A rim rocking dunk, thunderous applause after a game-winning buzzer-beater, surprising performances from cast-away players, unexpected runs from written-off teams… The NBA has always been a place where players, coaches and teams compete at the highest level to leave an indelible mark on our sports consciousness.
But while many live on through countless documented memories and highlight clips, there are others for whom fate had other ideas.
They were best-in-the-league talent during their time, but unfortunate circumstances slowed their careers earlier than expected and left them with patchy legacies (if any at all).
I’ve dedicated this multi-part series to the players who deserve more credit than they got. In Part 1, I covered three exceptional wings that many seem to have forgotten due to their shorter-than-average primes:
With a large pool of potential names for this list and the up-hill task of keeping my biases at bay, I reached out to long-time buddy and fellow hoops aficionado Ankeet Guha to vet my selections for this round.
Over more than two decades of friendship, Ankeet has always been the rational voice of reason in any debate we’ve had about the league. So when I picked his brains, I knew he’d come up with an unbiased list of players who made a mighty impact but didn’t manage the required mileage for proportional legacies.
So let’s start with two smaller-than-average guards who were both faces of their franchises while putting the league on notice with their exceptional scoring ability.
MONTA ELLIS – GUARD
Not all fans of the recent championship-winning Golden State Warriors franchise will remember their predecessors in the late 2000s.
The ‘We Believe’ Warriors surprised most league pundits in the 2006-07 season by going 9-1 over their final stretch of regular-season games to end with a 42-40 record and squeeze their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed. Extending their magical run, they overcame the number one seeded Dallas Mavericks in 6 games becoming the only eighth-seeded team in NBA history to achieve such a feat.
You can re-live the magical journey through this in-depth feature by Jalon Dixon here:
Fans are quick to remember the group’s core of guards Baron Davis and Jason Richardson, as well as hero forwards Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes and Al Harrington.
A critical fifth player, however, was sophomore guard Monta Ellis. He made the leap that year to take over the starting two-guard role and nearly tripled his scoring average from the year prior (16.5 points per game), ultimately winning the Most Improved Player award.
With exceptional athleticism, speed and quickness, the 6’3″, 185-pound ‘Mississippi Bullet’ was a threat to get right to the cup every time down the floor.
But Ellis’s true potential really started to come out during his third year in the league.
That he was a scoring machine was already established. But it was his dogged drive to score mostly around the basket that made him one of the league leaders in field goal efficiency at that position, netting an insane 53.1 percent of his field goals over 81 games during the 2007-08 campaign.
And it wasn’t just Ellis’s scoring prowess that endeared him to fans, either. He was quite a pest on the defensive end too.
Per NBA.com, during the 2006-07 season:
The 6-3 guard recorded three or more steals 20 times and had at least five steals three times, including a career-high six at Seattle (March 17).
Arguably Ellis’s best campaign as a Warrior came during the 2009-10 season when he averaged 25.5 points, 5.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 steals over a whopping 41.4 minutes through 64 games.
With elite-level skills, big games were plenty, including this one where Ellis schooled the Sacramento Kings during this April 1st outburst, finishing with 42 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 steals. The Warriors won that game 143-141
For all the flash, hustle and heart, the 2006-07 campaign would be the only time a Warriors team with Ellis on it would make the playoffs (despite 48 wins in 2007-08). Change was imminent by the turn of the decade.
With the 7th pick in the 2009 draft, the Warriors selected another 6’3” guard, Stephen Curry, who would start to take the reins from Ellis.
After a couple of tumultuous seasons (combined 62-102 record) with the two paired up in the backcourt, the Warriors finally traded Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks (along with forward Kwame Brown for forward Stephen Jackson and big man Andrew Bogut) mid-way through the 2011-12 campaign.
This was truly the end of an era, and its hard to overstate how popular Ellis was among fans in the Bay area. While hindsight is always 20-20, the decision to trade him was deeply unpopular at the time.
In Ellis’s own words, however, the pairing was destined to fail, and he was evidently ready to move on.
Ellis would go onto play four more very productive seasons for the Bucks and Dallas Mavericks before seeing a significant drop-off in his performance over a final two seasons with the Indiana Pacers (2015-17).
