never really left, we could be looking at a T-Mac comeback.
Chauncey Billups, PG, Los Angeles Clippers, 35
Easily the happiest case on this otherwise bleak list of alleged league has-beens is New York Knicks PG, Chauncey Billups. While he is 35, Billups has had an excellent and fulfilling career, complete with the thing very few supposedly washed up players have: a ring. Since Billups won his first and only championship in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons, he has steadily been on the decline at first, gracefully descending form his career high of 22 ppg down to 10. While he may not be carrying a major scoring load for New York, he is extremely under looked and under appreciated. This, like Vince Carter’s situation, is very surprising to me. I understand Billups is 35, but not 40! Chauncey Billups is still as relevant a player as ever. He is a genuinely good person with still a very exciting game. And while Billups has not gotten himself a starting job, or incredible jersey sales, he is in a poised decline as he is in the midst of the twilight of his career.
Known as “Mr. Big Shot” for his time in Detroit, due to his knack for draining so many clutch shots and buzzer beaters, Billups can still produce decent numbers and an electrifying shot. Billups, like the others to grace this list, was highly hyped when he entered the league. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 1997 NBA draft. After short tenures in Toronto, Boston, and Denver, Billups made a career move that in my opinion was his best. He got himself a team. Obviously every player in the league has a team, but few truly make it their own. (Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Steve Nash and the Su- oh wait…) I sincerely believe by making Detroit his team, Billups increased his championship odds innumerably. His loyalty to the team allowed the Pistons front office at the time build around him, to create a system that works. The trouble with on-the-move players like Carter and McGrady is that because they never get settled in a certain spot, they have less support. A GM cannot bring in players perfect for one star if they are afraid that star will leave on them. Instead, a GM will bring in decent players, but none specific or complimentary to the teams given star.
Billups’ loyalty paid him with a Championship. Since leaving Detroit, the 7-time All Star made a brief return to Denver, as well as a year long tenure with the New York Knicks. Chauncey Billups may not be the incredible player he once was, but he is by no means some kind of weak shell of his former self. Billups recently signed a contract with the rising Los Angeles Clippers. While the Clippers frontcourt is strong thanks to Chris Paul, Imagine how much better it will get now that Billups is a part of their championship quest. Not only will Paul flourish, but the team can grow under the veteran leadership of Chauncey Billups. And while the Clips will undoubtedly appreciate his wise words, it might be too soon to start counting out his game.
Grant Hill, SF, Los Angeles Clippers, 39
Not that this is anything to be particularly proud of, but Grant Hill is the King of underappreciated, washed-up stars. At 39 years old, Hill is the second oldest player in the league, by one day! Grant Hill has had an immensely long a diverse career. He has played with some of the biggest stars, been in some tough games, and got to be a part of one of the best eras in basketball. Playing in the days of Jordan, Iverson, and Bryant is enough to consider it a diverse career. Being as old as he is, Hill is by no means playing for money. If you are 39 years old and preparing for another season of professional basketball, you clearly love the game. Hill is hanging around because he simply cannot quit basketball cold turkey. For that, we commend him. Despite his age, Grant Hill actually produces fairly well on a regular basis. He is certainly not LeBron James, but for the second oldest player in the league, he is a contributor.
Putting up 10 ppg last season with the Phoenix Suns is nothing to sneeze at considering Hill’s mileage. It also helps to have the game’s best facilitator in Steve Nash running the point, but just the same this supposedly “washed-up” old man put up better numbers than some of the emerging and hyped draft picks this season. Many fault Grant for sticking around in the league so long. He is clearly not a drain on his ballclub or anything else, for that matter. Hill’s 17 season career has brought him through 4 different teams, yet still no championship. Although he was unable to capture a ring in Detroit, Orlando, or Phoenix, Grant Hill has one more shot at getting himself into some team’s victory parade. That team is the Los Angeles Clippers. Known mostly for the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Hill would bring some veteran experience as well as grit to the otherwise flashy and star-studded table. If nothing else, it would be cool to see the elderly duo of Billups and Hill. Even in his old age, Hill has potential. This potential may not be for 40 point outbursts, the potential is in making a positive impact on younger and less experienced players. And that is potential, nonetheless.
The old men of the NBA may not be putting up big numbers and selling jerseys quite like they used to, but these patriarchal ballers should not be forgotten. Defenders forget them and get dunked on. Fans forget them and miss out some very intriguing stories, personalities, and games. While the contracts of these 5 players are probably covered by AARP, they still have the same love and exuberance for the game they had the day they got drafted. It is because of this, we as fans must continue to appreciate them.
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