The perception of NBA trades has a funny way of dramatically shifting over time.
When the Memphis Grizzlies sent Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2008, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich decreed the move “beyond comprehension,” adding, “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense.”
Though the Lakers did proceed to make the NBA Finals in each of the next three seasons, winning two rings over that span, the trade wound up being nowhere near as lopsided as it once appeared. Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, eventually helped Memphis earn a franchise-record five straight playoff appearances and a berth in the 2013 Western Conference Finals.
Some trades, however, look bad at the time and progressively grow worse over the following years. Rather than an aged fine red wine, they’re a skunked keg of Natty Light in the backyard of a frat house.
The NBA has seen its fair share of such deals over recent seasons, radically reshaping the league’s landscape for years to come. Before highlighting the six worst since 2010, let’s take a brief look at a four-team megatrade that was largely defensible at the time, even if it wound up blowing up in three franchises’ faces.
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Honorable Mention: The Dwight Howard megadeal
Los Angeles Lakers receive: Dwight Howard, Earl Clark, Chris Duhon
Denver Nuggets receive: Andre Iguodala
Philadelphia 76ers receive: Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson
Orlando Magic receive: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, 2013 second-round pick (DEN), 2014 first-round pick (DEN), Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, 2017 first-round pick (LAL), Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, 2015 first-round pick (PHI)
At the time, this trade made sense for each of the parties involved. Within the span of a year, however, all but one team—ironically, the one most frequently dubbed a “loser” in the immediate post-trade aftermath—grew to regret its decision.
One month after trading for Steve Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers went all-in here, shipping Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia along with a first-round pick to Orlando for Dwight Howard. Though Howard’s 2011-12 campaign prematurely ended due to a herniated disk in his back, the big man had won three of the past four Defensive Player of the Year awards at the time, making him a no-brainer acquisition for L.A. Ultimately, Howard and Kobe Bryant never could learn to co-exist, leading the former to flee Los Angeles during the summer of 2013 to sign a four-year max deal with the Houston Rockets. The price for Howard wasn’t necessarily prohibitive—especially considering how quickly Bynum spiraled downward—but the Lakers in no way expected Howard to be a one-year rental.
The same can be said for the Sixers, who lost Bynum after just one season. Worse yet, ongoing knee issues prevented the big man from suiting up even once during the 2012-13 campaign. (If only he hadn’t gone bowling.) The trade represented a calculated gamble for Philadelphia—Andre Iguodala already had one foot out the door, and who knew Nik Vucevic would turn out to be this good?—because with Bynum having averaged 17.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in 2011-12, he had the look of a franchise center so long as he remained healthy. This trade ultimately set the Sixers on the course they’re on now, as Sam Hinkie, who took over as general manager in May 2013, set out to undo the damage of trading away so many valuable assets for virtually nothing.
The Nuggets likewise only had one season of Iguodala’s services before he, too, left as a free agent in the summer of 2013. Denver received the biggest short-term boost from the trade—Iggy averaged 13.0 points, 5.4 assists and 5.3 rebounds during his one-year stint in the Mile High City—but its 57-25 regular-season record was all for naught, as the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors played spoiler against the Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Worse yet, those same Warriors then proceeded to lure Iguodala to the Bay Area—a move that perhaps became more likely after said first-round series.
The Magic were widely considered the big “losers” of the Howard trade, as none of the pieces they received seemed to have the makings of a franchise cornerstone. While that remains true to this day, the Magic have at least parlayed some of those assets into potential long-term contributors, flipping Afflalo for Evan Fournier and using that 2014 Denver first-round pick to acquire Elfrid Payton. (They also gave Philly its own first-rounder back in the draft-night trade for Payton.) Orlando had the look of a team ready to turn the corner earlier this season, but the franchise’s trade-deadline maneuvering left it trapped in no-man’s land.
This trade is retrospectively awful for the Lakers, Sixers and Nuggets, but at the time, it made perfect sense for each side. The same can’t be said about the ensuing six deals, however.
6. Rondo Scorches Earth in Dallas
Dallas Mavericks receive: Rajon Rondo, Dwight Powell
Boston Celtics receive: Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, top-seven-protected 2016 first-round pick, 2016 second-round pick
Give credit to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: He’s not afraid to swing for the fences, consequences be damned.
His Mavericks jumped out to a 19-8 record in 2014-15, scoring the most points per 100 possessions through the first month-and-a-half of the season. Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler comprised four-fifths of a legitimately promising starting five, but Dallas’ point guard options—namely Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea and Jameer Nelson—left much to be desired. Theoretically, adding Rondo’s playmaking ability and defensive acumen to that mix would only help round out the Mavs on both ends of the court.
