A shrewd trade can revolutionize and reinvigorate an entire organization. For example, the New Jersey Nets were a perennial laughingstock for nearly a quarter of a century. However, the Nets’ longstanding ineptitude came to an immediate halt when Stephon Marbury was sent to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Jason Kidd in June 2001. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Kidd, a 10-time All-Star and five-time member of the All-NBA first team, willed two decent Nets squads to consecutive appearances in the association’s finals in 2002 and 2003.
Milt Newton, who helped launch the NBA Development League, served as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ general manager from September 2013 through May 2016. While working in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Newton acquired small forward Andrew Wiggins in 2014 and drafted Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick in 2015. Newton left with Minnesota on the upswing and, provided Wiggins and Towns continue to develop, the Timberwolves will be a force on the hardwood well into the 2020s. Newton described what his role was like during an interview with Vice Sports.
"We're on the phone every day, seeing what's out there, what you're willing to do," says Newton. "If I notice that your team went down with an injury last night, I'm calling you maybe the next day to find out if there's any way we can help you in regards to getting a piece that you may need."
In stark contrast to the professionalism and basic competence of Newton, Phil Jackson was clueless and apathetic as the New York Knicks’ team president. Jackson, who posted a record of 80-166 while overseeing the Knicks, was finally axed on June 28. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News summarized the Zen Master’s appalling ineptitude in a recent article. Apparently, despite signing a five-year contract worth $60 million in March 2014, Jackson was unreachable during February’s trade deadline.
“One NBA general manager told me last week in New Orleans that his team ‘can’t get a hold of Phil.’ It’s crazy,” wrote Isola.
While a wise transaction can drastically improve a franchise’s overall landscape, sometimes the best moves are the ones a team doesn't make. With that noted, let’s analyze 15 blockbuster NBA trades that almost happened.
15 LARRY BIRD TO THE INDIANA PACERS FOR CHUCK PERSON AND A DRAFT PICK
"There's only one place I'd rather be,” said a 24-year-old Larry Bird at the Boston Celtics’ 1981 championship parade. “French Lick." The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Bird, a three-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star, was born and raised in Indiana. Rather than attending college elsewhere, Bird remained in the state and became a two-time consensus first-team All-American at Indiana State University. Following an unforgettable stretch in Terre Haute, the Celtics drafted Bird sixth overall in 1978. Bird dominated from the outset in Beantown, earned the 1980 NBA Rookie of the Year award, and matured into one of the association’s most indelible figures. By the late 1980s, Bird and his fellow Celtics superstars were slowing and graying. In an effort to become younger, Boston’s hierarchy listened to pitches for Bird. The Indiana Pacers proposed Chuck Person and the second selection in the 1988 draft (Rik Smits) for Bird. Indiana’s attractive proposal was ultimately nixed and Boston kept Bird.
14 CLYDE DREXLER FOR KENDALL GILL
The Portland Trail Blazers drafted University of Houston shooting guard Clyde Drexler with the 14th pick in 1983. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Drexler made eight All-Star teams as a Blazer and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Alas, after blooming in the Rose City for nearly 13 years, Drexler was determined to rid the Blazers’ new coach, P.J. Carlesimo, from his life. Conveniently, approximately 175 miles northeast, Seattle SuperSonics head coach George Karl was seeking to unload shooting guard Kendall Gill. The Drexler for Gill deal was "very close to being finalized," according to a source.
Drexler, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and an outstanding supporting cast would have likely won the 1995 championship. However, instead of relocating to Seattle, the 32-year-old Drexler went to Houston and helped the Rockets become champions that June.
13 CHRIS PAUL TO THE LAKERS
The Lakers, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets agreed in principle to a deal that would have sent standout point guard Chris Paul to Los Angeles in December 2011. The trade would have paired a 26-year-old Paul with a 32-year-old Kobe Bryant and given the Lakers the league’s premier backcourt. Many of the association’s owners were reportedly furious and urged former commissioner David Stern to veto the lopsided pact in honor of competitive balance.
"It's not true that the owners killed the deal," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. "The deal was never discussed at the Board of Governors meeting and the league office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons."
Stern nullified the agreement and Paul moved to Tinseltown a few days later to become a Clipper.
12 JASON KIDD FOR ANDREW BYNUM
Kobe Bryant wanted to abandon the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2007. Already disgusted by the Lakers’ perceived aimlessness, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Bryant flipped when the team rejected the New Jersey Nets’ offer of Jason Kidd for a 19-year-old Andrew Bynum.
"Ship (Bynum’s) ass out. We're talking Jason Kidd," said a 28-year-old Bryant. "They didn't want to do that. That's why we're in this [messed up] position."
