Last week we had a look at the worst current contracts in the NBA. If nothing else, reading through that horrendous list should’ve made clear is that the amount of money in the NBA means it’s easy and relatively common for teams to throw multi-millions of dollars at a guy like Chandler Parsons in the hopeful expectation he develops in to the next league superstar.
What’s not so easy is finding a way to back out of paying a guy like Chandler Parsons multi-millions of dollars when it turns out he stinks.
Sometimes, NBA teams make really, really bad roster decisions. It’s an inevitable part of basketball; for every Steph Curry, Einstein’s theory of relativity mandates that there also has to be a Jonny Flynn.
This is where the art of trading comes in. The NBA draft is a notorious minefield; making poor roster decisions is inevitable; but trading is a skill where a good front office can really shine through.
A “good trade” isn’t necessarily one where one side fleeces the other. A good trade might be one where all sides walk out feeling equally satisfied. The key element of a good trade is that it’s creative; that one or both or all of the teams involved have thought outside the square to make a beneficial move for their franchise.
And it’s important to be aware of what constitutes a “beneficial move”; e.g. offloading a horrendous contract can be as beneficial as receiving a star player in return.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a walk through the top 10 best NBA trades of the last 10 years.
The Paul George / Victor Oladipo blockbuster – 2017
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Paul George
Indiana Pacers Receive: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis
This is the perfect example of a trade which has ended in mutual benefit for the two teams involved.
At the time this deal went down, most of the NBA questioned whether the Pacers had squeezed enough out of the Thunder in return for George; at that time a four-time All-Star and franchise lynchpin.
Both Oladipo and Sabonis were young and unproven, and coming off disappointing seasons in Oklahoma City.
At the same time though, the Thunder were taking a huge risk. George was coming out of contract at the end of the 2018 season and it seemed like a near fait accompli that he would sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in free-agency.
Fast forward two years:
George shocked the NBA by signing a 4-year $136.9 million deal with OKC in the 2018 offseason, and is leading the Thunder in to the 2019 playoffs on the back of a regular season in which (at points) he was a genuine MVP candidate.
Oladipo averaged 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game in 2018 for the Pacers, led them to the playoffs and made the All-Star game. Unfortunately, a season-ending injury in early 2019 has derailed Indiana’s faint championship hopes.
Sabonis has turned in to a genuine two-way big and looks like he’ll be a feature in the NBA for years to come. He’s averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds per game in 2019.
10. The Mozgov Offload – 2017
Brooklyn Nets receive: Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell
LA Lakers receive: Brook Lopez and 2017 1st round pick (#27)
In the summer of 2016, after winning a championship with the Cavaliers, and despite averaging just 6 points and 4 rebounds per game, Timofey Mozgov was signed by the Lakers to a 4-year $64 million deal.
We’ve previously addressed how mindbogglingly stupid this signing was. Situations like these, however, can present opportunity for a team creative enough to see the possibilities.
After one year of Mozgov’s deal the Lakers were looking to offload his inordinately large contract. Enter the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn were in a self-induced rebuild thanks to some horrendous management of their own (see below), had the cap space and were prepared to take Mozgov off the Lakers’ hands, for a price. That price was D’Angelo Russell.
Russell had some well-documented issues in LA. The Lakers were likely to look for a trade for him regardless, and this situation presented a desirable outcome for both parties. LA got the chance to get rid of the Mozgov burden and Brooklyn received a wayward-yet-promising former top 3 draft pick with limitless potential.
Fast forward two years:
Russell is an All-Star point guard on a playoff team. The Nets were able to ship Mozgov to Charlotte for a second-round pick.
The Lakers inexplicably let Lopez go to Milwaukee in free agency, but somewhat salvaged the situation by taking Kyle Kuzma with the 27th pick in the draft.
In the end, both teams arguably got what they wanted. Although, admittedly, it’s hard to see the Lakers doing this trade again in hindsight.
9. The Dwight Howard cash-in – 2012
Orlando Magic receive: Arron Afflalo, Nik Vucevic, Al Harrington Maurice Harkless, three first-round draft picks and 2 other draft picks.
