Deals And Steals: Greatest NBA Draft Day Trade Robberies
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and this expression rings so true when looking back at some of the biggest draft day steals and deals, blunders and blessings. Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant? Yeah that happened. Without further adieu, let’s have a look at some of the biggest draft-day trades that helped write NBA history, setting some franchises back decades while propelling others into glory.
9. LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas/Victor Khryapa
Trade LaMarcus Aldrige and a future second-round pick for Tyrus Thomas and Victor Khryapa? If you think like 99 percent of the population, that’d be a big NO. No chance. Nada. Zilch. If you think like the management of the Chicago Bulls, that’d be a yeah, let’s do it. Let’s swap forwards and acquire a future second-round pick. On the surface, this trade didn’t seem like a bad deal. It didn’t seem like a stellar move either, but it had the potential to pan out.
The Bulls would be getting the fourth overall pick in Tyrus Thomas, who in his one standout year at LSU, led the Tigers to the Final Four while nearly averaging a double-double in points and rebounds. They’d also acquire big man Victor Khryapa, who at that point just seemed like collateral.
The Blazers, on the other hand, saw this as a prime opportunity to acquire the second-overall pick in Aldridge, plus the rights to a future pick. They were getting a player with unlimited potential who proved himself in back-to-back years at The University of Texas. What ended up happening was one of the most lopsided draft-day trades in NBA history. With the Blazers, Aldridge would become the franchise’s marquee player. He’d average 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists over the course of his nine seasons in Portland.
For his NBA career, the skilled forward would make six All-Star teams and receive two All-NBA second team and three All-NBA third team nods. Currently, Aldridge is one of the league’s top forwards and is the focal point of San Antonio’s offense.
Thomas’ career is a different story altogether. Currently out of the league, the once promising Thomas never did adjust to life in the NBA. For the course of his sub-par career, Thomas only managed to average 7.7 points, 4.8 boards, and 0.9 assists. The raw athleticism and upside he displayed during his one year at the collegiate level never translated to the pros. Thomas appeared in the playoffs three times compared to Aldrige’s eight. Had the Bulls not swapped draft picks with Portland, their future would be drastically different. In theory, they would have gone on to draft Derrick Rose first overall, pairing the flashy point guard with Aldridge. These two youngsters would team up with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah on a team loaded with capable scorers and defenders.
Those four players would easily have been in contention year after year to represent the East in the Finals. Instead, the Bulls have floundered as of late, appearing in zero NBA Finals since Jordan.
8. Brad Daugherty for Roy Hinson
Another perplexing franchise when it comes to draft-day shenanigans, the Philadelphia 76ers continued to give credence to this dubious title back in 1986, when they traded the first overall pick for Roy Hinson. After acquiring the pick through trades and good fortune in the pre-ping pong draft lottery, the 76ers seemed to be at odds as to what to do with the pick.
The draft class was full of problematic players dealing with drug issues and a sharp talent drop-off after the first potential few picks. They simply weren’t ecstatic over anyone on the board and felt they could get better value elsewhere — most likely through a trade. Trading the pick is exactly what they did, and the results backfired immediately.
The Sixers decided to trade the rights to the first pick to Cleveland for Roy Hinson and $800,000, something the Sixers felt was a huge chunk of change considering the times. In acquiring Hinson, the Sixers got a scorer who, in the season leading up to the draft, put up almost 20 points and 8 boards. Definitely respectable numbers that could augment any teams’ offensive production.
Hinson, however, wasn’t able to keep putting the ball in the net at such a desirable rate and would watch as his numbers steadily declined in his season and a half with the Sixers. Finally fed up with Hinson, the Sixers — just a year and a half removed from giving up the first pick for him — traded him to the New Jersey Nets. Hinson’s career came to a close after eight seasons and zero All-Star appearances — not the type of production expected from a player that was swapped for the first pick.
Cleveland, however, reaped huge rewards from this trade. The Cavs used the pick on North Carolina center Brad Daugherty. Despite having his career be cut short due to injuries, Daugherty managed to put up very impressive numbers during his eight-year career in the NBA. Most importantly, Daugherty helped the struggling Cavaliers reverse their luck by leading them to the playoffs on five separate occasions, including the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals.
For his career, the seven-footer averaged a solid 19 points and 9.5 rebounds, making him a solid player on both sides of the court. He was also a five-time All-Star and one-time All-NBA third team. Daugherty retired the Cavs all-time leader in points and rebounds, both of which have since been surpassed by LeBron James. Understandable.
7. Rajon Rondo for Rudy Fernandez/$$$
The Suns have made some of the most horrendous draft day trades and decisions in recent memory. It’s been downright bizarre watching the Suns on draft night, albeit entertaining. Keeping up with their head-scratching moves could be a full-time position, but to save you the headache, we’ve got you covered. Arguably the Suns’ biggest head-scratcher was the 2006 draft-day trade that sent Rajon Rondo to Boston in exchange for cash and Rudy Fernandez.
