10 Recently Traded Draft Picks NBA Teams Wish They Could Have Back
When NBA trades are made, we often see draft picks included. How often do those come back to bite the team that did the trading though?
Basketball-Reference has a nice feature near the bottom of every player’s profile page, which has the player’s entire trade history, including when they were still in the embryonic “pick” stage.
I found the top players over the last decade who were either traded before they were drafted, or at the time they were drafted (because draft-day trades are really just the same).
For each player, I include their pre-draft trade history from their respective profile page, which you can reach by clicking on the “Trade History” link. I also speculate on what might have been.
Obviously, there is a bit of a butterfly effect at play here, so it’s fun to look at a slightly different timeline for each of the players and teams, and how, in some parallel reality, the trading teams are faring better by never having executed the transaction in question.
The players are listed subjectively, based on a combination of what they have done and what they still can do, with more weight being put on what has already been accomplished.
Here is a list of some notable players who were traded as picks, but failed to place in the top 10. A quick look shows that the quality of such assets can be pretty high, even for those who didn’t make our cut.
San Antonio Spurs
Here are a few random observations:
- David Lee was the player I had the most consternation with not including in the top 10.
- Imagine frontcourts with both Tim Duncan and David Lee or Ryan Anderson and Dirk Nowitzki!
- Kawhi Leonard could have gone to waste with the Pacers behind Paul George and Danny Granger. It’s a good thing for him he was traded.
- In a case where it worked out to a team’s benefit to lose their pick, the Wizards traded away Ricky Rubio. If they hadn’t, maybe they don’t use their first pick in 2012 on John Wall.
- The Miami Heat have two appearances on here in Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Pekovic. You have to click to the next slide to see that discussed more.
10. Ty Lawson, Miami Heat
October 24, 2007: Traded by the Miami Heat (as a future 2009 first-round draft pick) with Michael Doleac, Wayne Simien and Antoine Walker to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Mark Blount and Ricky Davis.
June 25, 2009: Drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round (18th pick) of the 2009 NBA draft.
June 25, 2009: Traded by the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Denver Nuggets for a 2010 first-round draft pick (Luke Babbitt was later selected).
When the Heat landed their “Big Three,” adding Chris Bosh and LeBron James to Dwyane Wade, they vaulted themselves into title favorites, becoming a team with three All-Stars. Three years later, they are the two-time defending champions and favorites to take home a third.
The truth is, they could have been better—much better. Mario Chalmers has been a serviceable starter at point guard, but is not on an elite level in an age of point guards. His box score numbers would probably be improved on a team where he had a higher usage, but he still wouldn’t be an All-Star.
The center position has been a weakness, and they’ve struggled when they’ve gone against dominant big men. They’ve also had trouble getting scoring off the bench. This year they’re 17th in the league, the best they've been done in the James era.
Now, imagine Ty Lawson at the point.
While he hasn't made an All-Star game, he’s played like an All-Star. He’s averaging 18.9 points and 8.9 assists for the Nuggets this year. He was taken with the 19th pick in the 2009 draft, but the only three players who have more win shares than him are Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and James Harden.
Throw in Nikola Pekovic at the 5 and Eric Beldsoe, a.k.a. “Mini-LeBron,” running the second squad, and you have the three biggest weaknesses the Heat have turned into strengths.
In an alternate timeline, that group is challenging 72 wins.
9. Josh Smith, Milwaukee Bucks
October 22, 2001: Traded by the Milwaukee Bucks (as a future 2004 first-round draft pick) with Scott Williams to the Denver Nuggets for Aleksandar Radojevic and Kevin Willis.
October 1, 2002: Traded by the Denver Nuggets (as a future 2004 first-round draft pick) with Mengke Bateer and Don Reid to the Detroit Pistons for Rodney White.
February 19, 2004: As part of a three-team trade, traded by the Detroit Pistons (as a future 2004 first-round draft pick) with Zeljko Rebraca and Bob Sura to the Atlanta Hawks; 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; and the Detroit Pistons traded Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and a 2004 first-round draft pick (Tony Allen was later selected) to the Boston Celtics.
