B/R NBA Staff: The 3 Most Lopsided Trades of Every Decade

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2020

B/R NBA Staff: The 3 Most Lopsided Trades of Every Decade

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    To make a good deal in business, it's said both sides should leave a little unhappy. It's a generalization, but the idea is to compromise, strike an accord, and everyone walks away a winner.

    In the business of basketball, the line between making concessions and conceding defeat is one we can't see until it comes into focus. Two sides stubbornly reaching a trade on draft night could pave two new paths to success—or it could mean one tortured franchise watching the one who got away for a decade to come.

    Although most NBA trades over time are fair to the point of unmemorable, certain deals can become sore thumbs in the history books by virtue of poor scouting, bad negotiating and even sheer dumb luck.

    Bleacher Report asked NBA writers to rehash some of the more historically lopsided trades they could recall, and we've broken up the 15 they came up with by decade (mostly).

Pre-1970s

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    Celtics Send Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis Hawks for Bill Russell (1956)

    The tale of how Bill Russell wound up on the Boston Celtics is a convoluted mess, made all the more complicated by details ranging from the St. Louis Hawks' financial troubles to the use of the Ice Capades as a bargaining tool. Add the fog of almost 65 years of intervening history, and it's basically become a folk tale.

    Here's the gist, though: Boston traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for the right to select Russell with the No. 2 pick in the 1956 draft. McCauley had made six All-Star teams (in an eight-team league, mind you) at the time he was dealt. But that resume doesn't stack up to the one Russell compiled, complete with a dozen All-Star Games, 11 titles in 13 seasons, five MVP awards and wide regard as the greatest defensive player in history.

                   

    76ers Send Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles Lakers (1968)

    On July 9, 1968, the Lakers traded Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and Archie Clark for a 31-year-old Wilt Chamberlain who was coming off a season with the Philadelphia 76ers in which he averaged 24.3 points, 23.8 rebounds and 8.6 assists.

    Between relocating to L.A. from Minneapolis in 1960 and adding Chamberlain in the summer before the 1968-69 season, the Lakers faced the Celtics in the Finals five times...and lost every meeting. Finally, in 1972, Chamberlain won Finals MVP and, along with plenty of help from Jerry West, secured the first championship in the L.A. era of the franchise.

    More importantly, the trade that brought Wilt to Los Angeles hinted at a future in which the team would remake itself time and again by reeling in the biggest trade targets and free agents in the league. If not for the precedent set by the Chamberlain acquisition, who's to say if the Lakers go on to land Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James?

    This is the trade that begat decades of transactional ambition in Los Angeles.

              

    Warriors Trade Chamberlain to 76ers (1965)

    The prior two trades had league-altering consequences, as they solidified the two winningest traditions in the NBA. This one makes the cut for a simpler reason: It saw a megastar traded for peanuts.

    The San Francisco Warriors had somehow lost 17 straight games prior to trading Chamberlain to the Philadelphia 76ers for Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer and $150,000 on Jan. 15, 1965. Wilt was averaging 38.9 points and 23.5 rebounds when the deal went down, but the Warriors were short on cash and, clearly, not winning much. All they got for him were three forgettable names with only one All-Star season between them, Shaffer's 1962-63 campaign. Notably, Shaffer didn't play another NBA game after the deal.

    Meanwhile, Chamberlain led Philly to the 1967 championship, winning his first ring and making the Sixers the only team other than the Celtics to collect a title in the 1960s.

    Grant Hughes

1970s

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    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers (1975)

    The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trade from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 stands out historically as one of the NBA's most lopsided deals. Abdul-Jabbar went on to help lead the Lakers to nine NBA Finals appearances and five titles. He won Finals MVP for the second time in 1985 and didn't retire until 1989 as the NBA's leading scorer with 38,387 points.

    The Bucks still haven't won another title, dating back to 1971. The franchise was well aware it was trading away an elite player, but Abdul-Jabbar was adamant about his trade demand. Milwaukee ultimately got back a solid return of Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and Dave Meyers, but none of the players were close to Abdul-Jabbar. Bridgeman and Winters had very solid careers in Milwaukee, both two of only nine honored by the Bucks with retired jerseys. The Lakers also received a backup center in the deal in Walt Wesley.

