Winning trades in the NBA is difficult, especially when draft picks are involved.
That’s because not only do you not truly know what a player you draft is going to become, but you also don’t even know what place you’ll be drafting in until after the lottery. And if you’re trading away draft picks from years in the future, good luck, because then you are truly flying blind, as you have no idea if your team will be contending for years or if you’ll bottom the very next season.
Add in the fact that draft pick protections in trades weren’t even a thing until 1980 and you can see how so many picks that were traded away by NBA teams turned into gold for other franchises.
Below, we present 12 examples of draft picks that were traded away before turning into elite players for the teams that acquired them.
Pete Maravich (1970)
There were two major instances of a draft pick being traded and turning into gold in the 1970 draft.
First up, we have the case of Pete Maravich, who was acquired by the Atlanta Hawks with the third overall pick.
What many forget, however, is that the then-San Francisco Warriors originally owned the rights to that selection before trading it to Atlanta. This trade was a unique one in that San Francisco traded the pick, along with a player to be named later, for the rights to negotiate a contract with two-time All-Star big man Zelmo Beaty, who was contractually committed to playing in the ABA at the time.
Despite the trade and negotiations, Beaty never played for the Warriors, spending four of the final five seasons of his pro career playing in the ABA for the Utah Stars.
The Warriors, meanwhile, lost out on a shot to draft Maravich, who they could have paired up with Hall-of-Fame big man Jerry Lucas to form a nasty 1-2 punch in San Francisco.
Maravich would go on to become a two-time All-Star as a member of the Hawks.
Nate Archibald (1970)
The second such instance in the 1970 draft occurred with the selection of Nate Archibald with the No. 19 pick by the Cincinnati Royals.
Archibald, now a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, would spend five seasons with the franchise that drafted him, making three All-Star appearances in that span and leading the league in scoring and assists in 1972-73.
For the second time already on this list, it was the Warriors who traded away the draft rights to that pick, this time to the Royals (now, the Sacramento Kings), a trade in which San Francisco received 33-year-old veteran big man Adrian Smith in exchange for the second-round pick that became Archibald.
Smith would spend a season-and-a-half with the Warriors and average 6.0 points over 66 games.
That’s almost certainly the most one-sided trade in Kings history.
Magic Johnson (1979)
We travel nine years forward for our next case, to the 1979 draft and the Los Angeles Lakers’ selection of the franchise’s greatest player ever, Magic Johnson, who they selected No. 1 overall that year with a pick that was originally owned by the then-New Orleans Jazz.
What were the Jazz thinking trading such a valuable pick, you might ask?
We have to go back to 1976 for that answer.
Back then, league rules stated if a team signed away another team’s veteran player, they would need to compensate that team with draft capital. Well, the Jazz did just that after they signed a 33-year-old Gail Goodrich away from the Lakers in a deal that saw both teams send each other draft picks (via Basketball-Reference):
August 5, 1976: The New Orleans Jazz traded a 1977 1st round draft pick (Kenny Carr was later selected), a 1978 1st round draft pick (Freeman Williams was later selected), a 1979 1st round draft pick (Magic Johnson was later selected) and a 1980 2nd round draft pick (Sam Worthen was later selected) to the Los Angeles Lakers for a 1977 2nd round draft pick (Essie Hollis was later selected) and a 1978 1st round draft pick (Jack Givens was later selected). This exchange was arranged as compensation for Utah signing veteran free agent Gail Goodrich on July 19, 1976.
Three first-round picks and a second-round pick just to sign a 33-year-old Goodrich and receive a first-round pick and a second-round pick in return.
Of course, the Jazz could not have known that Goodrich – who was one season removed from four straight All-Star appearances and who New Orleans acquired to pair with Maravich, an All-NBA-level player at the time – would blow out his Achilles during his first campaign with the team and never regain his form. They also could not have known that just two seasons later, they would bottom out at 26-56 and see their 1979 draft pick become the No. 1 overall selection.
That pick, obviously, became Magic Johnson and the rest is now Lakers folklore.
This is why teams today refuse to trade future high-level draft capital without serious protections on it unless they are sure they are receiving a certified superstar in return. The risk is just far too great.
Kevin McHale (1980)
The Warriors are once again involved with trading away a draft pick that turned into gold, as in 1980, the team dealt away the rights to the No. 3 pick the day before the draft to the Boston Celtics, a pick that wound up becoming Hall-of-Fame big man Kevin McHale.
This is considered one of the biggest fleecings in a trade in NBA history, as not only did the Warriors give up the No. 3 pick, they also sent center Robert Parish, who would go on to make the next seven All-Star teams in the East and nine in the next 11 seasons.
McHale and Parish would end up forming one of the greatest frontcourts in league history, playing behind Larry Bird on the wing to create an all-time dynasty in Boston during the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Warriors used the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft that they received as part of the deal on Joe Barry Carroll, a 7-footer out of Purdue who was considered a can’t-miss, future-superstar level prospect. Carroll would play 10 seasons in the NBA and make one All-Star appearance as a member of the Warriors. Not a terrible career by any means, but certainly not a super memorable one, or one worthy of a package of McHale and Parish, two Hall-of-Famers.
Golden State also got the 13th pick in the 1980 draft as part of the trade and took Rickey Brown, who lasted five seasons in the NBA and averaged 4.4 points over 340 career games.
Of all of the trades the Warriors have made on this list, they probably would like to take this one back the most.