Josh Smith has been a “tweener” forward his entire career, not quite big enough to play the power forward, and not having the shooting skill to play the small forward.
On 82games.com, you can click on a player’s profile page and see how they do when they play by position. This year, Smith’s player efficiency rating (PER) is 19.5 as a power forward compared to 12.2 as a small forward. Last year, those numbers were 18.5 and 16.1 respectively. In the 2011-12 season, when he had a career high 21.1 PER, he played almost exclusively power forward.
Smith is just better when he’s playing the 4, even if he is a bit undersized for it, but he’s never had the chance to play between a true center and small forward to make that happen. That is why being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, where he could have played between Andrew Bogut and Richard Jefferson, would have been pretty spectacular.
First, with Smith defending the high post and Bogut defending the low post, they would have had a pretty spectacular defense. Between Bogut’s rim protection and Smith’s weak-side blocks, it would have tough for opponents to score in the restricted area.
The Bucks would have also had a nice high-low game, as Bogut used to be a better shooter before his elbow injury. From the 2006-07 season to the 2008-09 season, he was .463 in the paint outside the restricted area. And for all Smith’s shooting woes, he’s been fantastic inside three feet.
Add to that tandem the three-point shooting of a then healthy Michael Redd playing shooting guard, and the pre-collapse play of Jefferson, and the Bucks could have had a deep playoff run.
8. Luol Deng, Phoenix Suns
June 24, 2004: Drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the first round (7th pick) of the 2004 NBA draft.
June 24, 2004: Traded by the Phoenix Suns to the Chicago Bulls for Jackson Vroman and a 2005 first-round draft pick (Nate Robinson was later selected).
The Phoenix Suns made a decision that altered the course of their history in the 2004 offseason. No, it wasn’t trading Luol Deng away for Jackson “Who the Heck is That” Vroman and Nate “Traded for Diddly Squat” Robinson.
It was signing Steve Nash.
Nash would go on to win the next two MVPs, but the Suns would never make it to the NBA Finals under his stewardship, primarily because of two things: a second wing and overall defense.
Deng would have helped with both.
Could a starting five of Nash, Joe Johnson, Deng, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire have made it all the way? It’s certainly not unfathomable. Deng isn’t going to carry you there by himself, but he’s not bad as a fifth option.
From his perspective, Deng possibly has a better career with the Suns. He had Achilles tendinitis in 2007-08 and a mismanaged stress fracture in 2009. Both could have impacted his career trajectory. The Suns have what is widely viewed as the best training staff in the league. Could Deng’s career trajectory have been improved by going to Phoenix?
Had he not been traded on draft day, much of what we know about NBA history could be very different. Nash could have multiple rings and be listed with Duncan and Bryant as one of the greatest players of his generation. Maybe Marion never goes away, so Dallas never wins its title and Nowitzki is still the greatest active player without a ring.
It’s hard to limit the number of ways this trade impacted the league through the ripple effect.
7. Damian Lillard, Brooklyn Nets
March 15, 2012: Traded by the New Jersey Nets (as a future 2012 first-round draft pick) with Mehmet Okur and Shawne Williams to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace.
The then-New Jersey Nets traded away a first-round pick to land Gerald Wallace. The hope in trading for Wallace was it would be enough to convince Deron Williams to stick around after his contract expired.
They gave up Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round picks to get Williams.
They also traded a 2013 first-round pick and a bunch of cap space for Joe Johnson, whom they also traded for to keep Williams.
Ironically, they did all this to land an elite point guard, which they would have done had they merely used the pick.
If they hadn’t done all that wheeling and dealing, but drafted well, they could have Lillard at the point guard.
Then they could have built around that. Not needing a center, perhaps they take a small forward like Kawhi Leonard with the 2011 first-round pick and Tim Hardaway Jr. with their 2013 pick.
So now they have Lillard, Hardaway, Leonard and Brook Lopez, all their future picks and a ton of money to throw at Carmelo Anthony this summer. Or maybe they work out that deal for Dwight Howard after all.
Either way, it’s funny that they could have solved their problem by standing pat.
6. Kyrie Irving, Los Angeles Clippers
February 24, 2011: Traded by the Los Angeles Clippers (as a future 2011 first-round draft pick) with Baron Davis to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.
