As the 2016 calendar year comes to an end, the LWOS MCXM series captures the 10 most captivating moments and storylines from 2016 in each sport. For LWOPB, we take a look at the 10 events that drew headlines this past year, bringing drama, excitement, and/or intrigue to the NBA.
This edition of the series takes a look at the final season and retirements of NBA legends in 2016, most notably Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan.
NBA Most Captivating Storylines of 2016: NBA Legends Retire
2016 may be a year defined by mixed emotions, from the U.S. presidential election to the historic NBA regular season to the even more historic NBA Finals to the even more historic MLB World Series. Well, nothing brings out mixed emotions like the retirement of athletes we love. From Derek Jeter’s retirement tour in baseball just a couple years ago, to Michael Jordan’s third and final retirement over a decade ago, the greats always seem to find ways to go out with a bang.
This year, the NBA saw Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Ray Allen finally finish their careers in the league. Stoudemire is just 34 years old, so he headed off to play for Hapoel Jerusalem in the Israeli Basketball Premier League. His knees failed him throughout his career, eventually turning Stoudemire from an All-Star to a washed-up veteran in just a few short years. Allen, on the other hand, hasn’t played in a pro game since the 2014 NBA Finals. After the San Antonio Spurs demolished Allen’s Miami Heat, LeBron James left Miami, making Allen’s future unclear. He spent over two years in free agency, with many rumors swirling about where he was headed next. Finally, on November 1st, Allen wrote a letter for the Players’ Tribune, announcing his official retirement.
Since Allen and Stoudemire already had a foot out the door, let’s focus on the other three – Garnett, Bryant, and Duncan. Interestingly enough, Garnett, Bryant, and Duncan were selected in three consecutive drafts – 1995, 1996, and 1997, respectively. We’ll take a look at each of their careers and retirements, in chronological order of the years they were drafted.
After a 21-year NBA career, KG confirmed his retirement (which was reported a bit earlier) on September 23rd through this Instagram video:
Garnett had a long and illustrious career. He made history when he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995, becoming the first NBA player to come directly out of high school in about two decades. Garnett’s move was ground-breaking, as he paved the way for the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation, which Jonathan Abrams of Bleacher Report covered extensively in his recent book. Of course, Garnett also went on to achieve countless things after taking that leap to the big league.
Garnett’s NBA Resumé
KG played in 1,462 NBA games, the fifth most of all time. Garnett is one of only a few players to place in the top 50 on the NBA’s all-time lists for career numbers in all five major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks – showing his nearly unparalleled versatility. He was a defensive menace, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award once and making 12 All-Defensive teams. KG also made nine All-NBA teams and 15 All-Star teams. He won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and he won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Of course, possibly Garnett’s most impressive accomplishment came in 2004, when he won the MVP award, beating out the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson.
Garnett played the first 12 years of his career in Minnesota. After being traded to Boston and having great success there, KG was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. Just a year and a half later, he was traded again. This time, Garnett landed back with the Timberwolves, to finish his career where it all began. He truly went full circle.
Shortly after Garnett’s retirement, the Inside the NBA crew announced that KG would be joining their team, covering the NBA on TNT.
The entire process of Kobe Bryant’s retirement was quite memorable. Just like Garnett, Bryant had a very long career, full of unbelievable accomplishments and breathtaking moments:
But unlike Garnett, Bryant was never traded. Sure, he might have wanted to leave his Los Angeles Lakers a couple of times. But he never did, and that’s all that counts. Bryant played all 20 years of his career in Los Angeles, and after all this time, his name goes hand in hand with that of the city.
I could get into Bryant’s early years playing next to Shaq, the Shaq-Kobe feud, the 81-point game, and the eventual back-to-back Finals MVPs in 2009 and 2010. But everyone knows about those things already; Kobe’s legacy is set in stone. The “Mamba Mentality”, the stories about his work ethic and killer instinct, the countless comparisons to Jordan – we all know the rundown already. Instead, let’s zone in on what Bryant did in 2016.
The Retirement Tour
By the end of his career, Bryant had become the brightest star in Hollywood. He was the center of attention, more than any actor, singer, performer, or anyone else one can find on Santa Monica Boulevard. He loves L.A., he loves the spotlight, and he loves how the Staples Center lights are dim, making the court look like an actual stage. Bryant lives for fame, and he always knew that he wasn’t just a basketball player; he was an entertainer. The Lakers weren’t just a team; they were the Lakeshow – a show. Bryant’s elegant footwork was a dance, and the Lakers were a musical.