Los Angeles Lakers receive: Dwight Howard, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon
Dwight Howard’s name is now synonymous with being a detriment to every team he ends up on.
Back in the summer of 2012, that wasn’t the case. Dwight was coming off yet another 20 point / 14 rebound year and desperately wanted out of Orlando. The Lakers were keen to pair him with Kobe Bryant to see what would happen.
Dwight was 27 years old and ostensibly in his prime. The Magic knew this, and were desperate to squeeze every last drop of value out of him, whilst also surely knowing the foibles of his divisive personality.
In a complex four-team trade, Dwight ended up on the Lakers and the Magic received a host of role players, a budding star in Vucevic and enough draft picks to last them the decade.
Everyone’s a winner, right?
Fast-forward 7 years:
Oh boy. Dwight lasted one underwhelming, overly-dramatic season on the Lakers before being shipped to Houston for peanuts. He hasn’t been a force in the NBA since.
Nikola Vucevic is now an All-Star centre, and Orlando used their draft assets to pick up players like Dario Saric (traded), Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon. They’re a playoff team and the future is bright.
Well played, Orlando.
8. The Kevin Love extravaganza – 2014
Minnesota Timberwolves receive: Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and Thaddeus Young.
Cleveland Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love.
The Cavs, with LeBron James back at the helm, had instantly gone from a lottery team in 2013-14 to a championship contender in 2014-15. They drafted Wiggins with pick 1 in the 2014 draft, but knew that James needed experienced stars around him to be able to compete with the best in the NBA.
Enter the Timberwolves with Kevin Love. Love was coming off a season in which he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds, and at 25 years old was smack bang in his prime. The Cavs saw their chance and took it.
Along with former number 1 draft pick (and utter failure) Anthony Bennett, Wiggins was shipped to Minnesota as part of a three-team deal which also saw Cleveland send Philadelphia a first round pick for Thaddeus Young. In return the Cavs got perennial All-Star Love, and became a three-star team (with Kyrie Iving on board as well) capable of making the NBA Finals.
Fast-forward 5 years:
The Cavs made four straight Finals appearances, winning one in 2016 in part thanks to Love’s late-game defense on Steph Curry. Love never reached the individual heights of his Minnesota days, but was a valuable role-player (and now lone star) in Cleveland, and helped them win a drought-breaking championship.
Wiggins has never reached the heights he promised, and neither did Bennett (lol). Wiggins is a solid second-star next to Karl Anthony-Towns, but we think in hindsight the Timberwolves would be disappointed in what they received for, arguably, their second best player of all time (behind Kevin Garnett).
7. IT to the Celts – 2015
Boston Celtics receive: Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome.
Phoenix Suns receive: Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick.
Boston have always been good at seeing the value in players that other teams couldn’t.
Isaiah Thomas had been a good (but not great) NBA point guard on some average NBA teams. In 2013-14 he’d averaged 20 points a game in Sacramento, but at 5 foot 9 inches there had been persistent doubts about his viability as a starter in the league.
The Phoenix Suns had an abundance of quality guards (including Goran Dragic, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe), and so the Celtics took a punt on Thomas at the trade deadline. He was on just a 4-year $27 million contract at that point in time, so the financial hit was minimal. Losing a first-round pick was a big hit for the Celtics, but thanks to another trade below, they had a few to burn.
Fast-forward 4 years:
Although his value as an asset has diminished significantly thanks to a disastrous stint in Cleveland, Thomas was unbelievable in Boston. He was a two-time All-Star there, and a borderline MVP candidate in a remarkable 2016-17 season where he averaged 28.9 points per game and led Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals. Jerebko also was an above average role-player on that team.
Thornton played just 9 games for Phoenix, and the Suns flipped the draft pick to Sacramento, who used it on the very busty-looking Skal Labissiere.
How unexpected that the Suns made a poor front-office decision, right?
6. The Spurs nab Kawhi – 2011
San Antonio Spurs receive: Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans
Indiana Pacers receive: George Hill and Erazem Lorbek
Whilst the Pacers didn’t do too badly out of this trade, it’s safe to say they’d love a do-over.
