The Biggest Betrayals in NBA History

Brett David RobertsCorrespondent IDecember 4, 2012

The Biggest Betrayals in NBA History

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    What has been the sickest and coldest betrayal of the last two decades?  Was it LeBron James burning the city of Cleveland on national television?  Was it Michael Jordan getting dirty on the same group he used to belong to in labor negotiations?  Or was it a fan base that rallied behind their hometown team just to see them depart for richer waters?

    These betrayals all smack of different types and get us thinking beyond the casual scenario of a player spurning his team, or of management choosing to go a different direction and get rid of a hometown favorite.  

    Indeed, the betrayals that have come to shape the NBA have been multitudinous in nature, and the implications of what would have been different in the Association had they not come to pass are vast.  

    Let's take a look at the biggest betrayals in the last 30-plus years, dating back to a grizzly faced ginger with a body that just wouldn't cooperate.

1976-1987: Bill Walton's Body Betraying Him

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    Bill Walton is officially categorized as the greatest player who never was. Walton was gifted with inordinate coordination, athleticism, soft touch, great hands...and a body that just wouldn't hold up for him.

    Walton broke his nose, foot, wrist and legs, at various times, and thus never lived up to the billing as the savior of the Portland franchise. In his third season in the NBA, he managed to play 65 games, and the result was a Blazers title.

    Rip City became alive at the prospect of forming a dynasty under Walton's headship. Walton was named to the First All-Defensive Team and led the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots that season. The injuries resumed the next season as Walton suffered a broken foot, a foot that later required surgery in 1980-81.

    Walton didn't officially retire until a failed comeback in 1990, but his career really ended for all practical purposes after spending the 1987-88 season on the injured list. It was a sad end to the career of a guy who could have been a top-20 All-time player, estimable conservatively.

    Walton is just one of a litany of guys whose bodies have betrayed them over league history, and the Blazers would be unfortunate enough to suffer two more big man devastation's before modern times in losing Sam Bowie and Greg Oden.

    The Trail Blazers franchise seems cursed with big men since Walton's injury, and has suffered unparalleled decimation on their selections from the NBA Draft.

    Of course, an entire slideshow could be devoted to "could-have-beens" but Walton was perhaps the greatest of all "could have, should have, would have been" stars to come through the NBA. Our heart further breaks to watch him have to endure the career of his son, Luke.

1982: Dominique Denial

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    Dominique Wilkins was drafted No. 3 overall in 1982 by the Utah Jazz.  Wilkins refused to play in Utah, and caused the Jazz to have to trade The Human Highlight Film for John Drew and Freeman Williams.  

    The Jazz would land Karl Malone in 1984 and get his running mate John Stockton the next season, and this likely never would have happened if Wilkins had remained in Utah.  So, maybe it's for the best.  

    Then again, there is the crazy scenario that Wilkins, Malone and Stockton end up being on the same team and become a trio comparable to the Lakers (Magic, Worthy, Kareem) and Celtics (Bird, McHale, Parish), and the 80s landscape changes significantly.

1996: Shaq Heads for LA's Bright Lights

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    The circumstances and manner in which Shaquille O'Neal left the Magic was completely different to Howard's.

    There were similarities, of course. Both had taken the team to the NBA Finals and both were No. 1 overall picks by the Magic. And both were dominant franchise centers.

    But the attitude taken towards Shaq by the Orlando fans was caustic. In an Orlando Sentinel poll the 91.3 percent of fans said Shaq was not worth the $115 million necessary to keep him in town.

    A fan base that had basically suffered another Jordan-defeat like so many other clubs in the Jordan era had given up on what got the Magic past Jordan in 1995 (before getting swept by the Rockets in the Finals).

    Besides that, many were not even keeping in mind that the Magic lost in the playoffs partly as a consequence of being without star power forward Horace Grant when they faced the vaunted Bulls squad.

    Yes, Jordan was back a year stronger and more unstoppable, but the Magic were only swept because of Grant and Nick Anderson's injuries. With those two starters in the lineup, the Magic may have made another Finals appearance.

    But the real problem wasn't just the burgeoning ego of Hardaway or Shaq needing to be an undisputed alpha dog, nor was it the fan base.

    The true issue was that Shaq just didn't want to play in Orlando.

    The betrayal came in the sense that he was betrayed by the city and then returned the favor by leaving the Magic empty handed rather than allow them to work a sign and trade with the LA Lakers. The road ran both ways, in an awful manner.

1997: Latrell Sprewell's Self Control Betrays Him and P.J. Carlesimo

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    I summed up the actions of Latrell Sprewell and his notorious choking of coach P.J. Carlesimo pretty well in the "Worst Years" piece for Bleacher Report.

