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Once we’re past Thursday’s 2019 NBA trade deadline, you’ll see no end to the breakdowns of winners and losers. That’s right, knee-jerk analysis season is nearly upon us—a tradition unlike any other.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to assign labels for success or failure. This is almost cheating, really.
The following recent deadline deals run the gamut. Some were rather obviously lopsided at the time, but others took years to clarify. One, which involved Jason Kidd and Devin Harris, looked like a heist in the Nets’ favor until Kidd helped bring a ring to Dallas.
We’re highlighting trades that brought in massive returns: top draft picks, All-Star berths, successful multiyear runs and titles. Every team wants a shot at a generational star and/or a championship. These heists delivered them.
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The Deal: L.A. Clippers trade Baron Davis and an unprotected 2011 first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams in 2011.
The Rationale: It’s not often the decision-makers lay out their thinking so close to the completion of a deadline deal, but maybe then-Clippers GM Neil Olshey’s candid explanation just shows how 2011 was a different, more transparent time.
He told ESPN’s Chad Ford and Ramona Shelburne:
“The drill is, as always, is ‘Is the player you’re getting back more valuable than the potential you could get in the draft?’ Our analysis at this point in February is that it was more valuable to get a 28-year-old All-Star point guard that we have for the next few years, cap flexibility to make sure we take care of business and re-sign DeAndre Jordan and have flexibility to take care of Eric Gordon as well, as opposed to speculating on another kid that’s 19 years old with one year of college experience.”
And then, fatefully:
“And I’m not that high on the draft to begin with this year.”
The Fallout: That unprotected pick wound up being the first in the 2011 draft, and the Cavs gladly selected Kyrie Irving, who’d go on to play an indispensable role in the franchise’s only championship. Granted, things ended badly with Irving requesting a trade in the summer of 2017. But titles are forever.
The Clips did well to get off Davis’ money. He played just 15 games for Cleveland before being amnestied. He signed a deal with the Knicks, but his career ended the following season with a severe knee injury. L.A. also solved its point guard issues (can you believe Mo Williams wasn’t the answer?!) by getting Chris Paul a little under 10 months after dumping Davis, but when you give up what becomes the top overall pick and get absolutely nothing of long-term value in the bargain, yeah…you blew the deal.
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The Deal: Portland gets Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a 2012 first-round pick from the New Jersey Nets for Gerald Wallace in 2012.
The Rationale: Cleaning the Glass’ Ben Falk, on staff with the Blazers at the time, offered a behind-the-scenes breakdown of how the deal got done:
“It was March of 2012—the deadline had been pushed back from its normal February date because of the 2011 lockout. Though we were only a few games out of the final playoff spot, the team was in a free fall. … By the time the deadline rolled around, Chad Buchanan, our GM at the time, had made a decision: this season wasn’t going anywhere, and the priority was to create as much flexibility as possible for the coming offseason.”
The Nets’ desire to add Wallace, whom they believed would help convince Deron Williams to re-sign in free agency, was strong enough for them to protect their first-rounder only if it fell in the top three. Falk explains this was because Brooklyn liked just three players in the upcoming 2012 draft: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson.
Basically, New Jersey wanted the veteran Wallace to appease Williams and wasn’t afraid to surrender a very valuable draft asset to get him. Portland, at a different point in its trajectory, was all too happy to make a future-focused move.
The Fallout: The pick, sixth overall, conveyed to Portland, and Damian Lillard became a Blazer. All he’s done in the six-plus seasons since is make three All-Star teams, hit unforgettable series-winning shots in the playoffs, become a Rip City icon and establish himself as a bona fide NBA star.
Wallace played 16 games with New Jersey after the deadline and one full season with the rebranded Brooklyn Nets in 2012-13, averaging 7.7 points and shooting 39.7 percent from the field. At least Deron Williams re-signed for five years and $98.75 million. Williams was never an All-Star again, and Brooklyn bought him out in 2015.
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Dallas gets Jason Kidd, Antoine Wright and Malik Allen for Keith Van Horn, Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager, Trenton Hassell, 2008 first-round pick, 2010 first-round pick from New Jersey Nets in 2008.
The Rationale: The Mavs wanted an upgrade from Devin Harris at the point, and they were willing to surrender major assets and inflate their cap sheet to get it. New Jersey was on the brink of a teardown anyway, as both Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson would soon follow Kidd out the door. Carter lasted one more year with the Nets, but Jefferson was gone that summer. Oddly, both (and Harris) would play for the Mavs down the line.
Kidd would go on to be a vital part of Dallas’ 2011 championship season, but the early returns on this deal made it look like a heist for the Nets. Harris was an All-Star in his first full season with New Jersey, averaging 21.3 points and 6.9 assists as a 25-year-old. Injuries changed the trajectory of his career in short order, but the Nets also got that pair of first-rounders in the bargain.
Kidd, a decade older than Harris, had to produce near-term results to vindicate the deal.
The 2011 playoff run—in which he averaged 9.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds on 37.4 percent shooting from deep—delivered those results. Even if Harris had maintained his All-Star status, it would have been hard to view this as anything but a major win for Dallas in the end. Championships are hard to come by, and this move secured one for the Mavericks.
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Rationale? You mean other than the Lakers saying to themselves, “You know, we should really try to trade some unproven and generally devalued assets for a star big man in his prime”?
Memphis was 13-33 at the time of the deal, Pau was unhappy, and Andrew Bynum had just hurt his knee, creating a need up front for a Lakers team with championship aspirations.
“What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich railed to reporters after the deal went down. “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I’d like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.”
The framing matters on this, as Marc Gasol surpassed his brother, attaining Gasol Prime status sometime around 2013. Plus, some of the savings Memphis incurred on the deal led to signing Zach Randolph, who was just as important as Marc in establishing the Grizzlies’ identity over the ensuing several years.
The Lakers got more in the bargain. Gasol made three All-Star games, won two titles in his first two full years in L.A. and averaged 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists over six-plus seasons. The rings trump everything, and the Lakers wouldn’t have won them without him. Considering Marc was 23 years old and playing overseas at the time of the deal, it’s unlikely he would have provided similar production in the relevant window: the end of Kobe Bryant‘s prime.
For the Lakers, this was the opposite of the Kidd-to-Dallas move, which looked bad initially but paid off for the Mavericks in the end. This one provided immediate dividends in Los Angeles before working out fine for the Grizzlies a few seasons later.
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The Deal: Celtics get Isaiah Thomas from Suns for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick (via Cleveland) in 2015.
Phoenix had Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight on the roster and needed to ease the positional glut. Thomas, coming off the bench and on a reasonable contract at the time, was a sensible guy to move. Boston obviously saw greater potential ahead for Thomas.
Thomas made the All-Star Game in each of his two full seasons with the Celtics, finishing fifth in MVP voting and earning All-NBA honors in 2016-17 as he led Boston with 28.9 points per game. He battled through personal tragedy and a serious hip injury to get the Celtics to the conference finals that year. The following offseason, a physically diminished Thomas was a key part of the package that got Kyrie Irving to Boston.
Thornton, a delightful chucker, averaged 3.6 points in nine games for the Suns. The 2016 first-rounder became Skal Labissiere, who wound up with the Sacramento Kings and has yet to establish himself as an NBA-level producer.
Boston gave up absolutely nothing for two-plus seasons of Thomas’ captivating play, then flipped him for a younger, better star just as his value cratered. That’s a Grade-A heist.
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