That’s why, as we all now know, Bryant paraded around the league in his final season, receiving tributes from teams around the league as part of an ultimate, extravagant retirement tour. He basked in the cheers and love that opposing crowds never really showed him until they knew that he was about to retire. You never know what you have until it’s (about to be) gone.
The 60-Point Finale
Finally, after a season in which fans appreciated Bryant’s accomplishments during his extended retirement tour, while many analysts ripped said tour for distracting the young Lakers team, Bryant’s final game approached. On a night in which the Golden State Warriors broke the NBA record for regular season wins, Bryant’s performance stole the show and captivated the basketball world. He attempted a jaw-dropping 50 field goals, making 22 of them and finishing with a whopping 60 points – the most ever for a player in his final game.
Quite frankly, the game was the most “Kobe” thing ever. It was a microcosm of Bryant’s entire career. He was bashed for taking so many shots (even though his teammates force-fed him), and not being efficient enough. His fans were in awe throughout, as the then-37-year-old managed to play 42 minutes and set the NBA season high in single-game scoring. But at the end, above all else, Bryant came through for his team: he scored 15 points in the final three minutes and five seconds, leading the Lakers to an incredible comeback victory and stunning a deafening crowd one last time, in a game that will never be forgotten.
Last, but certainly not least, we arrive at Tim Duncan – the Big Fundamental. He’s almost certainly a top 10 NBA player ever, and he’s neck and neck with Bryant as the two best players of their generation. Just like Bryant, Duncan stuck around with one team for the entirety of his career, playing all 19 years for coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
Duncan led the Spurs to one of the greatest near-two decade stretches in the history of professional sports. The Spurs won 71 percent of their 1,392 games with Duncan in the lineup, the best 19-year stretch in NBA history. He was a great leader, an elite defender, a consistent double-double threat, and an efficient number one option on offense. Later in his career, Duncan showed his versatility, adapting to the modern NBA game and becoming an elite center, rather than playing his original power forward position. He became a deadly pick-and-roll player, instead of sticking to post-ups, which became less frequent in the Spurs’ motion offense as Duncan’s career went on.
Most importantly, Duncan’s unselfish nature allowed Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to flourish in San Antonio. The two international guards took more control of the offense later in Duncan’s career. More recently, Kawhi Leonard took on a larger role, becoming the team’s best player and winning the 2014 Finals MVP. Due to Duncan’s precedent of unselfishness, none of the Spurs’ older veterans protested when Leonard stole the spotlight. The stats do a lot of justice for Duncan, but they still can’t fully allow us to appreciate just how crucial his intangibles were. Duncan was the best teammate that anyone could ask for, and he was the perfect leader.
Contrast with Bryant
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Duncan is the stark contrast between him and Bryant. They were the two greatest players since Jordan – well, until LeBron came around – and yet, they couldn’t be more different. Duncan was like a literary foil to Bryant. While Bryant had the fame and spotlight of Los Angeles, Duncan played in small-town San Antonio. Bryant was in the city of stars, while Duncan was in a city that doesn’t even have a single other pro sports franchise, let alone actors and other celebrities. Bryant was flashy, with highlight reels that could go on for hours; Duncan had less highlight plays than any player of his caliber. Bryant had great moments, with incredible performances and high-scoring games; Duncan had great seasons, with the same boring stat-lines and 50-plus team wins every year of his career (aside from the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season).
Bryant loved to show off his own greatness, which could only be done with team success; Duncan loved to have team success, which could only be done with his own greatness. Some teammates loved playing with Bryant, while others hated it; all of Duncan’s teammates loved playing with him. Bryant retired with a loud, attention-grabbing tour, while Duncan went quietly into the night, not announcing his retirement until after the season, and not even having his own retirement press conference.
At the end of the day, they both won five championships. Both players had incredible careers, and they were the defining stars of the post-Jordan era, more so than O’Neal and Garnett. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan will go down as two of the greatest players in the history of basketball, so use the end of 2016 to appreciate these two NBA legends.
Prepare for 2021
Garnett, Bryant, and Duncan had a profound impact on the last two decades in the NBA. The three of them affected the result of every championship for over a decade. They’re all locks to be first ballot Hall of Famers, which will make the 2021 Hall of Fame induction class possibly the best ever. If not for the rule that players have to be retired for five years before being inducted, all three of these NBA legends would surely be in the HOF already.