The 11 Worst Trades in NBA History
Preparation, not perfection, is the key to success. Those who are always prepared are consistently successful. Conversely, those who lack preparation are consistently inconsistent.
In professional sports, preparation is magnified. The teams that have spent the time studying players usually remain successful regardless of the era or decade.
These teams tend to get their man more times than not and manage to always compete for championships. Whether it is the Lakers, Patriots, Eagles, Celtics or Yankees, these teams spend countless hours ensuring they do not make the wrong move.
However, for every champ there is a chump. Someone has to always get got for you to get it. This is a list of all the chumps who helped make the champs.
11) Dirk Nowitzki, Milwaukee Bucks
Few people knew who Dirk Nowitzki was when the Milwaukee Bucks selected the German string bean at No. 9 in the 1998 draft and even fewer cared. In a draft that included Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Michael Olowokandi, Dirk was an unknown that no one cared to know about.
When he was drafted ahead of decorated University of Kansas senior Paul Pierce, some intrigue did begin. Pierce was falling fast and looked destined for Philly. The 76ers found it more prudent to prove their ineptitude and passed on Pierce. Leaving the Milwaukee Bucks, who owned the pick, as the beneficiary of any trade that a team who wanted to draft him would offer.
The Bucks instead found a way to blow it two times. First they traded for a college athlete who had a weight problem, Robert Traylor, and in the process traded away a Hall of Famer in Nowitzki.
The Bucks felt they needed Traylor’s physical play more than Nowitzki’s skill set. Well, Nowitzki has gone on and became a champion and changed the way international players have been viewed. Robert “Tractor” Traylor started a total of 73 games in his seven-year NBA career.
The Bucks have a history of trading once-in-a-lifetime talents—more on that later.
10) Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers
This entry has less to do about the trading of Barkley, who wanted out, and more to do with the pinto beans the 76ers got back.
Barkley had worn out his welcome in Philly and wanted desperately to be traded. His wish was granted in the summer of 1992 when he was traded to the Phoenix Suns for a laundry basket with one handle, a pair of Tims and some sour grape Now-N-Laters.
Actually the Sixers received Tim “layup in a slam dunk competition” Perry, Jeff Hornacek and Andrew “Stang” Lang. The 76ers did not even get a draft pick. They would have made off better with the Now-N-Laters.
This trade was so bad the Sixers did not make the playoffs for the next six years.
Hornacek lasted two years before being rescued/traded to the Utah Jazz. Tim Perry unfortunately played three seasons and eight games for the Sixers and can now be seen at a Walmart near you. Stang lasted one whole season and was then released.
Barkley went on to win two gold medals, an MVP trophy and create a new word—“tu-rrrible." Which best describes this trade.
9) Scottie Pippen, Seattle SuperSonics
The Knicks originally owned this pick and traded it in the Mark Jackson deal/selection. The Sonics a year later drafted Scottie Pippen and abruptly traded him for two cats named Olden and Sylvester—seriously.
They also acquired the pick used for B.J Armstrong then gave him to Chicago for Brad Sellers—again, seriously. The Sonics, along with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and His Airness, were responsible for the Bulls dynasty.
Just for good measure, the Sonics' starting small forward when they selected Pippen was Dale Ellis. Ellis was one of the best shooters in NBA history and would have fit nicely next to Pippen and Xavier McDaniel, but hey—who could resist the formidable Olden Polynice?
Polynice went on to start seven games in three seasons with the Sonics before being banished to the Clippers. Polynice did play 17 years in the league and should be saluted for that. Pippen became one of the game's 50 greatest players of all time and won six ‘ships.
On a side note, Bob Whitsitt, the GM who traded Pippen, is now working in the NFL.
8) James Worthy, Cleveland Cavaliers
If you are an NBA franchise and you have the Lakers on Line 1, do not take the call. They should be called the Los Angeles “DeeBos” for the way they just take players from teams.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were one of the worst teams in the league in 1980, with a record of 28-54. However, they felt the acquisition of Don Ford and his six points per game would put them over the top. So they traded their 1982 first-round pick and Butch Lee to the “DeeBos” for the Santa Barbara playground legend and Chad Kinch.
That pick turned into the first pick in the 1982 draft and his name was James Worthy. Worthy would be an invaluable piece to the Lakers Showtime dynasty, win an NBA Finals MVP and become a Hall of Fame player.
Ford in three seasons was unable to deliver for the Cavs and never averaged more than seven points per game in those three seasons.
7) Elvin Hayes, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets were a struggling franchise in 1972 and were in desperate need of help. Enter Jack Marin and exit Hall of Fame-bound Elvin Hayes. Hayes was the first player to lead the NBA in rebounding not named Wilt Chamberlain or Bull Russell in 12 years. He was coming off a season where he averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds a game. Marin also scored 22 points per that year but averaged only seven boards. He also was not the player Hayes was.
Yet, the Rockets traded Hayes straight with no chaser for Marin—why is still a mystery. What occurred after the trade leaves little doubt of why it was a bad, bad, bad move.
Hayes went on to lead the Bullets—yes, the Bullets—to an NBA title. They also made two other finals appearances with Hayes on the roster. Meanwhile, Marin played a season-and-a-half with the Rockets before being traded to Buffalo.
6) Moses Malone, Portland Trail Blazers
In 1975-76, the Portland Trail Blazers finished 37-45 despite having a healthy Bill Walton. They were given a chance to make amends for that year by way of the dispersal draft. The dispersal draft was a draft made up of players from two ABA franchises the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirit of St. Louis.