              

    Hall of Fame Draft Rights to the Lakers (1976)

    What stands out as a monumentally lopsided trade of the 1970s was the New Orleans Jazz's decision to send the Lakers significant draft compensation for signing Gail Goodrich in 1976. The rules of the day were vastly different, and signing another team's free agent came with a price. The Jazz simply overpaid for a player who was just about to pass his prime.

    Goodrich played just three seasons with the team, never averaging more than 16.1 points per game. In that stretch, the Jazz peaked at 39-43 in 1977-78. Meanwhile, the Lakers landed their second legendary member and a perfect teammate for Abdul-Jabbar. Accounting for the players taken with the various picks in the deal, the Jazz ended up with Essie Hollis (1977, 44th) and Jack Givens (1978, 16th). The Lakers landed Freeman Williams (1978, eighth), Kenny Carr (1977, sixth), Sam Worthen (1980, 26th) and Earvin "Magic" Johnson (1979, first).

                  

    Dr. J to the Sixers (1977)

    The New York Nets, who joined the NBA from the ABA in 1976 amid financial uncertainty, chose to trade away their star player Julius "Dr. J" Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Nets, who officially became the New Jersey Nets in 1977 and now the Brooklyn Nets as of 2012, sent off Erving to the 76ers without a player in return; just a superstar straight up for cash.

    The Nets were coming off an ABA title run in 1976, but as the league began to disintegrate, the New York Knicks required a $4.8 million territorial fee for joining the NBA in the same city. Instead of paying the cash, the Nets tried to persuade the Knicks to take Erving's contract but were rebuffed. Instead, the Sixers swooped in with an offer of $3 million to buy Erving's contract.

    Philadelphia agreed to pay Erving $3 million and send $3 million to the Nets, which presumably was used to help pay off the Knicks. Erving reportedly chose to wear the No. 6 jersey with the 76ers to celebrate the $6 million the team paid in total to add him. Dr. J would eventually lead the 76ers to an NBA title in 1983.

    Eric Pincus

1980s

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    Golden State Warriors Send Robert Parish and Draft Pick to Boston Celtics (1980)

    In 1979, the Celtics needed to compensate the Pistons for signing M.L. Carr, so they sent Bob McAdoo to the Motor City for a pair of 1980 first-round picks. The following June, Boston flipped those picks to the Warriors for Robert Parish and a 1980 first-round pick.

    Golden State used its selections on No. 1 pick Joe Barry Carroll, who played six-plus seasons with the Warriors, and No. 13 pick Rickey Brown, who wasn't even a Warrior for three seasons. The Celtics, meanwhile, spent their pick, the third selection, on Kevin McHale, who teamed with Parish and Larry Bird to win the 1980 championship and two more titles in 1984 and 1986.

             

    Cleveland Cavaliers Send James Worthy to L.A. Lakers (1981)

    The Cavaliers were going nowhere fast in the 1980-81 season, yet they still made an aggressive deadline move for...Don Ford? The 27-year-old took his per-game averages of 3.0 points and 1.9 rebounds to Northeast Ohio, as the Cavs added him and Chad Kinch (who played one NBA season) for Butch Lee and a 1982 first-round pick.

    Incredibly, Ford and Kinch weren't enough to turn around the Cavs, who lost 67 games in 1981-82—a year in which they had four different head coaches—and wound up with the No. 1 pick. But L.A. now owned that pick, spent it on James Worthy and watched him blossom into a seven-time All-Star and Finals MVP who won three rings with the Lakers and earned Hall of Fame enshrinement. Yikes.

                   

    Seattle SuperSonics Send Scottie Pippen to Chicago Bulls (1987)

    Fresh off a surprise sprint to the 1987 Western Conference Finals, the Sonics sought size to help them compete with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon. In a nutshell, that's why then-general manager Bob Whitsitt signed off on sending Scottie Pippen, the fifth overall pick, to the Bulls for a package built around No. 8 pick Olden Polynice.

    Pippen, of course, emerged as one of the top two-way players in history and, along with Michael Jordan, helped turn Chicago into the NBA's Title Town. Polynice was out of Seattle in less than five seasons, and while he carved out a 15-year NBA career, he never made an All-Star trip or even entered that discussion.