Indiana took Leonard with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. At that stage he was a renowned defender with as-yet unknown quantities on offence. Gregg Popovich (as he so often does) saw something in Leonard and decided to send 24 year-old point guard George Hill along with Erazam Lorbek (who?!) to the Pacers in exchange for Leonard and Davis Bertans. Pacers GM Larry Bird jumped at the opportunity to pair a quality point guard with rookie forward Paul George.
Fast-forward 8 years:
Leonard led the league in steals in 2014-15 at 2.3 per game and was named Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs famously beat LeBron’s Heat in the NBA Finals, with Leonard locking down on James and winning Finals MVP. He backed up to win DPOY again the following year, and has since become an offensively unguardable, perennial All-Star, and constant MVP-threat for San Antonio and now Toronto.
It’s worth mentioning as well that Bertans has become one of the best outside-shooters in the league, and a key piece on a playoff-calibre team despite Leonard’s absence.
We don’t begrudge Indiana for making the move; there was no way of knowing what Leonard would become, and arguably he would never have got there if it wasn’t for the Spurs’ incredible development system. The Pacers made two Eastern Conference Finals with Hill on board, but could never quite get over the LeBron hump. They’ll be forever wondering what could have been.
Incredible, gutsy move by San Antonio.
5. Jimmy Buckets leaves the building – 2017
Minnesota Timberwolves receive: Jimmy Butler and 2017 no. 16 pick (Justin Patton)
Chicago Bulls receive: Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and 2017 no. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen)
We’re only now starting to see the true disastrousness of this trade for Minnesota, and it’s one which may haunt them for years to come.
Butler is a notoriously difficult teammate; that’s never been in dispute. At the time, though, this trade looked like a shocker for the Bulls. They were offloading a franchise centre-piece for Zach LaVine (coming off an ACL injury), Kris Dunn (coming off a historically poor shooting season) and a speculative mid-first round draft pick.
Butler had made three straight All-Star games, an NBA All-Third team and was by consensus one of the best two-way players in the league. Bulls fans were irate at his loss.
Fast-forward two years:
Butler’s tenure in Minnesota was an outright clusterf*ck. He never gelled, alienated teammates and was a consistently disruptive locker-room force, before being traded to Philadelphia in exchange for role-players Dario Saric and Robert Covington.
The Bulls took Lauri Markaanen with the 7th pick, Zach LaVine returned from his knee injury even better than he was before, and Kris Dunn’s creativity at the point guard position has far outweighed any shooting weakness.
Minnesota remain in NBA purgatory; too good to tank but not good enough to do anything remarkable. Imagine where they’d be if their starting lineup was Towns, Markaanen, LaVine, Wiggins and Dunn.
4. The birth of Lob City – 2011
Los Angeles Clippers receive: Chris Paul and two future 2nd round picks.
New Orleans Hornets receive: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and an unprotected 2012 1st round pick.
This trade came barely a week after David Stern vetoed Paul’s move to the Lakers, and turned out to be a nightmare for New Orleans.
Swooping in to sweep up the Lakers’ mess came the Clippers. Eric Gordon looked like a budding star at this point in time, and along with two solid role-players and a fantastic draft pick, this contextually doesn’t look like a shocking move for New Orleans. Gordon had averaged 22 points in 2010-11 and was the centrepiece of the move for the Hornets.
Fast-forward 8 years:
This is the move that birthed the Clippers’ famous “Lob City” team with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Despite featuring in the playoffs in each of Paul’s seasons with the team, the Clippers were infamously unable to make any conference finals, in part due to injuries to key players but also some notoriously bad performances from Paul.
Eric Gordon was injury prone and never quite worked out as hoped for the Hornets (despite shooting 45% from three in 2014-15), and was traded to Houston at the end of the 2015-16 season. He subsequently played out of his mind, was Sixth Man of the Year in 2016-17 and is now a key piece on the Rockets’ championship calibre team.
The Hornets used their first-round pick on Austin Rivers, who was an unmitigated disaster in the short time before he was traded back to the Clippers. Chris Kaman played just 47 games for New Orleans, and Al Farouq-Aminu was mediocre before leaving the team in free agency.
