With another season of NBA basketball about to begin, everyone in the league is looking forward - who is going to be the next great team, who is going to be the next great player, who is going to breakout in a big way. However, before things get too crazy and the season starts to heat up, it’s also as good a time as any to look back and remember what was. Every young guy that comes into the league means an old guy on his way out. It’s the circle of life.
There are only 450 roster spots in the NBA and there’s a story behind every one of them. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers play basketball competitively in the United States and overseas. Only a tiny fraction of them play at the college level and only a tiny fraction of those guys ever plays as professionals, much less in the NBA. Players can’t take a breathe even when they make the league - the length of an average career is only 4.8 years long.
That means a 10-year NBA veteran has survived the league being turned over twice in his career. For the most part, just making it that long means that at least one team believed in you enough to give you a significant long-term contract. Plenty of guys make a living playing basketball - a 10-year NBA veteran has a chance to make a career out of it, setting up himself and the rest of his family for the rest of their lives if he managed his money well.
However, aside from the truly transcendent players whose careers will be dissected when it comes time for Hall of Fame voting, there’s very little fanfare when a longtime veteran leaves. Most guys don’t even get a farewell press conference - they don’t make a team and they aren’t picked up anywhere else and then fans see their name a few years later and realize that they are no longer in the NBA. As the 2015-16 season gets underway, here are a few notable names who aren’t on an NBA roster for the first time in more than a decade.
Carlos Boozer (13 years) - Like so many things in modern culture that managed to stick around past their expiration dates, Boozer became a parody of himself by the end. A second-round pick who beat the odds to post career averages of 16.5 points and 9.5 points a game on 52.1% shooting, he became known more for empty statistics, horrific defense and pointless yelling by his final season with the Lakers. He was a living and breathing example of a traditional PF made redundant by the rise of 4-out basketball and the spread pick-and-roll - the fact that he made two All-Star teams and two Olympic teams in the last decade shows just how dramatic a sea change has occurred in the league in that time span.
Danny Granger (10 years) - Granger is a guy whose career will always be associated with what if. He spent most of his career almost single-handedly keeping bad Pacers teams afloat and just when the team started to turn the career in the early part of the 2010’s and become relevant, his knee gave out and he became a shadow of himself. Even modern medicine can’t fix everyone, as Granger played in only 76 games (none of them very effectively) in his final 3 seasons in the league. A sweet-shooting 6’9 220 combo forward who averaged 16.8 points a game and shot 38% from 3 on his career, he made one All-Star as a SF and would have been an even better player as a stretch PF in the modern NBA, if his knee had been able to hold up.
Elton Brand (16 years) - Brand was a legitimate superstar before an Achilles injury at the age of 28 robbed him of his explosiveness and forced him to re-invest himself as a heady role player. The amazing part was that he managed to stick in the league for another eight seasons - he was the consummate professional who knew how to fill a role on both sides of the ball and could always be counted to knock down open jumpers, box out his man and make the proper defensive rotations. A former No. 1 overall pick who began the process of turning the LA Clippers into a legitimate NBA franchise, his best season came in 2006, when he carried the Clippers to the 2nd round of the playoffs and averaged 24.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1 steal and 2.5 blocks a game on 52.7% shooting. Even at the very end, Brand was still a cog on Hawks teams that captivated the league with the unselfish way they played the game.
Jason Richardson (13 seasons) - Another high-flyer whose time in the league was cut short by knee injuries, Richardson finished his career playing out the string as the only veteran on 76ers rosters taking slash-and-burn rebuilding to its logical conclusion. Before that, though, he was a big contributor on some fascinating NBA teams, from the We Believe Warriors to the last great Steve Nash teams in Phoenix and Dwight Howard teams in Orlando. He was a 3-and-D SG before the name came into fashion, an elite 6’6 220+ athlete who could defend multiple positions, stroke the ball from 3 and finish way above the rim. He averaged 17.1 points a game and shot 37% from 3 over the course of his career - he probably could have re-invented himself as a role player and played for a long time to come were it not for the injuries.
Samuel Dalembert (13 seasons) - Not being able to make a Mavericks team desperate for interior defense because he didn’t show up to camp in great shape may not be the best epitaph for Dalembert’s career but it was a fitting finale for a guy who never defined himself by his ability to play a children’s game and whose real legacy may be as a humanitarian in his native Haiti. When he was playing, Dalembert always made an impact with his ability to protect the rim at a high level and his surprisingly competent offensive game. Playing for 5 teams in his 5 final seasons in the NBA showed that teams didn’t always know what to make of him off the court but it also showed that his skill-set was so rare and so valuable that he could always find a job at the highest levels of the sport.
Reggie Evans (13 seasons) - Your favorite role player’s favorite role player, Evans played for seven teams in 13 seasons in the league and managed to squeeze a long and successful NBA career out of the least possible amount of basketball talent. Evans was a really undersized post player who couldn’t block shots, couldn’t shoot, couldn’t dribble and couldn’t pass but he was an absolute terror on the boards who knew his role and refused to get outworked or out-toughed by anyone, no matter how much bigger they were. If there was a ball to be had, Evans was going to get it and Lord help anyone who happened to be in his way. Just ask Chris Kaman.
Honorable mention: Dahntay Jones, Jason Maxiell, Willie Green, Luke Ridnour, Brendan Haywood, Nazr Mohammed