It’s hard to believe that in just four years the entire NBA’s power shifted this much. LeBron James used to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers and helped the team win their first-ever NBA championship. Kawhi Leonard was starting to progress as the next face of the San Antonio Spurs. In 2021, do you still even remember who Isaiah Thomas was?

The former faces of the NBA have jumbled all over the place. Players have wanted to change superteams and championship rings. The power in the NBA does not belong to the owners. It 100% belongs to the players and their ability to control where they want to land.

This is where some of the biggest names in the NBA were four years ago, and where they are now.

 

Isaiah Thomas

Then – Boston Celtics

Now – Free Agent

There was a stretch where Thomas was one of the most clutch performers in the league. He finished the season with a career-high 28.9 points per game. Then, he followed that up by leading the Celtics in the playoffs, including a 15-game stretch that featured 23.3 points on 42.5% shooting from the field.

Thomas’ career hasn’t been the same since the Celtics lost to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. He missed the remainder of the series with a hip injury in Game 2. In the following three seasons, Thomas played a combined 44 games. He played 40 games for the Wizards last season and was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers but he was waived two days later. For now, his basketball career is up in the air.

 

DeMarcus Cousins

Then – Sacramento Kings

Now – Houston Rockets

DeMarcus Cousins trade

Cousins was once the face of the Kings, where he was named to the All-Star team two times. In 2016, Cousins began in Sacramento before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. Before he was shipped away, he averaged 27.8 points and 10.6 rebounds. Today, the Kings might have won that trade that brought in Tyreke Evans, Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, and a 2017 first-round and second-round draft pick.

Since then, Cousins has stuffed a torn Achilles, torn quadriceps in his left leg, and a torn ACL. He has played in just three games for the Rockets and is averaging 4.7 points per game. Cousins is only 30 years old but with the wear and tear that has been placed on him, his body could be much older.

 

Jimmy Butler

Then – Chicago Bulls

Now – Miami Heat

Butler wanted to be the face of the Chicago Bulls. He wasn’t a hometown Chicago native like Derrick Rose, but he had a similar story. He was somebody that had to fight his way through the college and professional ranks. He qualified for the All-Star Team three times and was an All-Defensive Team member two of his last three seasons.

Chicago didn’t want to make him the face of the city. They shipped him to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who he helped lead to the playoffs. Then, he was moved to Philadelphia and then signed with the Heat. He has proven that his personality is a fit for a championship team. Butler led the Heat to the NBA Finals in 2020, leaving Chicago with a bitter taste among their fan base.

 

Gordon Hayward

Then – Utah Jazz

Now – Charlotte Hornets

Credit: Getty Images

After qualifying for his first All-Star team in his final season with the Jazz, Hayward signed a max contract to join his former Butler coach Brad Stevens in Boston. We all know how the story goes. Hayward suffered a catastrophic injury in his first game with the Celtics and missed the rest of the season. When he came back, his production was nothing close to All-Star caliber of play.

Nobody can blame Hayward for leaving the Jazz back then. He was going to pair up with Kyrie Irving and try and lead the Celtics to the Finals. The two did get to play together for a few seasons, but nothing transpired together. This offseason, Hayward followed the money and had 100 million reasons to join the Hornets.

 

Paul George

Then – Indiana Pacers

Now – Los Angeles Clippers

When George was first starting in the league, he nearly led the Pacers to the NBA Finals over the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. After six seasons, George didn’t feel that Indiana was going to bring in the right pieces to form a championship team. We have learned over the years that the Packers could have brought in Kawhi Leonard or traded for Anthony Davis. Instead, the Pacers didn’t want to get rid of draft capital.

George’s trade request was later granted, where he spent two seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His final season with OKC featured a stat line of 28.0 points and 8.2 rebounds. The Thunder then traded him to the Clippers for an abundance of draft picks. George getting traded to L.A. was a prime factor in Leonard choosing to sign with the Clippers.

 

DeMar DeRozan

Then – Toronto Raptors

Now – San Antonio Spurs

For five years, DeRozan was one of the best players in the league. He qualified for four All-Star teams and left Toronto as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. His best season came four years ago where he averaged 27.3 points per game. His only downfall was that he couldn’t lead the Raptors past LeBron in the Eastern Conference.

That was what prompted the Raptors to take a chance on Kawhi Leonard, who had one season left on his deal. The Raptors shipped DeRozan as the crown jewel of the package that also landed the team Danny Green. In the end, it was the right decision to have Toronto won their first NBA championship in Leonard’s lone season.

 

Blake Griffin

Then – Los Angeles Clippers

Now – Detroit Pistons

Griffin used to be the mayor of “Lob City.” When Griffin played alongside Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, slam dunks were synonymous with the Clippers. Griffin was healthy and averaged nearly 20 points and eight rebounds a game. After failing to make the Western Conference Finals, the management decided to go in a different direction.

