NBA teams spend millions of dollars on scouting, personnel management, and basketball operations. You would think that because these are businesses worth in the hundreds of millions (or even in billions), they would have only the best and brightest working to make sure the roster is the best that it can be. More than that, a good GM or operations staff must also plan for the future. True, there are several different motivations (from owner pressure to tank or make the playoffs, to the GM’s shaky job security, to even league pressure to stop tanking) that may affect a trade.
We live in the internet age, and every trade is taken out of context and dissected to determine a winner. And so, there is an immense PR pressure to “win” every transaction. Given that this is at least in the back of the mind of every NBA front office, it is shocking how many bad trades get consummated... even with all the scouting and information readily available. While we’re not about to examine a full butterfly effect for each trade, here are 15 players involved in some of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
18 Marcin Gortat
The Polish Hammer, Marcin Gortat, has been a valuable starting center and borderline All-Star for much of his nine years in the league. Currently manning the middle for Washington, his journey there had a number of twists and turns. He began life as a 2nd round pick belonging to the Dallas Mavericks. That pick changed hands from Dallas to the then-New Orleans Hornets to the Phoenix Suns, where he was drafted, and where our story takes place.
This is probably the easiest trade to criticize because Gortat is really good, and it is very clear what fruit the trade bore for the Suns. The answer is nothing. Gortat was drafted by the Suns and traded to the Orlando Magic for “future considerations”, which means cash (a small amount), and nothing else. As we will learn later, this was a tactic used quite often by the Phoenix Suns... and it landed them on this list a few times.
17 Luol Deng
Luol Deng is likely heading towards the finish line of his career, but in his 10 seasons he has made the All-Star team twice and the All-Defensive team. He was a staple of the Vinny Del Negro/ Thibs Bulls that were always one healthy Derrick Rose away from true championship contention.
But Deng might never have made his mark in Chicago… if it weren’t for Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. Sarver was notorious in the mid-2000s for submarining the Steve Nash-led Suns with a number of financially motivated trades to sell off draft picks (or in some cases acquire low money draft picks in exchange for proven talent like Kurt Thomas). Deng was one of those Suns draft casualties, as the 7th pick of the 2004 draft. The pick got traded to the Bulls for Jackson Vroman (who never had a single meaningful moment in his 2 seasons in the league) and a 2005 1st rounder. That 1st wound up being Nate Robinson, who was no slouch, but never played for Phoenix... instead getting shipped along with Quentin Richardson to New York for Kurt Thomas (who did help Phoenix, though not as much as Deng would’ve) and Dijon Thompson (who lasted all of 16 games in the league).
16 Rajon Rondo
While we’re talking about the Sarver penny-pinching, let’s mention Rajon Rondo. Rondo, prickly homophobe that he is, is well on his way to the Hall of Fame (he rates higher on Basketball-Reference than Earl Monroe, Reggie Miller, and Billy Cunningham). As a Celtic, he won a championship as the starting point guard, and was selected to 4 All-Star teams, 4 All-Defensive teams, and 1 All-NBA team. He, too, is in the twilight of his career but still stands to be a marked contributor to his current Bulls team.
Rondo didn’t start as a Phoenix pick; he was actually slated to be a Lakers pick before being shipped off as a future in 2004 (he was drafted in ’06). That pick bounced from L.A. to Boston to Atlanta to Phoenix, where his draft slot was part of what brought Joe Johnson to the Hawks. But on draft night, Rondo was selected by Phoenix and shipped immediately to Boston along with a decrepit Brian Grant for a 2007 1st that became Rudy Fernandez. Since Sarver seemed determine not to have any quality youth in Phoenix, Fernandez was traded away on draft night to Portland, with James Jones, for nothing but cash. Cash is nice, but cash isn’t getting a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And correct us if we’re wrong, but having a team in the Finals or a team with a 4-time All-Star generates more money than a team that’s neither.
15 Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Kris Humphries
The true ramifications of this trade have yet to shake out… but it is safe to say, that regardless of how the picks Boston received pan out (or what the picks are turned into pan out), this is an incredibly lopsided trade. Celtics honcho Danny Ainge saw the writing on the wall that the Pierce/KG Celtics window was coming to a close; and he determined to cash in on it while the players still had some cache.