The 2005-06 Suns were a team that had talent at the point guard position in legendary playmaker Steve Nash and solid backup Leandro Barbosa. So, the ultimate question we should be asking is why on earth would they take Kentucky point guard Rajon Rondo with the 21st overall pick? No one quite knows, but what we do know is the Suns proceeded to flip Rondo to Boston in a completely lopsided trade.
What the Celtics would acquire in Rondo would be a champion, stud defender, and pure passer that complimented the Celtics’ Big Three and helped guide the Celtics to the 2008 NBA title. Rondo would continue to lead an amazing career as one of the league’s best pure point-guards. To boot, the Celtics also got Brian Grant in the trade.
The Suns? They got a pile of cash and the rights to Cleveland’s 2007 first-round pick. That pick was Rudy Fernandez, who, just like Rondo, was dealt on draft day for … you guessed it … more cash. Maybe the Suns got confused and forgot that they were an NBA franchise rather than a local bank.
For those of you wondering how Boston acquired Cleveland’s 2007 first-pick it went a bit like this: the Celtics dealt guard Juri Welsch mid-season for the 2007 pick. Welsch would struggle mightily in Cleveland, who would proceed to deal him in the off-season for a second-round pick.
When all the dust settled, the Celtics emerged victorious, the Suns proved themselves to be inept, and Cleveland was robbed in broad daylight.
6. Ray Allen for Jeff Green
Oh, Seattle. Did anyone ever tell you that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it? Did anyone ever tell you that letting go of one of the NBA’s all-time most prolific three-point shooters for two players who scream average and an unproven draft pick is questionable, at best? Clearly not, and this brings us to the 2007 NBA Draft-day trade that helped the Celtics capture their 17th title while giving up virtually nothing.
Danny Ainge is a shrewd general manager who is team first. He is all Boston, and he has no problems putting the franchise above any one player, just ask Paul Pierce. On the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, Danny was back to his old self, wheeling and dealing in an attempt to boost Boston into the NBA’s upper echelon. What he did was nothing short of a robbery that absolutely altered the face of the franchise.
The Celtics acquired two key players in the trade that would help them reach the NBA Finals that same year; legendary three-point specialist Ray Allen, who’s impact on the Celtics team was second to none, and the 35th overall pick Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a role player who had a sizeable impact on the team during their championship run. Allen’s acquisition caught the attention of Kevin Garnett, which led to his trade to the Celtics later that summer, creating the new Celtics’ “Big Three.”
The Sonics, in turn, received point guard Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the Celtics’ ffith-overall pick, Jeff Green. Without diving into each players’ individual stats, one can ascertain who won this trade and who lost big-time. Both West and Szczerbiak didn’t even last one year in Seattle. Midway through the season they were traded off to Cleveland in a three-team deal. Green, on the other hand, provided solid play as a rookie and throughout his career but pales in comparison to the career of Ray Allen.
Had the Sonics not completed this deal, they could have had both Ray Allen and Kevin Durant playing on the same team. Imagine the offensive potential here. Instead, K.D. was forced to become the team’s No. 1 overall player in just his first year. Green, as commendable as he was during his rookie campaign, was nowhere near as impressive as the potential of an Allen and Durant-led offense.
To make this hypothetical even crazier, imagine Allen, Durant, and Russell Westbrook teaming up together. That team’s offensive potential in two words: fire power.
5. Dirk Nowitzki for Robert Traylor/Pat Garrity
The Germans are known for their outstanding culture of brewing some of the world’s best beer and their phenomenal soccer team, which as recently as 2014 won the World Cup. What they are less known for is producing basketball players, let alone Hall of Famers. But for German forward Dirk Nowitzki, basketball was his natural calling, thanks to his 7-foot frame.
And for fans of the game, thank goodness Dirk chose basketball. What is now so obvious to anyone who follows the game — that Dirk Nowitzki is a legend, a surefire Hall of Fame player, NBA champion, league MVP, and 13-time All-Star — wasn’t so clear to the Milwaukee Bucks when they immediately traded the young German on draft night in 1998 after taking him ninth overall.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Milwaukee Bucks were infatuated with Michigan big man Robert Traylor, while the Mavs had their eyes on two players: Nowitzki and the Suns’ backup point guard Steve Nash. In order for the Mavs to acquire both players, they ended up drafting Traylor sixth and flipping him for two of the Bucks’ first-round picks, one of them being Nowitzki. They would take the second first-round pick and immediately send him to the Phoenix desert in exchange for Steve Nash. Winner winner.
