No we’re not talking about a Friday night in 2003. Not sure if you heard, but James Harden was traded. And unlike the Anakin trade from the Jedi to the Sith, this is not the only blockbuster deal in the NBA galaxy. Let’s look at the history and rate the success of NBA superstar trades.
Last week James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. The Houston Rockets received—*checking notes*—30,000 draft picks. It is undoubtedly the biggest trade since December. This is not the first time that a major star has been traded. It’s not even the first time this particular star has been moved. I am going to look back at some of the biggest moves in NBA history. For the exercise, I will be classifying a blockbuster deal as one that includes an All-NBA player.
Wilt to the 76ers, 1965
Big Move: The San Francisco Warriors traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Philadelphia 76ers. He was a walking video game cheat, but I guess the OG SF Dubs wanted to save money.
The Return: Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer. Paul Neumann went on to star in such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Good Move?: The 76ers did win a title so I would call that a solid investment. As for the Warriors, forty years later they won the title with Steph Curry and co. I don’t think they were related, however.
Wilt to the Lakers, 1968
Big Move: After just 4 seasons, the 76ers moved Wilt to the Lakers. He was still considered the dominant player in the league.
Good Move?: The Lakers did eventually win the NBA title with Wilt in 1972. They also made the finals a bunch. So yeah, I’d call it a good move for them. The 76ers had got what they could from Wilt. Didn’t get the best return for him though. People aren’t named Archie anymore.
Earl Monroe to the Knicks, 1971
Big Move: The Baltimore Bullets—RIP to a great nickname—traded Earl Monroe to the Knicks just two years removed from being an All-NBA selection.
The Return: Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth
Good Move?: The Knicks and Monroe made the finals in back-to-back years and won the second one. That’s a good move. It was also the last good move the knicks would make.
Kareem to the Lakers, 1975
Big Move: Kareem Abdul-Jabar (and Walt Wesley) got sent to the Lakers. He was 27 and averaging a 30 and 14.
The Return: Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman
Good Move?: 5 titles is a pretty good haul for the Lakers. The Bucks… not so much, but Kareem had asked for the trade and they had already won 1 chip in two trips with him. The Bucks had to get something for him before he walked.
Moses Malone to the 76ers, 1982
Big Move: The Houston Rockets traded the reigning MVP to the 76ers. Because they didn’t want to pay him. Ouch.
The Return: Caldwell Jones and a future first-round draft pick (Rodney McCrae)
Good Move?: As with most of these so far, it worked out for the receiving team. Malone won a third MVP and the Sixers won the championship the very next season. Makes sense since he was only 26 at the time.
Barkley to the Suns, 1992
Big Move: The 76ers dump Sir Charles to the Phoenix Suns. The Suns had some of the best uniforms in the league to drape on the second-best player in the NBA.
The Return: Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry, Andrew Lang
Good Move?: A crushing loss to the Bulls in the finals is worth taking the swing. Even if Shaq is constantly giving Barkley crap about it on Inside the NBA. Especially considering the Suns only gave up one decent player in Hornacek. Did I mention how awesome the Suns unis were?
Chris Webber to the Bullets, 1994
Big Move: I’m not sure he should be on this list, but Webber did count as one of the best 25 guys in the league at the time based on talent. He was coming off of a Rookie of the Year season when the Golden State Warriors traded him to the Washington Bullets at his very strong urging.
The Return: Tom Gugliotta and a couple first-round draft picks (Todd Fuller, Chris Mihm)
Good Move?: No? The Bullets didn’t do much—see the next entry—and the Warriors were a fun team that didn’t make any waves.
Chris Webber to the Kings, 1998
Big Move: Webber wore out his welcome in Washington—called the Wizards at this point—pretty quickly. They traded him to the Sacramento Kings.
The Return: Mitch Richmond, Otis Thorpe
Good Move?: Mitch Richmond is in the Hall of Fame. No one knows why. The Kings definitely made the right move as Webber helped them to become one of the best teams in the West. They couldn’t get over a Shaq sized hump, but they were awesome and way ahead of their time.
Big Move: The Orlando Magic sent Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue, and Reece Gaines to the Houston Rockets. TMac was a scoring champ with an incredible all-around game.
The Return: Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Kelvin Cato
Good Move?: The Magic got some name recognition back, but not much in actual production. The Rockets paired McCrady with Yao “Can I Write Check” Ming, which should have been a solid foundation. Unfortunately, injuries constantly derailed the duo. If you’re Houston, you still do the deal every time.
Shaq to the Heat, 2004
Big Move: The Los Angeles Lakers did not appreciate one of their two megastars asking the other one “how his ass tastes” in rap performances. So they traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat and kept Kobe Bryant.
