It's hard to critique a trade as hindsight is 20-20 when making a deal in sports. Some are a disaster from the start, but sometimes players will emerge out of nowhere after the fact and make it more lopsided. With the 2024 NBA trade deadline upon us, there certainly will be a handful of trades made in the next 24 hours that could turn out on either end of the spectrum.
The 10 worst trades in NBA history
The following collection of trades is a combination of poor asset management, prospects turning into busts, and just subpar front-office minds. Let's look at the 10 all-time worst trades in NBA history, ranked.
10. Jazz trade away Magic Johnson without realizing it
In 1978, the Utah Jazz made a six-player trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Jazz sent Sam Worthen, Freemen Williams, and Kenny Carr to the Lakers for Gail Goodrich, Jack Givens, Essie Givens, and a first-round pick.
Goodrich and the Givens didn't elevate the Jazz up the standings and helped them finish the year in last place. With their last-place position, the Jazz won the draft lottery. Unfortunately, their pick was owned by the Lakers, which the Lakers used to draft Magic Johnson.
In Johnson's first year, he was named the NBA Finals MVP, and the Lakers won the NBA championship. The Jazz had an opportunity to land a player to alter the course of their franchise and traded it away for a season of mediocrity.
9. Nets trade for aging Celtics core for haul of draft picks
Possibly the most famous trade in recent NBA history, the Celtics sent an aging core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and Kris Joseph to the Brooklyn Nets. In return, the Celtics received role players, unprotected first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and the ability to swap first-rounders in 2017.
None of those players had significant impacts in Boston. However, the unprotected draft picks have led to franchise cornerstones Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in a deal widely regarded as one of the most lopsided ever.
The Celtics essentially traded an old core that won them an NBA title for a new pair that has made them title favorites year after year. Garnett and Pierce didn't experience any success in Brooklyn, and their careers eventually ended.
8. Bucks trade Dirk Nowitzki for Robert Traylor
Today in 1998, the Dallas Mavericks drafted Robert Traylor with the 6th overall pick in the NBA Draft but later traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks for Dirk Nowitzki. pic.twitter.com/8TFZDK9wIF
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) June 24, 2020
Dirk Nowitzki was a top international player when the Bucks drafted him ninth overall. Robert Traylor was selected sixth overall by the Dallas Mavericks. The Bucks had interest in Traylor as he averaged a double-double with Michigan in his final year of college.
Traylor struggled with the Bucks, averaging 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while starting in just 73 games. Nowitzki went on to have a 21-year career.
He was a 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, a Finals MVP and NBA champion in 2011. He averaged 20.7 points and 7.5 rebounds for his career and revolutionized the power-forward position as an outside shooter.
7. Supersonics trade Scottie Pippen for Olden Polynice
What would the Chicago Bulls have been without Michael Jordan's sidekick Scottie Pippen? We almost found out as the Seattle Supersonics drafted the relatively unknown Pippen fifth overall in the 1987 draft. They then shipped Pippen to the Bulls in exchange for help at the center position.
Olden Polynice was the return, and he averaged 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game over a few seasons with Seattle. I think we all know how the trade turned out for the Bulls.
Pippen was a six-time NBA champion, seven-time All-Star, and one of the best perimeter defenders. Jordan was the GOAT, but there is an argument to be made that the Bulls wouldn't have had so much success if they hadn't acquired Pippen. Pippen may not have had as much success if he didn't become Jordan's sidekick, but the rest of the NBA would have rather that outcome than the chokehold that the Bulls put on the entire league in the 1990s.
6. Sixers trade Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek and bench players
Charles Barkley was only 28 and one of the best players in the league when the 76ers sent him out of town. He went to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Tim Perry, Andrew Kang, and Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek was a reigning all-star but couldn't find his form in Philadelphia, and the other two were bench players.
Barkley tied the 76ers' hands by wanting out, but they could have done a better job with the return. Barkley made the All-Star Game all four years in Phoenix, winning the MVP in his first season with the Suns. He also led the team to the NBA Finals.