Then-Nets GM Billy King was under a mandate to win at all costs by ownership. So he mortgaged the franchise’s future in order to bring legends Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, along with veteran contributor Jason Terry (and cast-off D.J. White) to Brooklyn. He traded away unprotected 1st round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018… along with the rights to swap draft positions in 2017. Player-wise, King sent Gerald Wallace’s onerous contract, Kris Humphries (who was useful but didn’t stick long in Boston), MarShon Brooks (who seemed promising, but was quickly out of the league), Keith Bogans (who seemed eternally an aged end-of-the-bench player), and Kris Joseph (who lasted 10 games in the league).
14 Jakob Poeltl, Steve Novak
The trade that brought Andrea Bargnani to New York could have been for a bag of flaming garbage, and it still would have been a lopsided trade. In fact, “Flaming Garbage” is the English translation of Bargnani’s nickname. What does Bargnani, who is now out of the league (at age 31), have to do with Steve Novak and Poeltl? Those are the only two players currently in the league from the Bargnani trade from Toronto to New York.
Bargnani goes down in history as one of the greatest draft busts. He was drafted 1st overall by Toronto in 2006 (ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Paul Millsap, to name a few). A supposedly sweet-shooting big man, Bargnani never had more than one season above 40% for 3. Knicks owner James Dolan was convinced, though, that Bargs’ time in T.O. was a fluke (all 7 years) and negotiated the trade himself with savvy GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri conned Dolan out of Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson, Novak, a 2014 2nd rounder, a 2016 1st rounder, and a 2017 2nd rounder. Only Novak played in Toronto, but the Raptors did wind up drafting Austrian big Jakob Poeltl, who’s projected for a long career as a borderline starting center, with the 2016 1st. If Poeltl winds up being as projected, that and getting out from the Bargnani contract ($12m a year for 2 more years), will be one of the biggest marks against the Dolan regime.
13 Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Seraphin
Point guard dynamo Isaiah Thomas hasn’t lasted with any team for long, but he looks to have found a home for the time being in Boston. His journey across the NBA franchises began, though, a season and a half before he was ever drafted. As a 2011 draft pick of the Bulls, he was moved to Milwaukee, who then that summer traded his slot to the Kings (where he was drafted). The Chicago trade, however, is one of the most lopsided trades involving an active player.
The Bulls wound up sending the pick that became Thomas, John Salmons (who wound up having 1 ½ more quality seasons left), the 1st round pick that became Larry Sanders (a rising star for 5 seasons before bizarrely retiring at 26), and the 2nd round pick that became Robert Sacre (feh) to the Milwaukee Bucks for Joe Alexander (who only played 4 minutes a game for 8 games after the trade), Hakim Warrick (who played 28 games in Chicago red), and a 2010 1st that became Kevin Seraphin (who never played for Chicago before being traded with Kirk Hinrich for a trade exception, and remains an enigma these 6 seasons later).
The Bucks didn’t hang onto Thomas, which may have been a mistake, but he was traded to Sacramento for Jon Brockman. And John Brockman was part of the trade (with Jon Leuer, a recovering Shaun Livingston, and the pick that became Jeremy Lamb) that brought over the pick that became John Henson.
12 Jameer Nelson
Although it might be tough to remember all the way back to the late 2000s, but there was a time that Jameer Nelson was a good and thrilling point guard, rather than just a savvy veteran on his last legs. Nelson was an All-Star and the starting point guard for the Stan Van Gundy/Dwight Howard Orlando Magic that terrorized the Eastern Conference and made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009.
Nelson, now with the Nuggets, interestingly enough started his career as a draft pick of Denver. Nelson was one of those players to slide precipitously in the draft despite a remarkable college career, and very famously was captured waiting angrily in the green room of the draft in 2004. Denver selected him 20th overall and shipped him for a 2005 1st round pick to Orlando. Denver selected Julius Hodge with that pick (also 20th overall). If you don’t remember Hodge, it’s with good reason; he played just 18 games in Denver, and just 23 total in the NBA. Nelson, meanwhile, is headed into his 12th season in the NBA, and will serve as mentor and locker room presence for the Nuggets and their promising young guards.
