NBA teams are always looking to improve, and one of the most immediate ways is via trade. There isn’t always a winner and loser, but most of the time there is. The goal is to not only be on the winning side of the trade, but to impact your future in a positive way.
Smart General Managers know that in the NBA, quantity is not better than quality. Most times the winning team in a trade is due to them receiving one player and not a 3 for 1 deal or draft picks as compensation. The ultimate trade win is one that leads to championships, as most in our list achieved.
Not all trades are what they seem either. For example, most critics believe the Milwaukee Bucks trading the 9th pick (Dirk Nowitzki) for Dallas Mavericks 6th pick (Robert “Tractor” Trailer) in the 1988 draft was one of the all-time best/worst trades. Truth is that had they not had this deal in place, Dallas would have likely still picked Nowitzki.
Other deals that didn’t quite make our top ten include Golden State receiving Bimbo Coles and Kevin Willis from the Miami Heat for Tim Hardaway and Chris Gatling, a bad deal for the Warriors for sure, but not one that led to multiple championships. Same can be said for Sacramento getting Chris Webber from Washington for Mitch Richmond. Long-term, Webber was the more valuable piece, but he wasn’t working in Washington and never did make the finals with the Kings. A more recent deal that just misses the cut is Utah trading Deron Williams to New Jersey for picks, cash, Devin Harris and Derrick Favors. At this point it appears to be a clear win for Utah, but Favors really needs to take the Jazz to the next level for this to be considered an all-time great trade.
Of the 10 listed, 9 of these transactions had direct impacts on NBA championships. The one that didn’t still got the team to the finals and provided a gut punch to Toronto. You could make the argument they have only recently recovered from this trade. Here are your top 10 greatest NBA trades of all time.
10 Toronto Raptors Trade Vince Carter to New Jersey Nets
After earning the nickname “Air Canada,” Vince Carter essentially demanded to be traded from Toronto. Not cool. In return the Raptors received an aging Alonzo Mourning and spare parts. Carter would go on to play in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons with the Nets, but didn’t win a championship. Toronto may have gotten Carter for his best highlight years, but as far as team play goes the Nets got the most out of “Vinsanity.” There was no doubt the Raptors lost the trade and should have gotten more value versus an aging center with his best years past him.
9 Seattle Supersonics Trade Scottie Pippen to Chicago Bulls
In the 1987 draft the Seattle Supersonics traded the number 5 pick for the rights to the number 8 pick and other future picks. Seattle selected Olden Polynice while the Chicago Bulls selected Scottie Pippen, giving Michael Jordan a much needed side-kick. Pippen and Jordan would partner to win 6 NBA titles. In hindsight the tragedy isn’t necessarily selecting Polynice instead of Pippen, but rather missing the chance to pair Scottie Pippen with Shawn Kemp. Eventually Kemp would meet Jordan and Pippen in the finals and you have to wonder whether having Pippen on the Supersonics side could have flipped the eventual outcome (Bulls Championship).
8 Cincinnati Royals Trade Oscar Robertson to Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks would get Oscar Robertson to team up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at the time) and win a championship his first year. The Royals got Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson in return for Robinson which now is laughable. The Bucks' title would be their sole title through today (and the foreseeable future) with Robertson scoring over 19 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds a game. Sure, Robertson would retire just three years after his title with the Bucks, but you can’t put a price on a championship. Actually, maybe you can if you put a value on Paulk and Flynn. In that case a title can come pretty cheap!
7 Cleveland Cavaliers Trade James Worthy trade to Los Angeles Lakers
In 1980, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded their first round pick (and Butch Lee) to the Los Angeles Lakers for Don Ford and a draft pick that would eventually be Chad Kinch. This trade was awful in so many ways. On one side, the Cavaliers got two players that didn’t contribute, while on the flipside the Lakers got “Big Game James” and three NBA Championships. James was a perfect complement to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, challenging the Boston Celtics as the team of the eighties. Worthy would even win a Finals MVP and have his jersey retired with the Lakers.
6 New York Nets Trade Julius Erving to Philadelphia 76ers
Before he was “Dr. J.”, Julius Erving was an ABA star with a super cool hairdo. Despite being known for his dunking, Erving also excelled in all areas of the game. Apparently the New York Nets didn’t agree, trading Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. Don’t get me wrong, $3 million was nice change back then, but it ended up being money well spent as Erving put the 76ers in an elite group with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, even winning the NBA title in 1983. Doc would also win league MVP and appear in 11 All-Star games. Now that’s good value for $3 million .
5 Charlotte Hornets Trade Kobe Bryant (draft pick) to Los Angeles Lakers
Despite being only 17 years old, I think everyone knew trading the draft pick that would eventually net Kobe Bryant was not wise. Still, Charlotte wanted a center and got one in Vlade Divac. This was a terribly short-sighted move that would stall one franchise (Charlotte) while re-energizing another (Los Angeles). Bryant would go on (and is still going) to have a Hall of Fame career that includes countless All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams and All-Defense teams. He has won scoring titles and player of the week 33 times. Oh, and he has been the face of the Lakers franchise during a stretch run that has included 5 NBA titles.
4 Golden State Trades Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale (draft pick) to Boston Celtics
Somehow the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics always make the right moves. In 1980 the Boston Celtics received Robert Parish and the 3rd pick of the draft (Kevin McHale) for the 1st pick and Rickey Brown. The Warriors would end up selecting Joe Barry Carroll and the Celtics would team up Parrish and McHale with their young talent Larry Bird and win 3 NBA titles during the eighties. That Celtics team (along with the Lakers) not only kept the NBA afloat, but built a fan base that paved the way for the Michael Jordan and the stars of the past thirty years. Not a bad trade, unless you are Golden State, in which case it was downright awful.
3 Milwaukee Bucks Trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles Lakers
Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that requested this trade. Also unfortunately for Milwaukee, they would only receive Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters in return. Bridgeman and Winters would go on to be key role players for the defensively oriented eighties Bucks and Jabbar would go on to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles, become the all-time scoring champion and win just about every award (MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP, etc…) and be an annual All-Star. After Jabbar’s departure, the Bucks would suffer three consecutive losing seasons.
2 San Francisco Warriors Trade Wilt Chamberlain to Philadelphia 76ers
Before Chamberlain was bragging about sleeping with over twenty-thousand women, he was a member of the San Francisco Warriors, averaging over 50 points and 25 rebounds a game. However, it wasn’t until he got traded to the Philadelphia 76ers that he would win an NBA Championship. The Warriors received Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann and Lee Shaffer. No, it wasn’t that Paul Neumann, but it really didn’t matter because no trade for Wilt would have been fair. The Warriors also got $150,000 for their trouble which in hindsight made it even more of a kick in the pants.
1 St. Louis Hawks Trade Bill Russell to Boston Celtics
In the fifties NBA centers were supposed to hang out near the basket and score points. Boston Celtic genius, Red Auerbach had a different idea. What if he used Bill Russell as a defensive force down low in the post? This set the seed for Auerbach and the Celtics to trade for Russell (drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1956) for cash. We all know how this worked out – the Celtics would go on to win 11 NBA titles with Russell as their defensive anchor. Today Russell is still regarded as one of the greatest of all time, justifying his trade to the Boston Celtics for cash as the greatest trade of all time.