Cohen: Influential Players For Unusual Reasons

By Josh Cohen
March 16, 2011

When we discuss players that had the most significant impact and influence in NBA history, we tend to focus exclusively on performances in monumental games.

It’s recognizable to most NBA enthusiasts, for example, that Michael Jordan’s exceptional performances throughout the playoffs in the 1990’s and Kobe Bryant’s superb efforts over the last decade had huge impact on league history.

But many of these precious and unforgettable moments that we witness wouldn’t happen if not for lesser-known events that transpired over time.

As a result, I decided to list several players that -- regardless of what they accomplished (or didn’t) over the course of their careers – had a significant impact on the landscape of the NBA over the last 20 years.

Sherman Douglas/Vern Fleming

You will never hear anyone talk about these pair of games or performances and you will be hard pressed to find highlights of either of them. They seem like two ordinary regular season games at first glance, but when taking a closer look, you will realize how significant they were in Orlando Magic history.

In the final week of the 1992-93 regular season, the eighth and final playoff spot was up for grabs. Although there were a variety of scenarios, the Magic needed to prevail in at least two of their final three games to remain in the hunt unless the Pacers lost all three of their contests. If Indiana won just once, Orlando would have had to run the table and win each game in those last few nights.

Here is how it went down:

Sherman Douglas, who bounced around his entire NBA career and was having a subpar season for the Celtics in 1992-93, enjoyed one of his best games of his career against the Magic in the first of Orlando's final three games.

The former Syracuse standout erupted for 24 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and dished out 11 assists as Boston dominated.

The Magic, however, did bounce back and defeated both the Nets (Nick Anderson tallied 50 points) and Hawks to stay alive.

After Indiana lost to both Cleveland and Detroit, it needed a win against Miami to secure a playoff berth. Vern Fleming, who had started just eight games that entire year, replaced Pooh Richardson in the starting lineup and had the game of his life. Fleming racked up 31 points, seven assists and seven rebounds as the Pacers edged the Heat.

Despite both having identical records (41-41), Indiana qualified for the playoffs due to tiebreaker rules.

As it turned out, the combination of Douglas and Fleming’s performances those two days ultimately and inadvertently transformed Orlando into a championship contender.

After not qualifying for the playoffs and following some extraordinary lottery luck, the Magic overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft.

After drafting Chris Webber, Orlando traded his rights to Golden State for Penny Hardaway and future draft selections. In effect, the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Hardaway helped the Magic quickly evolve into an NBA powerhouse.

Perhaps the Magic should honor Douglas and Fleming one of these days for their part in the development of the franchise’s supremacy of the mid 90’s.

Josh Cohen
Theo Ratliff

Theo Ratliff is still active in the league (although you probably never really see him because he is frequently injured) and has played for a combined nine NBA teams. He was even an All-Star in 2001 despite having to miss the game due to injury.

But aside from his longevity in the NBA, his defensive aptitude (led the league three times in blocks per game) and his off-the-court project as owner of the World Basketball Association’s Rome Gladiators, Ratliff’s biggest impact was his involvement in the eminent Kevin Garnett trade in 2007.

When NBA analysts review the renowned deal that delivered KG to the Boston Celtics, they typically examine Al Jefferson’s worth since he was the chief prize that Minnesota received in return.

However, if not for Ratliff, the deal between the C’s and Timberwolves would not have been able to be completed. That year, the Alabama native was heading into the final year of his contract worth nearly $12 million.

In order to fulfill one of the Wolves’ goals of getting under the salary cap and also meeting NBA cap guidelines, the Celtics needed to amass a collection of salaries that accumulated a value close to Garnett’s $23 million that he was due to make that upcoming season.

While Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair (the other parts to the deal) were still in their rookie contracts, Ratliff was the inflated denomination that permitted the trade to happen and allow Boston to capture an NBA championship and two NBA Finals appearances in three years.

