The Single Most Important Move of Each NBA Franchise
The road map of the NBA doesn't come with turn-by-turn directions.
Each move can be tricky, more so for some franchises than others, and a wrong turn can lead to seemingly endless years of losses and frustration. But for every single franchise, there is at least one right turn that has led to a move in the right direction.
An incredible draft pick can lead to years of prominence; a favorable trade can translate into cherished seasons; and a free-agent signing could move a franchise into the most romantic of eras.
The following is a look at the single most important move of each NBA franchise in the last 25 years (1987-present). This time frame gives us a more contemporary look and allows for some more recent moves to be examined.
Atlanta Hawks: Bringing in Lenny Wilkens as Head Coach (1993)
The Atlanta Hawks narrative reads of mediocrity. With ample playoff appearances in the past 25 years, the Hawks made a move in 1993 that nearly took advantage of an open Eastern Conference as Michael Jordan swung and missed at breaking balls.
Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame player and coach, was brought in to guide the Hawks in 1993, and in his first season won Coach of the Year in guiding Atlanta to its highest win total (57) in franchise history.
With a defensive style of coaching and the stingy backcourt of Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon, that Hawks team advanced into the conference semifinals (the franchise's historic roadblock) before falling to Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers.
Wilkens earned 310 of his career 1,332 wins in seven seasons in Atlanta, where he also reached four conference semifinals.
Boston Celtics: Creating the 'Big Three' (2007)
The offseason deals created the first “Big Three” of this generation...before we all appreciated the “Big Four” with Rajon Rondo. Ainge’s moves had immediate payoff, resulting in the best single-season turnaround in NBA history and the Celtics’ first championship since 1986.
Brooklyn Nets: Trading for Jason Kidd (2001)
Derrick Coleman, please don't be offended, but the king of New Jersey was Jason Kidd.
The Nets traded Stephon Marbury and others to the Phoenix Suns in 2001 in exchange for the triple-double threat of Kidd and Chris Dudley. Dudley wasn’t the big name.
And while Coleman, drafted by the Nets in 1990, won Rookie of the Year, it was Kidd who led the team to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.
Kidd helped spark a revival of basketball in New Jersey, even though he wasn't able to lead the improbable Nets past Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2002 or Tim Duncan in 2003.
Charlotte Bobcats: Snagging Gerald Wallace in the Expansion Draft (2004)
Wallace was drafted in Charlotte's expansion draft in 2004, and became known as "Crash" for the Bobcats, battling injuries yet improving each season.
In the eight-year history of the Charlotte Bobcats, the relatively young franchise has one playoff appearance, and no playoff wins. But that lone appearance, a No. 7 seed, came in 2009-10 thanks mostly to Wallace’s 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Wallace’s defensive presence matched well with the perimeter defense of Stephen Jackson and his 21.1 points per game that season. Wallace was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2011.
Chicago Bulls: Draft-Day Trade for Scottie Pippen (1987)
Remember, this is a look at moves made in the past 25 years only. And in 1987, the Chicago Bulls, led by second-year guard Michael Jordan and his 37.1 points per game average, finished 40-42 and had just been swept by the one-seed Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Then a draft-day deal marked a monumental assist in the historic run of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Selected fifth in the 1987 draft by the Seattle SuperSonics, Scottie Pippen was traded to the Bulls in exchange for Olden Polynice and picks.
Pippen went on to be a part of six championships and was selected to seven All-Star teams.
When Jordan left the NBA for the 1993-94 season, the defensively gifted Pippen led the Bulls to 55 wins and averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Drafting LeBron James (2003)
There wasn’t much of a decision for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. With a 22.5 percent chance, the Cavs won the lottery with the biggest jackpot of perhaps the most talented draft of all time.
Cleveland took LeBron James with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, and got seven years with one of the game’s greatest players. James had two MVP seasons and a Finals appearance with Cleveland before making “the decision” to go win a title.
Dallas Mavericks: Draft-Day Trade for Dirk Nowitzki (1998)
The Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 NBA Championship came through a significant move made 13 years prior. On another prominent draft-day deal in 1998, the Mavericks swapped Robert “Tractor” Traylor for one of history’s greatest talents, Dirk Nowitzki.
Sadly, Traylor tragically died that same championship year, 2011, of a heart attack.
Denver Nuggets: Drafting Carmelo Anthony with the No. 3 Pick (2003)
With Anthony as the new centerpiece, the Nuggets rallied off seven consecutive playoff appearances. They made the playoffs in the 2010-11 season in which he was traded and were in again last season.
The Denver Nuggets never had incredible success in the playoffs and have reached the Conference Finals just once in the past 25 years, in the 2008-09 season that resulted in a Western Conference series loss to the Lakers.