Surprisingly, the Lakers’ decision to keep Bynum paid dividends. The 7-foot, 280-pound Bynum prospered the following season and helped Los Angeles reach the 2008 NBA Finals. Although the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in six games that June, Los Angeles rebounded and captured consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010. Bynum was a solid force in the paint throughout both championship campaigns. In all likelihood, Bryant would not have collected another crown without Bynum in the middle.
11 KEVIN GARNETT AlMOST GOES TO THE SUNS INSTEAD OF THE CELTICS
Retired Timberwolves power forward Kevin Garnett is famously loyal and he flatly refused to leave his beloved "Sota." However, to aid Minnesota’s ailing organization, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Garnett agreed to partner with Suns point guard Steve Nash in Phoenix. Following extensive negotiations in late July 2007, the Suns chose to retain Amar'e Stoudemire over Garnett. Roughly 48 hours later, a 31-year-old Garnett was dealt to the Boston Celtics for five players and cash.
"I didn't speak publicly, really didn't say too much to my friends or any of that," said Garnett, a 15-time All-Star. "But I really tried to be comfortable with seeing myself in a Celtics jersey."
Garnett quickly acclimated to Beantown and, alongside Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he led the Celtics to its 17th championship in June 2008.
10 SCOTTIE PIPPEN FOR SHAWN KEMP
With Michael Jordan on the diamond, the Chicago Bulls were ousted by the New York Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. About a month later, the Bulls tried to ship Scottie Pippen to the Seattle SuperSonics for Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce and an exchange of draft picks. According to multiple reports, the SuperSonics’ brain trust balked on the 11th-hour.
"The deal died sometime today," said Seattle coach George Karl. "Anytime you make deals, it's always to the point of deadlines and the negotiations are forced into decision making."
Before the deal fizzled, Karl called Jordan for his advice.
“Do it,” Jordan advised Karl. “Scottie can make your other players better. Kemp can’t.”
Fortunately for Jordan, Pippen continued running with the Bulls and the dynamic tandem proceeded to win three more championships together from 1996 through 1998.
9 DENNIS RODMAN FOR RICHARD DUMAS
The Detroit Pistons tried to send Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman to the Phoenix Suns for Richard Dumas in September 1993. The Pistons withdrew the offer when word leaked that the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Dumas was in the midst of attending an after-care program for substance abuse. Roughly three months before the proposed swap collapsed, Phoenix narrowly lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. If not for Dumas’ struggles, Rodman would have worked with Charles Barkley and an array of talented players in Phoenix. It is quite possible that Rodman’s acquisition would have helped the Suns rise to a title. The Pistons traded Rodman and Isaiah Morris to the San Antonio Spurs for Sean Elliott and David Wood a couple of weeks later.
"We hate to see (Rodman) go," said Billy McKinney, the Pistons' director of player personnel. "But it was best for all of us to get a new start."
8 HAKEEM OLAJUWON TO THE MIAMI HEAT
Disgruntled Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon demanded to be traded in the summer of 1992. Subsequently, more than a dozen organizations aggressively pursued the 7-foot, 255-pound Olajuwon.
“It’s possible something could happen before the draft,” said Rockets general manager Steve Patterson. “But at this point, we don’t have a deal we’re willing to make. We’ve had 13 or 14 teams call us with offers, and some are more legitimate than others.”
The Miami Heat emerged as the favorites to obtain the 12-time All-Star. The Heat offered Rony Seikaly, Willie Burton and Brian Shaw for Olajuwon. Nevertheless, the Rockets declined all offers and wouldn’t budge unless Steve Smith or Glen Rice was included instead of Burton or Shaw. Fortunately for Patterson and the Rockets, an exchange never materialized and Olajuwon stayed in Space City. Olajuwon piloted the Rockets to consecutive championships in the 1994 and 1995 seasons.
7 SCOTTIE PIPPEN TO THE BOSTON CELTICS
The Chicago Bulls trumped the Utah Jazz in six games to capture the 1997 NBA title. Because Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was inexplicably intent on dismantling a dynasty, Scottie Pippen appeared bound for Boston in the weeks following the Jazz series. The Celtics were set to give the Bulls the No. 3 and No. 6 picks in that summer’s draft, as well as a first-round pick in 1999, for a 31-year-old Pippen. Finally, Krause realized he was on the cusp of gutting an iconic squad.
"They just decided it wasn't worth giving up the chance to win again," said a Bulls insider close to the negotiations. "They couldn't say that these players would be key contributors some day."
With Pippen playing a critical role, the Bulls again conquered the Utah Jazz in six games in 1998 to win a third straight crown.
