Tracy McGrady. Allen Iverson. Shaquille O'Neal.
Each is probably better known to NBA fans by their iconic nicknames: T-Mac, AI, Shaq.
Three legendary players each in their own right. Three of the most marketable, recognizable faces of the last decade. Three of the most talented players we've seen.
There is one more similarity, all three are currently unemployed NBA veterans facing the prospects of no team offering them a contract.
Could this be the end of the line for these three players?
Looking for an initial reason, one can see another common thread similarly linking those three, all have gained a reputation of being a malcontent and destabilizing presence on teams.
Of the three, Iverson is probably the least likely to be employed by an NBA team. You can trace Iverson's decline back to the November, 2008 trade that sent him to the Detroit Pistons. Almost immediately, he started clashing with Pistons coach Michael Curry, and although there was some initial success, the Pistons soon began losing games at a faster rate than they had been with fan-favorite Chauncey Billups. Iverson's play, though, showed more than rust, the once cat-quick guard was ineffective and slower than ever.
Within weeks, Curry approached Iverson about accepting a bench-role, however Iverson demanded to stay a starter. Ultimately, this caused Piston GM Joe Dumars to step in and deactivate Iverson, who did not play another game for Detroit.
Iverson signed with the Memphis Grizzlies to start the '09 season, a move he felt "God chose" for him. Well, God must be fickle because a week into the Grizzly season Iverson had left the team for "personal" reasons—anger at given a bench role.
After Philadelphia 76er starting guard Louis Williams suffered a broken jaw, 76er GM Ed Stefanski gave Iverson another chance at redemption and brought him back to his longtime team. Positive response and good feelings met Iverson's return to the team, but soon it was apparent that Iverson's game had declined and his jump shooting was worse than ever. Within months Iverson, despite being voted by fans to start the '10 All-Star game, left the team. It was officially announced Iverson was leaving due to the illness of his five-year-old daughter, however most felt it was that Iverson could not accept becoming a bench player.
McGrady has had similar types of controversy follow him. After a promising start to his career playing alongside cousin Vince Carter on the Toronto Raptors, he left as a free agent to sign with his home-state Orlando Magic. McGrady was soon winning scoring titles and became a shoe-in All-Star. However, with all of McGrady's scoring punch, he was unable to lead the Magic to playoff success.
In 2004, the Magic traded McGrady to the Houston Rockets. He continued his stellar scoring pace for a year, but began experiencing back problems at start the '05 season. Unfortunately, this marked the beginning of recurring health issues that continued on throughout the years. McGrady has been able to play more than 35 games in a season only twice since 2006.
Even more troubling than McGrady's injury problems has been his controversial manner in which he announced he would be undergoing knee surgery in February, 2009. McGrady wrote about it in his website without telling Rocket team officials or his coach Rick Adelman. Despite his rash of injuries, the thoroughly unprofessional manner McGrady's knee surgery was handled has red-lighted him in the minds of NBA executives throughout the league.
The Rockets announced McGrady would be deactivated to start the 2010 season, only showcasing him before the trade deadline for five games, just enough time to complete a trade sending him and his expiring contract to the New York Knicks. In New York, McGrady had a great start, but soon his statistics started diving. He finished his time in a Knick uniform averaging less than 10 points a game.
Shaq's inability to find an NBA home has been the most puzzling of the three. He showed glimpses of great play throughout the last season, averaging a respectable 12 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes played with the Cleveland Cavaliers during last season's playoffs. Looking deeper however, we can find reasons why teams have stayed away from him.
During his time with the Lakers, Shaq showed some of the most dominant center play the league has ever seen, and his play alongside Kobe Bryant earned the Lakers three titles. However, his play in L.A. was marred by the ongoing feud that he had with Kobe. When the Lakers were winning, all was good in L.A. However, after the Lakers' disappointing NBA Finals showing in 2004, in which the Detroit Pistons single-covered Shaq and he failed to respond with his usual dominance.
During that offseason, Shaq began actively seeking a contract extension, hinting to the press that he was demanding the maximum. Shaq had angered Laker owner Jerry Buss in his first Hawaii training camp game, showing him up after a slam-dunk. Shaq, after completing the play, turned up court and shouted to Buss who sitting court-side, "Now you going to pay me?" It was thought that Buss never forgave Shaq for the slight, being a major factor in his unwillingness to give Shaq the deal he was seeking. The Lakers ultimately traded Shaq to the Miami Heat and begin a rebuilding process around the younger, emerging Bryant.
Shaq quickly showed earlier dominance in Miami, finishing second to Steve Nash in MVP voting. He also signed a five-year, $100 million deal and indicated that he would have taken less than max-dollars from L.A., contradicting his earlier comments. He also delivered on his promise to bring a championship title to the Heat, doing so in 2006.
By 2007 however, Shaq's act was wearing thin in Miami. During one Heat practice, Alonzo Mourning had to break up a physical confrontation between Shaq and Heat coach Pat Riley after Riley tried to get Shaq to leave practice and he refused. Within two months, in November, 2008, Shaq was traded to the Phoenix Suns—a move that many criticized as a reactionary move by Suns GM Steve Kerr to counter the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol.
During the 2008 playoffs, Shaq was unable to contain the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan, and the Suns lost the series. The next season Shaq showed some flashes of his former self, but the Suns failed to qualify for the playoffs and the end of his time in a Suns jersey was near.
Shaq was traded to the Cavaliers in 2009, stating his desire to "win a ring for the King (James)." However his time in Cleveland was marked by questions about Shaq's work ethic and fitness level. Although again showing some nice play during the Cavaliers' playoff run, the aging Shaq was unable to add enough physical center play to help the Cavaliers from being eliminated by the Celtics.
Shaq's last several years have been marked by various feuds, continuing his trend of clashing with teammates and coaches. Amongst his most recent off court arguments have been ones with Steve Nash over his television show, former coach Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard over the Superman persona, and former Cavalier coach Mike Brown over his playing time.
It is safe to say that teams are staying away from these three players due to their disruptive personality quirks just as much as their on-court declines.
I think that most NBA fans would most like to see all of these three players step aside in a dignifying way, but this probably won't happen. The three of them have expressed interest in continuing their careers, like an old boxer that doesn't realize they are past their prime and have worn out their welcome's.
Perhaps all NBA fans should hope that collectively, NBA general managers look elsewhere other than dredging up this threesome from the depths.
I just hope we don't see any of them resort to streaming their lives through Internet videos like the most recent high-profile NBA flame-out of Stephon Marbury. If they can't resist keeping out of the spotlight, and we know they most likely can't, please don't eat Vaseline on camera , get into car crashes , or cry . Most of us will never be able to get those disturbing images out of our heads.