Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of five players who left the NBA quite abruptly.
Not all NBA players receive a big send-off when they call it a career. Farewell tours are generally reserved for future Hall of Famers, and even then, that’s something that only happens when a player makes a definitive declaration that the current season will be their last. Even when a player leaves the NBA without a big announcement or much fanfare, it isn’t necessarily a surprise. If they’re getting on in years and have already enjoyed a lengthy career, there’s usually no mystery as to why they’ve decided to hang it up, and are no longer a fixture after being around for so many years.
And then, there are the players who appear to leave the NBA quite abruptly and without any kind of statement, even when they seem to have several seasons left in them. Some quietly go overseas to play, or officially retire a few years later, but whatever the case, they’ll fail to latch on with a team and then that will be the last we’ll ever see of them in the NBA. While that’s inevitable given the limited amount of roster spots and the constant influx of new talent, we are left wondering what happened when prominent players seemingly just disappear. Here are five such players whose NBA careers came to a rather abrupt halt.
1. Ben Gordon
Suffice to say, the years following Michael Jordan’s second retirement were a tough time to be a Chicago Bulls fan. There were a lot of losses, as well as disappointment in free agency, and a considerable amount of turnover with the roster. I struggled to choose a new favourite active player, after MJ’s comeback with the Washington Wizards postponed that decision for a couple of years. With the team making some good moves and at long last returning to the Playoffs in 2005, I grew to like Ben Gordon. A standout rookie who became the first NBA freshman to win the Sixth Man of the Year award, I soon became a fan, and hoped to see him blossom into a star.
That didn’t quite happen. He had some memorable performances and highlights, and was part of the exciting first round series between the Bulls and Boston Celtics in 2009, but that’s where he peaked. His career faltered following his departure from the Bulls, and after being cut by the Warriors during training camp in 2015, the closest he’s come to making it back to the NBA is being picked up by the G-League’s Texas Legends. Despite still being fairly young and having a skill set that would be a good fit in today’s league, its seems a comeback is highly unlikely, especially since he’s recently been in trouble with the law. Hopefully, he can turn his life around.
2. Al Thornton
If you weren’t watching the NBA around ten years ago, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Al Thornton. Despite a couple of respectable seasons for the Los Angeles Clippers, which included All-Rookie First Team honours, Thornton went from promising young prospect to former NBA player very quickly. He spent just four years in the league, with his last game coming in 2011 at the age of 27. He isn’t quite done with professional basketball however as he’s been playing overseas, most recently with Brujos de Guayama in Puerto Rico. He also took part in the BIG 3 League, earning the “Fourth Man” award coming off the bench.
Thornton’s abrupt departure from the NBA is hardly unprecedented or unusual. He’s far from the first promising young player to spend a few years in the league, before heading overseas because the money and/or opportunities for playing time were better. It did seem as though he went from a player with a lot of potential to an afterthought very quickly however, and given that he’s a forward who demonstrated some range and versatility, it’s strange that he hasn’t found a way back to the NBA. I suppose the door might still be open, but perhaps he feels he has a good thing going playing elsewhere. Whatever the case, his NBA career seemed to go by in a blink.
3. Josh Howard
Admittedly, Josh Howard did play ten years in the NBA, which makes him one of the older and longer-tenured players on this list. Nevertheless, his stint in the world’s top league did seem to come to an abrupt end, with his last appearance coming with the Timberwolves in the early weeks of the 2013 season. It’s worth noting of course that he sustained a torn ACL, the second such injury in his professional career. Indeed, injuries continued to be an obstacle in his attempt to make it back to the league. Howard was still eyeing a comeback as recently as 2014, but in 2016, he became the head coach at Piedmont International University, ending his playing career.
Considering his injuries woes, Howard’s abrupt departure is a little different to the other players on this list, but for a one-time All-Star who was a key player for the Mavericks during their first NBA Finals run, it was a rapid fall from grace and an unceremonious exit from the league. The writing was arguably on the wall following his first knee injury in 2010, but even with his lingering health issues, the end of Josh Howard’s career did still feel a little sudden. It probably doesn’t help that some of his contemporaries are still around (even if it’s in smaller roles), and he’s a member of the Class of 2003 which includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade.
4. DeShawn Stevenson
Like Josh Howard, DeShawn Stevenson did have a reasonably lengthy NBA career, sticking around for thirteen seasons. He was a young thirteen year pro however, as he entered the league straight out of high school back in 2000. As such, he was just 31 when he played his final NBA game. Before that, he’d had a few decent years as a regular starter for the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards, but towards the end of his career, he found himself playing less than twenty minutes per game, even when he was starting. This was even the case in Dallas, where he made some big plays for the Mavs on route to their first title, despite seeing very little court time for a starter.
After that, he played a couple more seasons for the New Jersey Nets and Atlanta Hawks, again starting in more than half of the games he played, but playing less than half of those games on average. He formally announced his retirement around a year ago, three years removed from his last game. Considering his age and ability to shoot the ball from the outside, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t latch on anywhere after his stint with the Hawks, and he’d probably still have a few decent years left in him. Still, while Stevenson may not have become a star and abruptly left the NBA at 31, he had a respectable career that, from all accounts, he’s quite content with.
5. Daniel Gibson
A common theme with the players on this list is that they left the NBA at a relatively young age, despite seemingly having quite a few years left in them. Daniel Gibson is perhaps the most interesting example, given his age when he left the NBA and retired from basketball altogether. Three years younger than Al Thornton, Gibson was 26 when he last played in the NBA, though he enjoyed a longer career having played seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He doesn’t appear to have played pro ball anywhere else since leaving the NBA in 2013, and officially announced his retirement in 2015, apparently to focus on a rap career. That hasn’t quite materialised as yet.
In an era where more and more players are playing into their forties, and twenty years in the league (or close to it) is becoming more commonplace, Daniel Gibson and Al Thornton stand out as noteworthy exceptions; Gibson in particular, since as noted above, Thornton is still active. Nicknamed “Boobie” – something that commentators loved mentioning – Gibson was the first rookie to start in an NBA Finals game since Richard Dumas in 1993, and showed flashes of brilliance. His legacy is basically being a noteworthy subplot of LeBron James’ first NBA Finals, but if he’d been able to stick around a few more years, he might’ve been a part of a championship squad.
What are some other names that come to mind when you think about players who left the NBA somewhat abruptly? Let me know in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.