    But how bad of a betrayal was it on the part of a player to choke his own coach? Understood in the dynamics of the game is a headship principle which precludes players from choking the guy in charge of them.

    What makes it even more absurd is that Sprewell's betrayal of Carlesimo was unwarranted, as the coach was simply asking for a more concerted effort from Sprewell to make better passes in practice.

    It all culminated in a player having his contract terminated and the sacred bond between player and coach being disrupted. It hasn't happened since Sprewell, but no longer can it be said that simply criticizing a player won't result in something serious and ugly.

1997: Penny's Mutiny of Magic Coach Brian Hill

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    After Shaq had already bolted, Penny Hardaway went ahead and made sure he cleaned house, getting rid of then-Magic coach Brian Hill.

    Hill coached Penny and Shaq through the playoff series victory (and the defeat) of the Chicago Bulls, and was a stabilizing force on a roster that had just lost its key part.

    But Penny wasn't happy with Hill and he made it publicly known. He rallied support from Horace Grant and other Magic players to get Hill fired and it worked.

    Hill would come back to coach Orlando again in 2005-06 and 06-07, but he missed out on a chance at a dynasty because of the way things fell apart after the 1996 Playoffs (mentioned in the Shaquille O'Neal slide).

1989-1997: Jerry Krause Betraying Jordan, Pippen and Grant

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    After bringing three straight titles to the Bulls, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant all sought greener pastures?

    Wait, what?

    Greener than back-to-back-to-back titles?

    Yes, greener pastures. None of the Bulls trio was particularly enamored with GM Jerry Krause and none of them wanted to continue to play for a GM like Krause, who had the audacity to disrespect Phil Jackson, as we later found out in The Jordan Rules.

    Krause's betrayal of the Bulls Big Three derailed what could have been an even greater dynasty, as Jordan eventually spent his final years in Washington, Scottie in Portland and Houston, and Grant in Orlando and LA. Imagine if that trio had aged together.  

    Krause didn't retire as GM until 2003, but he had already wrecked enough collateral damage on the franchise by then with the disastrous personnel moves that followed the dissipation of the Bulls' title teams.

1999: Stephon Marbury Destroys the Timberwolves Forest for Years to Come

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    Has there ever been a player who has unleashed as negative net effect as Stephon Marbury did with the Timberwolves?

    Marbury paired with a young Kevin Garnett to form one of the best one-two duos in the league, and though the Wolves couldn't afford to keep Tom Gugliotta on board, they could afford to keep the tandem of Starbury and KG intact.

    Only they didn't. Marbury turned the players against Flip Saunders, then in a great disappearing act, he bolted as a free agent despite Minnesota's reservations for him financially.

    Marbury's selfish acts and immature behavior costs the Timberwolves a rare chance at contention and instead plummeted them into the lottery.

    On March 11, 1999 the Wolves were forced into dealing Marbury for Terrell Brandon, Brian Grant and the pick that later became Wally Sczerbiak. Those three role players were fair return, but it wasn't as formidable as pairing someone like prime Starbury with KG.

    Only now, many years later on the shoulders of Kevin Love's sheer dominance and Ricky Rubio's wizardry with the basketball, are the Timberwolves looking to rise again.

2003: The Mailman Stops Delivery to Utah

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    Karl Malone played in an era when a lot of players finished their careers with the teams they started them with. He was also one of the first to buck this trend. Despite his co-captain John Stockton remaining in Utah, Malone sought to go ring chasing with the LA Lakers for his final season in the NBA in 2003-04.

    Despite logging 18 consecutive seasons in Utah, Malone joined forces with Gary Payton (also ring chasing), Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

    Malone only played about half the season (42 games) and posted under 20 points per game for the first time since his rookie season in the NBA. This fall off came after averaging 20.4 per game as a member of the Jazz in his second to last NBA season.

    Malone had a bitter pill to swallow, as spurning the Jazz didn't even pay off. The Lakers lost 4-1 in the Finals to the Detroit Pistons, and Malone averaged just 11.5 points per game over his 21 playoff games as a Laker.

    The Mailman delivered for 18 seasons in Utah, then thought he could do it somewhere else. Lesson learned: ring chasers beware.

2004: Vince Carter Throws in the Towel on the Raptors and Their Fan Base

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    Players are paid to play their best basketball, and anyone who saw Vince Carter mail-it-in during his final season in Toronto knows he was not showing up to play his hardest.

    Carter's numbers dipped, his enthusiasm evaporated and the Toronto fan base had to deal with the fact that the only marquee player the franchise had ever landed didn't want to play north of the border. In his final 20 games as a Raptor, he averaged under 16 points per game.

    Carter is less than three points away from that this year at age 36, and it's over five points per game below his career scoring average. In his prime. That's just non-effort.

