L.A. Lakers: Best-Kept Trade Secrets in Lakers History
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With all the talk of the Lakers trading for Dwight Howard, it’s easy to forget that the Lakers are a team that rarely discusses trade speculation in public. They prefer to be shrewd and surprise fans when they actually make a move.
It goes back to when Jerry West used to be the general manager. He moved in silent observation behind the scenes and made brilliant moves without showing his hand to the press. It’s even more amazing that he was able to do it in one of the biggest sports markets, and it’s a legacy that’s been passed down to current GM Mitch Kupchak.
So in light of the Howard talk, here are some of the best Lakers trades that fans never saw coming.
Just to clarify on two of the biggest ones:
When the Lakers traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it wasn’t a surprise considering Abdul-Jabbar requested a move to New York or Los Angeles.
Wilt Chamberlain also asked for a trade and preferred Los Angeles for its social scene.
These are trades involving the Lakers with teams or players that nobody expected. Let’s start with a trade that helped end the Lakers dynasty on a great note.
Frank Brickowski for Mychal Thompson
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In 1978, Thompson was a No. 1 overall pick with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he was solid for eight seasons before being traded to the San Antonio Spurs for the 1986-87 season, where he was mostly used as a reserve.
That year, the Lakers were well on their way to a 65-win season with Magic Johnson as MVP and Michael Cooper as Defensive Player of the Year. But near the All-Star break, Jerry West pulled off a quiet heist, as he traded role players Frank Brickowski and Petur Gudmundsson and two future draft picks for Thompson.
It was a surprise considering Brickowski was a little-used reserve and Gudmundsson hadn’t played the entire '86-87 season, while Thompson was averaging a respectable 12.3 points and 5.6 rebounds off the bench.
Thompson helped the Lakers win their last two championships of the 1980s, while Brickowski became mostly invisible until he was a key reserve on the Seattle SuperSonics' run to the 1996 NBA Finals.
Gudmundsson, the first Iceland-born player in the NBA, bounced around for a few years before leaving the league.
Brian Cook/Maurice Evans for Trevor Ariza
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The 2007-08 Lakers season may have ended on a great note, but it started with low expectations after two years of exiting in the first round.
It was clear the Lakers needed to make some changes before they kept wasting Kobe Bryant’s prime.
Enter the first most surprising trade of that season: bringing home Trevor Ariza, the former Westchester High School and UCLA standout, in exchange for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans barely one month in the year.
Ariza was toiling away on the Orlando Magic bench, while Cook and Evans were decent reserves but mostly forgettable for Lakers fans, who saw them as part of Kobe’s supporting cast.
Few could’ve expected Ariza to play a key role in the 2009 championship run, but nobody expected Mitch Kupchak to pull the trigger and make a gamble at a time when he was roundly criticized for his decision-making.
Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant
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Let’s go back to 1996 for a minute.
Kobe Bryant was the National High School Player of the Year who became the first guard drafted straight out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets. Vlade Divac was an effective but far from elite center who spent five years with the Lakers.
When July 1 came around, the two were traded for each other in a surprising move because most fans were buzzing about the free-agent signing of Shaquille O’Neal that day. But the trade showcased why Jerry West is one of the NBA's smartest minds and behind-the-scenes deal makers.
West had a private workout for Bryant, and as the legend goes, he dominated former players Larry Drew and Michael Cooper.
He immediately wanted Bryant with the No. 13 pick, but he had to convince the New Jersey Nets, who loved him at No. 8, not to draft him. He also convinced the Hornets to trade over the pick for Divac without telling the team who they wanted them to draft until moments before their selection.
It’s one of the greatest secret moves in NBA history and also one of the biggest gambles that’s a tribute to West’s reputation as a deal maker.
The irony is that this wouldn't be the first Lakers-Hornets deal that set up the Lakers' dynasty, and Divac and Bryant would cross paths many times during the Sacramento Kings-Lakers rivalry of the 2000s.
Shaquille O'Neal for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant
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Let’s clear a few things up. First, Shaquille O’Neal publicly asked for a trade out of L.A. after the 2004 NBA Finals. That might make this trade not a surprise, but unlike Kareem or Wilt, Shaq never stated where he wanted to go.
Second, there was no indication that he was going to Miami. The Lakers were rumored to send him to Dallas, but that trade fell through due to the Mavericks not wanting to part with Dirk Nowitzki.
Finally, since the trade didn’t have much buzz, there was no clue that the Lakers would end up getting Odom, a second-year player in Butler and a former All-Star in Grant. It was seen as getting unequal value for a still dominant O’Neal.
The trade was a shock, but with Odom playing a key role in two championships, it's turned out quite all right for the Lakers.
Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones for Glen Rice
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Eddie Jones was one of the most popular Lakers of the post-Magic Johnson era. He was a two-time All-Star and one of the top defensive players in the league who could also get to the basket as well as anyone.
Elden Campbell, however, was a steady big man who was known more for improving his scoring average each of his first seven seasons. He was expected to be a solid contributor along Shaquille O’Neal, but his numbers dropped in 1997-1998.
The Lakers at the time lacked a consistent outside shooter, so while it was somewhat shocking they acquired Glen Rice from the Charlotte Hornets in 1999, it was even more shocking they let go Campbell and Jones to do it.
Most people think that there was little room for Jones and Kobe Bryant to coexist playing the same position in the coming years. While that’s true, there was little speculation that Jones would be gone so soon after he and Bryant both made the All-Star team.
Norm Nixon for Byron Scott
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In the early 1980s, Nixon was one of the most popular Lakers on the team who led them to two NBA championships, finished among the NBA’s top five in assists in his first five seasons and was an All-Star in 1982.
But by the 1982-83 season, Nixon and the team were at odds, and his name was brought up in trade rumors.
There was also the challenge of having Nixon and Magic Johnson share the ball, as both were pass-first point guards and Nixon struggled without the ball in his hands. As great as Nixon was alongside Magic Johnson, there was also speculation that the two had some tension beneath their great friendship.
Like Shaquille O’Neal, there was speculation that Nixon could be traded, but nobody could’ve imagined that he’d be traded along with Eddie Jordan to the then-San Diego Clippers for Swen Nater and the draft rights to some Arizona State guard named Byron Scott.
It’s surprising because one would assume the Lakers would try to find greater value for him.
Of course, it proved to be one of the first shrewd moves of Jerry West as Lakers GM, as Scott played a role in three Lakers titles and was a perfect running mate for Magic on the wing.
While some may have seen the move coming, nobody expected to see Nixon head down south.
Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol
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Hands down the greatest fleecing in Lakers history, there was no chance that the team would acquire an All-Star in Pau Gasol, who was the face of a young Memphis Grizzlies squad.
The Lakers had already made one great move that year in acquiring Trevor Ariza, and while Brown, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, was the target of Lakers fans' wrath for dropping several easy passes a night, the idea that he’d be traded for an All-Star seemed laughable and out of the realm of possibility.
Was the trade a gift from then-Memphis general manager Jerry West to his former team? Was it shrewd haggling by Mitch Kupchak?
It’s hard to tell, but not only is it one of the greatest trades in team history, it’s by far the most quietest move that took NBA fans by surprise.