Instead, the Rondo-Dallas pairing was a disaster from the outset. The mercurial floor general frequently butted heads with head coach Rick Carlisle about “issues such as play-calling responsibilities and pace,” according to ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon, and even earned a one-game suspension after confronting Carlisle during a late February game against the Toronto Raptors. He also proved to be a poor fit in the Mavericks’ system, as his lack of a long-range shooting stroke hindered his ability to thrive alongside another ball-dominant guard in Ellis.
The disastrous relationship culminated with him playing just 10 minutes during Game 2 of the Mavericks’ first-round series against Houston before getting benched. He and the team “made a mutual decision to part ways the next day… framing the reasoning as a back injury as a favor to try to help the four-time All-Star point guard save face,” MacMahon reported. He went on to sign a one-year, $9.5 million contract with the Sacramento Kings this past summer, leaving Dwight Powell as the Mavericks’ lone survivor from the disastrous trade. (Powell has been largely a non-factor as of late, but he did play well for Dallas earlier this year.)
Boston, meanwhile, found an absolute gem in Crowder, who re-signed with Beantown this past summer on a five-year, $35 million contract that already looks like an outright steal. The 25-year-old is emerging as one of the league’s premier under-the-radar two-way wings, averaging 14.5 points on 45.3 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.8 steals in 32.0 minutes a night for the upstart Celtics. According to Vantage Sports, Crowder ranks among the league leaders in TO Forced per Chance (16th of the 295 players with at least 1,500 defensive chances on the season), Pressure Rate per 100 Chances (25th) and Passes Denied per 100 Chances (31st), all of which speak to his disruptiveness both on and off the ball.
If Dallas maintains its grasp on a playoff spot this season, it will only be forced to convey a mid-first-round pick to Boston. Considering the perceived lack of depth in this year’s draft class, losing that pick isn’t likely to haunt the Mavericks as much as giving up Crowder will. Regardless, Carlisle wishes Dallas never traded for Rondo, telling MacMahon: “Going back in time, it’s a deal we should have shied away from, for the sake of us and for the sake of him. It’s a deal we shouldn’t have made.”
It’s not a franchise-crippling mistake, but the Mavericks losing Crowder and a mid-first-round pick for Powell and one year of Rondo isn’t exactly the definition of great asset management.
5. The Clippers Learn About Lottery Protections
Cleveland Cavaliers receive: Baron Davis, unprotected 2011 first-round pick (used to select Kyrie Irving)
Los Angeles Clippers receive: Mo Williams, Jamario Moon
If former team owner Donald Sterling wasn’t such a cheapskate, the Los Angeles Clippers very well could have a Big Three of Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in place right now.
At the 2011 trade deadline, the Clippers were so desperate to shed the remaining two years and $28.65 million on Baron Davis’ contract that they attached a completely unprotected first-round pick to send him to Cleveland for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. While L.A.’s management underplayed the draft considerations, instead focusing on hyping up the Davis-for-Williams swap, it would soon grow to regret that decision immensely.
“Our analysis at this point in February is that it was more valuable to get a 28-year-old All-Star point guard that we have for the next few years, cap flexibility to make sure we take care of business and re-sign DeAndre Jordan and have flexibility to take care of Eric Gordon as well, as opposed to speculating on another kid that’s 19 years old with one year of college experience,” said then-Clippers general manager Neil Olshey, per ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Chad Ford. “And I’m not that high on the draft to begin with this year.”
The Clippers finished the season with a 2.8 percent chance of winning the lottery, so Olshey’s comments weren’t totally off base. But, naturally, that 2.8 percent chance hit, giving Cleveland the No. 1 overall pick—and the chance to bring in a new face of the franchise—one year after LeBron James left the Cavs high and dry by taking his talents to South Beach.
Mo Williams would go on to play one more season in L.A., averaging just 13.2 points, 3.1 assists and 1.9 rebounds in 28.3 minutes a night, before finding himself involved in a four-way trade that sent him to the Utah Jazz. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are still reaping the rewards of the deal, as Irving’s presence on the roster—and decision to ink a five-year, $95 million max extension—helped them lure James back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014.
4. Brooklyn Robs Itself of “Lillard Time”
Brooklyn Nets receive: Gerald Wallace
Portland Trail Blazers: Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, top-three-protected 2012 first-round pick (used to select Damian Lillard)
This isn’t the last time former Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King will make an appearance here, as his blatant disregard for future first-round picks is largely why Brooklyn’s future looks so miserably hopeless at the moment.
