Which NBA Stars Have Earned a Kobe-Esque Farewell Tour?
The very concept of an NBA farewell tour is a paradox.
If you deserve one, you probably don't want one. Chances are, a player who has sacrificed for an organization, stayed true to it for years and led it to glory isn't into yearlong, self-aggrandizing celebrations. That sort of thing is generally antithetical to what made the player so revered in the first place.
Case in point: Tim Duncan sure wasn't interested.
Kobe Bryant's ceremonial strut around the league in his final season felt a little icky, even if he deserved to be honored—mainly because it reduced an entire Los Angeles Lakers team (one Kobe had financially hamstrung and emotionally pummeled into submission) to a sideshow.
It was enough to make you wonder if we'll ever see something like it again. Not just because of the whole paradox thing, but also because it's really hard to find someone worthy in the first place. And there's also the leaguewide component. The player in question would have to be a surefire Hall of Famer tied inarguably to one franchise and also one who mattered to the game at large. Additionally, he'd have to be vital to a period of major success (preferably with a championship to show for it).
The standard is high, but a handful of guys meet it.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki is the only easy call in a thin field of candidates.
He's only ever played for the Dallas Mavericks, he only ever will play for them, and he's the organization's leader in points, rebounds, minutes, games and wins.
He's also the Mavs' only MVP and is chiefly responsible for bringing the team its lone championship in 2011.
Along with Kobe Bryant, he's the only man to ever play 20 seasons with a single team. One more year, and he'll stand alone, a paragon of longevity and loyalty. He is inextricably linked to Dallas on a personal level, which is something that tends to happen when someone spends half their life (and nearly their entire adult existence) in one place.
"I think different guys have different priorities," Nowitzki told B/R's Yaron Weitzman. "For me, it was always important to be in one spot, one city. You know, the city I basically grew up in. I came here as a child. The city raised me. I always wanted to finish my career here."
The only argument against giving Nowitzki a farewell tour is that his last handful of seasons have sort of felt like one. He's sticking it out, hanging on longer than just about anyone because he loves the game, his team and the city.
In terms of his leaguewide relevance, Nowitzki is set there, too. He's a pioneering player, the greatest shooting big man to ever live and a harbinger of how the sport is played. He showed up several years before the trend he started began to spread. Plus, he gave us the one-legged fallaway.
You could make the case he deserves a farewell tour more than all but a handful of players in the league's history.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Wade doesn't want one...but screw it, he's getting a farewell tour anyway.
Nobody in Miami Heat history has played more games or minutes than Wade. Nobody has more field goals or free throws. Points, assists, steals, offensive win shares, defensive win shares—all categories D-Wade tops.
Does LeBron James show up in Miami if Wade's not already there? Since, quite clearly, the answer is "no," you can readily attribute the success of the Heatles era (which so often goes James' way) to Wade as well. That helps get Wade into the leaguewide relevance territory we need to justify a tour.
The connection between team and player isn't as clean as Dirk Nowitzki's is with Dallas. Nobody's is. But Wade's return this season takes the sting out of the ugly negotiations that led to his departure in 2016. He and team president Pat Riley made up, and though no Miami fans would ever side with an executive over the most important player in franchise history, the reconciliation helps.
Goodwill abounds on both sides.
And judging by the footage of Wade's (re)debut with the Heat, fans are ready to celebrate him.
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Can you even imagine?
Pretend for a second that the San Antonio Spurs or the NBA itself planned to honor Gregg Popovich's historic career with a single pregame ceremony. Not one held on the floor, of course. This would be a covert affair conducted deep in the bowels of the arena in which Pop and Commissioner Adam Silver would be the only attendees. There would be a minimally descriptive "Certificate of Achievement" conveyed, a firm handshake exchanged and, perhaps, cookies and punch. No—one cookie.
If Popovich caught wind of plans as understated as those, he'd snatch his bug-out bag (stored, naturally, in the heating ducts of every NBA arena, so he'd never be caught unprepared), resign from his post and never be heard from again.
Self-effacement might actually be what sustains Pop's life force. He has always attributed his success to luck, to Duncan's presence, his organization's culture or anything else he can think of to deflect credit.
A farewell tour is a nonstarter.
That said, Popovich deserves to be honored as much as anyone on this list—maybe more. He's the lone constant in an unparalleled run of excellence. The Spurs have been professional sports' paradigm of success for two decades; their stretch of uninterrupted winning is flat-out special. We shouldn't expect to see it again in any major sport.
And though you can attribute San Antonio's dominance to a collective approach, Pop's the only guy who's been there for the duration. It's not hard to do that math.
If Popovich hears rumblings of a celebration and goes into hiding, maybe we could settle for a joint tour honoring Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili?
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James has been the NBA's best player for close to 15 years. This era has been defined by his primacy, and for seven straight seasons, he's taken his teams to the Finals.
Recounting his statistical achievements feels like overkill, as is the exercise of arguing (pretty easily) that he should have another four MVP Awards to go with the quartet he already has. In light of the fact that James is now one of the most productive "old" players of all time, it's difficult to know where his numbers will end up.
Whenever he calls it a career, there's a strong chance he'll be the league's leading scorer. He's already atop the list in postseason points.
Without qualification, he has defined this era of NBA basketball. It feels likely he'll be regarded as the greatest player of all time. In fact, he might already deserve that title. The big-picture worthiness takes care of itself.
The only hangup is figuring out which franchise will underwrite the farewell tour.
Even though James' exercise of total control over his career is another of his noteworthy, league-altering achievements, the effect of his self-determination is that he's not rigidly associated with one team. Certainly, he's the most important figure in Cleveland Cavaliers history. The organization owes everything to him.
But what if he leaves a second time? Will ownership, which has long had a contentious relationship with James, be keen to fete him on a third go-round? If he finishes his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, or anyone else for that matter, what then?
Fortunately, we're not concerned with logistics. The question we're answering is: "Who's earned a farewell tour?"
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Nobody said when the tour had to start.
Stephen Curry is in the middle of his prime, playing better ball statistically this season than in any but his unanimous MVP season and looking to lead the Golden State Warriors to their third title in four years. His head coach thinks he's never been better, period.
That means we're a ways off from Curry's ceremonial final season.
But we've already seen enough to deem him worthy.
Curry is the living symbol of Golden State's pivot from bottom-feeding joke to model franchise. He didn't drag this team out of the muck alone, but the ascent doesn't happen without him. Signed to a fresh max deal that'll keep him with the Warriors for another half-decade, Curry is on the way to ending his career as a lifelong Dub.
In addition to breathing life into his team, he changed a league and a sport in the process. Range shooting off the dribble is a thing now—the thing—because of him. The era of pace and space may have arrived regardless, but Curry ushered it in early with one pull-up 30-footer at a time.
A decade after Ray Allen made a league-leading (and then-record) 269 threes, Curry hit 402.
There aren't many players who've inverted basketball's norms, who've fundamentally changed the way teammates and opponents have to think about the game. Curry's singular shooting talent altered basketball as we know it, stretching defenses to their breaking points, turning once benign areas of the floor into danger zones. Simultaneously, he sent signals to young players everywhere that superhuman size and strength were no longer prerequisites for success in the NBA. Craft and skill were the new currency, and that opened the sport to everyone.
Are there five guys who can lay claim to accomplishments like those? Are there three?
Build this man statues in every city. Retire his jersey everywhere.