As a side note, Ratliff was also involved in the notorious 2001 trade that delivered Dikembe Mutombo to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers, as a result, ended up reaching the NBA Finals that season.

Kwame Brown/Aaron McKie

Kwame Brown will likely forever be remembered as one of the biggest NBA Draft busts in NBA history, Selected No. 1 overall by the Washington Wizards in 2001, Brown – despite still active in the league – never reached his potential.

However, when dissecting his career a little more closely, you will realize that he had far greater influence than you probably ever could have imagined.

Just like it was for Theo Ratliff, Brown was the essential monetary piece that permitted the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol during the 2007-08 season.

In the final year of his contract worth about $9 million, Brown’s expiring deal was attractive enough for the Memphis Grizzlies to hand Gasol over to the Lakers.

Although Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, was the most talented slice of the deal for Memphis, if it wasn’t for Brown’s financial guarantee, no Lakers-Grizzlies deal would have ever been in the discussion phase.

The trade, though, became a reality when L.A. managed to convince Aaron McKie, who was serving as an unpaid assistant coach for the 76ers at the time, to sign a $750,000 deal with the Lakers and use him as part of the Gasol deal. The combination of Brown, McKie, Javaris Crittenton, the younger Gasol and two future first round draft picks, moreover, was enough to make a deal work.

The Lakers, as we all know, are the reigning two-time NBA champions and have advanced to the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons.

Jermaine O’Neal

Before knee problems deteriorated his skills, Jermaine O’Neal was a perennial All-Star and one of the top five power forwards in the NBA.

As a result of his success and marvelous statistical production for the Pacers, Indiana re-signed O’Neal in 2003 for seven years worth approximately $123 million.

It had seemed like a logical signing when it happened, but just a few years later, the six-time NBA All-Star started dealing with damaged knees and was never the same.

He was traded to the Raptors in 2008 and then several months after that was dealt again to the Heat in exchange for Shawn Marion.

But irrespective of what he did on the court for Miami, O’Neal’s most attractive asset was the fact that his massive contract would expire in 2010.

It was, furthermore, the best year for $23 million to come off the books as marquee free agents such as LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson were all available.

In addition to some other transactions, the Heat managed to get so far underneath the salary cap that they had spending power for two of those prized free agents.

They, as we all now know, inked James and Bosh this past offseason.

If not for Jermaine’s mega expiring contract, there would have been no chance for Miami to sign either of these stars and team them up with Dwyane Wade to create the most theatrical drama over the course of a season in NBA history.

David Robinson

Although he had not won any NBA championships during his most dominant playing days (1990-1996), David Robinson had already established himself as one of the best centers in NBA history.

A perennial All-Star and 1995 MVP, The Admiral was the chief reason the San Antonio Spurs were among the top teams in the West each year.

Early in the 1996-97 season, however, Robinson’s dreams of becoming a champion seemed to vanish when he broke his foot and was pronounced out for the remainder of the season.

As of result of Robinson’s absence, the Spurs finished with a dismal 20-62 record – which was third worst in the NBA that season.

While San Antonio dealt with its frustrations, a budding superstar was dazzling in the college ranks. Tim Duncan was by and large the most prolific collegiate player in the country at the time and it was inevitable that he would be the first player chosen in the 1997 NBA Draft.

The Spurs had the second highest chance (21.6 percent) of landing the No. 1 pick – which is ultimately where they were positioned in the draft.

Almost instantly upon Robinson’s return, the towering tandem that formed in San Antonio became illustrious as the Spurs won two NBA championships over a five-year span.

After The Admiral retired in 2003, Duncan would go on to lead San Antonio to two more titles (2005, 2007).

But as we look back in time, if not for Robinson’s injury, it’s very likely that San Antonio would still be without an NBA title.

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Which player/s do you think had the most unusual significant impact in NBA history over the last 20 years?
Which player/s do you think had the most unusual significant impact in NBA history over the last 20 years?
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