With Deron Williams able to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent following the 2011-12 season and the Nets’ forward rotation battered by injuries, King pulled the trigger on this deal at the deadline to help assuage any concerns his floor general had with the franchise. Losing Williams a year after giving up Derrick Favors and two future first-round picks (Enes Kanter and Gorgui Dieng) for him would have been a devastating blow for soon-to-be-relocating Nets.
“In meeting with our scouts, we felt the player that we may draft beyond the protection would be somebody that would probably take a couple years (to develop), and at this point, we’re trying to speed the process up a bit and start winning (more),” King said at the time, per ESPN.com’s Mike Mazzeo. “I can understand the fanbase (wanting us to keep the pick), but I’d rather try to balance the roster, add a piece and still have cap flexibility.”
Mazzeo, citing a conversation ESPN.com’s Chad Ford had with sources in the Nets organization, reported there were “only three players in the upcoming draft the Nets covet—Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson.” Notably absent from that list: Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, who both Ford and ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton recently ranked as having the third-highest upside of anyone in the 2012 draft class (trailing Davis and Michigan State product Draymond Green).
Four years later, Lillard has emerged as an All-NBA-worthy point guard—far better than Williams was during his tenure with the Nets—while this trade helped pave the way for Brooklyn’s demise. Both Williams and Wallace opted out, signing five-year, $98 million and four-year, $40 million deals, respectively, yet both would find themselves on the way out within three years. The Nets flipped Wallace in a catastrophic deal we’ll discuss later and bought out Williams this past summer.
Between this abysmal transaction and the Clippers-Cavaliers swap the year prior, draft-pick protections suddenly became a hot topic amid the NBA trade market. Failing to swap adequate protections on a first-round pick—or, worse yet, leaving it fully unprotected—left franchises subject to horrendous twists of fate years down the line, such as, say, losing the chance to draft Irving or Lillard.
3. You’re Offering WHAT for Andrea Bargnani?!
Toronto Raptors receive: Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, 2014 second-round pick, 2016 first-round pick, 2017 second-round pick
New York Knicks receive: Andrea Bargnani
How Masai Ujiri didn’t receive Executive of the Year for this trade alone, the world may never know.
As one of his first orders of business upon taking over as the Toronto Raptors’ general manager, Ujiri managed to extract not one, not two, but three future draft picks for a 7-footer who shot 39.9 percent from the field on 12.2 field-goal attempts per game the year prior. Though Bargnani was the second-worst rebounder among all big men who played at least 1,000 minutes over the five-year span prior to his arrival in New York, the Knicks simply couldn’t help but be tantalized by his offensive potential as a floor-spacer alongside Tyson Chandler.
“Seven-foot versatile players with a good midrange offensive game and an ability to stretch the other team’s defense are hard to come by in this league,” then-Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald said in a statement, via ESPN.com’s Jared Zwerling. “Andrea has proven to be a quality scorer who adds another dimension to our team. We are excited to add him to our frontline.”
Unsurprisingly, the deal blew up in the Knicks’ face. Bargnani averaged 13.9 points on 44.7 percent shooting, a laughable 4.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 28.8 minutes per night across his two seasons in New York, playing just 71 games in total. He proceeded to join the Knicks’ crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Nets, upon becoming a free agent in the summer of 2015. The Nets waived him seven months later.
At the time of the trade, those defending it suggested the Knicks’ 2016 first-rounder was likely to fall somewhere in the 20s, diminishing the impact of its loss. As it turns out, however, the Knicks are all but certain to convey a top-10 pick to Toronto, whether it’s their own or Denver’s. (The Nuggets have swap rights in 2016 as the final condition from 2011’s Carmelo Anthony deal.) Though the 2016 draft class doesn’t appear laden with star-caliber talent at the moment—it’s nowhere near its predecessor in that regard—losing the chance to add a top-10 talent alongside Kristaps Porzingis isn’t doing the Knicks’ rebuild any favors.
The trade was pilloried at the time, and rightfully so. Three years later, we’re gaining perspective on just how regrettable it was from New York’s perspective.
2. OKC Breaks Up a Potential Dynasty
Oklahoma City Thunder receive: Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, 2013 first-round pick (used to select Steven Adams), top-20-protected 2014 first-round pick (used to select Mitch McGary), 2013 second-round pick (used to select Alex Abrines)
Houston Rockets receive: James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward
Many would consider this to be the league’s worst trade since 2010, and that’s an entirely reasonable stance to take. After all, since coming to Houston, James Harden has evolved into one of the Association’s premier superstars, finishing second to Stephen Curry in last season’s MVP voting. Would the Thunder have traded Harden had they known the type of player he’d become over the coming years? Unless they received a top-five player in return, there’s no way in hell.
