7 Bizarre NBA Matchups You (Probably) Never Knew Existed

Did you know Martin Luther King Jnr, Barbara Walters and Anne Frank were all born in the same year — 1929? Probably not. Why would you? Anyway, if this makes your brain hurt as much as mine, it’s likely because each of them were prominent historical figures at very different times in their respective lives. It tricks you into associating them with completely different historical eras that, in actual fact, are not so far apart. It got me wondering if the same concept is true of the NBA? Turns out, it absolutely is.

As certain players get further into retirement we tend to only remember them for their most prominent years , most likely an era with a specific team or a handful of seasons at the height of their powers. What we forget is that most players, often even many stars, fade quietly into retirement with a couple of less-than-glamorous seasons flying under the radar. The result is some fantastically quirky overlapping matchups between ageing superstars limping off into the sunset and budding new prospects yet to evolve into the juggernauts they’d go on to become.

So here for your enjoyment are seven head-scratching matchups between players we associate with completely different eras of basketball that actually suited up against each other…

7. Shaquille O’Neal v Russell Westbrook & James Harden — OKC v BOS — 19th NOV 2020
Shaq arguably moved around more than any other superstar of the pre-player empowerment era. After dominating the league in Orlando, LA and Miami he rounded out his career with stops in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston — an uncharacteristically long list of teams for someone of his talent level in his era. Now widely known as a TV analyst on TNT with increasingly get-off-my-lawn vibes, he has been fairly vocal in his criticism of the new generation of NBA superstars, so much so that it’s easy to forget he hung around all the way until the 2010/11 Season to face many of them. Playing 20 MIN per night for 37 games as a Celtic, a collection of lower limb injuries eventually forced an inevitable retirement.

But before retiring he matched up against two future league MVP’s, James Harden and Russell Westbook (it would’ve been three but KD was inactive that night). O’Neal had 11/6 in 28 minutes while Harden started in place of Durant, going 2/8 from the field for 12/6/4 in his sophomore season. Russ stole the show with 31/4/6 on 21 shots with 7 turnovers — the quintessential Westbrook experience. Shaq v Harden is a fascinating matchup between two all time greats at polar opposite ends of their career — one who barely belonged in the league anymore and one who was yet to even crack the starting lineup.

6. Dominique Wilkins v Vince Carter — ORL v TOR — APR 19th 1999
First, let’s get this out of the way: this one is grasping at straws a bit. Okay, a lot. I know it. You know it. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to point out that two of the greatest dunkers of all time shared the court even though it feels like their careers were 20 years apart. Nique played nine majestic fourth quarter garbage time minutes in a blowout loss to the Raptors. After his decorated career with the Atlanta Hawks from 1982 to 1993/94, Wilkins stopped over at the Clippers and Celtics, fell out of the league either side of a stint with the Spurs then played 27 games with Orlando at age 39 (looking waaay out of place in a Magic jersey in the process).

Carter went 5/14 FG for 14 PTS and played four minutes of the fourth quarter, presumably the first four before checking out for the remainder of the 90–72 win (unable to find any footage readily available). Given there’s 12 minutes in a quarter, mathematically speaking the two did overlap for a least one minute of playing time. One minute. On the same court. It still counts. Moving on.

5. Scottie Pippen v Carmello Anthony — DEN v CHI — NOV 10th 2003
Most self-respecting NBA fans know that Scottie Pippen continued to play some high level basketball after his time with the Bulls, contributing to playoff runs with the Trail Blazers for four seasons after a messy layover in Houston. But even avid fans may have overlooked the fact that he finished his career playing 23 games in Chicago in the 2003/04 season, six years removed from winning a sixth championship there. Nice as it may sound, Pippen returning to retire with the team that drafted him in 5th in 1987, it was underwhelming — perhaps the reason it receives such little attention. Back in his famous number 33, Pippen predominantly came off the bench to average 6 PTS in 18 minutes per game.

If Pippen wasn’t sure yet that retirement was a good idea, getting acquainted with the draft class of 2003 probably sealed the deal. Third pick of the Denver Nuggets, Carmelo Anthony — the cornrows, baby blue uniform era Melo — took the Bulls to a scoring clinic with 26 PTS. There’s a particularly egregious moment at 01:30 in the game recap below where Melo rips the ball from Scottie like a grown man playing pee wee football. If you’re a die-hard Bulls fan perhaps look away. Everyone else — I strongly encourage you to indulge in a quick viewing.

