The greatest—and most shocking—trades in basketball history have catapulted teams to championships and long-term success. Here are seven of the biggest deals in NBA history:
1. April 30, 1956: St. Louis Hawks Trade Bill Russell to Boston Celtics
The Rochester Royals passed over Russell with the first overall pick in the 1956 NBA draft, figuring the former University of San Francisco star's commitment to play for the U.S. Olympic team would cause him to miss the start of the season. The Royals reportedly were also leery of the salary demands of Russell—only the Celtics, Fort Wayne Pistons and Harlem Globetrotters, the barnstorming team, were believed willing to pony up.
The St. Louis Hawks, one of the NBA's poorest teams, drafted Russell with the second overall pick and traded him to Boston for center Ed Macauley—a St. Louis native—and coveted 1953 draft pick Cliff Hagan, who had yet to play for Boston because of a military service committment. In all, Boston coach-executive Red Auerbach procured three future Hall of Famers—Russell, K.C. Jones and “territorial” pick Tommy Heinsohn—from the 1956 draft.
The Hawks won the NBA title in 1958, beating Boston. But that feat paled in comparison to Russell’s success for the Celtics. In Boston, he played 13 seasons and won 11 championships—nine during the 1960s, a record of excellence unmatched in major professional sports. He is regarded as one of the best players of all time.
2. July 9, 1968: Philadelphia 76ers Trade Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles Lakers
After contract talks with Chamberlain stalled, Philadelphia traded the three-time NBA Most Valuable Player to the Los Angeles Lakers. "He may stand ‘at least 7-4’ and he may be the greatest scorer-rebounder-defender-passer combination in the history of basketball," wrote Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. "He still wasn’t good enough to write his own ticket with the 76ers.”
Chamberlain almost ended up with another Los Angeles team, the Stars of the fledgling American Basketball Association. They reportedly were willing to make Chamberlain—one of the greatest athletes of all time—a part-owner.
Instead, he was dealt to the Lakers for Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and Archie Clark. His time with the Lakers got off to a bumpy start, something Imhoff expected: "... I don’t know if you can have any happiness with three super stars (Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Chamberlain) on one team.”
Despite his scoring decreasing in Los Angeles, Chamberlain ultimately meshed with Baylor and West. In 1972, the Lakers won the NBA title—the second of the Hall of Famer's career.
3. April 21, 1970: Cincinnati Royals Trade Oscar Robertson to Milwaukee Bucks
As with many major NBA trades, salary demands were a major factor in Robertson’s split with the Royals. But as the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jim Schottelkotte wrote, that was only part of the story. Robertson, the first player in league history to average double-figures in scoring, rebounding and assists in a season, and Royals coach Bob Cousy apparently did not get along.
“The situation here was one in which I could not go on with,” Robertson told the Enquirer.
Cousy was conciliatory after the deal, which brought Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson to Cincinnati. “I’m certain that Oscar will continue his brilliant career with Milwaukee and possibly have the opportunity to finish out his playing days with a championship club now that he is teamed with a player of Lew Alcindor’s caliber,” he said.
The partnership between Robertson and Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, paid almost immediate dividends. In 1971, the Bucks won their first NBA title.
4. June 16, 1975: Milwaukee Bucks Trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles Lakers
On March 14, 1975, the Bucks lost to the Lakers, 105-104. But the result of the game was secondary. Afterward, Abdul-Jabbar—one of the greatest players in basketball history—confirmed he wanted to be traded.
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"The problem is, I don’t have any family or friends in Milwaukee," said the star center. "Milwaukee is not the kind of city I’m about. I’m not knocking it or the people. It’s just that socially and culturally I don’t fit in Milwaukee."
Three months later, Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley were dealt to Los Angeles for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters and rookies Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman.
Abdul-Jabbar jump-started Los Angeles, where he won back-to-back MVP awards in his first two seasons. Ultimately, the Lakers won five championships in his 14 seasons in Los Angeles.
5. October 2, 1995: San Antonio Spurs Trade Dennis Rodman to Chicago Bulls
Rodman was the best rebounder and one of the NBA's best defenders. He also was perhaps the league's most eccentric personality. After a playoff loss to Houston, the Spurs traded him to the Bulls for center Will Perdue. The deal was panned by Chicago Tribune columnist Bernie Lincicome.
“Here’s the short list of who would be better news than Dennis Rodman for the Bulls: Typhoid Mary, Moammar Gadhafi, Charles Manson, Lizzie Borden, Jeffrey Dahmer," he wrote. "I could go on, but that’s a representative starting five.”
Bulls head coach Phil Jackson was cautiously optimistic about bringing the bombastic Rodman on board, saying, “We’re just talking about trying to take some good chances with the basketball club to put them in a championship state.”
Rodman turbo-charged the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, who became one of the greatest dynasties in sports. In three seasons in Chicago, the Bulls won three NBA titles and Rodman led the league in rebounding in each.
6. July 11, 1996: Charlotte Hornets Trade Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles Lakers
Charlotte drafted Bryant for the Lakers, intending to deal the 17-year-old high school player to Los Angeles for veteran center Vlade Divac, who initially balked at leaving. Acquiring Bryant seemed a risk for Los Angeles because preps-to-pros players were viewed with skepticism.
“I’m sure people will question me because of my age. That’s the big mystery for most people,” Bryant said after he was drafted with the 13th overall pick.
Divac eventually agreed to the trade, and Bryant went on to win five NBA titles and an MVP with Los Angeles, pairing with Shaquille O’Neal to form a turn-of-the-century powerhouse.
7. July 10, 2010: Cleveland Cavaliers Trade LeBron James to Miami Heat
James’ move to Miami is mostly known for his made-for-television announcement, broadcast on ESPN and dubbed “The Decision.” But the move was really a trade, one in which the Cavaliers received two first-round picks and two second-round picks from Miami for James.
The deal united James, stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and created sky-high expectations. "They’d better flatten Earth and take no prisoners. The Heat have never had more heat. Only a championship—more than one, in fact—will allow them to get away with this and not be infamous," columnist Mike Lopresti wrote.
The Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard was complimentary of James, writing, “He chose to take less money. He chose to sacrifice being the singular star of his team in order to share the stage."
The move paid off, though not right away. In James' first season in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks upset the Heat in the NBA Finals. But Miami rebounded to win the next two championships.