The Most Successful Trade-Deadline Deals in Recent Memory
Most NBA fans approach every trade deadline waiting for their teams to do something spectacular. A select swathe of supporters tortured by poorly run organizations merely cross their fingers and hope their squads won't do anything foolish. Overall, though, the prevailing hope is that teams hit home runs, particularly if they're contending for a championship.
But hugely impactful trades are not the midseason standard. While blockbuster deals are struck pretty much every year, most go down as minor successes, temporary detours or either micro or macro failures. Very few are remembered as monumental or lopsided victories.
Let's celebrate the exceptions, shall we?
For trades to qualify for consideration, they must have been completed at or around the deadline. Deals brokered over the summer or earlier in the season are ineligible. Teams have more time to figure out their rosters and rotations after making those moves. Last-minute deals have more urgency attached to them.
Both win-now and big-picture transactions are permitted. A few nominations had more of an immediate impact. Others took time to marinate. Some had instant and lasting effects.
What constitutes "recent memory" is up for debate. We're limiting the field to the past 10 trade deadlines, from 2010 through 2019, because a decade's worth of transactions feels right.
So please don't point out that the Los Angeles Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol in February 2008 was omitted. It turns out 2008 does not fall between 2010 and 2019. Who knew?
The Kyrie Irving Pick to Cleveland (2011)
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: 2011 first-round pick (Kyrie Irving), Baron Davis
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: Jamario Moon, Mo Williams
Salary-dumping Baron Davis onto the Cavaliers came back to haunt the Clippers in the worst possible way.
Nobody should bother spinning this trade as more than a cost-cutting maneuver. The Clippers were 16 games under .500 at the time. Mo Williams wasn't saving their season. And he didn't. They played around .500 basketball the rest of the way. Hooray.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, went on to win the 2011 draft lottery. To be fair, the Clippers pick only had a 2.8 percent chance of landing at No. 1. To be even more fair, that doesn't excuse the logic behind this move. It was an unforgivable trade.
Regardless of your impressions of Kyrie Irving's locker-room qualities, he's a superstar—someone who, at his peak, is among the 10 to 15 best players in the game.
Through six seasons in Cleveland, he won the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year award, made one All-NBA team, joined Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Damian Lillard as the only players to average more than 20 points and five assists with a true shooting percentage north of 56 during those six years, hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history and was instrumental in helping the Cavaliers win their only championship.
Andrew Bogut to Golden State (2012)
Golden State Warriors Receive: Andrew Bogut, Stephen Jackson
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: Kwame Brown, Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh
Snagging Andrew Bogut in 2012 is one of many moves that laid the groundwork for what the Warriors would eventually become.
First and foremost, this trade busted up the Stephen Curry-Monta Ellis backcourt. It wasn't quite addition by subtraction right away; Curry didn't play after the move while recovering from a right ankle injury. But his partnership with Ellis was doomed from the start. Getting rid of him paved the way for a Curry-Klay Thompson pairing.
Landing Bogut also aided the Warriors' 2012 tank job. He was dealing with a left ankle injury and didn't suit up for them that season. They went 6-22 the rest of the way, retained their top-seven-protected pick owed to the Utah Jazz and drafted Harrison Barnes.
In the years to come, a healthy Bogut would serve as one of the team's defensive linchpins. Golden State never finished lower than 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions during the four full seasons he spent on the roster:
- 2012-13 (Bogut played 32 games): No. 12 defense
- 2013-14: No. 3 defense
- 2014-15: No. 1 defense
- 2015-16: No. 6 defense
Bogut's contributions were at times marginalized in the postseason. The Warriors needed to unleash the Death Lineup with Draymond Green at the 5 to grab their 2015 title. From there, they were always at their best playing small.
Still, Bogut was a defensive tone-setter before the Warriors were actually the Warriors. They needed him.
The Damian Lillard PIck to Portland (2012)
Portland Trail Blazers Receive: 2012 top-three-protected first-round pick (Damian Lillard), Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams
New Jersey Nets Receive: Gerald Wallace
Trying to re-sign Deron Williams and then maximize his prime came close to bankrupting the Nets. Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson were acquired to facilitate his return in 2012 free agency, and the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce blockbuster was brokered in service of expediting the championship timeline around him, Johnson and Brook Lopez.
The Wallace trade was the first domino to fall, and if not for the Nets' disastrous negotiations with the Boston Celtics in 2013, it's a deal that would receive far more flak than it does now. No one could have known the first-round pick they gave up would turn into an eventual top-10 player, but it was one of those swaps that didn't seem so hot in real-time. The Garnett-Pierce trade looked better in the moment.
Not even the Blazers could believe what the Nets were offering. Cleaning the Glass' Ben Falk worked for Portland's front office at the time, and in 2018, he detailed just how surprised the team was by New Jersey's offer:
"As the deadline approached, [Blazers general manager] Chad [Buchanan] reached out to Billy King, the Nets' GM, to see if he might still want to deal for Wallace. King said he did and that he'd talk it over with his group. When Chad got the call back, he called us into the conference room immediately.
"'So they're definitely interested in Gerald,' he said. 'It sounds like he's a player Deron Williams wants to play with and they think will convince Deron to re-sign this offseason. They're offering their first rounder in this upcoming draft for him.'"