Just one season after signing a max contract, the Clippers traded Griffin to the Pistons at the trade deadline. The Clippers have won that trade. Griffin played just 18 games last season, while the Clippers used their freed cap space to bring in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

 

Carmelo Anthony

Then – New York Knicks

Now – Portland Trail Blazers

Four years ago was the last time Anthony finished with a season where he averaged over 20 points per game. It was also his final season with the Knicks. It’s hard to believe that the 10-time All-Star has become a journeyman since his final days in New York.

After the season, Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The experiment lasted only one season and he was moved to the Houston Rockets. His time in Houston lasted just 10 games and he nearly left the NBA completely. Instead, the Portland Trail Blazers gave him a chance and he has relished his bench role. He currently closes out games for Portland.

 

Chris Paul

Then – Los Angeles Clippers

Now – Phoenix Suns

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Four years ago, if someone told you that Paul would be a member of the Phoenix Suns at some point, would you believe them? Paul was the mayor of “lob city” when the Clippers featured a trio of Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. However, the Clippers group never qualified for the Western Conference Finals.

The last few years of Paul’s tenure was marred by his relationship with Doc Rivers. After playing with Austin Rivers, Doc’s son, there were rumors that the locker room was broken with the younger Rivers playing a massive role. Eventually, Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets. Paul finally tasted the Western Conference Finals with the Rockets but was traded for Russell Westbrook. After OKC decided to rebuild, he is now a leader for a young Suns roster that is playing exceptionally well.

 

Kawhi Leonard

Then – San Antonio Spurs

Now – Los Angeles Clippers

This seems like the best time to transition to Kawhi Leonard. It’s been almost four years since Leonard’s broken relationship with the team unraveled. A mishandled quadriceps injury led to broken trust between Leonard and the Spurs. That led to the Spurs granting his trade request.

It’s a fortunate sort of event because Leonard was going to take over as the next face of the team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili leaving. Leonard was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year for San Antonio and won the NBA Finals MVP in 2014. Instead, Leonard left and won a title in Toronto and is currently trying to lead his third team (Clipper) to their first NBA championship.

 

Russell Westbrook

Then – Oklahoma City Thunder

Now – Washington Wizards

Westbrook did not handle Durant leaving town very well. The two reportedly have a fractured relationship. When Durant left, we saw the best version of Russ we have ever seen. He averaged a triple-double and won the MVP. Unfortunately, his teams have never made it past the second round of the playoffs.

He was traded to Houston last year for Chris Paul. Management believed that Westbrook and James Harden would be the perfect combination. Instead, Westbrook couldn’t handle the team culture and wanted out, so the team traded him to Washington for John Wall. At 32 years old, Westbrook is running out of prime years and hasn’t sniffed the NBA Finals since the young Thunder team qualified in 2012.

 

Kevin Durant

Then – Oklahoma City Thunder

Now – Brooklyn Nets

kevin-durant-steph-curry
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Thunder were headlined by Durant and Westbrook and had the Golden State Warriors down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. It was the same Warriors team that set an NBA record for wins in a season with 73. However, we all know how the story goes down. The Thunder blew the 3-1 lead and the Warriors qualified for the NBA Finals.

The Warriors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers and recruited Durant to join their dynasty. The Warriors won two NBA championships, while Durant won two NBA Finals MVP trophies. Durant missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. Now, he has teamed up with Kyrie Irving in their quest to bring the city of Brooklyn their first NBA championship.

 

Kyrie Irving

Then – Cleveland Cavaliers

Now – Brooklyn Nets

(via USA Today)

The final two superstars both played with the Cavaliers, but have two different stories. Irving’s three-point shot in the NBA Finals will forever go down in Cleveland’s lore. Irving was a superstar with the Cavaliers. The problem was that he wasn’t the superstar. Irving felt that he was living in the shadow of LeBron, so he wanted out.

Irving landed with the Celtics but never lived up to being a true leader of the team. His time in Boston was marred by questioning comments and an unorthodox leadership style. Irving left Boston to team up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.

 

LeBron James

Then – Cleveland Cavaliers

Now – Los Angeles Lakers

For two years, James couldn’t lead the Cavaliers past the combination of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Despite qualifying for the NBA Finals all four seasons in his second time around, his legacy will be tainted with three losses in the championship.

When LeBron left Cleveland, many thought that the move to Los Angeles was for his time after basketball. His kids were approaching high school and there are some great basketball programs in California. Instead, after one season out of the playoffs, the Lakers retooled and acquired Anthony Davis and won an NBA title in 2020. LeBron is on a quest to win title No. 5 this year. Four years later, will he have caught Michael Jordan’s six rings?

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