The Viral Moments These NBA Players Had to Live Down
It's as true in the real world as it is in the NBA: You'd rather be remembered at your best than at your worst.
Too often, though, our basketball memories work the opposite way. For a handful of players, the worst moments are the first things we think of when their names come up. That's how highlight culture works. It creates a snapshot prison from which many otherwise excellent players never escape.
We're giving a few of those guys their due here, defending their honor and their games against the onslaught of unfair recollection. Nobody should be defined by getting dunked on or crossed over, least of all players who had productive careers.
We're excluding the biggest names. Chris Paul, Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash and other stars who got embarrassed don't need our support. Everyone knows Paul is an all-time great who just happened to get dropped by Stephen Curry a few times. His rep is fine.
Others aren't so lucky. We're here to help them.
There was just no place else to start. It had to be Brandon Knight.
Some guys get crossed over, and some get dunked on. But few suffer both fates, with extreme notoriety in each case, and manage to escape forever being associated with those unfortunate highlights. And while it's true Knight might always be best remembered for getting alley-ooped into oblivion by DeAndre Jordan and sent tumbling to the floor by Kyrie Irving, the guy deserves to be known for more than that.
First of all, Knight, the eighth overall pick in 2011, has career earnings of over $80 million. You can mock and meme him all you want while he struts to the bank.
Second, the guy could play.
He was a 2011-12 All-Rookie selection who averaged double-figure scoring in each of his first six seasons. He peaked in 2015-16 with the Phoenix Suns, posting 19.6 points and 5.1 assists per game. That season was three years after Jordan posterized him. Clearly, he recovered.
The Irving cross in the 2013 Rising Stars Game happened less than a month before the DJ dunk. That it came in a nationally televised event probably resulted in more witnesses than Knight would have liked.
Knight tore his ACL in the 2017 offseason, and that (not his penchant for being on the wrong end of highlights) altered the course of his career. It's a testament to his resiliency that he returned after missing the entire 2017-18 season and started 26 games for the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers. He played 25 games between Cleveland and Detroit in 2019-20, averaging 11.6 points per game in his short stint with the Pistons.
Nobody is arguing Knight was a superstar, but he's so much more than a "wrong place, wrong time" victim.
Derrick Rose produced several signature plays before injury rerouted his career, but his two-hand thumper on Goran Dragic on Jan. 22, 2010 was his most awe-inspiring.
Dragic, then a 23-year-old second-year guard who could have been irreparably scarred by an all-timer of a poster jam, turned out just fine.
A regular starter by his age-26 season, Dragic has gone on to score over 20.0 points per game in two different years, earn an All-Star (2017-18) and All-NBA nod (2013-14) and, believe it or not, outproduce Rose in career win shares and true shooting percentage.
Yes, Rose's injury history complicates the picture, but there's a credible argument to be made that Dragic's career, even on a per-minute basis, ended up just as valuable as the 2010-11 MVP's.
If scoring efficiency matters at all, Dragic may actually have the edge.
Dragic is still going strong now at 34. Prior to the season stalling, he was putting up 16.1 points per game as the Miami Heat's lead guard off the bench. That one dunk didn't break him.
Tristan Thompson was just 22 and playing for a crummy 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers team that wouldn't bring LeBron James back into the fold for another six months when JR Smith floored him with a wicked crossover.
Smith hit the jumper and mugged hard afterward. He'd earned it.
To be fair to Thompson, he was already a quality player at that point. The No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft would finish that season with averages of 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds. Then he willingly accepted a reduced role after James returned and morphed the Cavs into contenders.
Thompson's minutes shrank in his new gig, but his rebound rate spiked, and his defensive value grew as he proved he could stick with guards on perimeter switches. None of the Cavs' bigs consistently survived in their four Finals meetings with the Golden State Warriors, but Thompson had the most relative success wrangling Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
His work on the offensive glass was also critical to Cleveland's title in 2016. Among players who've logged at least 10,000 minutes since 2014-15, only Andre Drummond has a higher offensive rebound percentage than Thompson.
Still just 29, Thompson has at least another few years to add to an already excellent resume.
This isn't so much about a player getting jammed on and recovering to have a solid career, as Andrei Kirilenko was already an established star when Baron Davis made him part of the most memorable moment in the Golden State Warriors' 2007 "We Believe" playoff run.
But that's the thing: Nobody seems to remember how ridiculously good AK-47 was—both before and after that play.
Partly because he had a short career, and partly because injury ended his prime sometime around 2006, Kirilenko is wrongly remembered for getting pulverized. The truth was, he was on the right side of highlights far more often than the wrong one.
Kirilenko led the league with 3.3 blocks per game in 2004-05 and swatted at least 1.9 shots per contest in each of his first six seasons. There have been nine five-by-five games (at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) since Kirilenko entered the league in 2001-02, and he has three of them. Two came within the span of a week in 2003.
If he'd arrived in the modern NBA, the angular and rangy 6'9" forward would have been one of the nastiest five-position stoppers in today's switch-heavy, versatility-obsessed game. Even back then, he was a uniquely dominant defender who could also move the ball, work his way to the line and score with consistently above-average efficiency. He ranked in the top 10 percent of forwards in points per shot attempt in five separates seasons.
Yes, the dunk was iconic. But Kirilenko's Utah Jazz won that series against the Warriors, and his career deserves to be known for more than that one play.
You've got your pick of tough moments for Shawn Bradley, the 7'6" center selected second overall in the 1993 draft. There are too many individual dunks to highlight separately, but it felt right to give Bradley an entry here, as he's the, well, poster boy for modern posterizations.
He was a walking target. Every player with springs sought to validate himself by going over the top of one of the tallest players to ever suit up in the NBA.
Tracy McGrady has the most contemporary entry on a long list of successful summits of Mt. Bradley. But let's not forget Gerald Wilkins, Chris Webber and my personal favorite, Keon Clark. Countless others were lost to the standard-definition era.
It was often rough going for Bradley, who seemed to attract dunkers like few others in league history. In his defense, all the ill-intentioned focus by offensive opponents never deterred him. Where other bigs might have coyly ducked away or avoided getting to the spot in time for a low-percentage challenge, he was always willing to stand in and give his best effort at stopping whatever human heat-seeker was speeding toward the rim.
Bradley gave at least as good as he got, rejecting no fewer than 3.0 blocks per game in each of his first six seasons. The only players with more than Bradley's half-dozen years with at least three blocks per contest are Hakeem Olajuwon (nine), Mark Eaton (seven), Dikembe Mutombo (seven) and David Robinson (seven).
So, other than a short list of the most prolific shot-deniers the NBA has ever seen, nobody was a more reliable rim-protector than Bradley.
He also averaged double figures in scoring four different times while topping 8.0 boards per game in five separate seasons.
It's easy to label Bradley a stiff. He was immobile and not particularly skilled. But this was a high-lottery talent who produced through most of his 20s and, again, was never afraid to put himself on the line when doing his job.