The Mavs left draft night with the German sensation Nowitzki and future superstar Nash. The Bucks received the player they wanted so badly in Traylor. So far, everyone emerged a winner. Things took a turn for the worse with Traylor, and the once-formidable forward/center lasted seven years in the league. His career averages of 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds are, to put things bluntly, miserable.
Dirk’s career has been the polar opposite. He’s become one of the all-time great forwards and is still playing in the league at a high level. Without covering every single one of Dirk’s career accolades, it’s clear that he, along with a few other players from the 1998 class, immensely impacted the NBA (Vince Carter and his dunking, Dirk with his shooting ability as a big man, Pierce anchoring the Celtics).
Now pair Dirk and Steve Nash together, the two players acquired on draft night, and you have one of the biggest instant overhauls in NBA history.
4. Scottie Pippen for Olden Polynice
For SuperSonics fans, it’s bad enough that their franchise doesn’t even exist anymore. To make matters worse, one only has to look back at the 1987 NBA Draft to bring up some other less-than-fond memories. With the fifth pick in the 1987 Draft, the Seattle SuperSonics selected Arkansas forward Scottie Pippen. Three picks later, the Bulls chose Virginia center Olden Polynice.
Bulls management, desperately seeking a capable wingman able to play next to and compliment emerging star Michael Jordan, decided to go after the versatile Pippen — a player with defensive prowess and a consistent ability to score.
Seattle would take the bait. In a trade that, at the time, seemed fairly even, the Sonics sent Pippen and 1989 first-round pick to Chicago in exchange for the Bulls’ draft choice Polynice, a 1988 second-round pick, and a 1989 first-round pick. OK, so the draft choices swap, the 1989 first-round picks cancel out, and the Sonics are one pick richer with their future second-round pick. As of now, everything is all good. That, however, would change quickly once the players hit the floor.
Pippen would become one of the league’s most explosive and versatile forwards while teaming up with Jordan. This dynamic duo would win six championships together in two separate three-peats. Pippen would have a Hall of Fame career loaded with individual and team accolades, not to mention his success on the world stage representing team USA.
Polynice’s career wasn’t even close to that of Pippen’s. He has no individual or team accolades to speak of and finished his 15-year career with meager averages of 7.8 points and 6.7 rebounds. To put this in perspective, Pippen, a number two option for the majority of his career next to Jordan, would average 16 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists to go along with the aforementioned trophies and awards.
Looking at the future draft picks that were a part of this trade, the 1989 first-rounder that Seattle acquired was sent back to Chicago one night before the draft. Chicago would ultimately select B.J. Armstrong, a point guard who won three championships with the Bulls and was an NBA All-Star. Clearly, the Bulls weren’t interested in showing the Sonics any remorse and thoroughly outwitted them in two separate drafts, with the 1987 Draft being the catalyst for one of the NBA’s best dynasties. Without Pippen, it is impossible to tell just how successful M.J. would have been. It’s like Batman without Robin. Cookies without milk. Incomplete and inadequate.
3. Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac
Oh, kids, they can be so precocious coming out of college. We’ve seen it in the NFL, with the likes of John Elway and Eli Manning altering the fortune of several franchises with their refusal to play for teams poised to draft them. And it happened in the NBA in 1996, when Kobe Bryant put the Charlotte Hornets on notice that he would never wear the teal, and that led the Los Angeles Lakers swooping in for the steal.
Bryant and his camp weren’t quite as demonstrative leading up to the 1996 Draft as his NFL counterparts, but it was clear the high school phenom from Philadelphia wanted to wear the purple and gold instead, and the Lakers were just as committed to making that happen.
Through means overt and covert, the legend goes, the Lakers and Bryant’s camp, led by super-agent Arn Tellum, conspired to depress Bryant’s draft stock out of lottery range, affording the Lakers a chance to trade for Bryant’s rights while saving enough cash to make a free-agent run at Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal.
Well, Tellum’s strategy worked and Bryant slipped all the way down to 13th, where the Hornets chose the 17-year-old Philly phenom. As any faithful fan of the purple and gold knows, this lopsided trade soon ended L.A.’s championship drought and gave rise to Kobe’s legend. Bryant would win five titles and retire as one of the league’s greatest scorers and competitors. Divac’s career, on the other hand, never fully materialized in Charlotte, and following two fruitless years he signed with the Sacramento Kings.
With the Kings, Divac accidentally propelled his former team into the Finals during the memorable 2002 Western Conference Finals. With the clock expiring in the pivotal Game 4, a desperate Lakers team down two points missed consecutive point-blank shots, yet the loose ball couldn’t be secured by either team. In a desperation attempt to clear the ball from the hoop and drain the clock, Divac smacked the ball away from the paint with 1.5 seconds left on the clock.
