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 whose team changes drastically impacted basketball video games.
There’s a reason that many basketball fans enjoy the NBA offseason almost as much as the regular season and Playoffs. All of the movement, all of the team changes that we inevitably see, are exciting to read and talk about. Will a blockbuster trade or big signing be the difference that helps a team to get over the hump? Won’t it be strange to see a player wearing a different jersey this year, especially after spending most (or all) of their career with their former team? After particularly crazy offseasons, we’re all eager to see just how much the league will be shaken up.
Needless to say, these team changes also affect the licensed NBA video games. After all, we’ll see those new rosters in the forthcoming games, and when the face of the real NBA changes, so does the experience on the virtual hardwood. All player moves contribute to that feeling of change, but some players unquestionably have a bigger impact than others. They’re the ones that shift the balance of power, making teams far more popular to play with, and more difficult to play against. Their impact can also reach much further, affecting a game’s branding and even influencing which teams appear in a demo. These players’ team changes have been among the most impactful.
1. Michael Jordan’s Comeback with the Wizards in 2001
Both of Michael Jordan’s comebacks had an impact on basketball video games, albeit in very different ways. His return in 1995 was significant as it resulted in licensed games missing the league’s best player and biggest marquee name, owing to the fact that he retained the rights to his likeness. When MJ returned to the NBA as a member of the Washington Wizards in 2001, it meant that he was included as an active player for the first time since NBA Showdown. Regardless of how odd it looked, or whether we held the games from the 2002 and 2003 seasons in high esteem, they instantly became significant because of Michael Jordan’s presence on the Wizards’ roster.
It made the Wizards the most appealing they’d been to play with since…well, ever! Even if MJ’s stint in Washington didn’t cause us to permanently change allegiances, many of us who were and are fans of His Airness at least took an interest in them, and felt compelled to play with them on the virtual hardwood. The aforementioned oddity of seeing Jordan in a uniform other than that of the Chicago Bulls definitely made it a novelty. It even resulted in him becoming one of the first international cover players, as he appeared on the Japanese cover of NBA Live 2002 instead of Steve Francis. Team changes involving a future Hall of Famer always have a significant impact.
2. Kyrie Irving’s Trade Demand in 2017
When Kyrie Irving demanded a trade in 2017, it was a shocking turn of events. The Cleveland Cavaliers were coming off their third straight NBA Finals appearance, a situation that few players would beg out of. Irving wasn’t happy playing second fiddle to LeBron James however, and reportedly felt slighted at repeatedly being referred to as “kid”. They’ve apparently reconciled since parting ways, but they nevertheless did part ways as Irving’s request was granted, and he was traded to the Boston Celtics. Like all team changes that took place in the 2017 offseason, it impacted NBA 2K18 and NBA Live 18 by shaking up the rosters at launch, just as they had in real life.
Of course, it had an even bigger impact on NBA 2K18, as Kyrie was the game’s cover player. Beyond the impact on the virtual hardwood, the trade forced a change of the box art and title screen. The title screen was updated in the Day 1 patch, while the new cover art was originally distributed as printable download, and then used for the second run of disc copies. It wasn’t the first time a cover player was traded before the season even began – that would be Stephon Marbury and NBA ShootOut 2002 – but it was the first time since NBA video games achieved mainstream popularity, and the choice of cover player subsequently became a much bigger deal and talking point.
3. Kevin Durant Joining the Warriors in 2016
Speaking of controversial team changes, Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors after blowing a 3-1 lead to them in the 2016 Western Conference Finals undoubtedly ranks among the most contentious. It’s a move that has cast Durant – previously lauded for his character and apparent humility – as a villain in the eyes of many NBA fans. That didn’t stop gamers from rushing to play with the new-look Warriors in NBA 2K17, though. After all, with Durant joining Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors had one of the highest rated starting lineups outside of the Dream Team and various All-Star squads.
2K knew how popular (and potentially cheesy) they were going to be, to the point where a text message from Denver Levins in NBA 2K17’s MyCAREER mode makes fun of people for using them in online play. They were obviously a prime choice for an inexperienced player – or an experienced player who didn’t feel like a challenge – and a very tough opponent when you came up against them, online or offline. When the Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins for the 2019 season, their starting five in the uninjured version of the official roster boasted even higher ratings, and as such, they were even cheesier to play with. Sometimes, team changes just seem unfair.
4. Shaquille O’Neal signing with the Lakers in 1996
The Los Angeles Lakers’ acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal in the 1996 offseason swung the balance of power from the East to the West in real life, and naturally impacted the virtual hardwood as well. The Lakers were still immensely popular in the brief period between Showtime and the arrival of Shaq and Kobe Bryant, but weren’t necessarily the best or most fun team to pick in video games. Shaq was as dominant on the virtual hardwood as he was in real life, so his joining the Lakers set them up to be a popular choice for gamers for years to come. Of course, in that very first year in Los Angeles, virtual Shaq’s dominance was limited to just one release: NBA Live 97.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Shaquille O’Neal was exclusive to NBA Live 97: a fact that EA Sports made sure to boast about on the back cover of the game. His complete absence from games such as NBA Hangtime and NBA Full Court Press, as well as his appearance as a Roster Player in NBA ShootOut ’97, meant that the full impact of his move west wasn’t immediately felt. He was no longer exclusive from the 1998 season games onwards, meaning that the virtual Lakers were at full strength. In their championship years, they were formidable to play with and against. Shaq’s other team changes were also impactful in their own right, but not as much as going to LA.
5. All of LeBron James’ Team Changes
I’m wrapping up this list with another player whose list of team changes also includes a jump to the Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James. That’s only the latest move he’s made, of course; his infamous Decision originally took his talents to South Beach, a desire to be closer to home drew him back to Cleveland, and a J.R. Smith blunder has finally delivered him to Hollywood. Alright, it was probably Hollywood itself that prompted the move, but the point is that LeBron’s has had a far more nomadic career than many of us probably anticipated when the Cavaliers drafted him in 2003. As with all of the other players on this list, his various team changes have impacted games.
Beyond the obvious rise and fall in prominence and power of the teams he’s joined and left, LeBron’s team changes have had other effects, especially on NBA 2K. When he was announced as the cover player for the 20th Anniversary edition of NBA 2K19, he notably wasn’t shown wearing a specific team’s jersey. After all, when he was the cover player for NBA 2K14, he ended up leaving the Heat to return to the Cavs that very offseason. That return prompted the NBA Live 15 demo to feature the Cavaliers and Thunder rather the Heat and Spurs as would be traditional, and his departure for the Lakers made the Cavs’ inclusion in the NBA 2K19 Prelude somewhat lacklustre.
Which other team changes had a drastic impact on the virtual hardwood? Did any of these team changes influence your basketball gaming habits? Have your say in the comments 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.