The 12 Worst Trades in NBA History

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson react to a play.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson react to a play. | Elsa/Getty Images

When the Brooklyn Nets announced that they waived Joe Johnson, we couldn’t help but shake our heads. Not only was the former All-Star guard now receiving the opportunity to play for a contender (until the Miami Heat were eliminated from the playoffs that is), but the Nets had essentially admitted what the majority of us already knew: Their plan to trade for big-name talent at the cost of tons of assets was a complete disaster.

It’s not easy to win championships in the NBA. And sometimes, in the name of reaching the top of the mountain, clubs will risk a lot in the hopes of achieving quick success. Focusing on the trio pictured above, it’s clear that strategy does not always pan out. But trust us, it could always be worse. NBA history gives us plenty of examples of catastrophic trades. However, the way we see it, these are the 12 worst trades in NBA history.

12. The Big O is traded to Milwaukee

Oscar Robertson addresses the media.
How could you trade Oscar Robertson? | Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images

During his 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, Oscar Robertson was pretty much unstoppable. He went to 10 straight All-Star Games, averaged 29.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 10.3 assists per game, and won the MVP award during the 1963–64 season. And yet, in 1970, the Royals thought it’d be a good idea to trade an aging Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson. It wasn’t.

Although The Big O didn’t put up crazy numbers in his four seasons in Milwaukee, he did help Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — seriously, in what world is it fair that those two are teammates? — bring the organization its first and only title in 1970–71. Meanwhile, the Royals left Cincinnati following the 1971–72 season. Ouch.

11. Memphis practically gives away Pau Gasol

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant chat on the bench.
Pau Gasol (L) helped Kobe Bryant bring multiple titles to Los Angeles. | Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The reason the rich tend to get richer is because folks continuously hand them quality goods for peanuts. Case in point: When the Memphis Grizzlies traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008. Sure, the Grizz received Pau’s brother, Marc — an eventual superstar sibling in his own right — in return, but to call this transaction “lopsided” would be an understatement. Simply put, it was highway robbery.

In Pau, Kobe got the perfect complementary teammate; one who could help him add two more championships to his resume. Memphis, on the other hand, received a couple of future draft picks, the younger Gasol, Aaron McKie, and the “dynamic duo” of Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton. Only in Hollywood.

10. Bucks say, ‘bye, bye’ to Nowitzki

Dirk knocks down the jumper.
Dirk has been money in Dallas. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In the 1998 NBA Draft, the Milwaukee Bucks had the surprising foresight to select an international player from Germany by the name of Dirk Nowitzki with the No. 9 overall pick. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the same organization to throw it all away.

For reasons beyond comprehension, the Bucks shipped Nowitzki — along with Pat Garrity — off to Dallas in exchange for Michigan’s Robert “Tractor” Traylor (the No. 6 overall pick in the 1998 draft). While Traylor lasted seven seasons in the league, starting just 73 games, Nowitzki went on to forge a surefire Hall of Fame career while becoming one of the greatest scorers in NBA history (currently No. 6 on the all-time scoring list). That has to hurt.

9. 76ers send Barkley to Phoenix

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Charles Barkley looks on prior to the start of the 2016 National Championship game. | Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In 1992, Charles Barkley wanted out of Philadelphia, and the Sixers were happy to oblige him, shipping the future Hall of Famer off to the Phoenix Suns. Yet, here’s the thing: If you’re going to trade a player who just averaged 23.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game the season before, you better make sure you get a substantial value in return. The 76ers, of course, did not.

In exchange for the player who went on to win the MVP award in the 1992–93 season, Philadelphia received Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry. Is it any wonder the Sixers failed to make the playoffs for the next six years? We think not.

8. Portland opts to trade Malone

The Portland Trail Blazers received two picks in the dispersal draft following the 1975–76 season. With the second of those two selections, the Blazers took Moses Malone from the Spirits of St. Louis — a slam-dunk pick if we’ve ever seen one. Too bad the organization didn’t seem to feel the same way.

In exchange for a 1978 first-round pick, which they eventually used on Rick Robey, Portland sent the Chairman of the Boards to the Buffalo Braves. By the time Malone’s career ended, he earned three MVP awards, played in 12 NBA All-Star Games, scored 27,409 points (No. 8 all time), and pulled down 16,212 rebounds (No. 5 all time). Talk about a classic Portland Trail Blazers draft decision; it sort of reminds us of this one.

7. Cavs give Worthy to the Lakers

For the record, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t trade James Worthy to the Los Angeles Lakers. They simply traded away the pick that eventually landed the future purple and gold Hall of Famer. How is that possible? We’ll explain.