The Los Angeles Clippers essentially traded their first-round pick and Baron Davis in return for the reward of not having to carry Davis’s bloated contract anymore.
Imagine how differently things might have worked for them without the trade.
After the lockout and the ensuing amnesty provision, en lieu of waiting a year and wasting the provision on Ryan Gomes, let’s say the Clippers use it immediately on Davis after drafting Kyrie Irving. Having Irving, they don’t feel the need to trade for Chris Paul.
Irving, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and Blake Griffin would certainly form a core to build around.
The other possibility is that with significant cap space and a large number of assets at their disposal, they make a trade for Dwight Howard similar to the one they made for Chris Paul. Imagine a big three of Irving, Griffin and Howard, with one of the two Erics as your shooting guard.
5. Deron Williams, Portland Trail Blazers
June 28, 2005: Traded by the Portland Trail Blazers (as a future 2005 first-round draft pick) to the Utah Jazz for a 2005 first-round draft pick (Linas Kleiza was later selected), a 2005 first-round draft pick (Martell Webster was later selected) and a 2006 first-round draft pick (Joel Freeland was later selected).
More on the irony front. Remember how the then-New Jersey Nets traded the pick which became Damian Lillard to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace? And remember how that was so they could convince Deron Williams to stay? Well, Williams would have been a Trail Blazer if he were taken by the team which originally owned his pick.
If Portland had held onto him, life might have been very different for them at the tail end of the aughts, as they would go on and add Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge within the next two seasons. That’s a nice trio to add to Zach Randolph.
And of course, since the Trail Blazers are winning in our alternate timeline, they never make a desperation trade to land Gerald Wallace, so they also still have Tobias Harris and their 2014 first-round pick.
Of course, that’s not going to change the horribly sad injury history of Roy or his knees. However, for a small bundle of years, the Trail Blazers could have been a contender.
4. Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
October 4, 2005: Traded by the New York Knicks (as a future 2007 first-round draft pick) with Jermaine Jackson, Mike Sweetney, Tim Thomas, a 2006 first-round draft pick (LaMarcus Aldridge was later selected), a 2007 second-round draft pick (Kyrylo Fesenko was later selected) and a 2009 second-round draft pick (Jon Brockman was later selected) to the Chicago Bulls for Eddy Curry, Antonio Davis and a 2007 first-round draft pick (Wilson Chandler was later selected).
Joakim Noah is so competitive that it’s annoying to some fans. The man never loses intensity and his resolve is seen as a primary reason for the Chicago Bulls decidedly “untanking” since they traded away Luol Deng on January 8.
After the trade, per Nick Friedell of ESPN, Noah said,
I just think that all this adversity makes me stronger. It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I think I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot; [Derrick Rose's] injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we're going to go out there, and like I said, there's no tank in this team. We're going to grind and make this city proud.
Forget about everything else and just think for a moment how much the Knicks could use Noah’s fight and fortitude right now. Noah’s emerged as one of the top centers in the league, but that’s almost an afterthought to what he could provide the Knicks compared to his leadership.
But hey, they got Eddy Curry though!
3. Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Lakers
August 6, 2004: Traded by the Los Angeles Lakers (as a future 2006 first-round draft pick) with Rick Fox and Gary Payton to the Boston Celtics for Chucky Atkins, Jumaine Jones and Chris Mihm.
February 24, 2005: Traded by the Boston Celtics (as a future 2006 first-round draft pick) with Tom Gugliotta, Gary Payton and Michael Stewart to the Atlanta Hawks for Antoine Walker.
August 19, 2005: Traded by the Atlanta Hawks (as a future 2006 first-round draft pick) with Boris Diaw and a 2008 first-round draft pick (Robin Lopez was later selected) to the Phoenix Suns for Joe Johnson.
June 28, 2006: Drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the first round (21st pick) of the 2006 NBA draft.
June 28, 2006: Traded by the Phoenix Suns with Brian Grant to the Boston Celtics for a 2007 first-round draft pick (Rudy Fernandez was later selected).