Detroit Pistons: Signing Chauncey Billups as a Free Agent (2002)
The Detroit Pistons' storyline picked up a much-needed character in 2002 by signing Chauncey Billups as a free agent to be the team's new point guard. He was the NBA Finals MVP in 2004 when Detroit won its Championship against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Billups brought a coarse elegance to gritty defense and blue-collar basketball in Detroit. Destined to be a journeyman, Billups, and his flair for hitting the big shot, found a home in the tough city of Detroit and made the 1997 third overall pick a fan favorite in his seventh season.
Golden State Warriors: The Final Piece of 'Run TMC' in 1989
The “We Believe” season in Oakland would have never happened without the trade to obtain Baron Davis for Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis.
The February 2005 trade of the star guard had electric results in the 2007 "We Believe" playoff series win, but there was another more significant move in the past 25 years for the Warriors.
The founding of “Run DMC,” the other romantically remembered Bay Area basketball slogan and the other Don Nelson-authored, high-flying offense, was designed over a few years with the drafting of Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond. But the final piece in the creation of 'Run TMC' took place in the 1989 draft when the Warriors selected Tim Hardaway with the 14th overall pick.
Of course, the starry-eyed memories of the era often outweigh the fact that it only lasted two seasons, and produced just one playoff series victory. In typical Warriors fashion, it didn't last long and Richmond was traded to the Kings in 1991 for Billy Owens.
Houston Rockets: Trading for Clyde Drexler at the Trade Deadline (1995)
Despite the fact that James Harden is continuing his dreamlike introduction to Houston, it was the addition of another Dream Team gold medalist that marks the franchise’s most significant move of the last 25 years.
Clyde Drexler was snagged out of Portland in 1995 on a trade-deadline deal for Otis Thorpe that led to an unlikely second consecutive championship alongside Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
In those 1995 Finals, at 33 years old, Drexler averaged 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 6.8 assists.
Indiana Pacers: Selecting Reggie Miller with the No. 11 Pick (1987)
With the 11th pick in the 1987 draft, the Indiana Pacers took arguably the greatest shooter and clutch scorer of all time, Reggie Miller.
There are few players in basketball who carry a team’s identity as much as Miller does for the Pacers. His career is highlighted by 8.9 seconds in which Miller scored eight points to beat the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Los Angeles Clippers: Trading for Chris Paul (2011)
With so many years as the doormat of Southern California, the Clippers made their most significant move and became truly significant in 2011.
Paul almost became a significant piece to another Lakers title, but the league's owners got riled up and said no. So instead, Paul found himself with the other Los Angeles team in exchange for Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Los Angeles Lakers: Trading for the Draft Rights of Kobe Bryant (1996)
The draft rights of Kobe Bryant were traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac before the Charlotte Hornets selected the first guard out of high school with the 13th overall pick of the 1996 draft.
Bryant is the face of the most successful franchise since 2000. While Shaquille O’Neal is given greater credit for the three-peat of 2000-02, the dominant center wasn’t around for the back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 when Bryant was awarded a pair of Finals MVPs.
Bryant has five rings, an MVP, and 14 All-Star selections. He hasn't done it on his own, but not many have in the past 25 years.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Draft-Day Trade for Rudy Gay (2006)
The Memphis Grizzlies have never truly had one name that represents winning in their 17-year existence.
Fortunes have changed for the franchise in recent years, though, and the team had its best season in 2010-11 with 46 wins and the club’s only playoff series victory, a first-round win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Leading this brief era of Grizzlies' success is Rudy Gay, one of the team’s greatest talents. He was selected by the Houston Rockets with the No. 8 pick in 2006, and then traded to Memphis in exchange for Shane Battier. The Rockets made the move to place win-now pieces around Yao Ming.
Miami Heat: Drafting Dwyane Wade with the No. 5 Pick (2003)
It may seem like LeBron James should be the biggest acquisition, but Dwyane Wade has two rings for Miami, and James would have never arrived if it were not for Wade’s presence.
Wade was the No. 5 pick in that talent-laden 2003 draft, and was quick to reach star status even before the addition of James and Chris Bosh.
His career season and playoffs averages look similar to Kobe Bryant, and Wade still has plenty of years to build on his resume.
Milwaukee Bucks: Drafting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 Pick (1994)
The Milwaukee Bucks are out of the ordinary, only for the fact that they are so consistently ordinary. They are one of the least talked-about franchises in the league, and have spent the past 25 years barely popping above mediocrity. Do people even talk about the Bucks in Wisconsin?
If a Bucks jersey ever was spotted loose in public, there’s a good chance it was a Glenn Robinson replica, off the hanger of a Ross store. “The Big Dog” was taken with the first pick of the 1994 draft and utilized a holdout to secure the richest NBA rookie contract of all time at 10 years, $68 million.