    Zach Buckley

1990s

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    Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls (1995)

    While Rodman wasn't the best player traded in the '90s, his move from the San Antonio Spurs to the Chicago Bulls was one of the most important.

    When Michael Jordan returned to basketball in the spring of 1995, his Bulls were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs. Small forward Scottie Pippen led the team in rebounding, and starting center Luc Longley averaged just 5.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in the series. Chicago needed frontcourt help.

    The Spurs agreed to trade Rodman for center Will Perdue, a move that would kickstart Chicago's second three-peat.

    In his three years as a Bull, Rodman averaged 5.2 points, 15.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 blocks while being named to the All-Defensive first team in 1995-96.

    His work on the glass and on defense was exactly what the Bulls needed and would forever enhance the legacy of Jordan, Pippen, Phil Jackson and everyone involved in the Chicago dynasty.

                  

    Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers (1996)

    Bryant's lead up to the NBA draft is a fascinating one, detailed by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams in his book, Boys Among Men

    In the end, Bryant lasted until the 13th pick, where he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran center Vlade Divac.

    Divac was 28 at the time and was a talented scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. He was a proven option, and Bryant was viewed as a raw talent coming straight out of high school. By trading Divac, the Lakers not only were able to acquire Bryant but also opened up the necessary salary-cap space needed to sign Shaquille O'Neal.

    Divac spent just two seasons in Charlotte before signing with the Sacramento Kings, while Bryant went on to become the second-greatest shooting guard of all time.

    Bryant played all 20 of his seasons for the Lakers, making 18 All-Star teams, winning five championships and being named the 2007-08 MVP.

                    

    Dirk Nowitzki traded to Dallas Mavericks (1998)

    Nowitzki was originally selected ninth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1998 NBA draft before being traded with Pat Garrity (the 19th overall pick) to the Dallas Mavericks for Robert "Tractor" Traylor, the No. 6 overall pick.

    While Traylor arguably had the better rookie season, his career only lasted seven seasons as he struggled to keep his weight under control. The Bucks would trade him just two years into his career, ending his Milwaukee career with averages of 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13.3 minutes.

    Nowitzki would ultimately become one of the best power forwards of all time. He spent a record 21 seasons with the Mavericks, making 14 All-Star teams, winning the 2006-07 MVP and leading Dallas to an NBA championship in 2011.

    Greg Swartz

2000s

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    Atlanta Hawks Send Rasheed Wallace to Detroit Pistons (2004)

    Days before the 2004 trade deadline, the Hawks acquired Rasheed Wallace from the Portland Trail Blazers for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Dan Dickau and Theo Ratliff. Wallace played one game for Atlanta before the Hawks dealt him to Detroit in a three-team, six-player deal. In the trade, Atlanta received Chris Mills from the Celtics and Bob Sura and a future first-rounder from Detroit; the Pistons got Wallace, the final piece of what would become the group that dominated the Eastern Conference the rest of the decade.

    Wallace fit in seamlessly with the Pistons group of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace. They won the title that year, made the Finals the following year and made five straight Eastern Conference Finals from 2004 through 2008 (they had also made it the year prior). Wallace made two All-Star teams in that time, and all they had to give up were a few role players and two draft picks. It worked out pretty well for them.

               

    Minnesota Timberwolves Send Kevin Garnett to Boston Celtics (2007)

    When the Timberwolves finally traded Garnett in 2007 after 12 seasons in Minnesota, they got back Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair, along with two first-round picks. Some of those players (Jefferson, Ratliff, Green) had good careers; only one ever made an All-Star team, and Ratliff's lone selection came several years before this trade. The Timberwolves turned those players and picks into zero playoff appearances while the Celtics got, well, Kevin Garnett.

    In his first season in Boston teaming up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Garnett led the Celtics to their first championship since 1986; they made the Finals again two years later. Garnett was 31 at the time of the trade, near the end of his prime. But that season, he finished third in MVP voting, won Defensive Player of the Year and was first-team All-NBA. In his six seasons with the Celtics, he also made five All-Star teams and four All-Defensive teams. Nothing Minnesota got back can be seen as close to equal value for the greatest player in their franchise's history.