New Jersey owned the league's sixth-worst record at 15-29 but, as Falk noted, wasn't too concerned about tightly protecting its first-rounder. Sources told ESPN's Chad Ford (h/t Mike Mazzeo) there were "only three players in the upcoming draft the Nets covet—Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kansas' Thomas Robinson."
That logic didn't quite pan out for New Jersey. Four All-NBA bids and All-Star appearances for Damian Lillard later, it is still working out quite well for Portland.
Isaiah Thomas to Boston (2015)
Boston Celtics Receive: Isaiah Thomas, Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko
Detroit Pistons Receive: Tayshaun Prince
Phoenix Suns Receive: Marcus Thornton, 2016 first-round pick from Boston via Cleveland (Skal Labissiere)
Trading for Isaiah Thomas in 2015 did so many things for the Celtics. It's kind of hard to keep track.
Immediately, acquiring him intimated a commitment to chasing a playoff berth and accelerating their rebuild. They succeeded. The Celtics went 20-11 the rest of the way, nabbed the East's No. 7 seed and...were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
Detached observers debated the value of finishing the year as a playoff steppingstone. Rebuilding teams should tank for better draft picks, the thinking goes. Boston's midseason surge left them with the No. 16 selection (Terry Rozier) when it could've angled for a much higher spot.
Landing Thomas has since proved more valuable.
For starters, the Celtics were already too good to enter the Karl-Anthony Towns sweepstakes. They were 20-31 at the time of the trade but still firmly in the East's playoff conversation.
Maybe they would have ended up with Kristaps Porzingis (No. 4), Myles Turner (No. 11) or Devin Booker (No. 13) if they had steered into losing. Or maybe they'd have left the draft with Mario Hezonja (No. 5), Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 6), Emmanuel Munday (No. 7), Stanley Johnson (No. 8) or someone else of relative insignificance. (They tried to wind up with Justise Winslow).
Having so many picks from the Brooklyn Nets afforded the Celtics flexibility. They had burned a 2014 selection on James Young but were still owed a 2016 first, a 2017 swap and a 2018 first. They didn't have to worry about bilking themselves of draft-day opportunities. (Those picks were subsequently used to take Jaylen Brown, trade down for Jayson Tatum and acquire Kyrie Irving).
Thomas fast-tracked the Celtics to a higher plane of competition without nuking their asset base. That has its own value. He led Boston to 48 wins in 2015-16. He recruited Al Horford during 2016 free agency. He spearheaded the Celtics' 53-win campaign the following season and finished fifth in MVP voting.
He dropped 53 points in Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals just weeks after his sister, Chyna, was killed in a single-car accident. He recruited Gordon Hayward in 2017 free agency. He was among the centerpieces in the package that brought Irving to Boston.
Even now, more than two years removed from his departure, Thomas is having an impact on Boston.
Neither the Hayward signing nor the Irving trade worked out as planned. The same can be said for Horford's departure, which ended somewhat surprisingly after last season. The Celtics remain contenders anyway—in large part because Thomas' play helped embolden them to sit out superstar sweepstakes that would've cost them at least two of the players, Brown and Tatum, responsible for keeping them afloat today.
Marc Gasol to Toronto (2019)
Toronto Raptors Receive: Marc Gasol
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: CJ Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, 2024 second-round pick
Contenders predominantly strike trades at the deadline to swing the title race. Few 11th-hour moves actually do. The list of midseason deals that helped propel teams to an immediate championship is almost empty.
Marc Gasol's arrival in Toronto stands as an exception. It might even be an exception to the exceptions.
There were so many reasons for the Raptors not to swing the deal for him. They had already flipped one franchise mainstay, DeMar DeRozan, over the offseason for Kawhi Leonard. Unloading Jonas Valanciunas, who was on his way back from thumb surgery, meant jettisoning another.
That this decision came midstream only made it more complicated. The Raptors had the second-most wins in the league and a top-six net rating. Messing with that formula was risky business in a vacuum. Gasol's addition also added another functional wrinkle to a team that was already battling rotation changes, load-managing Leonard and still figuring out how all the pieces fit at full strength.
Kudos to Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri for making yet another tough call. The opportunity cost was minimal, but it took guts to embrace such a significant gamble with Leonard on the verge of entering free agency, and Toronto's title window was assured of nothing beyond 2018-19.
Ujiri's gall paid generational dividends. Gasol injected more ball movement and flow into the offense, most notably while headlining bench-heavy units, and he came up huge defensively in the postseason.
He stole Nikola Vucevic's lunch money in the first round and neutralized Joel Embiid in the semifinals. His offense reached rock bottom with a 1-of-9 showing in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but he was more consistent as a playmaker and scorer over the Raptors' next 10 games while remaining his usual high-IQ defensive self.
Perhaps the Raptors didn't need Gasol to beat the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. Their fortunes turned in the Eastern Conference Finals when they moved Leonard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Golden State was a fraction of itself by the end of the NBA Finals.
Whatever. Gasol sprinkled in some memorable moments during both series. More than that, the Raptors needed to win four rounds to claim their first championship in franchise history. They most definitely, without question, don't take the first two without Gasol.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Tuesday. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.