11 David Lee
David Lee was a revelation after having been drafted last in the 1st round. The longtime big man is a 2-time All-Star and made one 3rd team All-NBA (not bad for being picked 30th).
Defensible at the time (and sometimes argued that New York made out better), it turns out that David Lee’s trade to the Warriors is one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. Lee, coming off his first All-Star selection, became the first big acquisition from the new Warriors ownership group, spearheaded by Joe Lacob. The trade was panned, as Lee was seen as a player who put up strong totals on bad teams; that he was not an advanced metrics-friendly player. While that may have been true, his play in 2012-13 earned him an All-NBA spot. Moreover, Lee was vital to the Warriors’ most recent championship team. New York received Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azubuike, the ever-tantalizing (and never-delivering Anthony Randolph), and two 2nd round picks that became Quincy Miller (out of the league in 2 years) and Romero Osby (who never played a game).
Randolph was part of the package that brought Carmelo to New York, but was hardly the centerpiece. Turiaf was part of the ill-fated Tyson Chandler trade (Chandler had just two seasons of success with the Knicks), so the argument could be made that the ‘Bockers got something for Lee… but we’re talking ripples here, and the pieces that they received didn’t do much of anything in their time at the Garden.
10 Austin Rivers
Yes, Austin Rivers was famously and hilariously held hostage by Danny Ainge in the trade to his father, Doc, and Doc’s team (the Clippers). No, that is not the trade we’re talking about; although it may prove to be list-worthy in the future. The trade involving the overhyped guard who plays for his pops that we’re talking about took place a whopping seven years before he was drafted.
Austin was traded away as a very distant 1st round draft pick by the Timberwolves (it is really rare to trade a draft pick that’s 7 years out). He was traded with Sam Cassell to the Clippers in exchange for Lionel “Never of Consequence” Chalmers (36 games in the NBA) and Marko “Already Broken” Jaric. Cassell would go on to become the beating heart of the first truly successful Clippers team (along with Brand, Maggette, and company) and paved the way for others to see themselves in a Clippers jersey, like Baron Davis (who himself helped convince Chris Paul that L.A.’s ‘other’ team couldn’t be all bad).
Funny enough, Rivers wasn’t drafted by the Clippers; his rights were traded to the New Orleans Hornets in this following trade…
9 Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman, Austin Rivers
Chris Paul was sick of not playing in big cities,, was sick of the Hornets, was sick of coach Byron Scott and, most importantly, was sick of franchise ownership under the NBA (George Shinn wanted out and when a buyer couldn’t be found the league stepped in until another buyer could be found). When Paul made his intentions clear, the Hornets scrambled to accommodate a trade so they wouldn’t lose Paul for nothing and so they could be seen as a star-friendly franchise (important for a small market team). Originally the future Hall of Fame point guard got his wish and was getting traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal that would have netted Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and a 1st round pick (the last 4 coming from Houston for the Lakers’ Pau Gasol). The trade was famously vetoed by David Stern for “basketball reasons”, and the Hornets front office was sent in search of a different dance partner.
The Paul deal to the Clippers was substantially worse, though obviously affected by the extenuating circumstances of a disgruntled star and a scuttled (solid) trade impacting the timeline and the desperation levels. The Hornets wound up receiving the draft pick that’d become Austin Rivers (a major disappointment based on his draft position), Al-Farouq Aminu (a solid contributor, but never panning out as top-level talent), Eric Gordon (perpetually upset and more perpetually injured), Chris Kaman (come on, it’s Chris Kaman), some cash, and a 2nd round pick that became nothing.
8 Vince Carter
Did you know that Vince Carter was traded away by the Golden State Warriors twice before he even played? It’s true. But that’s not what this entry is about; just a fun fact. It is, however, about a trade of Carter’s draft rights and what wound up happening with them. Vince Carter, love him or hate him, is headed to Springfield when his career is over… so it is pretty hard to get fair value for him. This trade, however, is below what you could have ever expected.