During his final campaign (2016-17), with the wear and tear on his 31-year-old body pretty evident—a heavy minutes consumption and usage rate over his career were possibly to blame—Ellis could be seen relying a lot more on his shaky jumper. This ultimately led to a significant decline in his numbers and value.
In many ways, I wish the Warriors had put together an even better supporting cast in Ellis’s time (akin to the Mavericks while he was in Dallas). Had he seen a few more winning seasons during his career, his legacy could have been pretty different.
BEN GORDON – GUARD
The post-Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls of the early 2000s were froth with dysfunction, inexperience and a constantly revolving core. By 2004, however, things were beginning to look up for the franchise.
General Manager John Paxson was seeing some success after putting together a young core with the likes of guard Kirk Hinrich, and big men Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.
To cement the team’s lineup, Paxson was able to land two marquee players prior to the start of the 2004-05 campaign: guard Ben Gordon with the third overall pick and defensive forward Luol Deng via trade from the Phoenix Suns (picked seventh).
Gordon was a 6’3, 200-pound guard with a great work ethic. Having just led the UConn Huskies to an NCAA Championship that year, he arrived at the NBA with a pro-ready physique and the maturity of a player well beyond his years.
Gordon was also a lights-out scorer with a smooth, high-arching jump shot and the ability to penetrate through most defenses at will.
But it wasn’t just Gordon’s ability that I liked most. It was his go-getter attitude despite the odds stacked against him.
Scouts had seen him develop at the college level, but in a much taller league, skepticism was high about his ability to maintain that elite level of play. Considered too small to be a credible two-guard, the pressure was on Gordon early to become a distributor, even as that was not his natural strength.
Recognizing this challenge, the Bulls opted to go with the pairing of Chris Duhon and Hinrich as the starting backcourt while bringing Gordon off the bench.
But Gordon took the challenge in stride, continuing to do what he did best and quickly became the Bulls’ third-leading scorer behind Curry and Hinrich, averaging 15.1 points on 41.1 percent shooting and an impressive 40.5 percent from deep. All this earned him a Sixth Man of the Year Award as a rookie.
And the Bulls rolled on to their first winning season in seven years with a 47-35 record, entering the playoffs as the third seed before losing to the Washington Wizards in 6 games.
Having firmly established himself, Gordon began improving year after year. By the second half of his sophomore campaign, he took over the starting role and there was no looking back.
Arguably Gordon’s best season with the Bulls was in 2006-07 when he averaged 21.4 points and 3.6 assists on 45.5 percent shooting and 41.3 percent from deep, leading the team to a 49-33 regular-season record. The Bulls even managed a first-round sweep of the reigning-champion Miami Heat to reach the second round for the first time in years. (They eventually lost in six games to the Detroit Pistons.)
Through his five years with the Bulls, Chicago made the playoffs in all but one season. It was amazing to watch Gordon work his magic and have some big games.
Gordon’s value, however, dipped when future franchise player Derek Rose came on board.
The two actually played rather well together for a brief while, putting their finest performance on display when they took the Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round loss during the 2009 playoffs.
In what was an unpopular decision at the time, Gordon left the team after the 2008-09 season. He was looking for his pay-day and signed with the Detroit Pistons.
Gordon couldn’t seem to produce to the level of his new contract expectations on a thinned out Pistons roster and quickly saw his role reduced until he was all but buried behind young guard Rodney Stuckey. His numbers nose-dived.
There were flashes of his old self from time to time, but these were few and far between.
As Gordon bravely detailed in this fantastic first-person with The Players’ Tribune, his confidence and mental health began to waver significantly. He would play three seasons with the Pistons and a couple more with the Charlotte Bobcats before serving a brief stint with the Orlando Magic (2014-15), his last in the NBA.
The Ben Gordon-led Bulls were one of my favorite teams to watch during that era, and I could have certainly done with a few more years of Gordon and Rose. The two were similarly sized but meshed well to form a potent inside-outside game.
Clearly a successful template for an early version of small ball, I just wish it lasted longer.