The Blazers made two selections in that draft. The first was Maurice Lucas and the second was Moses Malone. Portland, who has a history of great draft choices—look no further than Sam Bowie—then immediately traded Malone to the Buffalo Braves for the incomparable Rick Robey.
The selection of Lucas panned out for Portland who went on to win the NBA title that next year. However, their success was short-lived while Moses’ career was not. The Hall of Famer would play 19 years in the league and win three MVP trophies.
Lucas would play in four All-Star Games for the Blazers before being traded to the New Jersey Nets. The chance to draft a Hall of Fame player who could have been the centerpiece for several championship runs has to haunt the Blazers. That is a feeling the Blazers should be all too familiar with.
5) Kobe Bryant, Charlotte Hornets
Most bad trades set a franchise back, some destroy a franchise, but very few kill a franchise. This is one of the few. Again teams, if you have the Lakers on Line 1 do not take the call. They are going to hustle you.
The Charlotte Hornets were 41-41 in 1995 and felt they were a big man away from competing for a title. So with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft they selected Kobe Bean Bryant. They should have just stopped there—oh if they had just stopped there.
They then took the call from the Los Angeles “Deebos” and traded the high school player, who used to practice with the 76ers, to the Lakers for Vlade “Hops” Divac. Now in full disclosure, the Hornets did win 50-plus the following season, but five years later they were in New Orleans.
You cannot help but think had they kept Bryant, his star appeal might have kept them in New Orleans, at the very least—and at most, who knows?
4) Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia 76ers
Men are known to do foolish things when money, women or pride are involved. The trade of Wilt Chamberlain from the Sixers to the Deebos/Lakers is just another example of that. Wilt should have retired a Sixer point-blank.
There are several theories about why Wilt was traded, however short of him refusing to wear pants in public, you do not trade Wilt Chamberlain.
There is no player who would have made this trade fair and balanced. Wilt arrived in Los Angeles and kick-started the gold standard of sports franchises by providing them with their first-ever championship.
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 for reasons only known to them. In doing so, the Bucks traded arguably the best player to ever play the game and did not even get an All-Star back.
Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to their first and only championship in 1970-71 and with him they were a legitimate championship contender year in and year out. Just two years after winning it all Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to their last NBA Finals appearance in 1973-74 and coincidentally, that was the last time they were relevant.
The four players they got in the Kareem trade, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters, never delivered for the Bucks—thus leaving a gaping hole not only in the middle of their team but in Middle America as well.
Kareem would go on to LA and win five more titles bringing his personal total to six.
2) Magic Johnson, New Orleans Jazz
This would be another example of one of those few trades that killed a franchise. The New Orleans Jazz wanted Lakers guard Gail Goodrich and Goodrich wanted out of LA. So it would have been a perfect match except—okay, last time: if the Lakers are on Line 1...never mind.
So the Jazz traded Kenny Carr, Freemen Williams, Sam Worthen and their 1979 draft pick. The Lakers sent back Gail Goodrich, Essie Givens and Jack Givens—unbelievable.
The Jazz had not won more than 39 games in their four-year existence. So they had to know it was going to be a fairly high draft pick, but they sent it nevertheless.
The 1978-79 Jazz again confirmed they were “tu-rrrible” and finished the season 26-56. This was the worst record in the NBA and by accomplishing that set the table for the Los Angeles Lakers to once again sit atop the NBA world.
With that pick the “DeeBos” selected Magic Johnson and won an NBA title the next year. Talk about paying dividends.
Oh yeah, the Jazz finished 24-58 that year, which was their first in Utah. Needless to say the Lakers once again flimflammed another NBA team.
1) Bill Russell, St. Louis Hawks
The Hawks drafted Russell second overall in the 1956 draft and traded him to the Celtics for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, who were both Caucasian. Bill Russell was a force in college and at one point won 28 of 29 games, yet St. Louis did not want him. So how did the Celtics know this and how did they grab the icon.
We can thank Red Auerbach for this move. Auerbach wanted Russell and knew the Hawks would not keep him. Cash was not an issue for St. Louis whose owner, Ben Kerner, just two years later LOANED the city of St. Louis $30,000 to refurbish the Hawks home arena. The $30,000 amount was $5,000 short of Russell’s reported $25,000 salary request.
Salary aside there has always been a belief in the Black community about why the Hawks did not want Russell. A belief that was substantiated in the John Taylor classic The Rivarly: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball. Taylor recounts how black players were treated when playing against the Hawks. Russell and other African-American players were pelted with eggs and called “Coons”, “Baboon”, and “Black niggers”. The Hawks would continue to have an all-white team the year they passed on Russell.
When the Hawks traded Russell to the Celtics they did not just trade away a player they traded away a pioneer……………….for two basketball players.
What Russell could have done for a franchise and city would have been immeasurable. A city five years later that traded two of its three black players for boycotting an exhibition game in Kentucky because the hotel refused to serve them. A story told so eloquently by Brad Parks in the article “Rebound from Racism”. St. Louis needed Russell more then he needed St. Louis.
This trade affected the Hawks’ on the court production, as Russell was the leader of a Celtic dynasty that won eight straight titles and 11 in his era. Meanwhile the Hawks have not even made an NBA Finals appearance since 1961, where they lost to a Bill Russell led Celtics team. It also affected the St. Louis Hawks off the court who to this day are still synonymous with racism in professional sports albeit fair or unfair.