Sometimes the No. 1 pick doesn't become a superstar, nor does he become a flop. Sometimes, that pick just becomes a "Big Dog." The second all-time leading scorer of the Bucks, Robinson worked through the rough years and later was rewarded with Ray Allen and Sam Cassell to reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Drafting Kevin Garnett with the No. 5 Pick (1995)
In 1995, the Minnesota Timberwolves took a shot on Kevin Garnett by drafting him as the first player out of high school since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975.
It certainly paid off. The versatile future Hall of Famer spent 12 seasons with the Timberwolves, including a 2004 MVP award.
The franchise has never made the playoffs without Garnett. Though he never got over the hump in Minnesota, he led the Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997 to 2004, concluding with a Western Conference Finals series loss to the Lakers.
New Orleans Hornets: Trading for Glen Rice (1995)
The Hornets franchise is another one that has consistently bobbed up and down on the surface of mattering in the NBA. The years of scarce success are scattered throughout the franchise’s 24-year history.
The team's best run came in the mid-90s, when the Hornets had 50-win seasons in three of four years (1994-1998). During that era, Charlotte featured one of the more likeable rosters in the league, with names such as Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Alonzo Mourning and Dell Curry.
But days before the 1995-96 season, Charlotte swapped out a discontented Mourning for Miami Heat scorer Glen Rice. In the 1996-97 season, Rice averaged 26.8 points per game and pushed the Hornets to the franchise’s highest win total (54-28), despite the team being swept in the first round by the New York Knicks.
New York Knicks: Trading for Charles Oakley (1988)
He’s the intimidating darling of New York basketball.
Charles Oakley, who landed in New York via a trade that sent Bill Cartwright to Chicago in 1988, became a fan favorite as the enforcer of a Knicks team that saw success through the mid-90s.
Paired with Patrick Ewing, the trade for Oakley proved to be a dramatic move, creating one of the better frontcourt combinations of the last 25 years. He was an iron man for New York, rarely, if ever, missing a single game.
A throwback to the old days of the Knicks, it’s no wonder why fans might struggle to understand any softness from current stars. Speaking of, Carmelo Anthony still has time to fill this slot.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Drafting Kevin Durant with the No. 2 Pick (2007)
Seattle lucked out with the No. 2 pick in 2007, and was able to make the best decision for Oklahoma City. If the SuperSonics would have been awarded the No. 1 pick, they likely would have made the best decision at the time and selected Greg Oden.
Instead, Oden went to the Portland Trail Blazers and Kevin Durant was selected with the No. 2 overall pick. Durant has averaged 26.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in his first five seasons. He also brought the Thunder to the NBA Finals last season.
Oden was the consensus No. 1 pick, so there shouldn't be any we-should-have-done-this regrets in Portland despite the fact that Oden has played just 82 games in his injury-riddled career and is not playing this season.
Orlando Magic: Drafting Shaquille O'Neal with the No. 1 Pick (1992)
The Orlando Magic, in its fourth year as an NBA franchise in 1992-93, reached the .500 mark (41-41) for the first time in history with the help of rookie Shaquille O'Neal.
Drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 1992, he won Rookie of the Year in his first season, averaging 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.
Just two seasons later, the 1994-95 Orlando team reached the NBA Finals despite being swept by the Houston Rockets.
O’Neal was obviously a force from the beginning of his time in the NBA, dominating the center position and creating his mark in Magic history before going on to win championships in Los Angeles.
Interesting how Dwight Howard has such a similar history.
Philadelphia 76ers: Drafting Allen Iverson with the No. 1 Pick (1996)
There wasn’t much chance of missing on Allen Iverson. The lightning-quick guard out of Georgetown came with plenty of excitement, all of which A.I. lived up to.
Selected by Philadelphia with the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft, Iverson won Rookie of the Year as a relentless scorer, averaging 23.5 points and adding 7.5 assists per game.
Iverson, one of the greatest shooting guards of all time, brought Philadelphia to its first NBA Finals since 1983, although it was a losing effort to Los Angeles.
Phoenix Suns: Trading for Charles Barkley (1992)
There are two separate eras of remarkable success in the past 25 years of Phoenix Suns basketball.
From 1988 to 1995, the Suns rallied off seven consecutive 50-plus win seasons, including a 62-win season that included an NBA Finals appearance in 1992-93 thanks to Charles Barkley. From 2004 to 2010, the Suns had five 50-plus win seasons, including two 60-plus win seasons.
While the more recent years of success were a direct reflection of Mike D’Antoni’s successful offensive pace that included the back-to-back MVP seasons of Steve Nash paired with the superstar play of Amar'e Stoudemire, the earlier success came with a more dramatic turnaround that changed the direction of the franchise.
Toiling within mediocrity through the mid-80s, the 1988 trade for Tom Chambers was part of a revival in Phoenix that also included Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and the emergence of Dan Majerle.