The Return: Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a future first-round draft pick (Jordan Farmar)
Good Move?: For the Heat, it certainly worked out as they won the 2006 championship. The Lakers’ immediate future tanked, but they bounced back within 4 years. They still should have won another with Shaq and Kobe.
Garnett/Allen to the Celtics, 2007
Big Move: The biggest move was the Minnesota Timberwolves granting Kevin Garnett his wish to actually win something and trading him to the Boston Celtics. The no-less-important move was the one that preceded this with the Seattle Supersonics sending Ray Allen to Boston (with rights to Big Baby Davis).
The Return: Minnesota got Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, and two first-round draft picks (Johnny Flynn, Wayne Ellington). The Sonics got Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the rights to Jeff Green.
Good Move?: The T’Wolves got back a haul and were making their superstar happy. But it sure didn’t end up benefiting them. The Celtics, meanwhile, won the 2008 title and probably should have won another one (sheds a tear for 2010). So, yep, put them on the successful list.
Gasol to the Lakers, 2008
Big Move: The reason the Lakers bounced back from the Shaq trade was that they stole Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for what was—even at the time—nothing. The Grizz included a second-rounder (Devin Ebanks).
The Return: Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, Fat Marc Gasol, and two first-round picks (Donte Green, Greivis Vasquez)
Good Move?: Without Pau, the Lakers don’t win titles in 2009 and 2010. Another no-brainer. The Grizzlies actually are one of the more successful teams on this list to dump a superstar. Now, no one at the time foresaw that Marc Gasol would become the incredible player and Defensive Player of the Year winner that he did. I’d argue that the Grizzlies didn’t even know that was possible.
Carmelo to the Knicks, 2011
Big Move: The Denver Nuggets sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks with Anthony Carter, Renaldo Blackman, and Shelden “Fourth Pick Forehead” Williams. The Minnesota Timberwolves were also included in the deal. The Knicks sent Eddie Curry and Anthony Randolph to the T’Wolves and received Corey Brewer.
The Return: Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, a first-round draft pick (traded with other goodies in the deal to get Andre Iguodala), two future second-round draft picks (Quincy Miller, Romero Osby), the right to swap a first-round draft choice in 2016 (Jamal Murray). The T’wolves also gave Denver Kosta Koufos.
Good Move?: I’m looking at the list of title winners and I don’t see the Knicks on here. Weird. I think they gave up too much depth in the deal. They should have just waited until free agency a few months later. This move also priced me out of being able to go to any more Knicks games.
Chris Paul to the Clippers, 2011
Big Move: The New Orleans Hornets moved Chris Paul, probably the best point guard in the league, rather than lose him for nothing. Initially, they had a deal with the Lakers, but David Stern vetoed that deal, so they sent him to the other Los Angeles team along with two second-round picks (identities unknown).
The Return: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a first-round pick (Austin Rivers)
Good Move?: Meh?? The Clippers probably underachieved in their time as Lob City. The Hornets became the Pelicans and still can’t convince a star to stay. Maybe Zion will?
Harden to the Rockets, 2012
Big Move: The Thunder “wanted to save money” and sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward.
The Return: Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, two first-round picks (Steven Adams, Mitch McGary), and one second-round pick (Alex Abrines)
Good Move?: This is one of the most dissected trades of all-time and it was a baaad move for the Thunder. Terrible. Obviously, the Rockets were cool with it. They designed their whole offense around Harden and were one of the best teams in the league for the rest of the decade. They were one Chris Paul injury away from making the finals in 2018.
Pierce/Garnett to the Nets, 2013
Big Move: The Celtics shipped Garnett and franchise cornerstone Paul Pierce out to the Brooklyn Nets. Yes, with Jason Terry and D.J. White too. None of these guys were top 25 players, but the people in charge of the Nets didn’t seem to care.
The Return: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph and three first-round picks (James Young, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum)
Good Move?: Nope! It seemed crazy at the time and then when you look at the duo of Brown and Tatum, it’s a real gut punch for the Nets. Especially since they did nothing of consequence with their (actually still looks confusingly appetizing on paper) star-studded Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Piere, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez starting lineup.
Kevin Love to the Cavs, 2014
Big Move: Even I’m not sure this qualifies, but Love was putting up monster numbers for the Minnesota Timberwolves before they traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Return: Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia
Good Move?: The T’Wolves weren’t doing much with Love, but they sure as hell haven’t been better without him, despite soon having three consecutive number one picks on the roster. The Cavs won the 2016 Finals with help from Love even though he was not their best player and immediately dropped off this top 25 list. Still counts, I think.
Big Move: Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of the San Antonio Spurs organization and they begrudgingly accepted a deal from the Toronto Raptors. Was it the best deal available? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. They also included a key player in Danny Green.
The Return: Demar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick (Keldon Johnson who’s been hoopin’ this season!)
