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While the NBA is a star-driven league, the fit between player and team sometimes isn’t right.
With player movement more rampant than ever, we’ve seen plenty of examples this millennium where name and status has exceeded the actual production.
Even though some star-team pairings have worked out better than expected (Chris Paul with the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example), the following experiments all ended in disaster.
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Iverson’s introductory press conference turned into a pep rally-like celebration, with the former MVP getting a customized Beale Street Blue Gibson guitar amidst a backdrop of dancing cheerleaders, the team mascot and a drum line. The Grizzlies brought him in to sell tickets and serve as a primary scorer and mentor for the young backcourt of Mike Conley Jr. and O.J. Mayo.
Iverson was coming off a season in which he averaged 17.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals while playing 36.7 minutes per game with the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons. The prior year, he led the league in minutes played (41.8) while starting all 82 games for the Nuggets and averaging 26.4 points, the third-most in the NBA.
While Iverson seemed like he still had plenty of juice left, he lasted only three games in Memphis because of injuries, personal matters and a less-than-ideal attitude.
Head coach Lionel Hollins elected to use Iverson as a sixth man, which the 34-year-old wasn’t fond of. In his first game as a Grizzly, Iverson complained that his “butt hurt” from sitting on the bench for so long.
“Go look at my resume and that will show you that I’m not a sixth man,” Iverson told reporters after the game. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me being selfish. It’s just who I am. I don’t want to change what gave me all the success that I’ve had since I’ve been in this league.”
Iverson came off the bench two more times before his release from Memphis. He later signed with the Philadelphia 76ers in what would end up being the final season of his Hall of Fame career.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers were fresh off a 66-win regular season that ended with a devastating Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Orlando Magic, one in which Dwight Howard averaged 25.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 blocks while shooting 65.1 percent from the field.
The Cavs needed someone with the size and muscle to counter Howard in the paint, but they had limited options from which to choose.
Enter Shaquille O’Neal, coming off an All-Star season with the Phoenix Suns in which he averaged 17.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks while leading the NBA with a 60.9 field-goal percentage. Even at age 37, O’Neal was still playing at a high level and was coming to a Cavs team that preferred to play a half-court, slower-paced game.
Cleveland only had to give up an aging Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a 2010 second-round pick and $500,000 in cash for the future Hall of Famer, as dumping O’Neal saved the Suns $10 million. The big man’s motto at the time was “win a ring for the King” after having already won three championships with Kobe Bryant and a fourth alongside Dwyane Wade.
While O’Neal was by far the biggest name to join LeBron James in Cleveland, his play slowly fell off a cliff.
O’Neal was listed at 325 pounds at the time, but he appeared far heavier as he struggled to keep up with the 24-year-old James getting up and down the court. It also meant a demotion to the bench for franchise staple Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who was eventually traded for Antawn Jamison (before later re-signing in Cleveland).
James found the court more crowded with O’Neal taking up so much space, and the Cavs defense slipped while the team finished five games worse than the season before. O’Neal’s numbers fell to 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 53 games, which were the worst marks of his career at the time.
Cleveland never made it far enough to face Orlando, as James, O’Neal and the Cavs lost to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. Both would leave in free agency that summer.
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Although Dwight Howard is now thriving in a backup center role with the Los Angeles Lakers, his first stint in Hollywood was a disaster.
Following eight years with the Orlando Magic where he made six All-Star teams, was named Defensive Player of the Year three times and led the league in rebounding four times, Howard was eventually traded to the Lakers in a four-team, 12-player deal that also featured five draft picks.
At the time, the Lakers were only two years removed from winning a title and still had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. The Lakers traded for two-time MVP Steve Nash earlier that summer, giving us a now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover with Howard.
L.A.’s starting five was among the league’s best on paper, and a Finals matchup against the Miami Heat’s Big Three looked inevitable.
Lost in the excitement was the back surgery Howard underwent in April to repair a herniated disc, which he later admitted should have kept him out for the entire 2012-13 season. That and a personality clash with Bryant led to a disappointing 45-37 season, one where Howard’s 17.1 points were his lowest average in seven years.
