As we revisit the 10 most head-scratching trades in NBA history, it’s alarming how often front offices mistakenly prioritized veteran experience and past production over long-term thinking and future value. Thankfully, NBA front offices have generally gotten more prudent over time.
Here are the 10 worst NBA trades of all time, ranked.
10. 1992: Philadelphia 76ers-Phoenix Suns trade
The deal: Sixers send Charles Barkley to the Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang
Barkley wanted out of Philly, but the pittance the Sixers received in June 1992, for the 28-year old future Hall of Famer is mind-boggling — especially the lack of draft compensation. Hornacek, Perry and Lang combined for six forgettable years in Philly as the 76ers descended into the lottery for a half-decade. Barkley won MVP and led Phoenix to the Finals in 1993.
9. 2010: Los Angeles Clippers-Cleveland Cavaliers trade
The deal: LA sends Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round pick (Kyrie Irving) to Cleveland for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon
The Clippers included a first rounder as a tax for Cleveland’s willingness to take Davis (later amnestied in 2011). The Clips apparently liked their core of Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, and preferred the veteran Williams — under contract for a few more seasons — over another lottery pick. Well, that pick ended up as the No. 1 overall, enabling Cleveland to expedite their (first) post-LeBron rebuild with Irving.
8. 1972: Houston Rockets-Baltimore Bullets trade
The deal: Houston sends Elvin Hayes to the Bullets for Jack Marin
Marin put up 22.3 points per game in 1972, but he was clearly inferior to Hayes, who was one of the league’s bright young stars and who had won Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1969. Somehow, Baltimore pulled off a straight-up swap. Hayes eventually led Baltimore to the 1979 title, while Marin played less than two seasons in Houston.
7. 1980: Cleveland Cavaliers-Los Angeles Lakers trade
The deal: Cavs send their 1982 first-round pick (James Worthy) and Butch Lee to the Lakers for Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick (Chad Kinch)
After a 28-win 1980 campaign, Cleveland traded a future first-rounder to the defending champion Lakers. Shockingly, their return package of Ford and Kinch — minor role players — didn’t revitalize the franchise. The Cavs went 15-67 in 1981-82, giving L.A. the top pick. Worthy would become an elite third-wheel for three championship “Showtime” squads.
6. 2008: Memphis Grizzlies-Los Angeles Lakers trade
The deal: Memphis trades Pau Gasol and a second-round pick to Los Angeles for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie and the rights to Marc Gasol
This was the move that reshaped the league for a half-decade. Three weeks before the deadline (and without fielding other offers, per The Bill Simmons Podcast) Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace shipped Gasol out West. The Lakers went 29-9 after the move and made three straight Finals.
Yes, Gasol ended up having a stellar career in Memphis, but he far exceeded anyone’s conceivable expectations (he was playing in Spain at the time). To this day, Wallace’s decision-making remains a mystery.
5. 1968: Philadelphia 76ers-Los Angeles Lakers trade
The deal: Philly sends Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff
Future beach volleyball legend Chamberlain was looking to finish his NBA career in L.A., but why the Sixers could only muster a measly return package remains baffling. Clark was an All-Star in 1971, Imhoff was in Cincinnati by 1970 and Chambers never suited up for Philly. Chamberlain averaged 17.7 points and 19.2 rebounds and won a title with the Lakers.
4. 2012: Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets trade
The deal: OKC sends James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-round picks (Mitch McGary, Steven Adams), and a second-round pick.
Fresh off a Sixth Man of the Year award and an NBA Finals appearance, the Thunder decided it was time to bail on Harden, 24, rather than paying him an extra $4.5 million.
OKC deeply underestimated Harden’s ceiling. Martin and Lamb were unable to replicate Harden’s scoring punch — even before Harden went up a level in Houston. The Thunder did end up with Adams, but Oklahoma City could have, at the very least, ran it back for another season with Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
3. 2012-2013: The Brooklyn Nets debacle
The deal(s): Nets trade Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, and a 2012 first-round pick (Damian Lillard) to Portland; Brooklyn then sends Wallace, Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, and three first-round picks to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and D.J. White
This is a two-part saga authored by Billy King, who was admittedly in a tough position working for a semi-interested Russian oligarch with unreasonable short-term expectations looking to make a splash.
In March 2012, King acquired the nearly-30-years-old Wallace, his 13.3 points per game and his 2012-13 player option ($9.5 million). Brooklyn sent Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a 2012 first-round pick to Portland. That pick turned into Damian Lillard, while Wallace played 1.5 unmemorable seasons in Brooklyn.
Wallace’s contract would help complete the infamous blockbuster trade with Boston on draft day 2013, when King acquired 37-year old Kevin Garnett, 35-year old Paul Pierce, 36-year old Jason Terry and D.J. White for Wallace, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries and three (!) first-round picks.
Pierce and Terry played one year in Brooklyn, while Garnett was dealt early into his second. Boston wasted the 2014 pick (James Young), but turned the next two picks into Jaylen Brown (2016) and Jayson Tatum (2018).
2. 1975: Milwaukee Bucks-Los Angeles Lakers trade
The deal: Milwaukee sends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters
The Lakers have benefited more from arguably-lopsided, star-landing trades than any other franchise. In 1975, L.A. was re-tooling, and Abdul-Jabbar — a UCLA alum — had requested a trade out of the Midwest.
Abdul-Jabbar was easily the NBA’s best player, and one who had also delivered Milwaukee its only title in 1974. The Bucks relented, dealing their once-in-a-generation talent to the big market (a scenario Bucks fans would like to avoid repeating). Bridgeman and Winters posted solid numbers in Milwaukee, but nothing like Abdul-Jabbar’s historic run in Hollywood.
1. 1956: St. Louis Hawks-Boston Celtics trade
The deal: St. Louis sends Bill Russell to the Celtics for Ed Macauley and a draft pick (Cliff Hagan)
The Hawks used the no. 2 pick on Russell, who was fresh off two NCAA championships, then swapped him for Macauley and Hagan, who they drafted at No. 7. Red Auerbach apparently prevented Russell from being taken no. 1 by the Rochester Royals by convincing Celtics owner Walter Brown to bring his renowned ice show, Ice Capades, to the upstate New York town. Macauley and Hagan each made six All-Star teams, equal to Russell’s 12.
This trade is particularly egregious due to the alleged racist motives, as Hawks’ ownership supposedly preferred two white players at a time of increased racial tension in the city.
Russell won 11 titles in Boston, while the Hawks have not reached the NBA Finals since 1961.