6 AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE FOR STEPHEN CURRY
Prior to becoming the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, Steve Kerr served as the Phoenix Suns’ president of basketball operations and general manager. The Warriors chose Davidson College point guard Stephen Curry with the seventh pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, the Suns owned that year’s 14th pick. Phoenix and Golden State had negotiated a deal that would have sent Amar’e Stoudemire to the Warriors for its seventh pick and a few additional players. Without warning, supposedly due to concerns over Stoudemire’s health, Golden State bailed on the pact and kept Curry.
“It was close,” said Kerr.
“There was not a deal done. But it was tricky because of Amare’s physical situation. Because he had bad knees, any deal that we were going to make would’ve been subject to a physical.”
Kerr was hired to lead the Warriors in May 2014. Since then, Kerr and Curry have won two championships together in Golden State.
5 ISIAH THOMAS TO THE NEW YORK KNICKS
Revered New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks made 2 of 18 field-goal attempts against the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Predictably, the Knicks couldn’t recover from Starks’ inaccuracy and Houston clinched the title.
"People always talk about mishaps in the NBA finals," said Starks, 51.
"To this day, people bring it up. You can't get away from it, but it doesn't stop you from living."
According to Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas, he nearly had a chance to prevent Starks’ unraveling. The Knicks were apparently on the brink of obtaining the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Thomas from Detroit for Tony Campbell and a future No. 1 pick in the autumn of 1993. However, Thomas was more interested in becoming a part owner of the Pistons and talks between the clubs ceased.
"I will say we'd have won it in 1994," said Thomas, 56. "In that seventh game, when (John) Starks was shooting the ball like that, I would have said, 'you're not shooting anymore; get the ball to (Patrick) Ewing.' And if he couldn't throw it down there, I would have.”
4 KOBE BRYANT TO CHICAGO FOR JOAKIM NOAH AND LUOL DENG
Kobe Bryant essentially forced Shaquille O'Neal out of Los Angeles in July 2004. Approximately three years later, a 28-year-old Bryant tried to punch his own ticket out of La-la-land. Bryant’s jockeying nearly worked and the Chicago Bulls were prepared to send Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and another player to secure his services. Yet, as an insatiable egomaniac, Bryant objected to the agreement because he wanted to compete alongside a 22-year-old Deng in Chicago. Lakers legend Magic Johnson expressed his frustration with Bryant and the organization as a whole.
“They are going to have to make a decision about Kobe in the next week or two," said Johnson.
"It's got to come to a head. You've either got to trade him or come out and say you're going to keep him. Even Kobe needs it.”
Shortly thereafter, trade discussions disintegrated and Bryant retired as a Laker in April 2016.
3 LEBRON JAMES FOR KOBE BRYANT
Cleveland Cavalier megastar LeBron James was nearly dealt for Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2007. A 22-year-old James had just single-handedly brought the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals. In contrast to James’ brilliance on the hardwood, a 28-year-old Bryant was a miserable Laker creating issues in Los Angeles.
"At that time, the Lakers had to do something,” said Bryant, an 18-time All-Star.
“I was just losing faith in what they were trying to do. It was like I was a meal ticket.”
With a pact almost finalized, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert spurned the Lakers and James remained in Cleveland.
"If you give up one big fish, you got to get a big fish, too,” said James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
2 MICHAEL JORDAN FOR RALPH SAMPSON
Houston Rockets center Ralph Sampson earned the 1984 NBA Rookie of the Year award. The following spring, Chicago Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan won NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Shockingly, despite such production from the two elite performers, the Rockets and Bulls nearly dealt the 7-foot-4, 228-pound Sampson for the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Jordan in the summer of 1986.
“There was a time when we felt there was a chance to make a trade with Chicago with Sampson for Jordan," said Rockets head coach Bill Fitch.
"Ralph was a big commodity and Jordan really hadn't come into his own. But nothing was ever done."
Sampson, a four-time All-Star who constantly battled knee injuries, retired as a Washington Bullet in 1991. Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon would have been unbeatable together as Rockets in Space City.
1 MICHAEL JORDAN FOR TERRY CUMMINGS
When a basketball list is being organized, Michael Jordan generally sits atop it. The Chicago Bulls took a 21-year-old Jordan out of North Carolina with the third pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Still, Bulls’ management wasn’t completely convinced that His Airness would soar in the Windy City. Following countless conversations, Chicago declined to swap Jordan for Seattle SuperSonics center Jack Sikma. Nonetheless, the Bulls weren’t finished courting offers for MJ.
Hereafter, the Los Angeles Clippers presented a 23-year-old Terry Cummings in exchange for Jordan. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Cummings, a Chicago native who the San Diego Clippers selected second overall out of DePaul University in 1982, averaged 23.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists in his first two years as an NBA player. Although an enticing proposal, Chicago sagely dismissed the Clippers’ offer. Cummings made two All-Star squads and competed in the association for 18 seasons.
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