6 NBA Draft Trades That Changed the League Forever
Believe it or not, six draft trades have impacted all of NBA history. Draft picks get swapped all the time for other draft picks or for players. There are, of course, many times a title might be the result of a trade here or there.
But sometimes the effects are bigger than just one team or just one title. They have an impact that lasts for years and span not just one franchise, but many. They have a ripple effect that stretches out through the league and through time.
These six NBA draft trades had an impact that spanned all of NBA history. Here’s a march through time, looking at how different history could be if it weren’t for a few trades here and there.
While this is admittedly speculation, it should make you pause and think about how precarious so many hardline NBA arguments really are, because so many revolve around championships.
The St. Louis Hawks as the Greatest Franchise Ever?
The Boston Celtics, with 17 banners, are considered by many as the greatest franchise in history (though the Los Angeles Lakers have a strong case too). The bulk of those banners came under the leadership of Bill Russell, who was the most important player on 11 of those runs.
But he was initially drafted by the St. Louis Hawks and traded on draft day for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley. While both those players went on to have Hall of Fame careers, they were no Bill Russell.
Imagine if the Hawks had been able to pair Russell, the greatest defensive player of his era, with Bob Pettit, the greatest offensive player the league had ever seen until Wilt Chamberlain came along. What a frontcourt that would have been!
Would the St. Louis Hawks have had the dynasty that became Boston’s?
If that happens, perhaps the largest market in the country without an NBA team still has one—the Hawks would never have moved to Atlanta after that kind of success.
And then, with St. Louis assuming Boston’s legacy, maybe Boston assumes St. Louis’.
How do the words “Atlanta Celtics” roll off the tongue? Feels weird, doesn’t it?
And without the Celtics to fall in love with as a boy, Bill Simmons never becomes the “Sports Guy,” never writes The Book of Basketball, there is no Grantland, and the world is a far less entertaining place. The Russell to Boston trade was good for humanity, not just for the city of Boston.
How a Draft Day Trade Is Responsible for the Dunk Contest
"Pistol" Pete Maravich was taken by the Atlanta Hawks with the third overall pick in the 1970 draft. He would go on to become a Hall of Famer.
He would also get traded to the New Orleans Jazz in 1974, for among others, their first-round pick in 1975 and their 1976 second-round pick.
The 1975 pick was David Thompson, who also went on to a Hall of Fame career. The 1976 pick was Alex English, who was yet another Hall of Famer. So the Utah Jazz traded away two all-timers for the price of one.
Atlanta, though, was not all that bright. This was in the days of the American Basketball Association as well, and Thompson was the first pick in both drafts, so both the Denver Nuggets and the Hawks had draft rights to Thompson.
That meant Atlanta had to woo him. Yet Thompson chose the Nuggets and the ABA.
Thompson was one of the great leapers in the history of the game. He had a 44" vertical and a massive pair of hands. His propensity for playing above the rim earned him the nickname, “Skywalker.”
He and Julius Erving were the finalists in the original ABA Slam-Dunk Contest, where Erving gave birth to the “Free-Throw-Line Dunk,” which won him the contest.
If not for Thompson, maybe the first contest doesn’t work so well with no one to push “Dr. J.” Maybe he doesn't have to take the dunk from the free-throw line that became legendary. If that contest never succeeds, maybe the NBA never adopts the contest.
If the Jazz never trade for Maravich, then the Hawks never get the chance to bungle the signing, Thompson never goes to the ABA, and there is no epic dunk contest, so there is no present contest.
And that’s how a draft-day trade got us the dunk contest.
A Different Original Big Three?
But what if the original trio included Bernard King instead of Bird? And what if McHale played for a different team?
Parish started his career with the Golden State Warriors, but after four seasons he was traded to the Boston Celtics, along with a first-round pick in the 1980 draft. The Celtics then used that pick on Kevin McHale.
But what if the Warriors had kept Parish and the pick and taken McHale instead?
The Warriors acquired Bernard King in that same offseason, meaning they could have combined Bernard King, one of the great pure perimeter scorers of all time, with McHale and Parish in the post. The potential of that threesome together is compelling.
If it weren’t for this trade, maybe the '80s is not about the great Bird and Magic Johnson rivalry, but the King and Johnson rivalry. Considering that the Bird vs. Johnson rivalry is what allegedly “saved” the NBA, one wonders what the state of the NBA would be today had this trade never occurred.