Back in 1994, after having been traded as a future (1998 1st round pick) from the Warriors to the Magic, he was traded by the Magic to the Washington Bullets. The Magic sent the Carter pick and Scott Skiles (who started for one season in DC) and a 1996 1st rounder (it became Todd Fuller, but still) to Washington in exchange for a 1996 1st (that became Randy Livingston (who stunk and never played in Orlando) and a 1998 1st that became Keon Clark. Clark wasn’t a bad player, but he never played a game for Orlando. Clark’s rights were traded to Denver (with another player) for a pick that became Keyon Dooling. Dooling was traded on draft night with Corey Maggette and Derek Strong for a 2006 pick that became Marcus Williams. And on and on and on. Essentially they lost Carter and kept adding stuff to the subsequent picks to get diminishing returns.
7 Kevin Love, Mike Miller
Kevin Love is a polarizing player. Say what you will, but he has racked up a heck of a resume in his 9 years in the league. He’s been an All-Star 3 times, made 2 All-NBA teams, and has arguably been a top 20 player for many of his seasons. The big man known for his 3-point stroke, incredible rebounding instinct, and Unseld-esque outlet passes was actually drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008.
A draft day trade with Minnesota made him a Timberwolf, however. Memphis traded Love’s rights, Mike Miller (who spent 1 year in Minny and was traded with Randy Foye for a player package that included the pick that became Ricky Rubio), Brian Cardinal, and Jason Collins for O.J. Mayo, Greg Buckner, Marko Jaric, and Antoine Walker. Walker was dead before he hit the ground and never played in Memphis. Jaric was waived after 53 games. Buckner spent his final 63 games with Memphis. The centerpiece, Mayo, never lived up to the hype he received out of college and high school. He spent 4 frustrating years with the Grizz, putting up 15.2 points and little else (although he shot a semi-respectable 37.3% on 3s) before signing with Dallas. We’d say, in all, that’s a pretty grizzly haul for a franchise cornerstone and one of the most unique big men to ever play the game (pun intended).
6 James Harden, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, Alex Abrines, Cole Aldrich
So this trade analysis has been beaten to death. In fact, a criticism of the trade may well be the epitaph on Bill Simmons’ headstone when he passes. But the reason it is so overdiscussed is because it is one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of a front office outsmarting itself that we’ve ever seen. Unless Harden had compromising pictures of Sam Presti, it is tough to see this trade, especially in hindsight, as anything coming close to defensible.
Harden, hirsute perpetual MVP candidate, was a super 6th man on a young Thunder team that’d just made it to the Finals. A year before he hit free agency, he was traded (just days before the season started) along with Cole Aldrich (solid backup big), Daequan Cook (a non-shooting shooter who fizzled fast), and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder received Jeremy “Docile As A” Lamb, Kevin Martin (and the last gasps of Kevin Martin’s lopsided game), a pick that became Mitch McGary, a pick that became Alex Abrines, and a pick that became Steven Adams. The jury is still out on McGary and Abrines due to sample size. Lamb fizzled and was traded for basically nothing. Kevin Martin was less than an afterthought. Yet, every year of Steven Adams’ young career, the trade becomes less absurd; as he is one of the best young bigs in the game. His ceiling seems limited, though, especially compared to the onslaught of offense that is James Harden.
5 LaMarcus Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge, longtime franchise cornerstone for Portland, current 2nd banana for San Antonio, and midrange jumpshooting prodigy, could have been a Chicago Bull... if Gar Forman didn't muck up his draft so much. Aldridge, correctly, was drafted 2nd overall in 2006 by the Bulls (correctly for the Bulls, not so much the Raptors and Bargnani from above).
Incorrectly, Chicago swapped with the Charlotte Bobcats at 4, who took Tyrus Thomas. Thomas was big and strong and immensely talented; but there were concerns about attitude and maturity. Aldridge was seen as strong from a talent perspective and a personality standpoint, but his game was criticized... as was his thin frame. It turned out the complaints about Thomas were well-founded and Chicago's “Baby Bulls” might have been the worst place for a player like him. Having no strong veteran presence to speak of, Thomas pouted and played off-book, and was dumped to Charlotte after just two seasons. The other players in this original trade were all inconsequential (unless there are some Viktor Khryapa fans out there that we don't know about).
4 Damian Lillard
While the last entry and this one might make them seem otherwise, Portland has had its fair share of front office misfires. Lillard's acquisition, however, was not one of them. To be fair, the trade that sent the draft pick that became Dame was done in order to convince Deron Williams not to leave the Nets ( a decision that itself could be scrutinized). It was how the trade was handled and what Lillard instantly became that has this trade here.
