Greatest Last-Minute Trade Deadline Deals in NBA History
The NBA trade deadline has been a fixture of the association since its earliest days. As far back as the 1950s, February deals have been going down.
But despite all the last-minute scrambling and beat-the-clock transacting, most of these many trades did not result in championships for the teams that were involved in each respective move.
The goal of winning a title immediately is not the only reason why teams engage in deadline moves. Oftentimes teams are trying to shed salary or get something in return for a player that they do not believe they will be able to keep.
But every so often, it all works out, and teams are able to add that missing championship piece through a great move in February.
The following slides will feature the five greatest trade deadline moves in NBA history.
Trade recaps at the beginning of each slide are courtesy Basketball-Reference.com.
5. Indiana Pacers Trade Alex English to Denver Nuggets (Feb. 1, 1980)
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February 1, 1980: The Denver Nuggets trade George McGinnis to the Indiana Pacers for Alex English and a 1980 1st round draft pick (Carl Nicks).
The Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets were two of the four ABA teams to survive the 1976-77 merger with the NBA.
Three-and-a-half seasons in, these two teams pulled off one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history that would send a bust one way and the greatest player in franchise history the other.
Nuggets’ All-Star forward George McGinnis had already won two ABA Finals with the Pacers and took a trip to the NBA Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was in Denver only one full year before Indiana, in a fit of sentimentalism, looked to recapture its past glory and came knocking.
Alex English, too, was only in Indiana one year, his third in the league. The second-rounder had come off the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench his first two seasons. He began turning heads that season in Indiana, going from 9.6 to 16 points per game.
So, in 1980, the Pacers traded English and a first-round draft pick to the Nuggets for McGinnis.
McGinnis would finish off the season and just two more years in Indiana by putting up the worst numbers of his career.
Meanwhile, English would begin crafting a Hall of Fame career, spending the next 10-plus years of it in Denver, which included nine trips to the postseason).
English is the Nuggets all-time leader in games played, minutes, field goals, points, assists and offensive rebounds. He represented Denver in eight straight All-Star games.
Along with Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe, English led the highest-scoring NBA team of all time—the 1981-82 Nuggets—and would be a part of three of the top six highest-scoring teams in NBA history during his time in Denver.
4. Atlanta Hawks Trade Dikembe Mutombo to Philadelphia 76ers (Feb. 22, 2001)
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February 22, 2001: The Atlanta Hawks traded Roshown McLeod and Dikembe Mutombo to the Philadelphia 76ers for Toni Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed, Theo Ratliff and Pepe Sanchez.
After five losing seasons in which they failed to make the playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers finally drafted a potential savior, Allen Iverson, with the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NBA draft.
Slowly, the Sixers began to rise in the standings until the 1998-99 season, when they finished above .500 and made the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They repeated this same performance again in 1999-00.
During this time, Iverson was a one-man show, helped along by such supporting characters as Matt Geiger, Theo Ratliff, Tyrone Hill and a way-past-his-prime Toni Kukoc.
Soon the team realized that Iverson needed help, preferably in the form of a big man.
In 2000, the 76ers were mowing down the NBA, sporting a league-best 41-14 record by the time of the trade deadline.
When starting center Theo Ratliff went down with an injury, Philadelphia’s hand was forced. CBSNews.com recounted the deadline-day deal:
The Philadelphia 76ers hope they traded for an NBA championship Thursday when they acquired Dikembe Mutombo from Atlanta in a six-player deal. Allen Iverson certainly thinks that's what will happen. "I'd be lying to you all if I didn't say this guy could help us win a championship," Iverson said. "He's a rebounder, he's an intimidator, he can change the game all by himself, offensively and defensively. It's going to be tough for guys to double-team him and myself."
The 76ers didn’t win a championship that season, but they did make it to the NBA Finals, losing to Shaq, Kobe and the Los Angeles Lakers.
On the other side of the coin, the Atlanta Hawks were mostly looking to clear cap space and would fail at rebuilding over the next five years after this move.
3. Atlanta Hawks Trade Rasheed Wallace to Detroit Pistons (Feb. 19, 2004)
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February 19, 2004: In a 3-team trade, the Atlanta Hawks traded Rasheed Wallace to the Detroit Pistons; the Boston Celtics traded Chris Mills to the Atlanta Hawks; the Boston Celtics traded Mike James to the Detroit Pistons; the Detroit Pistons traded Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a 2004 1st round draft pick (Josh Smith) to the Atlanta Hawks; and the Detroit Pistons traded Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and a 2004 1st round draft pick (Tony Allen) to the Boston Celtics.