Rajon Rondo is a perpetual trade rumor but never gets traded. The funny thing about that is he was traded like an overproduced baseball card before he ever actually got drafted by the Boston Celtics. Heck, even the Celtics had him pass in and out of their hands before he came back to them.
But the funniest thing is that he started with the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that he helped beat in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Imagine if Rondo is the facilitator in the Lakers triangle offense with Kobe Bryant. Talk about a perfect match! You would have a truly terrific passer, who has not one concern in the world about scoring, setting up one of the greatest scorers in the history of the planet.
Rondo’s willingness to pass and Bryant’s willingness to shoot would mean they would actually get along.
And, if both players were locked in defensively late in games, they would be very difficult to penetrate.
If the Lakers have Rondo instead of Derek Fisher for that second three-peat run, maybe Bryant has six or seven rings instead of five, and everyone’s Mount Rushmore is just a little bit different.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, New York Knicks
October 4, 2005: Traded by the New York Knicks (as a future 2006 first-round draft pick) with Jermaine Jackson, Mike Sweetney, Tim Thomas, a 2007 first-round draft pick (Joakim Noah was later selected), a 2007 second-round draft pick (Kyrylo Fesenko was later selected) and a 2009 second-round draft pick (Jon Brockman was later selected) to the Chicago Bulls for Eddy Curry, Antonio Davis and a 2007 first-round draft pick (Wilson Chandler was later selected).
June 28, 2006: Drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the first round (second pick) of the 2006 NBA draft.
June 28, 2006: Traded by the Chicago Bulls with a 2007 second-round draft pick (Demetris Nichols was later selected) to the Portland Trail Blazers for Viktor Khryapa and Tyrus Thomas.
Not to harp on the New York Knicks and their “tremendous” trading skills, but consider that they could have had a frontcourt with Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah. Does your backcourt even matter at that point?
The dynamics between those three would be amazing. With Noah’s offensive rebounding and passing skills, Anthony’s scoring talents form anywhere on the court and Aldridge’s pick-and-pop abilities, there’d be a veritable smorgasbord of offensive options.
Toss in some of the three-point shooters the Knicks have employed who stretch the court, and you'd have a team that was virtually unstoppable on offense. And, with defensive standout Noah and the more than competent Aldridge by his side, the Knicks would be elite on that end as well.
James Dolan is the type of guy to pay $100,000 for a $20 painting and think it’s a masterpiece because of what he paid for it. Or he thinks that paying a whopping $205 million just in taxes over the last 10 years buys him a championship-caliber team. (That’s a whopping 22 percent of all taxes ever paid by every team combined.)
It’s really too bad, because if his willingness to spend was accompanied by even a modicum of prudence, the Knicks would be a perennial threat.
1. Kevin Love, Memphis Grizzlies
June 26, 2008: Drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round (fifth pick) of the 2008 NBA draft.
June 26, 2008: Traded by the Memphis Grizzlies with Brian Cardinal, Jason Collins and Mike Miller to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Greg Buckner, Marko Jaric, O.J. Mayo and Antoine Walker.
Kevin Love is one of the five top offensive options in the league, at least according to objective measures like win shares and player efficiency rating, where he’s third in both.
This year he’s averaging 26 points, 13 rebounds and four assists per game. Since the merger, in the 1976-77 season, no one has done that. Before then, the only ones who have accomplished that feat are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor and Billy Cunningham. That’s pretty good company.
Now, Love does have flaws, most notably his defense. But what happens if you put together the best offensive big man in the league with the reigning defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol? That could have happened if the Memphis Grizzlies hadn’t swapped him on draft day.
With Love’s ability to stretch the court, it is fathomable that the Grizzlies have a ring now if they never pulled the trigger on that move. Perhaps with Love’s three-point shooting, it opens more lanes for Rudy Gay, making him more efficient, and that trade never happens.
On offense, Love and Gasol would be a positively dynamic duo, particularly when you consider that they are two of the best passing bigs in the league. The interplay between them would be something special to watch, and it would make the players around them better, setting them up for open shots.
If it weren't for this trade, the ramifications would be mind-blowing, as the entire Collective Bargaining Agreement may have gone differently if a small market team like the Memphis Grizzlies had won a title.