That said, it wasn’t a franchise-crippling mistake for Oklahoma City. It broke up a potential dynasty, sure, but the Thunder have remained perennial championship contenders in the four seasons since moving on from Harden. Though they basically received 40 cents on the dollar for him—Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin have both since moved on, while Steven Adams has become a productive rotation member—Harden also wasn’t an established franchise cornerstone when they flipped him.
Did the Thunder jump the gun on trading the Arizona State product? Well, that’s far easier to argue. Once extension negotiations broke down, general manager Sam Presti decided to break up a team fresh off an appearance in the NBA Finals, a move that left many observers befuddled. After all, the Thunder could have decided to move him at the trade deadline if their season derailed or agreed to match any offer he received in restricted free agency to retain him as a trade chip down the line.
As Grantland’s Zach Lowe explained at the time, though, Presti decided his leverage in the situation would fade once the extension deadline passed without an agreement:
Suitors wanted Harden before the Halloween contract extension deadline so they could lock him up immediately rather than wasting valuable days in July waiting for restricted free agency to play out. Keeping Harden into next season would mean hefty tax payments for that season, since even dealing Harden for an expiring contract would leave that expiring deal on Oklahoma City’s 2013-14 cap sheet. That would amount to putting off the same cost-cutting choice by a year, while in the meantime suffering potential losses and continued turmoil about the team’s future. Harden’s value probably wouldn’t have fallen much over time, but Presti looked at all the variables and decided to act now.
Even though Harden is a turnstile on defense and may be contributing to a caustic locker room culture, there’s no denying his on-court value, as he’s averaging a career-high 29.0 points, 7.1 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 triples and 1.6 steals in 37.8 minutes a night this season. Players of his caliber so rarely get traded, in large part because suitors can’t cobble together enough assets to justify such a move. Four quarters don’t necessarily equal a dollar for the team shipping out the superstar.
The Thunder undeniably made a mistake trading Harden when they did—or, frankly, trading him at all—but they’ve at least rebounded nicely from it. The same can’t be said about the final team featured here.
1. Billy King’s Magnum Opus
Boston Celtics receive: Three unprotected first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018), first-round swap rights (2017), Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Gerald Wallace
Brooklyn Nets receive: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White
The next time a team thinks of hiring Billy King as its general manager, this trade should be the first thing that comes up.
Heading into Year 4 of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s ill-fated five-year championship plan, King and the Nets grew impatient. Fresh off their first playoff appearance in six seasons, they sent a whopping three unprotected first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018) along with the rights to swap first-rounders in 2017 to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. ln theory, this move would establish themselves as a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference supremacy, but as we know now, that hardly came to fruition.
Instead, the Nets won five fewer games than they did the previous season, finishing the year as the East’s No. 6 seed. Pierce’s Game 7 heroics in their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors did help them move on to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2006-07, but the franchise’s success was short-lived, as both Pierce and Terry fled Brooklyn upon becoming free agents in the summer of 2014.
The Nets did manage to flip KG to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Thaddeus Young at the 2015 trade deadline, ensuring the KG-Pierce-Terry trade wasn’t a total wash, but that was the only redeeming factor of the otherwise abysmal move. They’re now mired in the very beginning stages of a full-scale rebuild, except they lack the draft capital to give the franchise any sort of long-term hope.
If Bill Simmons’ reaction was any indication, Boston fans were devastated about the return at the time of the trade:
One year later, however, they began to see the silver lining:
If KG retires (likely) and PP leaves (likely), then the Nets gave up 3 unprotected firsts + a 2017 pick swap for 5 playoff wins. #ouch
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 15, 2014
In the NBA, it’s almost always better to sell one year too early than one year too late (Harden trade notwithstanding). Flipping veterans on their last legs for unprotected draft picks years down the road is the picture-perfect example of how to exploit franchises in “win-now” mode. Moving the remaining members of their championship-winning Big Three was an undeniably painful move at the time, but in retrospect, it rapidly accelerated the Celtics’ rebuilding process.
At a certain point, the C’s are going to have to consolidate some of their good-not-great assets and flip them for a superstar. The fact they haven’t yet isn’t for lack of effort, though. They reportedly offered four first-round picks to the Charlotte Hornets during the 2015 draft for the No. 9 overall selection, according to Lowe, and supposedly tried to make a major move at the trade deadline, too, per CBS Boston. Even without a true superstar on the roster, though, Boston is third in the East at the moment with a 39-26 record. Anyone who foresaw that happening less than three years after moving on from KG and Pierce should become a fortune-teller.
Considering how badly this trade crippled Brooklyn—and how the Celtics could well receive two top-five picks in 2016 and 2018 as a result—this sneaks past the Harden deal as the NBA’s worst since 2010. If there were an Anti-Executive of the Year award, it should be named after Billy King.
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