The team rallied and knocked on the door of the Western Conference Finals and Semifinals before making the move to bring in one of the game’s greatest players ever: Barkley. The Suns traded for Barkley in 1992 for Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
Barkley had an MVP season in 1992-93 and led the team to only its second NBA Finals appearance, ultimately losing to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Portland Trail Blazers: Bringing in Rick Adelman as Head Coach (1989)
Rick Adelman made his name in his first full season as Portland's head coach in 1989-90, improving the team by 20 wins and leading the Trail Blazers to an NBA Finals appearance.
Adelman, an assistant with Portland, was promoted to interim head coach during a struggling 1988-89 season and somehow found a way to lead the team into the playoffs despite a 39-43 record.
He was hired as the full-time head coach and spent a total of five incredibly successful seasons running the Trail Blazers, including NBA Finals appearances in 1990 and 1992.
He certainly had the help of a star like Clyde Drexler, but it was Adelman's leadership that orchestrated the run of success.
Adelman led the team to 51 wins and 47 wins, respectively, in his last two seasons with Portland before he was dismissed.
Sacramento Kings: Trading for Chris Webber (1999)
“Chris: Joe will mow your lawn if you stay. Gavin.”
Chris Webber didn’t want to come to Sacramento. When the Kings traded Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe for Webber in 1998, Sacramento was only just becoming relevant in the NBA and Webber’s reputation wasn’t exactly that of a team guy, let alone a bad-team guy.
But with some hip new owners, the drafting of Jason Williams, and the signings of Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac, suddenly Webber’s Sacramento nightmare became fun. Paired with Williams, or “White Chocolate,” Webber created a buzz around the league and Sacramento became the energetic, exciting team to watch...and under Adelman, they became good too.
After being wooed in 2001 by Joe and Gavin Maloof to stay with the above slogan, Webber inked a $127 million, seven-year contract.
The Kings were rolling. Purple was flying. Webber was dating Tyra Banks. And then, the Lakers and NBA referees ripped away perhaps Sacramento’s only chance at an NBA championship. With Webber’s knee went any shot at continued success for the Kings.
San Antonio Spurs: Drafting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 Pick (1997)
Sometimes the directions are pretty straightforward, even when things seem lost.
When David Robinson was out with injury for most of a 20-win season in 1996-97, the Spurs found themselves with the No. 1 pick and an easy decision in selecting Tim Duncan.
It was a simple move, and it’s been the most important move of the franchise’s last 25 years. Duncan will be in the Hall of Fame. He has led the Spurs to four championships, winning three Finals MVPs and two season MVP awards.
Toronto Raptors: Draft-Day Trade for Vince Carter (1998)
The face of Toronto is Air Canada.
Vince Carter, drafted by the Golden State Warriors with the No. 4 pick but immediately traded to the Raptors for fellow Tar Heel Antawn Jamison, was and still is Canada’s greatest basketball highlight.
Carter showcased his did-he-just-do-that dunking in a Toronto uniform, creating the most memorable moments for Raptors fans. The only time the franchise has won a playoff series has been with Carter.
Utah Jazz: Bringing in Jerry Sloan as Head Coach (1988)
Of all the coach selections on this list, there is arguably no coach more important than Jerry Sloan was in Utah.
With John Stockton and Karl Malone already drafted and in place when he took over, Sloan built a system that would last for years.
Sloan replaced Frank Layden in 1988 and rallied off 16 consecutive years of leading the Jazz to the playoffs. Of those 16 years, 10 included seasons of 50 or more wins.
After the retirement of Stockton and Malone, Sloan kept winning, proving he was the constant of success in Utah. He resigned abruptly in 2011.
Washington Wizards: Signing Gilbert Arenas to His First Contract (2003)
Sometimes, a team’s most important move can become one of the worst moves in its history. And when you are the Washington Wizards, endlessly searching for the right direction, these are the things that happen.
So is the case with Gilbert Arenas and the Wizards. A story that started off as romantic as they come, as Arenas reportedly used the assistance of coin-flipping to decide on a six-year, $60 million deal with Washington in 2003.
After battling injury throughout his first season in the nation’s capital, Arenas, paired with Larry Hughes for his second season in 2004-05, improved Washington by 20 wins (45-37) and led the team to a first-round playoff series victory against Chicago.
Arenas then averaged 29.3 points in 2005-06 and 28.4 points in 2006-07 in leading the Wizards to two more playoff spots, first-round losses to Cleveland.
That was the good part.
Then, in 2007-08, Arenas missed most of the season with a serious knee injury. But it apparently only showed Washington he had heart. The Wizards decided in 2008 to offer Arenas a max contract worth $124 million over six years.
Since then, the zany guard's biggest splash was an NBA suspension of 50 games.
Follow Jimmy Spencer on Twitter @jimmypspencer