Good Move?: As I hinted, I can’t believe this could have been the best offer the Spurs got. Granted Kawhi only played 9 games the season before, but this trade seems so lifeless. The Raptors only had Kawhi for one season and they won the title. Not bad at all.
Davis to the Lakers, 2019
Big Move: Anthony Davis demanded a trade and the New Orleans Pelicans delayed it as long as they could. They still ended up trading him right where he wanted—the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Return: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, a first-rounder in 2019 that they traded for more picks (Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Walker-Alexander), and two more future first-round picks. They were also bad enough while Davis was on the bench waiting to be moved that they got Zion Williamson with their own number one pick in the lottery.
Good Move?: This is one of the rare trades where it really went as well as it could for both teams. The Pelicans have a fun young team and a treasure chest of draft picks. The Lakers, meanwhile, just went out and won the 2020 championship. Davis and LeBron James are a devastating combination of size and skill.
Best Bron duo? I’m still a D-Wade guy, but if they keep winning…
Paul George to the Clippers, 2019
Big Move: Kawhi Leonard moved on to the Clippers after casually winning that title in Toronto. Part of the deal, however, was that the Los Angeles Clippers had to trade for Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. George was coming off a season where he was third place in MVP voting.
The Return: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, first-round Clippers picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, first-round picks from via the Miami Heat in 2021 and 2023, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025. Damn!
Good Move?: Technically, the jury is still out on this trade. The first season did not end the way the Clippers wanted. They blew a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets. They are still in strong competition for the title moving forward. Let’s put a pin in this.
Westbrook/Paul to the Rockets/Thunder, 2019
Big Move: Just a day after trading PG, this deal went down. Both players made the All NBA teams after the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul. That’s pretty rare as we can see from this list.
The Return: The Rockets got Westbrook and the Thunder fleeced them out of Chris Paul, a 2021 pick swap, 2024 first-round pick, 2025 pick swap, and a 2026 first-round pick. None of those have conveyed yet, but it’s quite embarrassing for the Rockets looking back. Perhaps part of the Brooklyn-Harden trade is to recoup some of this draft stock.
Good Move?: Kind of a disaster for the Rockets as they had Westbrook for one season and got bounced early in the bubble playoffs. The Thunder got a really fun season out of Chris Paul as well as a lot of potentially good draft capital. They won the deal.
Paul to the Suns, 2020
Big Move: After a fun playoff push last year, the Thunder sold high on Paul and moved him to the Phoenix Suns.
The Return: Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, and a 2022 first-round pick. They immediately traded Oubre and Rubio for more draft picks.
Good Move?: The Thunder have loaded up on draft picks so we’ll see what they do with them. The Suns are playing well with Paul (the Suns are 7-5 after losing last night), but it’s too early to tell what the real return will be for them.
Westbrook to the Wizards, 2020
Big Move: Reports were that Westbrook and Harden didn’t get along and Westbrook wanted out. So the Houston Rockets moved him to the Washington Wizards.
The Return: John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick
Good Move?: They ended up getting rid of Harden so should the Rockets just have kept Westbrook? Is there that much of a difference between Westbrook and Wall? Not really. The Wizards hoped that the Westbrook deal could revitalize some hope in Washington. It has not.
Harden to the Nets, 2021
Big Move: The Rockets trade Harden to the Nets with a second-round pick. This was where he wanted to go the whole time and he pouted, went to strip clubs, and ate his feelings until he got his way. It took two other teams, the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, to make it happen.
The Return: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four first-round picks, 2022, 2022 (from Bucks), 2024, 2026, and four first-round pick swaps, 2021, 2023, 2025, 2027.
The Pacers got Caris LeVert and a second-round pick and some cash.
The Cavs got Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince.
Good Move?: If it clicks, it sure could be. The Rockets certainly got a good return. No telling where those picks in 2025-2027 could be landing. The Nets have played two games, are 2-0, and Harden put up 30+ in both. Still might be too early to definitively say. I think they gave up too much depth, especially with Kyrie’s uncertain availability. Still, if it clicks, they’ll be able to outscore pretty much everybody.
As you may have noticed, the rate of major trades has accelerated nearly exponentially. The league feels like it has become the franchise mode in a video game. I don’t blame the teams that are getting the superstar. 11/24 of these deals resulted in NBA titles within 3 years. That’s actually a much higher percentage than I expected. That number is including the latest Harden and George deals and we don’t know how those will shake out yet.
That means it’s essentially a 50% chance of a title. You have to make that move then. Most of the teams trading away the superstar do not fare nearly as well. I realize that most of these teams, especially recently, were in the bind of the player attempting to force his way out. The amount of players and picks traded back is also swelling heavily so it makes even more sense. I will join every other basketball fan in watching how this turns out for the Nets. No matter which side of history the Nets land on, it will be entertaining as hell.