                 

    Chicago Bulls Send LaMarcus Aldridge to Portland Trail Blazers (2006)

    The Bulls held the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 draft but traded for LSU forward Tyrus Thomas (fourth pick), with the Blazers acquiring Texas standout big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Thomas had turned some heads with the Tigers' Final Four run in his freshman season, and the Bulls liked his athletic upside. But his NBA career never took off. He didn't play much his first two years but worked his way into the starting lineup in 2008-09, averaging double figures. The following year, the Bulls traded him to Charlotte at the deadline, and then injuries prevented him from building on that progress.

    Aldridge, meanwhile, became a cornerstone in Portland, teaming with fellow 2006 draftee Brandon Roy to create one of the most formidable young duos in the league and getting the Blazers back to the playoffs. When Roy's repeated knee injuries forced him into early retirement in 2011, Aldridge stepped into the lead role and made four straight All-Star teams in his last four seasons in Portland, the final three of which were alongside rising star Damian Lillard. Aldridge left for San Antonio in 2015 and remained a perennial All-Star, exactly the kind of player a then-rebuilding Bulls team would have loved to build around.

    Sean Highkin

2010s

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    Kyrie Irving Pick: Los Angeles Clippers to Cleveland Cavaliers (2011)

    Prior to the 2010-11 season, the Clippers were looking to cut salary to focus on their core of DeAndre Jordan, Eric Gordon and rookie Blake Griffin. To do that, they cut ties with Baron Davis and their 2011 first-round pick. In exchange, they acquired Mo Williams and Jamario Moon's expiring deal.

    "The drill is, as always, is, 'Is the player you're getting back more valuable than the potential you could get in the draft?'" former Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said in February 2011. "And I'm not that high on the draft to begin with this year."

    The Clippers' draft selection leap-frogged from eighth in probability (32 wins) all the way to first. While Olshey couldn't have predicted winning the lottery one year after scoring Griffin, his assessment of a draft class that included Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, among others, merits some second-guessing.

    The following December, the Clippers acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. While the Clippers would reach the playoffs in six consecutive seasons thereafter, they'd never advance beyond the Western Conference Semifinals and would deal Paul and Griffin by 2018. Imagine if they had added Thompson or Leonard to the wing. Or imagine if they had the ammunition to add not one but two superstars in the summer of 2011.

    Instead, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick and future six-time All-Star was selected by the Cavaliers. Three years later, his presence helped lure LeBron James back to Cleveland, where the Cavs would shock the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.

                 

    James Harden: Oklahoma City Thunder to Houston Rockets (2012)

    The Sonics/Thunder drafted three future MVPs from 2007 to 2009 and traded one before any turned 24.

    It's hard to fathom and yet even more difficult to explain. The Thunder took these young pups to the NBA Finals despite just 17 combined years of experience between Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson. Following that season, GM Sam Presti offered Harden a four-year deal worth $55.5 million; Harden wanted four years, $60 million, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard.

    Rather than amnesty Kendrick Perkins to avoid the luxury tax, the Thunder packaged Harden with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two firsts (became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary) and a second-rounder (Alex Abrines).

    Harden has since evolved into a perennial MVP candidate and multiple-time scoring champ.

    The Thunder could have formed a dynasty of offensive playmaking equipped to deal with any superteam. Instead, they've entered a soft rebuild.

                     

    Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White: Boston Celtics to Brooklyn Nets (2013)

    That Sean Marks and the Nets were able to add Durant and Irving in free agency less than a decade after two of the worst trades in modern NBA history speaks volumes to what he and his staff have accomplished during his four-year tenure.

    After all, this may not even be the Nets' worst trade this decade. Remember when they dealt the selection that became Damian Lillard for Gerald Wallace?

    Before then, GM Billy King sought to challenge the Eastern Conference by adding to his veteran core of Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Years later, then-majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov told Stefan Bondy of New York Daily News the deal was as much about building Brooklyn's "brand" as anything.

    To execute this vision, King acquired Garnett, Pierce and Terry for an unfathomable ransom that included Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph and, most importantly, three unprotected firsts and the right to swap first-round picks in 2017.

    The Nets' reward for this exchange? A fifth-seeded finish in 2013-14 and a second-round dismissal from LeBron and the Heat in five games. The Nets would nosedive in 2015-16, and the picks would become James Young, Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz (traded for Jayson Tatum and another first-rounder) and Collin Sexton (traded in part for Irving).

    Preston Ellis