Jordan Not the G.O.A.T?
Is it possible that there’s an alternate universe where Michael Jordan is not nearly universally heralded as the greatest of all time?
People often point to the Chicago Bulls' draft-day trade of Scottie Pippen and ask, “What if?” in regards to the Seattle Supersonics and what they could have done had they not made the draft-day trade with Chicago.
What isn’t as widely discussed is that the Pippen pick didn’t originally belong to Seattle but was traded to the Supersonics by the New York Knicks. I’ll pause for a moment to let the irony of that catch up to you.
In 1986, New York traded its 1987 first-round pick, along with a 1990 second-round pick, for Gerald Henderson and the Supersonics' first-round pick, which the Knicks then used on Mark Jackson. That ’87 pick was the pick Seattle used to select Pippen.
Now it’s not like Jackson ended up being horrible or anything, but he wasn’t Pippen.
Imagine if Pippen had been teammates with Patrick Ewing, while Jordan was left a Batman without a Robin. Could that duo have won a title, or even multiple titles? It’s not at all far-fetched. Jordan’s Bulls and Ewing’s Knicks had some titanic battles as things were. Swapping Pippen from one team to the other could have swung the result.
And where would that place Ewing historically?
The '90s were the decade of the centers. David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuown and Shaquille O’Neal all won titles eventually. Each is one of the top five or six centers in the history of the game. Ewing is in the next tier of centers because of his lack of a championship. If he had the most rings, would he now be thought of as a top-10 player?
How different is his legacy if the Knicks have Pippen?
Or perhaps the Jazz win two titles, and John Stockton and Karl Malone aren’t on that list of greats without a ring, but just on the list of greats. Maybe Kenny Smith isn’t able to mock Charles Barkley any more.
Imagine the alternate universe where fans argue that Jordan was a great scorer, but where’s the ring? And his proponents bemoan, “But what if he’d had Scottie Pippen?”
Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers
Whether it’s because Kobe Bryant let it be known he would not sign for anyone but the Los Angeles Lakers, the fact that the trade was arranged beforehand, or both (the two are not mutually exclusive), the Charlotte Hornets traded Kobe Bean Bryant to the Lakers on draft night of 1996.
The ripple effects of history cannot be understated. At least five cities were impacted by this decision.
First, Los Angeles was obviously impacted. Bryant was one of the two most important players on five Lakers championship teams. It’s doubtful they win all five of those without Bryant. Perhaps they don’t win any.
Second, Charlotte was hugely impacted. The Hornets ended up in financial destitution, moving to New Orleans, your third city. If Bryant is there, though, maybe they’re contending and winning titles. Maybe Larry Johnson doesn’t leave for the New York Knicks, and he, Glen Rice and Bryant are the core of a championship team. So Charlotte never moves to New Orleans.
Because of Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets also spent time playing in Oklahoma City. They were so successful there that the Seattle Supersonics moved and became the Thunder.
Peripherally, even Sacramento was nearly impacted, as they almost lost their Kings to Seattle.
Furthermore, would Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs have won more titles? How about Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks or the Boston Celtics’ Big Three?
Finally, without the Hornets moving, the Charlotte Bobcats never have need to exist.
Who knew that a 17-year-old kid could have such impact?
Dirk Nowitzki and Ray Allen as Teammates?
Two of the greatest pure shooters in history are Dirk Nowitzki and Ray Allen. They could have been teammates had it not been for a draft-day trade.
Not only that, they could have one of the era’s most underrated players, Terrell Brandon, distributing the ball to them and Glen “Big Dog” Robinson playing with them as well.
The Bucks swapped Nowitzki for the not-so-great Robert “Tractor” Traylor in 1998.
Allen was not a consistent winner with the Milwaukee Bucks, but if he’d been teammates with Dirk Nowitzki, maybe he is. Maybe Milwaukee is one of the great dynasties of the decade.
Would some of those Lakers and Spurs banners be hanging in the Bradley Center?
See, the Nowitzki trade has impact even beyond the world of basketball!
And maybe Allen never goes to Miami to hit the game-tying three which just sunk the San Antonio Spurs. Even the latest champions were impacted by a draft-day trade.
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