What happens when NBA stars leave? Road back to relevance isn’t easy

It’s been 22 years, and it remains arguably the biggest free-agent loss in NBA history. Ask Magic executive Pat Williams how it felt to see center Shaquille O’Neal — who had averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds in his first four seasons after Orlando used the No. 1 pick on him in 1992 — leave Central Florida for the Lakers, and the sting is still evident.

“You suffer,” he told Sporting News. “You’re in pain. It hurts.”

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The details of the negotiation between O’Neal, who had led the Magic to the East finals the previous season, have been pored over. Orlando opened the haggling by trying to play the market, gauging the few options that O’Neal had in free agency rather than opening with its best offer.

Coming onto the stage late, Jerry West and the Lakers were able to carve out enough cap room to make a seven-year, $121 million offer to O’Neal, and Orlando scrambled to put together a better package, going as high as $130 million over seven years. But O’Neal’s mind was made up.

“Our negotiation with him, we ended up making Shaq a better offer than what he got in LA, in the closing hours,” Williams said. “But by then he had been so LA-oriented that it was too late. But the real hook to that whole Shaq story was this — at that time in NBA history, there was a period when first-time free-agent contracts did not have the right to be matched when the contract ended. There was no restricted free agency.”

In the aftermath of the jostling that led to O’Neal’s departure, the Magic held on as a decent team. They won 45 games and made the playoffs the following season, and would stay above .500 for seven post-Shaq seasons, making five postseason appearances.

“We still had the nucleus of that team. Horace Grant was still here, Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson,” Williams said. “Penny was here, but his knees would need surgery over the next few years. But we were devastated. People ask how it feels, it hurts.

“When a young, 24-year-old Hall of Famer leaves and decides to go elsewhere, it is painful.”

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The move of O’Neal to the Lakers became relevant again this summer when another all-time great — LeBron James — decided to pack up from a small-market East franchise, the Cavs, and head to Hollywood. In his wake, folks in the Cleveland front office can identify with Williams’ 1996 woe. Thus far, the Cavs have suffered. It’s been painful. It hurts.

But there’s hope. Going back 11 years to the trade that sent Kevin Garnett (reluctantly at first) out of Minnesota and on to Boston, we identified 11 star players who left behind their franchises and had a look at some common themes that emerged in the aftermath of their departures.

The basic criteria was that the star player had to have received some form of MVP vote the previous season, though we allowed for some executive decisions to remove non-stars who happened to get minor MVP attention (such as Joe Johnson in 2012) from the list. And the player’s move had to come at least three summers ago.

The stars we looked at: Garnett; Amare Stoudemire in 2010; Chris Bosh in 2010; James in 2010; Chris Paul in 2011; Steve Nash in 2012; Dwight Howard in 2012; James in 2014; Kevin Love in 2014; LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015; Kevin Durant in 2016.

Let’s look at how their departures affected their former franchises.

Coaching upheaval

Changes at the head-coaching spot are almost a guaranteed offshoot of a star player’s departure, and for this year’s Cavaliers, we’ve already seen Tyronn Lue sent to the firing line after just six post-LeBron games. He can at least rest easy knowing he’s in good company. Of the 11 case studies in departing stars, six include coaches who were gone within a year of the player leaving.

Orlando, for example, had four coaching changes in six years going back to Dwight Howard’s final season. The Magic’s current coach, Steve Clifford, was hired just last summer.

But no team has coped with more such upheaval than the Timberwolves, in the wake of the trade of Garnett to Boston in 2007 and, seven years later, the deal that sent Love to Cleveland. In the decade since Garnett’s final season in Minnesota, the Wolves went through eight coaches, which, in fairness to the organization, does include the untimely death of Flip Saunders while he was in the job.

It wasn’t until Tom Thibodeau came around that the Wolves finally made it back to the playoffs just last season. Now, even Thibodeau’s job is in jeopardy as the situation between the team and Jimmy Butler deteriorates and Thibodeau stubbornly tries to cling to Butler.

Here’s how it’s gone in Minnesota in the post-Garnett/post-Love eras.

*Garnett’s final season in Minnesota
**Love’s final season in Minnesota
***Playoff berth

Draft pick fortune

Ideally, losing a star player in the NBA is offset by a crash in performance the following season, which then leads to a top draft pick the next June. If all goes according to plan, that player will fill the shoes of the ex-star and rescue the franchise.

It’s not quite that easy, though, not even if the team lands the No. 1 pick and picks a star player.

When James left Cleveland in 2010, the Cavs wound up with the top pick and took Kyrie Irving. But the first two seasons with Irving were woeful: 21 wins as a rookie, and 24 wins the next year. As Irving said, “We had some talent with that team, but we did not have a lot of set roles. We did not know how to play with each other. It was not organized talent.”