4. Dikembe Mutumbo v Rajon Rondo — BOS v HOU — MAR 18 2008
You probably knew who Rajon Rondo was by his sophomore season in 2007/08, mostly on account of him being the starting point guard on the NBA Champion Boston Celtics that year. Not exactly an under the radar start to a pro career like many young players. What you might not have realised is that Dikembe Mutumbo hung around the league long enough to matchup against Rondo on a March night in 2008! The 7'2 Center from The Congo was drafted in 1991 and best known for time spent in Denver, Atlanta and Philadelphia but actually finished out his career with 4 seasons as a Rocket (and 9 games of a fifth season) mostly coming off the bench for a few minutes and modest production. After some deep playoff runs with Iverson’s 76ers until 2001/02, Mutumbo’s last year as an All Star, he dropped mostly off the radar but stayed in the league a surprisingly long time.

3. Kevin Garnett vs Nikola Jokic — MIN v DEN — OCT 30 2015
After winning a championship with Boston in 2008 and once his role in Brooklyn began to fizzle, KG returned to finish his career with the Timberwolves in 2014 — the team that drafted him 5th overall back in 1995. It was a nice feel good story about bringing home a vet to get alongside their young stars in a mentorship role as a good locker room presence. But if your memory recalls KG as a Udonis Hasleem style suit-up-but-never-actually-play pseudo assistant coach, you’d actually be kinda wrong. Garnett averaged 15 minutes per game across 38 games for the 2015–16 season, including 22 minutes on October 30th against a doughy Serbian centre coming off the bench in just his second NBA game ever.

Rookie Nikola Jokic, a second-round pick playing behind Joffrey Lauvergne in the rotation, registered 10 PTS and 9 RBS in 18 minutes. After taking over the full time starting role from Jusuf Nurkic in his second season and making his first all-star appearance by season four Jokic, as we all know, went on to be named league MVP for the 2020/21 season. It’s the perfect example of a relatively unknown player at the time having the briefest crossing of paths with a first-ballot Hall of Famer at the very tail end of his career, their first and last handful of respective NBA games overlapping.

2. Patrick Ewing v Ron Artest — SEA v CHI — FEB 1 2001
When it comes to players enshrined with one specific franchise, Patrick Ewing as a New York Knick is NBA gospel. What we forget, perhaps by choice, is that he made two quick stopovers — one season in Seattle followed by another in Orlando. Ewing’s hopes of a contract extension after the 1999/00 Season fell flat, with the Knicks front office unwilling to gamble on his declining health despite him having been the heart and soul of New York basketball since 1985. They instead chose to partake in an undeniably bland 4-team trade sending him to Seattle where, despite said injury concern, he played 79 games averaging nearly 10 PTs and 7.4 RBS on 26.7 minutes per night.

It was this lone season as a Sonic that brought us a delightful February matchup with the 6–39 Chicago Bulls featuring one Ron Artest. Artest, an NBA journeyman of sorts, rose to national infamy as an Indiana Pacer for his role in the 2004 Malice at the Palace and reemerged as a key part of the Lakers 2010 Championship run after stopovers in Sacramento and Houston. As a result, we’ve all but forgotten that the 16th pick in the 1999 draft played his first three seasons with the Chicago Bulls. But in what we can only imagine was an underwhelming regular season matchup in every way, a second year Artest took the court against Patrick Ewing and the Sonics. Neither player did anything that jumps off the box score, but that doesn’t change the fact that it sure is strange to think they played against each other! There’s also no video coverage of the game readily available, so perhaps you’d like to indulge yourself instead on this video by the good people at Secret Base explaining how badly the Knicks botched the post-Ewing era…

  1. Hakeem Olajuwon v Kwame Brown — WAS v TOR — DEC 16 2001

History will tell you that on December 16th, 2001 a young Vince Carter went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan fresh off his second retirement playing for the Washington Wizards (a part of basketball history in itself that we’ve all agreed to forget). What it will fail to mention is the clash of titans that took place when Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon — 1994 & ’95 NBA Champion and Finals MVP with the Houston Rockets — suited up in number 34 for the Toronto Raptors to take on Number 1 draft pick Kwame Brown. Yep, that Kwame Brown — the 6'11 big man selected by MJ himself and widely considered to be the biggest bust of all time.

The idea that the two crossed paths at all is strange enough in itself, but the fact that it occurred with Hakeem in a Raptors jersey and MJ in attendance as a Washington Wizard is outright bizarre. Brown played 20 MIN for a whopping 9 PTS on 3/8 shooting with a respectable 10 REB compared to Olajuwon’s 29 MIN for 10/7/3 on 56% FG. Did they guard each other? Probably not much, if at all. Did their minutes overlap? Definitely yes but, again, probably not a bunch. Were they absolutely on the court at the same time in an NBA game and is that super weird? You bet.