When Barkley experienced that much success in Phoenix, there was no way a Charles Barkley trade could be any worse. Well, the Houston Rockets proved that to be false in 1996.
5. Rockets trade youth for aging Charles Barkley
25 years ago today, the #Rockets made a blockbuster trade for Charles Barkley, sending Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Mark Bryant & Chucky Brown to Phoenix. "Houston was my first priority," said Barkley. The team had three Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler & Barkley. pic.twitter.com/6Nr5SIorbu
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) August 19, 2021
The Rockets had won back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. They did it on the strength of two top players of all time, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, and young depth pieces like Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant.
Instead of trying to win three straight with the group, they traded the four depth pieces for an aging Charles Barkley. Houston lost to the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, and Barkley and Drexler retired. Olajuwon went to Toronto for one more season, and the Rockets were left with limited young pieces.
Houston could have continued to contend for titles with Horry and Cassell but instead had to go through years of mediocrity. Horry won multiple NBA titles as a role player, and Sam Cassell was the leader of some great teams before winning one more ring with the Celtics.
4. Sixers trade away reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain
Let's hope Philadelphia being on this list twice isn't a sign of things to come in the City of Brotherly Love. The 76ers made a big splash when they sent Chamberlain to the Lakers in 1968.
The Sixers received Darrell Imhoff, Archie Clark, and Jerry Chambers. At the time, Chamberlain was already among the best in the league. He was a four-time MVP and a nine-time All-Star and All-NBA. The NBA's most famous stat padder had won seven-straight scoring titles and was an NBA champion.
The Lakers had been to the NBA Finals six times and lost them all to the Boston Celtics. They went back to the finals four more times with Wilt, winning it once in 1972. Chamberlain was named Finals MVP when they won, averaging 19.4 points, 23.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game in the series.
It was a strange move, as Wilt had won the MVP the year before being traded. It is assumed that Wilt's attitude had worn thin with the organization, so they shipped him out for nothing and helped the Lakers become even more relevant.
3. Bucks trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for unknowns
The Bucks' history of trading big men has not been kind to them. Fans should be thankful that Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't asked out yet because he would likely go on to even more success than he's already achieved.
Going into the 1974 season, Abdul-Jabbar informed the Milwaukee front office that he was ready to leave the team. He had won an NBA championship with the Bucks and had lost in Game 7 of the Finals the year prior. Eight months later, the Bucks fulfilled his request and sent him to the Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, and Dave Meyers.
Abdul-Jabbar helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships. He was a six-time MVP, and ended his career as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
The players that the Bucks received in return were relative nobodies who didn't bring the Bucks any success. The Bucks can't be put at too much fault here, as Kareem wanted out, but they could have landed a better return.
2. St. Louis Hawks trade away Bill Russell
The return that the St. Louis Hawks received for Bill Russell wasn't terrible. The Hawks got Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan back from the Celtics, and both were Hall of Famers. The Hawks can even find solace in beating Russell and the Celtics to win an NBA title in 1958.
However, Russell won 10 more than that in his career. Quite frankly, any return for Bill Russell in that era would have looked like a lopsided deal when you look at Russell's impact on the Celtics.
He is arguably their most historic player. He was a 12-time all-star, five-time MVP, and won 11 NBA Championships in his 13-year career. Russell may have gotten the better of the Hawks for 11 of his 13 seasons after the trade, but at least the Hawks managed to win one.
1. Hornets trade Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac
The Charlotte Hornets took Kobe Bryant with the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft. Lakers general manager Jerry West had interest in Bryant after seeing him at predraft workouts, but the Lakers had no lottery picks.
The Lakers were also looking to move some money to fit Shaquille O'Neal under the salary cap. The Hornets eventually agreed to take on Vlade Divac's contract in exchange for the rights to Bryant.
Kobe Bryant was now a Laker, and they used their newfound cap space to sign Shaquille O'Neal. The pair created the NBA's newest dynasty and won the league's most recent three-peat.
Bryant was an 18-time all-star and won five championships with the Lakers. The Hornets changed their trajectory by losing Bryant and the Western Conference landscape by allowing the Lakers to sign Shaq.