That fateful smack would prove to be fatal for Divac and the Kings. Rather than harmlessly rolling to an empty void on the court, the ball found its way to the waiting hands of notoriously clutch shooter Robert Horry.
Staring down a potential 3-1 series deficit, Horry calmly drained the three-pointer as time expired. The Lakers would end up winning the series in seven games on their way to a third straight title.
For Divac, his career would come full circle. He played his final season on the team where it all began with the player L.A. traded for: The Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
2. Kevin McHale/Robert Parish for Joe Barry Carroll
The Celtics were in desperate need of some Red Auerbach magic by the late 1970s. Bill Russell wasn’t walking through that door, folks. John Havlicek wasn’t walking through that door. Instead it was Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks and no new banners anywhere in sight at the Boston Garden. But there was hope on the horizon.
Auerbach had deftly forgone the 1978-79 season by drafting a “junior-eligible” Larry Bird in 1978, then waited for his arrival after nearly leading Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA crown. But the move that really turned the Celtics into a 1980s dynasty came on Draft Day ’80.
By virtue of a trade with Detroit before the ‘79-‘80 season – then the Pistons finishing with the worst record – the Celtics had the first pick in the 1979 draft. The Detroit pick came Boston’s way due to the nature of NBA free-agent compensation in 1979. The Celtics had signed Detroit’s M.L. Carr (and his towels) as a free agent in 1979 and under the rules, the two teams needed to hammer out a deal to complete a compensation package back to Detroit.
That resulted in Bob McAdoo going to Detroit and the Pistons’ first-round pick joining Carr (and his towels) in Boston. That pick then became No. 1 overall.
The Celtics also had the 13th pick in the 1980 Draft.
Auerbach and the Celtics’ brain trust had already determined that the player they most coveted – Minnesota’s 6-foot-10 forward Kevin McHale — would definitely still be on the board at No. 3, where Golden State was picking, as Joe Barry Carroll and Darrell Griffith were considered the consensus top-two picks.
So the Celtics gambled – much as they would do 37 years later – and traded the No. 1 and No. 13 picks to the Warriors for the No. 3 pick and an unheralded and somewhat under-achieving center named Robert Parish.
On cue, the Warriors used the No. 1 pick on Carroll, while the Celtics happily snapped up McHale with the third pick.
The rest, they say, was three NBA titles (1981, ’84, ’86) and numerous All-Star appearances for Parish and McHale as part of the first “Big Three” in Boston. McHale became arguably the greatest power forward to play the game, his gangly frame and book of inside moves making him almost impossible to stop down low. Parish, “The Chief,” would play well into his 40s and was one of the most consistent big men of his era.
The Warriors, clearly playing a very long game, became nothing more than a fringe playoff team during – or worse – for decades, until finally becoming a dynasty as Carroll became eligible for AARP.
1. Bill Russell for “Easy” Ed McCauley
Rumors and theories swirl around this draft-day blunder, but what is clear is that the Celtics received an NBA legend in Bill Russell. To arrive at the Celtics’ landing of Russell, we must first look at how Russell slipped to the No. 2 spot in the first place. The Rochester Royals, owners of the first pick, were already nicely equipped with an All-Star center in Maurice Stokes.
In addition, Bill Russell was demanding a hefty signing bonus in order to play in the NBA — he overtly threatened to play for the Harlem Globetrotters if his financial demands were not met.
These two factors made drafting the best overall player less enticing. The Celtics, wanting to ensure Russell wasn’t taken first, offered to send the ever-popular Ice Caps — an on-ice performance akin to Disney On Ice — up to Rochester for a week of performances that would immediately provide the cash-strapped franchise with much needed funds.
Now the Celtics had to figure out how to swing a trade with the team who was bound to select him at No. 2: The St. Louis Hawks. Again, the financial implications of signing Russell was a slight detractor for St. Louis. Couple this with Russell’s lack of interest in playing in St. Louis and the odds of the draft pick working out are slim. Yet, St. Louis decided to select Russell anyways and use him as trade bait against the team who desperately wanted the center’s services: The Boston Celtics.
Red Auerbach, not one known for shying away from negations, flipped All-Star Ed McCauley and Cliff Hagan to the Hawks in exchange for Russell. Although McCauley was the C’s best player, his career would never amount to anything close to Russell’s. Hagan, at the time of the trade, wasn’t even in the NBA due to his military obligations.
He would also go on to have a Hall of Fame worthy career that, like most players, still wasn’t even close to Russell.
While not nearly the most lopsided trade on this list, Bill Russell being traded to the Celtics was the perfect storm of luck, skill, and circumstance all orchestrated by the great Red Auerbach.
This conniving trade gave rise to the Celtics dynasty and their meteoric rise to the NBA’s most decorated franchise. The other two teams involved in the trade no longer exist. Winner: Celtics.