    Toronto never did recover from Vince leaving, and while Kyle Lowry is pretty exciting, he's no Vinsanity.

2005: Pat Riley's Inexplicable Ousting of Stan Van Gundy Prior to the Playoffs

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    Stan Van Gundy was on his way to his first career NBA title. Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade were at their peak.

    Van Gundy had just led the Heat to a 42-win season and the second round of the 2004 playoffs before landing Shaq in free agency. At the All-Star break in the season Stan found himself coaching the East as the Heat had the best record in the league. Van Gundy was Pat Riley's replacement, and had worked the team back up to a high level.

    ...just to have the rug pulled out from underneath him.

    Riley fired Van Gundy and took the helms for himself, helping Wade secure his first NBA title, as Shaq obtained his fourth ring.

    Van Gundy, meanwhile, still has no rings of his own, after not only being cheated out of that experience but also having struck out with Dwight Howard and the Magic in the 4-1 Finals loss of 2009.

    Van Gundy hasn't had a break in coaching since being ousted of Orlando, and is one of the best inactive coaches in the NBA today. Thanks a million, Pat.

2009: Sonics Ownership moving franchise to OKC

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    What betrayal could be any worse than having the city you've always watched basketball in lose their franchise to another more lucrative opportunity?

    Sure, the city of Seattle had denied arena construction for upwards of a decade, but fans in Seattle had nothing to do with that, and NBA fans in Seattle were left empty handed, right as Kevin Durant was drafted and coming up in the league.

    That has to hurt. Like unimaginably so.

2010: LeBron's Decision

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    "I'm taking my talents to South Beach."

    In one line, LeBron James crushed the hearts of the Cleveland faithful.  

    James had grown up in nearby Akron and become the pride of Cleveland, and he not only decided to spurn the organization, but had the gall to do it on ESPN in a clever guise to raise funds for charity, while simultaneously becoming one of the most reviled stars in professional sports.

    Winning has brought back some of that alienated fan base, but the Cavs fans can only pretend they are better off with Kyrie Irving as the new face of the franchise.  

    Dan Gilbert threw his jabs in at LBJ and Cleveland fans nodded in agreement the whole way, but now appear more like bitter spouses who were unwilling to admit what a great thing they had going.

    Some criticized James for his lack of patience, but eight seasons in Cleveland likely was enough.  It was the way he went about his business in leaving that left such a bad taste in the mouths of Cavs faithful and NBA fans around the league.  

    And then the "Backstreet Boys" party that the Heat's Big Three threw following their union only made it more sickening.

2011: Jerry Sloan Retires...After Deron Williams Wanted Him out

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    What's worse, a coach having to retire because a player wants him out? Or a coach having to retire after coaching a team for 26 years because a player wants him out?

    Jerry Sloan had coached the Utah Jazz since the 1979-80 season and appeared to be a lifer, or at least that he could and would coach up until the point that he could no longer take it anymore, a la Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and so on.

    But then Deron Williams got it in his head that he could quicken the pace of Sloan's exit by complaining. Sloan never attributed his exit to the actions of Williams, but it was more of one of those "straw that broke the camel's back" kind of things, and Sloan is happily retired.

    It would have just been nice if it didn't come mid-season.

2011: Michael Jordan Forgets Rule No. 1—Keeping It Real

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    They say people should never forget where they came from. But people do all the time. Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports simply calls him one word: a "sellout." 

    Michael Jordan, despite knowing the struggles of being a player in the union against a mass of billionaire owners spurned his own kind in the labor negotiations. Jordan wanted to rob the players of a share of the revenue, in a classic hard-line owner stance against a group he used to be a part of.

    Remember, these are kids playing today that grew up idolizing Jordan; eating his Wheaties, wearing his Jordan Nike's, buying his basketball cards and jerseys and hanging their tongues late night in the driveway attempting to recreate his heroics on their own personal stage (Nike actually did a great depiction of this fantasy we all had in their ad with the kid whose image is transposed onto the wall behind him).

    They watched their beloved idol snatch nickels out of their hands. Jordan knows that these guys are only going to be be playing for a handful of years, and of the number that do succeed, the number who don't and garner only a small share of the revenue eventually find themselves having to work just like everyone else.

    But it's also about the guys who are making millions upon millions, and signing max contracts. Jordan has embittered that he didn't have the opportunity to play in today's market. He made his money on endorsements, and the fact remains that most players can't earn a living that way. Jordan instead sought to cut them off from the one way they can: big contracts.

    Jordan's desire to cut the player revenue was the same desire expressed by the corporate moguls in the NBA ownership circle who had never donned a pair of Nike's and won a dunk contest, for the same group who have these teams as mere toys in part of their colossal empires.

    Jordan lost touch with reality and in doing so betrayed the players. Maybe he never lost touch with reality at all, but only lost touch with where he came from. It happens.

