For several years, Philadelphia 76ers fans groused over Sam Hinkie and his “Process.” This involved tanking seasons systematically on purpose to get the team high draft picks. This naturally meant multiple losing seasons with Hinkie eventually getting fired. However, it looks like this may have worked out after all as thanks to those picks, and getting Jimmy Butler, the 76ers are turning into a good team. That shows that some moves that seem bad can in fact lead to great benefits in the NBA.
Sadly, things like this can tend to turn out to be the exception, not the rule. Far more common is when a team makes a massive mistake that hurts them bad for years to come. Obviously, a bad trade or a poor draft pick can be a key factor as missing on a big star has crippled many a would-be dynasty.
There can also be the decision to appoint a very bad general manager as quite often, those mistakes can hamper a team majorly. Some GMs are legendary for tenures that are utter disasters packed with mistakes that helped transform their teams into utter messes. Whether it’s just one player or a huge deal, NBA history is littered with mistakes that some teams just haven’t gotten over. But a few stand out as major mistakes that hampered their teams for years. Here are 20 huge mistakes that some NBA teams still haven’t recovered from to show how one bad misjudgment can bring years of pain.
20 Everything To Do With Vlade Divac
Since 2006, the Kings have been the joke of the NBA, not recording a single winning season. The reason for that can be summed up in two words: Vlade Divac. His litany of mistakes is legendary. Eight head coaches, an impossibly long list of draft busts, giving away Isaiah Thomas (after he championed the Kings staying in Sacramento), thinking Nick Stauskas was a star and trading away two draft picks to get rid of him, giving away DeMarcus Cousins for just about nothing and the now-infamous moment where pieces of their arena ceiling fell on the court during a televised game. Those are just the highlights as Divac’s moves have been baffling to watch. If there’s a major reason the Kings are less than royal, Divac is it.
19 The Gilbert Arenas Mess
You know something is bad when it actually gets a rule named after a guy. Through the 2000s, Gilbert Arenas as briefly a star for the Wizards, putting up nice numbers and keeping them in contention. A three-time All-Star, Arenas looked like he’d be a good player for the team to build around. But after some ugly off-court issues, Arenas was traded to the Magic for Rashad Lewis.
The lockout would affect the entire 2011-12 season and the Magic chose to waive Arenas as the first guy under the amnesty clause. So the Magic traded away Lewis for nothing. Arenas is best known for the namesake of the rule allowing teams to keep free agents but also has to be cited for hurting two teams with a bad deal.
18 The Lakers' Super-Team Flops
Fans are well acquainted with the “SI Cover Jinx.” Every now and then, Sports Illustrated puts up a cover on a big star only to see said star to go through an injury or slump. In their 2012 NBA preview, the magazine had newly acquired Lakers stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard together with the lien “this is going to be fun.” It turned out to be anything but.
On paper, putting these two with Kobe Bryant should have produced a terrific Big 3 that would restore L.A. to glory. Instead, the trio failed to click at all, and the lack of chemistry hurt the team. Nash and Howard were spotted arguing right on court and instead of dominating the West, the Lakers sunk badly (giving up four draft picks to land Nash didn’t help). Thus the “Cover Jinx” showcased a move that’s kept L.A. from regaining its Showtime glory.
17 Timberwolves Draft Jonny Flynn Over Steph Curry
Few things are as discouraging as a team landing a high draft number only to waste their pick. The Timberwolves had a wild record of somehow managing to misuse such opportunities numerous times. Yet few are as damaging as Jonny Flynn. The Timberwolves had the fifth and sixth picks in the first round of the 2009 draft. This gave them the opportunity to get two major potential stars before anyone else. They chose Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio. Flynn lasted two years in Minnesota with terrible numbers and Rubio didn’t do much better.
As for the biggest pick the Timberwolves could have had but passed on? Oh, just a guy named Steph Curry. Yep, the Timberwolves had two chances to get one of the NBA’s biggest stars and used those on two other point guards.
16 Celtics Steal Isaiah Thomas From The Suns
Every now and then, an NBA team pulls off a deal that amounts to highway robbery. Few times in recent history have pulled one off as well as the Celtics over the Suns. Isaiah Thomas had been showing his skills for some time, first with the Kings and then the Suns. Needing to bounce back after some bad seasons, the Suns found better success with Thomas, putting up terrific numbers and it looked like he was the guy Phoenix could use to rebuild around.
Instead, they traded him to Boston for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 draft pick. Thomas helped turn the Celtics into a serious playoff contender. He’s bounced around since then, but there’s no denying that giving Thomas away was a major blow that helped land Phoenix in the low rung of the NBA standings.
15 Bulls Fire Tom Thibodeau
A more long-term bad move by the Bulls is later in this list. But a more recent move that hurt the team involved letting go one of the best coaches they’ve had since the ‘90s dynasty. Hired in 2010, Tom Thibodeau made his impact immediately with Chicago. After a few rough years, the Bulls roared back to life with the best record in 2010-11 at 62-20 and Derrick Rose was named MVP. They stayed strong for a few more seasons. The only thing preventing them from reaching the finals was running into LeBron James.