That was a significant problem for New Orleans (then the Hornets) when they lost Paul after the lockout in 2011. They landed the top pick in the 2012 draft and had a transformational player on the board: Anthony Davis. But the Pelicans could not stay healthy and struggled to bring in support for Davis, and his first three seasons went 21-45, 27-55 and 34-48.

The Pelicans did reach the playoffs, finally, in 2015, but slipped again the next two years before bouncing back last season.

*Paul’s final season in New Orleans
**Playoff berth

Stuck in purgatory

After the loss of a star player, a team can choose to be really, really bad and let the rebuilding commence from there. There almost always will be a segment of fans that roots for this kind of teardown, especially when seeing the young talent the Sixers have assembled thanks to their controversial all-out tanking plan.

Alternatively, the team can try to make the best of its situation, be competitive and land in the middle of hoops purgatory — that gray area in which you’re always up for 44-48 wins, but can’t break through to challenge for a championship.

That’s been the trend recently. The Cavaliers, despite their horrible start, were at least trying to keep themselves together for the postseason. The Thunder, when they lost Durant in the summer of 2016, could have folded and sought a trade for Russell Westbrook.

Instead, they signed Westbrook to an extension, acquired and re-signed Paul George and, thus far, have sentenced themselves to a foreseeable future of good-but-not-great basketball.

The Heat, similarly, tried to stay in the race in the East once James left Miami to return to Cleveland in 2014. It was the same for Portland after Aldridge took off in free agency. The Blazers still have star point guard Damian Lillard, but have sorely missed Aldridge’s offensive presence.

These teams will again be in the playoff hunt this spring. None will have a chance to win it all. But, given the criticism the Sixers got from folks in NBA circles, perhaps there’s some honor in giving it a full effort.

*Durant’s final season in Oklahoma City
**Playoff berth

*James’ final season in Miami
**Playoff berth

*Aldridge’s final season in Portland
**Playoff berth

Raptors, revamped

Toronto is one of the few teams that was able to lose a star player and still bounce back quickly with a completely revamped roster. Within four years of losing Bosh, the Raptors reshaped their identity and were on their way to the East finals.

After the 2009-10 season, Bosh left for Miami and took much with him: He was the franchise’s all-time leader in points and minutes played (both records have since been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan), and he still leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots. The year after he left, Toronto had the third-worst season in franchise history.

But three major things happened for the Raptors to blunt the impact of Bosh’s exit. First, they drafted DeRozan in 2009, just before Bosh left. Then, they brought in a high-quality coach, Dwane Casey, in 2011 after Casey had helped the Mavericks win that season’s championship as an assistant focused on defense.

Finally, they pulled off a steal of a trade, getting Kyle Lowry for a draft pick in 2013. Lowry had mostly been underrated throughout his career, but blossomed with the Raptors, and Toronto returned to the playoffs the following year.

*Playoff berth
**Conference finals berth

Banished to the wilderness

Two franchises lost stars in the past decade and have still never really recovered: Phoenix and Orlando. The teams have come to hopeless situations from different angles, but they’ve both been stuck with years of futility and significant postseason droughts.

Orlando lost Howard in 2012 and has not been in the playoff chase since. The Magic have not been fortunate in the draft, cycling through a range of coaches and averaging 26 wins in the past six years. This year is shaping up to be yet another season of rebuilding, the seventh straight without a playoff spot.

Phoenix saw its best team in 20 years dismantled more slowly, first with the departure of Stoudemire in free agency in 2010, then when Nash bolted to the Lakers after the 2011-12 season. Since then, the Suns had one year in which their fortunes turned around — they won 48 games but barely missed the playoffs in 2013-14 — but have been mostly miserable, sinking to 21 wins last year.

The Suns are 2-8 thus far, in line for a ninth straight season without a postseason appearance, a franchise record.

*Howard’s final season in Orlando and Nash’s final season in Phoenix
**Playoff berth

Darn good luck

Perhaps the best way to ensure your franchise can withstand the loss of a star NBA player is location. If you happen to be based in the general vicinity of the birthplace of that star player, he just might feel a strong tug to return home and figure out how to win a championship.

This option is not open to many franchises, but it was one the Cavs seized after James left to go to Miami in 2010, then hit free agency in 2014.

The team was bad — very bad — in his absence. But a sense of duty to Northeast Ohio brought James back home for a four-year stretch before leaving again, this time to Los Angeles. In those four years, the Cavs went to the Finals four times, and beat the Warriors in 2016.

It’s not a solid rebuilding plan, of course, but for the Cavaliers, James’ return home kick-started the re-emergence of the team. Just look at the difference. Every team that loses a star should be this lucky.

*James’ final season in Cleveland
**James returns

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