The 1979–80 Cavs, a team that finished the season with a 37-45 record, opted to trade their 1982 first-round pick and Butch Lee to the Lakers for Don Ford and LA’s first-round selection in the upcoming 1980 draft (because that’s exactly what you should do when your team is terrible and the team you make a deal with is about to win the NBA title). As we’re sure you’ve figured out by now, that 1982 pick turned into a No. 1 overall, which the Lakers used to select Worthy. Or as we like to call him “Big Game James.”

6. Sonics trade Pippen to the Bulls

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Gary Payton (L) and Scottie Pippen chat during the NBA Finals. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Using a pick that originally belonged to the New York Knicks, the Seattle Supersonics selected Scottie Pippen No. 5 overall in the 1987 NBA Draft. However, in exchange for Olden Polynice, a 1988 second-round pick, and a first-round pick in 1989, the Sonics thought it’d be wise to ship Pippen — along with a 1989 first-round pick of their own — to Chicago. Big mistake.

Pippen went on to help Michael Jordan and the Bulls capture six championships. He put together a Hall-of-Fame career of his own, and he was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. The Sonics, well, they now reside in Oklahoma City. We’re sure the people of Seattle are over this faux pas by now. Someone should ask them.

5. Lakers get Kobe from the Hornets

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Kobe Bryant warms up prior to a game against the Pelicans. | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

This is why you shouldn’t agree to a pre-draft trade with the Los Angeles Lakers (or Jerry West). Even though you may do a deal that makes sense in the short run, you never know when it could ultimately cost you a once-in-a-generation talent.

Prior to the 1996 Draft, the then-Charlotte Hornets agreed to select Kobe Bryant with the 13th overall pick and trade him to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac. Aside from the crazy amount of standout performances throughout his career, the future Hall of Famer officially retired with 18 All-Star appearances, five NBA titles, and a spot in the top three on the all-time scoring list. At least one team got a Hollywood ending out of this deal.

4. Philadelphia decides to trade Wilt to LA

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Wilt Chamberlain addresses the media before the NBA All-Star Game. | Brian Bahr/Allsport/Getty Images

During his four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Wilt Chamberlain shot 58.3% from the field while averaging 21.5 points, 18.6 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. He was a physically overpowering specimen, a dominating force of nature, and the kind of player who, not only can’t be stopped, but only comes around once in a lifetime. But he wanted out of Philadelphia. And for some reason, the Sixers obliged him.

In return for acquiring one of the greatest talents in the history of the game, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark, and Darrall Imhoff to the Sixers. Who? Exactly.

3. Bucks ship Kareem to Hollywood

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posts up during a game against the Sixers. | Mike Powell/Getty Images

Despite helping the Bucks win a title in 197071 and averaging 30.4 points and 15.3 rebounds per game during his six seasons with the franchise, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did not want to be in Milwaukee anymore. The organization didn’t care about his request, and they forced him to stay put for the rest of his career. Just kidding. Life’s not that fair.

Milwaukee traded Jabbar — and Walt Wesley — to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters. By parting with the Hall of Famer, the Bucks essentially threw their NBA championship dreams out the window. Meanwhile, with Jabbar in the fold, the Lakers hoisted five banners into the rafters. Like we said, life really isn’t fair.

2. Jazz lose out on Magic

The 10 Worst Trades in NBA History
Magic Johnson looks on before the game. | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Back in the late ’70s, when the Jazz resided in New Orleans, the organization was keen on acquiring Lakers guard Gail Goodrich. However, even though they signed Goodrich as a free agent, per league rules, the Jazz needed to work out some sort of compensation deal with those fine folks in Los Angeles. Suffice to say, this one backfired. Big time.

While the Jazz received Gail Goodrich, Essie Givens and Jack Givens, the Lakers, in return, would get Kenny Carr, Freemen Williams, Sam Worthen, and wait for it New Orleans’ 1979 first-round pick; a pick who would not only turned out to be No. 1 overall, but also be responsible for bringing Showtime to Hollywood. For one of these franchises, this deal was a disaster. For the other, it was pure Magic.

1. Celtics get Russell from the Hawks

Although this deal took place at a time when an NBA owner could actually use the Ice Capades as a bargaining chip, that doesn’t make it any less blasphemous. Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach got Bill Russell from the St. Louis Hawks — who selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft — in exchange for Cliff Hagan, Ed Macauley, and the seventh overall pick in the same draft. And just like that, a dynasty was born.

With the Celtics, Russell became a 12-time All-Star, win five MVP awards, and capture 11 NBA championships. To this day, all terrible trades that go down in the NBA get compared to this one (sorry, Steve Nash). As they should. But let’s be real, no matter how bad a deal ends up, it will never as bad as the time the Hawks got rid of the great Bill Russell.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.