That's why fans couldn’t believe it when Bulls management fired Thibodeau right after the 2014-15 season. Since then, the Bulls have slumped, currently one of the worst teams in the NBA and proving how much difference a good coach really makes.
14 The Carmelo Fiasco In Denver
The Nuggets made a very bad move that we’ll get to later in the list. However, there can be no denying that trading away Carmelo Anthony is one of the single biggest mistakes the organization has ever made. Anthony was an instant sensation who helped the Nuggets to playoff appearances every season, including their first conference finals. He was a huge star in Denver. Anthony was a man a team could build around like Jordan or LeBron.
Instead, in 2011, Anthony and Chauncey Phillips were part of a huge multi-player deal that sent both to New York. Anthony has since become a major force, the 2013 scoring champion and multiple All-Star leading the Knicks to the playoffs. The Nuggets slumped for several seasons and are only starting to recover from this move now.
13 Suns Let Stoudemire Walk
Hard as it is to believe, the Phoenix Suns were a serious force in the 2000s. With Steve Nash leading the way, the Suns were in the Conference Finals several times and pushing themselves as huge contenders. A key factor was Amar'e Stoudemire, the 2003 Rookie of the Year and a terrific player as a 5-time All-Star. Despite some injuries, Stoudemire made it clear how much he loved Phoenix and wanted to stay. But Phoenix didn’t want to pony up the cash so Stoudemire went to New York.
His tenure with the Knicks wasn’t too spectacular but the effects of losing him were immediate as the Suns haven’t been to the playoffs and just one winning season since. To just let a major star go without even getting anything for him caused the Suns to dip low in the standings.
12 Nuggets Firing George Karl
It made little sense at the time and in retrospect, still is completely baffling. Taking over the Nuggets as head coach in January of 2005, George Karl was seen as a miracle worker . At the time of his hiring, Denver was 17-25 but finished the season 49-33 and earned a playoff slot. Over the next eight seasons, Karl kept Denver strong, the Nuggets making the playoffs every year and Karl himself named Coach of the Year in 2013. Which was why Denver fans were in disbelief when, rather than getting a new contract, Karl was fired despite making the Nuggets relevant. Following the firing, Denver slumped badly, with four straight losing seasons and no playoff runs. Firing the guy who made your team an actual contender is baffling even by Nuggets’ standards.
11 Charlotte Trading Tyson Chandler
Whether the Bobcats or the Hornets, Charlotte has struggled to break out in the NBA. They had a chance with Tyson Chandler, who they’d gotten off a trade with the Bulls in 2009. Despite having to spend time on the bench due to foot issues, Chandler had serious promise and clearly could have done better. But management didn’t agree and made Chandler part of a big multi-player swap with the Mavericks. Chandler was just what Dallas needed, a key part of the Mavericks team that won the 2011 Championship. He’s bounced around a bit but still known for good defensive play, an Olympic gold medal and someone Charlotte could have built a team around rather than let go for nothing.
10 Raptors Losing Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh was an instant star when Toronto drafted him in 2003, the Rookie of the Year and a good player. He led the Raptors to the playoffs in 2006 but the team experienced some slumps afterward. Despite that, Bosh clearly was the biggest star of the team and fans loved to come out for him. Yet Toronto felt it was better to do an overhaul for younger talent and didn’t renew Bosh’s contract. Bosh thus went to Miami where he would join LeBron and Wade to win two NBA titles. While the Raptors have had a couple of playoff runs in the last couple of seasons, it’s quite obvious that losing Bosh was a move that set Toronto back majorly.
9 Pistons Make Joe Dumars GM
As a player, Joe Dumars is a Pistons legend. He was part of the “Bad Boys” team that won two NBA titles and the MVP of the ’89 finals. So Detroit fans were willing to back him when the Pistons hired him as general manager. Sadly, Dumars’ tenure in that spot is cited as a horrific period for the Pistons. At first, it seemed good with Detroit winning the 2004 title and some good playoff runs. But then Dumars began making some bad moves.
He traded Brandon Knight and Chauncey Billups, drafted Mateen Cleaves, Rodney White and, of course, Darko Milicic and signed Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon for a combined 10 years and $96 million. The results spoke for themselves as the Pistons didn't have a winning season in a decade. Even though Dumars has been gone for a few years, his reign turned the Pistons into a broken-down heap.
8 Trail Blazers Drafting Greg Oden Over Kevin Durant
In many ways, the Trail Blazers have never truly gotten over drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. However, some of their recent moves haven’t been that good either. In 2007, Oden was the number one pick in the draft with the Trail Blazers feeling they had their superstar thanks to Oden’s breakout college career. That he had to immediately endure surgery should've been a major warning sign. In his first game, he lasted 13 scoreless minutes before having to walk off due to a foot injury.