2012: the Lakers Trade Derek Fisher for Cap Relief

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    The Lakers sent Derek Fisher out with little left on his career, after spending his entire career in LA, winning rings and having a great time.  They knew Fisher didn't have much left in the tank, and they didn't allow him to finish his career a Laker.  

    Loyalty is a two way streets, and it isn't always players spurning organizations, by any means at all.

2012: Ray Allen Heads to South Beach

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    Ray Allen took less money to play for the Heat than what he could have received in Boston, and many Celtic fans look at that as a great act of betrayal since Allen could have finished his career a Celtic, especially after winning a title in 2008.  

    But is it really betrayal just because it is an Eastern Conference Rival, or is it betrayal because that rival beat the Celtics last year?  

    Can you blame Allen for wanting to play for the better team with so few years left in his sneakers?  It's a dicey sort of betrayal.

2012: the Dwightmare Ends

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    Dwight Howard spent the better part of two seasons toying with the Orlando Magic.  It's actually worse than betrayal, because he led an 85-year-old owner into believing he would stay with the team, stabbed his coach in the back and caused the organization to overhaul management, just to keep him in town.

    He wanted control over personnel moves and player trades, and when he didn't get it, they fired Otis Smith.  He waived his early termination option just to demand a trade before the next season started.  In any other line of work, that would be a breach of contract.

    But the multifoliate nature of Dwight's betrayal really unravels like a black tulip.  He hurt the organization on so many levels, as it had taken fans over a decade to forget the horrors of Shaq's departure.  They finally felt they had a legitimate franchise player, just to see history repeat itself.  Much like the original Superman, Dwight bucked for the bright lights of LA.

    He didn't leave the Magic empty handed without a trading partner, as Shaq did, but that was only because they had time to prepare for the mess.  Shaq left in the blink of an eye, with only faint warnings that he was on his way out.  And Dwight also received the support of the fan base right until his actions were insupportable.

    Dwight will forever be a bittersweet memory for Magic fans, who hadn't tasted the NBA Finals in 14 years before D12 brought them back in 2009 to lose 4-1 to the Lakers.  It wasn't exactly a success, but it was the franchise's first Finals victory, and though they are 1-8 in the Finals, fans still long for the day when that success will again return.

2012: Knicks Not Matching Lin's Offer Sheet

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    After "Linsanity" became a national epidemic, the New York Knicks chose not to match the Houston Rocket's qualifying offer for Jeremy Lin, saying that $10 million a season was simply too much for Lin.

    Lin saved the Knicks season, but they didn't want to shell out the money to keep the phenom in town. Many have billed his performance as a let down, but it's important to remember Lin is still basically one-third of the way through his rookie season in terms of total games.

    So, temper expectations and realize that the Knicks really should have just rewarded the kid and kept him in the Big Apple.

2012: Mark Cuban Not Retiring Kidd's Jersey Number

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    According to the New York Times, Jason Kidd had all but guaranteed return to Dallas before bolting for New York City. That left a foul taste in quasi-GM and majority owner Mark Cuban's mouth, as he decided as an act of revenge he would not retire Kidd's jersey number once his NBA career is through.

    Kidd betrayed Cuban, so Cuban matched him tit-for-tat in what will just be a footnote in Kidd's Hall-of-Fame career and one more outlandish action by Cuban.

2012: Lakers Tell Phil Jackson 'No, Thanks'

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    What better way to repay someone that has brought you three titles than to tap your foot impatiently and tell them "thanks, but no thanks" as you hire someone in the time they said they would take to get back with you on the decision?

    Phil Jackson simply needed some time and some conditions, to come back and do something he loves to do: coach basketball. The Lakers needed Phil as much as he needed to be back on the sidelines, but his declining health and increasing age had led to retirement. To reactivate himself into the world of coaching, Jackson would need accommodations.

    Instead, the Lakers simply went out and got Steve Nash's old coach Mike D'Antoni. They asked Phil just to turn around and ignore his answer, and he was shaken by the behavior of GM Mitch Kupchak.

    Phil's final words on the matter were that "We never discussed any terms, so there was never anything unfair about it."  

    That's a fair assessment, but for a team to reach out to a coach who has done so much for the franchise just to hire someone else in an "oh, by the way" manner, just doesn't sit right with many fans, especially those who hold Jackson's coaching talents in high regard.

    Phil also went on to tell a TMZ freelancer that the chances of him ever coaching again in the NBA are "slim and none."

    So, now, Mitch Kupchak, you have to not only live with the fact you didn't hire Jackson, but with the fact that he's not even now willing to think about coaching another franchise.  

     

    Sources:

    1) Stats:  Basketball-Reference.com

    2) Biographical Info:  Wikipedia.com