Because of how major league sports drafts work, the most talented players often must pay their dues on teams mired in defeat and frustration for a few seasons before they hopefully turn things around and taste the sweet nectars of the post-season. Even after initial success, many superstars experience the ebbs and flows of the pro leagues, suffering through down years later in their careers. It’s never enjoyable to be the guy averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds on a team that won’t come close to sniffing the playoffs. But if the TV series The Wire taught us anything, it’s that the game is always the game. You’ve just got to roll with it. Here are five superstars who have endured some especially terrible seasons.
1. Carmelo Anthony: 2014-15 New York Knicks
If Carmelo Anthony were 25, the alarm bells accompanying the New York Knicks’ sudden rebuilding project would be a lot less deafening. But in the midst of a 5-32 season, having just traded away J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert as a metaphor for waving the white flag, a 30-year-old Melo suddenly seems a lot older.
Despite missing seven games this season due to injury, Anthony has shot 45 percent from the field while averaging 24 points per game. He has been the only good thing about a Knicks team that has largely wasted his prime, and that this season could be headed to rock bottom. Carmelo Anthony came to New York to play under the historic lights of Madison Square Garden and bring a championship to the place where he grew up. And though Melo is perhaps slightly below the superstar status of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, his team having the worst record in an atrocious Eastern Conference is almost unfathomable.
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2. LeBron James: 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers
He wasn’t quite a superstar yet, but 20-year-old LeBron James still averaged 20 points per game while dishing out six assists and pulling down five-and-a-half rebounds per game. The Cavs still went 35-47, because the players around LeBron were like the stench of a sewer. Ricky Davis, the man whose career will forever be marred by his shooting at the wrong rim to try and record a triple double, was there, alongside guys like Darius Miles, Dajaun Wagner and DeSagna Diop. Sure, the Cavs had a young Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas Ilguaskas, but they were no match for the D-League-esque roster that surrounded the future four-time MVP.
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3. Kobe Bryant: 2004-05 and 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers have had very few down years as a franchise, but Kobe Bryant, arguably the best player the team has ever had, has been a part of two of them.
In 2004, the Lakers were in the midst of a Shaq-sized transition, rebuilding their team after the loss of O’Neal, Derek Fisher and others who wore the purple and gold during the team’s threepeat. Bryant remained steady, averaging 27.6 points and six assists per game, but instead of playing alongside one of the greatest centers in NBA history, he was throwing the ball to Chris Mihm in the post. Other names like Chucky Atkins and Jumaine Jones dotted the roster, and the result was a 34-48 record and time off during the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
This current season is even worse. An aging Bryant is surrounded by players who mismatch worse than a plaid shirt and sweatpants. A collection of Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Nick Young and an over-the-hill Carlos Boozer have propelled the Lakers to an 11-24 record, as one of the NBA’s most storied franchises looks toward the future.
4. Barry Sanders: 1992, 1996 & 1998 Detroit Lions
Three times during Barry Sanders’ illustrious career with the Detroit Lions, the team failed to register more than five wins. The Lions went 5-11 and missed the playoffs in 1992, 1996 and 1998, despite the fact that in all three of those years, Sanders rushed for over 1,000 yards. The best of the three came in ’96, when Sanders chalked up 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns. Yet the Lions were still 21st in the league in points per game, averaging just 18.9. Quarterback Scott Mitchell threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (17 each), and the defense gave up 23 points per game, ranking 22nd in the league.
Sanders reached the playoffs five times during his short career with the Lions, but he lost in the first round four of those times. He endured a lot of losing, wasting multiple 1,000-yard seasons in the Silverdome while the Lions toiled away.
5. Alex Rodriguez: 2001-03 Texas Rangers
In A-Rod’s three seasons with the Texas Rangers during the early 2000s, the boys down south went a combined 216-270, missing the playoffs each year. This was despite Rodriguez putting up monster numbers, like knocking in 142 runs in 2002 and mashing 57 home runs, or hitting .318 in 2001 while jacking 52 dingers.
Unfortunately, the Rangers defense couldn’t match their explosive offense. In 2001, no starting pitcher’s ERA was under 4.00, and the 2003 staff gave up 143 more runs than the team scored. Rodriguez could hit as many home runs as he wanted. As long as the pitching staff was serving up whiffle balls to everyone, it woud never matter.
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