Over the next four years, Oden was marked by poor play and constant injuries so he spent more time on the bench than on the court. The Blazers were stuck with him thanks to a hefty contract that ate their salary cap. He was finally waived in 2012 as Portland fans can only marvel at how not once but twice, the Trail Blazers blew a high draft pick.
7 Clippers Trade Pick That Becomes Kyrie Irving
In the annals of incredibly short-sighted moves, few in recent times can top this. The Clippers were looking to rebuild in 2011 and thought getting rid of Baron Davis’s contract was a good move. They shipped him off to Cleveland in a deal that also involved an unprotected first round pick. That pick would be used by the Cavs to get their hands on Kyrie Irving.
As everyone knows, Irving would be key to the Cavs’ revival as he and LeBron James clicked nicely on the court. It led the Cavs to four straight NBA Finals, winning the championship in 2016. Irving is now pushing up the Celtics and while the Clippers have had a few playoff appearances, there can be no denying how much better they’d be if they had just kept the chance to get Irving.
6 Knicks Hiring Phil Jackson
Make no mistake, Phil Jackson is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. His 11 rings with the Bulls and Lakers prove that. Sadly, trying to use his usual “zen philosophy” strategy as GM of the Knicks didn't work. He made trades for Raymond Felton and draft picks that made utterly no sense whatsoever. He fired Mike Woodson and his entire staff and the results speak for themselves. The 2015-16 campaign was the worst season in Knicks history, marked with a 16-game losing streak. The final straw was when Jackson tried to buy out Carmelo Anthony’s contract which pushed his exit to the Thunder. While he’s now gone, the Knicks are still hurting as Jackson showcased one of the worst attempts by a coach to move into being an executive.
5 Heat Losing LeBron
The Miami Heat have had a lot of ups and downs over the years. They went from a truly lackluster first season to a great team in the 2000s that won titles only to slump right back down again. Landing LeBron James was a huge move as he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh united into a major unit. They faltered their first year but came together for back-to-back championships. After they fell short of a threepeat, the Heat were still eager to sign LeBron but balked at his price. Thus, LeBron went back to the Cavs to finally get Cleveland a title. While the Heat have made the playoffs a couple of times, they’ve definitely regressed without King James and losing him caused the Heat to lose a lot of their own fire.
4 Pistons Trading the Farm for Brandon Jennings
It makes sense that Joe Dumars’ last major move as Pistons GM was arguably the worst. Convinced Brandon Jennings was a future superstar, Dumars traded Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov to land Jennings for a three-year $25 million contract. He was good at first but then missed most of 2014-15 due to an injury and was never quite the same. He could have good games but far too many bad ones and his contract hurting the team’s salary cap. After just three seasons, Jennings was traded to Orlando and thus cost Detroit a lot of cash amid some poor play. A fitting capper to Dumars’ tenure.
3 Chicago Bulls Dismantle The Dynasty Overnight
Throughout the '90s, the Bulls dominated the NBA much like the Warriors do today. With Michael Jordan at the helm, Chicago won three straight NBA titles from 1991 to 1993 and made it look easy. Even when Jordan had his short-lived retirement, the Bulls remained strong. His return combined with the signing of Dennis Rodman brought another three-peat for Chicago.
As the lockout delayed the 1998-99 season, issues grew between the players and management over payouts and other issues. The result was one of the greatest collapses of a dynasty ever. Virtually overnight, Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Rodman, coach Phil Jackson and more were gone. The Bulls slumped badly and have yet to recover. They’ve had a few positive years, but the fact is, the Bulls have never been the same since tearing down their dynasty.
2 The Nets Mortgage Their Future
The Nets have made a lot of bad moves over the years but nothing can top this. It still boggles the mind just how short-sighted a team can be deciding to hand off some promising stars in exchange for a bunch of guys who clearly were feeling their age.
Brooklyn received Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White while Boston got Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans, three first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), plus the right to swap first-rounders in 2017. It looked like it worked as the Nets got into the playoffs in 2014. But then came the collapse as they haven’t had a winning season since.
Almost all the players involved are gone while the Celtics used the draft picks from the trade to build into a serious contender, making the playoffs every year since the deal. It’s one of the greatest cases ever of selling the farm for a long-term mess.
1 Magic Losing Shaq
When they started, the Orlando Magic hardly lived up to their name. As an expansion team, they had a rough go of it and it took a while for things to click. They finally did when they landed Shaquille O’Neal. With his impressive size and elite skills, Shaq was a big star. He was also the marquee name Orlando long needed. He got the Magic to the Conference Finals in back to back years, and the NBA Finals in 1995, although they couldn’t finish the job.
Shaq clearly was the reason Orlando was a contender and you’d think Orlando would do everything imaginable to keep him. Instead, they refused to sign Shaq up to a bigger deal. O’Neal headed to Los Angeles where he’d win three straight titles with the Lakers and later another with the Heat. Losing Shaq robbed Orlando of a magic touch they’ve never been able to regain since.