The Nets, working on a move to Brooklyn from New Jersey, were floundering. Then-GM Billy King (a punchline GM for all-time), was desperate to keep Deron Williams a Net so that Brooklyn would have some star power upon the move. Gerald “Crash” Wallace was a defensive beast and someone targeted as a person Williams wanted to play with. So the Nets threw the kitchen sink at Portland to acquire him. Crash immediately fell off a talent cliff and lived out the rest of his playing days as a contract albatross thrown in to make salaries work. King went on record as saying that he didn't care about protecting the draft pick in the trade because he hadn't identified anyone he liked in the draft (which was about as boneheaded a comment as a GM could make). We all know where Lillard is now. The writing seemed on the wall even before the draft, too. It's stuff like this that should stop King from ever getting a front office job again.
3 Draymond Green, Brandan Wright
It is tough to fault any team on not hitting with a 2nd round pick. The draft is a hard thing to forecast, and every team has more misses than hits. But that doesn't stop this from having become a hell of a lopsided trade! Billy King (again!) is responsible for this one.
In dumping Troy Murphy (who himself was an ill-conceived acquisition), King threw in a future 2nd round pick to the Warriors. In exchange, they received Brandan Wright (who has turned himself into a useful role player, but didn't last even 20 games with the Nets) and Dan Gadzuric (who was a quality back-up for a short few years, just not in New Jersey). The 2nd round pick was drafted by Golden State in 2012, and wound up being a tweener from Michigan State by the name of Draymond Green. Many teams passed on him (he was picked 35th overall), but now we all know how truly special his game is. Without Green, there would have been no championship in Golden State and no 73-win team. Of course, Steven Adams would still be able to have children, but that's besides the point. Warriors fans, when you think of your recent super-team, pick up the phone, and thank Billy King.
2 Joe Johnson
While we've covered this deal before, it definitely warrants a mention here. Oftentimes Joe Johnson's talent has been overshadowed by the size of his contracts, the isolation-heavy coaching insisted upon by former coach Mike Woodson, or the underperformance of his teams (specifically his retirement home super-team in Brooklyn). But make no mistake, Joe Johnson has had a hell of a career, is poised to be inducted into the Hall, and is looking as though he will be a large contributor to a very good Utah Jazz team this season.
Joe Johnson began his career as a Celtic. It was clear from the onset that he had the body, the poise, and the shot to be a great player in the NBA. But he was still young, and the Celtics were looking to “win now”. Boston wound up doing the unthinkable, and traded Joe Johnson away just 48 games into his rookie season to the Phoenix Suns. In exchange, they got 116 poor-to-mediocre games out of the duo of Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. The Suns also got Randy Brown (who cares?), the pick that became Casey Jacobson (who wound up being traded later for the pick that would get traded to Orlando and turn into Marcin Gortat, as mentioned above), and Milt Palacio (who got traded for a 2nd round pick that became Malik Hairston... who was traded with the pick that became Dejuan Blair for Goran Dragic [because even the Spurs mess up] ).
1 Dirk Nowitzki
Really could we have ended with anything other than this? Dirk Nowitzki is going down as one of the 20 greatest players of all-time. The 7 foot German helped to open the floodgates for European players in the league and helped to redefine what a big man could be; modernizing the entire league in the process. His shooting is legendary, and his fallback shot is one of the all-time signature shots in the history of the league.
Famously, though, Dirk Nowitzki was involved in what might be the most lopsided trade in sports history (along with the Babe Ruth Boston trade). Dirk was drafted 9th overall in 1998, by the Milwaukee Bucks. Unsure of Nowitzki's staying power in the league, they sent Dirk and fellow draft pick Pat Garrity, to the Dallas Mavericks on draft day in exchange for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. Traylor, god rest his beefy soul, was not a bad player... but was never anything more than a burly role player. Lasting 7 seasons in the league, he never averaged more than 18 minutes a game. While playing overseas, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Going back to the trade, however, it gets worse. Pat Garrity's rights were packaged along with Martin Muursepp and Bubba Wells (who both sound made up) for none other than Steve Nash. That's right, one Tractor Traylor was apparently worth 2 Hall of Fame-bound former MVP players.
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