Big trades in major sports — like the MLB and NFL — are one of the most exciting aspects of the game. Over the years, there have been tons of trades across all sports that have worked out waaay better for one side than the other. In the NBA, some of the best players in the history of the game have been a part of a trade. Players such as Kobe Bryant, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain and Scottie Pippen have all been trades — and are on the list of the worst trades in NBA history.
In this list, all of these transactions — except for one — deal with teams trading away some of the best players ever for almost nothing in return. Only one team, the Brooklyn Nets, thought they were trading for a championship, but in turn, doomed their franchise for years to come.
Here is a ranking of the 10 worst trades in NBA history.
10. Milwaukee Bucks Deal Dirk Nowitzki to the Dallas Mavericks
In 1998, the Milwaukee Bucks traded a future Hall of Fame player in Dirk Nowitzki. In their defense, Nowitzki was still just a top international player at the time. The Bucks traded him to Dallas on draft night, along with Pat Garrity, for Robert “Tractor” Traylor.
The late Traylor played just seven seasons in the NBA, averaging 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He started just 73 games in his entire career. Aside from Nowitzki, who ended his career sixth all-time in points and the greatest player in Mavericks history, even Garrity had a respectable career that lasted 10 years.
9. Utah Jazz Give the Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson
In 1978, the Utah Jazz made a mistake that would hurt that franchise for years to come. They made a six-player trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, who fleeced them in this deal. Utah sent Sam Worthen, Freemen Williams and Kenny Carr to the Lakers for Gail Goodrich, Jack Givens and Essie Givens. Oh, and the Jazz also gave the Lakers their first-round pick in the 1979 draft.
Unfortunately for Utah, they finished the 1978 season in last place. This gave the Lakers the first overall selection in the 1979 NBA Draft and with that pick they landed Magic Johnson, who would become the best point guard in NBA history.
Plus the Lakers won a title in Magic’s first year. So while the Jazz didn’t directly trade Magic Johnson, they traded away the pick that could have landed them the future superstar.
8. Boston Celtics Unload Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry on the Brooklyn Nets
In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets made one of the most bone-headed trades the league has ever seen. While the Jazz unknowingly traded the No. 1 overall pick, the Nets traded away multiple first-round picks for what was basically a failed science experiment.
The Nets acquired an aging trio in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry in hopes of making a run at a title in 2013. During the 2013 NBA Draft, the Celtics traded Pierce, Garnett, Terry and D.J. White. In return, the Celtics received Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks and four (!) first-round picks.
The picks the Nets gave up were their 2014 first-rounder, 2016 first-rounder, 2018 first-rounder and the two swapped 2017 first-round picks. The players the Nets gave up weren’t bad but the picks alone crippled the Nets and made the Celtics big players for years to come. The Celtics took Jayson Tatum with their 2017 pick and traded for Kyrie Irving with Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick. On the other side, Brooklyn only advanced past the first round once with their new assets.
7. Philadelphia 76ers Trade Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns
In 1992, Charles Barkley, 28, was clearly one of the best players in the league. The 76ers sent Barkley to Phoenix for Tim Perry, Andrew Kang and Jeff Hornacek. While Hornacek was an All-Star at the time, his career went downhill while Kang and Perry rode the pine most of the time.
Barkley went on to four All-Star appearances in his four years in Phoenix and even won the MVP award the following season, taking the Suns to the NBA Finals.
It is worth noting that Barkley wasn’t happy in Philadelphia and wanted out. However, the Sixers got pennies on the dollar for the future MVP.
6. Seattle SuperSonics Gift the Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen
As great as Michael Jordan was, he wouldn’t have been the same without Scottie Pippen, the best second-in-command in sports history. The Seattle SuperSonics drafted Pippen with their fifth overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. Then they sent Pippen to Chicago for a perceived hole at center. In return, they got Olden Polynice.
Polynice, who was drafted after Pippen, played just a few seasons in Seattle and averaged five points and just 4.5 boards per contest. Pippen went on to win six NBA titles, play in seven All-Star games and make his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
5. Sixers Deal Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers
When the 76ers traded Chamberlain to the Lakers, he was already one of the best players to ever play the game. Still, the Sixers decided to part ways with Wilt the Stilt.
What makes the move even more baffling is that Chamberlain won the MVP the season prior to the deal. The 76ers dealt him for Jerry Chambers, Darrall Imhoff and Archie Clark.
Chamberlain led the Lakers to an NBA title in 1972. He was named the Finals MVP that season as well. Chamberlain is currently seventh on the all-time scoring list.
4. Portland Trail Blazers Trade Moses Malone
The ABA and NBA had just merged and as a result, the NBA held what was called a dispersal draft. With the fifth overall pick, the Trail Blazers selected Moses Malone. However, the Blazers decided to hold onto Maurice Lucas, believing that he would be a better player than Malone.
After just a couple of months, the Blazers parted ways with Malone and dealt him to the Buffalo Braves for a first-round pick and some pocket money. The Braves eventually dealt Malone to the Rockets.
Malone is currently ninth on the NBA all-time scoring list and was a three-time MVP. Portland did end up winning the title the year after trading Malone but couldn’t find much success afterward.
Malone, on the other hand, dominated for most of his 19-year career.
3. Los Angeles Lakers Steal Kobe Bryant From The Charlotte Hornets
In 1996, the Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant directly out of high school. Some contract disputes led to the Hornets dealing Bryant to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. While Divac wasn’t a bad player by any means, he only lasted two years in Charlotte and was, of course, nothing like what Kobe became.
The Black Mamba played 20 seasons and was an 18-time All-Star. He won an MVP, two NBA Finals MVPs and five NBA Championships. The Hornets were a bottom-feeder in the NBA for years to come. They never recovered from what could have been with Kobe.
The Hornets franchise then moved to New Orleans. If Kobe stayed in Charlotte, the franchise might have had a lot more success and potentially still be in North Carolina.
2. St. Louis Hawks Deal Bill Russell to the Celtics
On the same day he was drafted by the Hawks, Russell was traded to the Celtics for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.
While Hagan and Macauley both went on to have Hall of Fame careers, Russell outdid both of them. While the Hawks did defeat the Celtics and Russell in the 1958 NBA Finals, that was their only title during Russell’s career.
Russell made 12 All-Star teams, won five MVPs and 11 NBA Championships in his 13-year career.
1. Milwaukee Bucks Deal Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spent six seasons in Milwaukee. In his final season, he averaged 30 points, 14 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game. So why would the Bucks trade him? Well, he wanted out of Milwaukee because he wasn’t a fan of the Midwest. So while this trade may not be entirely Milwaukee’s fault, not being able to find a way to hold onto one of the most dominant players in NBA history is still a huge blunder.
The Bucks sent Kareem to the Lakers for Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Junior Bridgeman. All three turned out to be nobodies while KAJ went on to become one of the all-time greats.
Abdul-Jabbar won five championships with the Lakers and was an NBA record six-time MVP. He also ended his career as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, which still stands as of 2020.
KAJ also led the Bucks to their first and only championship before being traded.
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