Lesson: trading away proven stars needs to net you proven stars in return. Otherwise you run the risk of abject failure. New Orleans never recovered from this trade.
3. Fear the Beard – 2012
Oklahoma City Thunder receive: Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, two 2013 first-round draft picks and a 2013 second-round draft pick.
Houston Rockets receive: James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward, and Daequan Cook.
With hindsight, this has become one of the most infamous trades in NBA history.
At the time though, it almost made sense for the Thunder to do what they did. Harden was coming off a season in which he’d won 6th Man of the Year, but was clearly the fourth option on a team also trying to find shots for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The Thunder had just made the NBA Finals and Harden had had a rough series. He still had a year left on his rookie deal, and at one level it made sense to sell him at what could have been a value high-point, rather than run the risk of a fade into mediocrity behind some established stars.
Fast-forward 7 years:
The Rockets got 6-time All-Star, two-time (potentially three) MVP runner-up, and one-time (potentially two) MVP winner James Harden for the rights to Jeremy Lamb and a few picks. Let that sink in.
In retrospect this has turned in to one of the biggest steals in NBA trade history.
The Thunder drafted Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary with the picks they got in return for Harden. Lamb never lived up to expectations and was traded to the Hornets, where he is now flourishing.
This is not a win/win trade; the Thunder lost BIG TIME. Well done, Rockets.
2. The Uncle Drew Theft – 2011
Cleveland Cavaliers receive: Baron Davis and a 2011 unprotected first-round pick (Kyrie Irving).
Los Angeles Clippers receive: Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.
This trade perfectly exemplifies why teams hate trading unprotected first-round picks.
The Cavaliers in 2011 were a basket-case after LeBron left for the first time. They were firmly in rebuild mode, and prepared to take a year and $13.9 million of the ageing Davis’ contract in exchange for gambling on the possibility of a high draft pick.
The Clippers desperately wanted to get rid of Davis’ contract, and in exchange got two solid NBA players in Williams and Moon. Whilst in that sense the trade is understandable, for some inexplicable reason they didn’t place any protections over the first-round pick they sent the other way.
Fast-forward 8 years:
The Clippers finished with the 8th-worst record in the league in 2011, and, in a quirk of fate, the pick they’d sent the Cavs ended up being the number 1 overall.
Cleveland took Kyrie Irving, and the rest is history. Irving is now one of the best point guards in the league, a perennial All-Star and a championship-winner with the Cavaliers.
The ramifications of this trade were wide-spread; arguably LeBron only returned back to Cleveland to play with Irving, the Clippers were forced to trade for Chris Paul after failing to find another point guard, and the Hornets fell apart as a result.
1. The Nets sell the farm – 2013
Brooklyn Nets receive: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, D.J. White, Jason Terry and a 2017 second-round pick.
Boston receive: Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace and 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 first-round picks.
You knew this was coming. In 2013, the Boston Celtics pulled off one of the great trade robberies of all time over the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets were on an all-encompassing quest for short-term success, and sold basically all their current and future draft assets to the Celtics in exchange for an ageing Pierce and Garnett.
The Celtics, understandably, welcomed the situation with open arms.
Fast-forward 6 years:
This iteration of the Nets – which included Pierce, Garnett, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd and Brook Lopez – never made it past the second round of the playoffs. It is remembered as one of the most disappointing teams in NBA history.
Brooklyn has only just recovered from the fallout caused by this trade. Interestingly, the 2017 first round pick they received from the Celtics was on-traded to the Lakers as part of the Mozgov/Russell deal, and ended up turning in to Kyle Kuzma.
The players the Celtics got in this deal were garbage. The picks, however, enabled them to build the championship-contender they have today.
With their draft cache Boston picked up Jaylen Brown; a number 1 pick which was traded to Philadelphia for Markelle Fultz and resulted in Jayson Taytum; and a 2018 pick which ended up being a key feature of the trade for Kyrie Irving.
All three of those players remain key pieces on Boston’s roster as of April 2019. This was creativity at its finest by Danny Ainge; blowing up an ageing team in the short term for a shot at glory years down the track. Brilliant.
By Eddie Dadds