As Howard would later tell Stadium’s Shams Charania, “injuries and egos” led to the downfall of that Lakers team.
“When everybody’s not on the same page because of their egos and what they’re being fed by people at home, their agents and stuff like that, now you’ve got everybody just out there doing their own thing. But when you take your ego away, leave it at home, throw it in the trash and just come to work and do your job, it makes everything a lot better.”
The Lakers had to win the final five games of the regular season just to get the seventh seed, and the San Antonio Spurs swept them in the first round.
That summer, Howard left the Lakers after only one season to sign a four-year, $88 million max deal with the Houston Rockets.
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In their lone full season together, Jimmy Butler helped lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004. He averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals while making the Western Conference All-Star team.
While that season seemed like a stepping stone to an even brighter future with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the relationship between Butler and Minnesota quickly imploded.
Butler was reportedly unhappy that Wiggins wasn’t living up to his five-year, $147.7 million max deal and would later request a trade in the summer of 2018.
Things quickly got messy from there.
The Timberwolves gave up Zach LaVine, the draft pick that became Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn for Butler the summer before, and they refused all offers for the then-29-year-old heading into training camp. Knowing his time with the Timberwolves was coming to an end, Butler skipped the entire preseason, mostly with what the team described as “general soreness.”
During one infamous practice, Butler played with third-stringers and beat the rest of the Wolves starters while taking only one shot. He also lit into head coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Chemistry unsurprisingly plummeted, and a 47-win season and playoff appearance the year before had turned into a miserable 4-9 start to the 2018-19 season with Butler in and out of the lineup.
Minnesota then traded Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick, ending his career with the Wolves after only 69 total games.
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In his first year with a young Celtics team, Irving made the All-Star team but missed 22 regular-season games and 19 playoff contests because of injuries. Boston pushed the Cavaliers to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals behind Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, which creating questions about Irving’s value.
After LeBron James left the Cavs for the Los Angeles Lakers that summer, the East looked like it was Boston’s for the taking. Irving was coming back healthy, and Gordon Hayward was set to return from a devastating ankle injury.
Irving’s upcoming free agency was a concern, although he thrilled the fanbase in October by saying he planned to re-sign in the summer. But when Boston stumbled to fourth place in the East, he began demurring with remarks such as “Ask me July 1st” and “I don’t owe anybody s–t.“
Irving struggled with being the face of the Celtics franchise. He called out younger players and admitted he owed James an apology, which created a snowball of frustration from Boston fans.
Irving’s final days with the Celtics came in a second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, one where Boston managed only one win while Irving shot 35.6 percent overall and 21.9 percent from three.
Seeing as Boston had already agreed to a deal with Kemba Walker prior to the start of free agency, both Irving and the Celtics were more than ready to call it quits after only two seasons.
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Trying to add star power behind James Harden and Chris Paul, the Houston Rockets signed a 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony to form an offensively charged Big Three.
Getting Anthony for the veteran’s minimum was a no-brainer. The Rockets even convinced him to come off the bench for the first time in his career, which he had resisted the year prior with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Anthony’s first 10 games with Houston were a mixed bag. He had three games with 20 points or more, but scored 10 or fewer six times. The Rockets struggled out of the gate, beginning the season 4-6 overall.
While Anthony wasn’t the only reason, opponents outscored Houston by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with the future Hall of Famer on the floor.
General manager Daryl Morey let Anthony know the team would be getting rid of him after only 10 games, he later said in an interview on ESPN’s First Take.
“He told me I wasn’t going to make the rotation. I’m like, ‘I can’t make a nine-man rotation, that’s what you’re trying to tell me?’ I’d already started to accept the fact that I’ve got to come off the bench, which was very hard for me, but I accepted that and I moved on from that. But you’re telling me that I can’t make a nine-, 10-man rotation on this team? It’s deeper than basketball.”
The Rockets would eventually trade Anthony to the Chicago Bulls in a salary dump, who then waived the veteran forward. Anthony wouldn’t play again for the rest of the 2018-19 season, although he ended his NBA hiatus by signing a one-year contract with the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 19.
While Anthony wasn’t good for Houston, his play didn’t necessarily warrant a divorce so early in the season.
All statistics via Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.