The third team was a charm for Rasheed Wallace in 2003-04. He started the season as a Portland Trail Blazer and played one game for the Atlanta Hawks before being shipped off to Detroit, where he would win an NBA championship that year.
In an eight-player, three-team, two-pick trade, Wallace wound up on the Pistons for relatively nothing, though the first-rounder Detroit surrendered eventually became Josh Smith.
Joe Dumars, still the Pistons’ president of basketball operations today, and the previous season’s NBA Executive of the Year, orchestrated the move to bring ‘Sheed in. Dumars had this to say to ESPN following the trade:
It gives us a real shot to compete at the highest level in the NBA right now…That fact that we didn't have to break up our team and we were able to add the guy we did, it made it a no-brainer move for us.
This move obviously was a huge win the Pistons, but the other teams involved the trade did not make out too poorly, either.
Smith would help lead the Hawks to the playoffs after an eight-year drought in 2007-08.
As far as the Celtics go, Tony Allen was a contributing member of Boston’s 2008 championship run.
All three teams can claim a successful transaction here.
2. Portland Trail Blazers Trade Clyde Drexler to Houston Rockets (Feb. 14, 1995)
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February 14, 1995: The Houston Rockets traded Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola and a 1995 1st round draft pick (Randolph Childress) to the Portland Trail Blazers for Clyde Drexler and Tracy Murray.
Clyde Drexler was a veritable institution in Portland, but after more than 11 years and no titles, the relationship was over. Drexler wanted out, and with his clock ticking, according to TheDreamShake.com, he “requested a trade to a contender.”
The Glide would finish his illustrious Hall of Fame career in style by win a championship in Houston.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets were the reigning champions at the start of the 1994-95 season and were looking for more. Even with a 29-17 record by mid-February, the competition in the West had the Rockets fighting to hold onto a playoff slot.
The 1994-95 Rockets were almost exactly the same team as the previous season, but it looked like they were going to need more. An NBA team's title window does not stay open long and this might have been Houston's (and Hakeem's) last shot.
And it turned out, the Rockets made the right move, though it was a hard one to make.
Houston sacrificed fan-favorite Otis Thorpe to the Trail Blazers for Drexler. The Glide was an all-around better player and a much better scorer than Thorpe, so it was definitely the right move.
As a result of this trade, the Rockets became the only NBA franchise not named Lakers, Celtics or Bulls to win back-to-back NBA titles.
1. Memphis Grizzlies Trade Pau Gasol to Los Angeles Lakers (Feb. 1, 2008)
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February 1, 2008: The Los Angeles Lakers traded Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, a 2008 1st round draft pick (Donte Greene) and a 2010 1st round draft pick (Greivis Vasquez) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol and a 2010 2nd round draft pick (Devin Ebanks).
The Los Angeles Lakers walked away with a three-time All-Star, three straight Finals appearances and back-to-back titles (2008 and 2009) thanks to this trade.
After Shaquille O’Neal split in 2004, the Lakers were desperate to find a talented big man to pair with Kobe Bryant. Since O’Neal’s departure, L.A. failed to make the playoffs once and was bounced out of the first round twice.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak summed up the thinking behind the Gasol trade for NBA.com:
“Pau is a proven player of All-Star caliber in this league who can score and rebound and he’s still a young player. We feel this move strengthens our team in the short term as well as the long term.”
Clearly, Kupchak was correct about the short-term. Lately, though, Gasol has been rumored to be on the trade block once again.
The Lakers snatched Pau at the peak of his career. He had just put up two 20-PPG seasons in a row for Memphis, which where his best offensive numbers yet at that point in his career.
The Grizzlies had shown promise in the standings between 2003-04 and 2005-06, but were met with multiple first-round exits. Perhaps their lowest point came in 2006-07, when they finished 22-60.
They needed to do something. But this?
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported what everyone was thinking:
Around the league, nothing will change this belief: Whatever the reasoning, this was one of the NBA’s worst trades in years.
Still, Pau was tanking it in Memphis and wanted out. The Grizzlies were forced into rebuilding mode and were looking to save some cap space. As a result, Pau was told to pack.
This season though, it looks like the tables have turned. It’s Marc Gasol’s Grizzlies that have come along the past three years and now are holding onto the West’s current No. 4 seed.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are currently outside the 2013 playoff picture and under .500.