James Worthy (1982)
We have to go two seasons prior to the 1982 draft to figure out how the Lakers ended up with the No. 1 overall pick that year, which became James Worthy, another Hall-of-Famer for the purple-and-gold franchise acquired via skillful trading.
That’s because, during the 1979-80 season the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers completed a trade for veteran forward Don Ford, a defense-first player who had averaged 7.8 points over 316 career games to that point. As part of the trade, L.A. also sent the Cavs a 1980 first-round pick, which wound up being the No. 22 overall selection (eventually used by Cleveland to take Chad Kinch), in return getting Butch Lee and a 1982 first-round pick.
The Cavaliers weren’t much of a team that 1979-80 season, finishing the year 37-45. But things would get far worse over the next two campaigns, with the team hitting rock bottom in 1981-82 as Cleveland went 15-67 with Ford appearing in 21 games and averaging 1.1 points.
That record eventually meant Cleveland’s first-round pick would be the No. 1 overall selection, which Los Angeles used on Worthy to help give Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar an athletic swingman to form a dynasty of its own in the ’80s.
When you think about it, that means the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s, which many believe saved the NBA by helping popularize the league back when the Finals were shown on tape delay, was made up of a lot of players acquired via very smart trading by the two organizations.
Charles Barkley (1984)
This is another example of a team trading away a first-round pick years in advance and it coming back to bite them, as the deal that saw the Philadelphia 76ers pick up that draft pick that became Charles Barkley actually happened in 1978, just prior to the 1978-79 campaign.
In that trade, the then-San Diego Clippers traded away their 1984 first-round pick for World B. Free, three seasons into the explosive 2-guard’s career. Free put up big numbers over his two seasons with L.A., averaging 29.4 points over the two campaigns combined, but the Clippers failed to make the playoffs either year and actually traded Free in the 1980 offseason to the Warriors for Phil Smith and a first-round pick.
San Diego would then bottom out badly as prior to the 1984 draft, with Free long gone, the Clippers went 30-52 and earned the No. 5 pick, which they had to send to Philadelphia.
That pick became Barkley and the 76ers were able to add an elite prospect and a future Hall-of-Famer to a roster that had won a championship two seasons prior and was coming off of a 52-30 campaign.
Scottie Pippen (1987)
This one is a bit tricky in that it actually took two trades for Scottie Pippen to end up a Chicago Bulls legend.
Many will recall, especially those who watched The Last Dance, that Pippen was actually drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics before he was traded to Chicago. That deal was a draft-night swap that saw the Bulls draft and trade Olden Polynice, a 1988 second-round draft pick and a 1989 first-round pick to Seattle for Pippen and a 1989 first-round pick, according to Basketball-Reference.
However, the team that originally owned the No. 5 pick that year was the New York Knicks and the only reason the Sonics had that selection on draft night was because in November of 1986, Seattle traded Gerald Henderson and a 1987 first-round pick to New York for the 1987 pick that eventually became Pippen, along with a 1990 second-round pick.
Henderson would average 10.9 points and 6.5 assists for a Knicks team in 1986-87 that went 24-58, earning the fifth-overall pick in 1987, which was sent to Seattle and then Chicago, becoming the Hall-of-Fame swingman Pippen.
If it isn’t clear by now, teams are much safer about trading away first-round picks these days.
Gary Payton (1990)
This is another extremely unique case in NBA draft trade history, as the Sonics, on this list for the second time in a row, actually traded away the rights to the pick that became Gary Payton, who went No. 2 overall in the 1990 draft, to the Warriors before trading back for the eventually golden draft pick.
Mind you, both trades happened within two months of each other.
So let’s break down the two deals that eventually saw Payton wind up with Seattle and become the franchise’s greatest point guard ever.
On June 27, 1989, Seattle traded its 1990 first-round pick (which became Payton) to Golden State for a 1989 first-round pick, a selection that the Warriors would go on to use on Dana Barros. Call it a premonition by the Sonics’ front office or whatever else, but in what was an almost-unheard-of move at the time – and would be shocking even today – Seattle traded back for its first-round pick just six weeks later.
On Aug. 7, 1989, the Sonics sent the Warriors Alton Lister for their own 1990 first-round pick back. Lister would play 126 games over four seasons for Golden State and average 5.2 points and 5.0 rebounds.
Seattle, meanwhile, would go 41-41 in 1989-90, the same record as the No. 8 seed Houston Rockets, but miss the playoffs. But thanks to the draft lottery, its draft pick went all the way up to No. 2 despite long odds, and the team used the selection on arguably the greatest player in its franchise’s history, The Glove, Payton.
This is the fourth time the Warriors have been involved in trading away a draft pick that turned to gold but in this case, it’s hard to even blame them, as the Sonics had a strong team at that time and were not expected to get as lucky as they did in the 1990 draft. But that’s why teams don’t trade away first-rounders anymore without protections on the pick.
LaMarcus Aldridge (2006)
Two trades involving the No. 2 pick of the 2006 draft saw the Portland Trail Blazers end up with LaMarcus Aldridge, arguably the best player to come out of a pretty weak draft class and certainly the best player taken in the lottery that year.
First, on Oct 4. 2005, the Bulls acquired a 2006 first-round pick, a 2007 first-round pick swap and 2007 and 2009 second-round draft picks, along with Tim Thomas, Michael Sweetney and Jermaine Jackson, from the Knicks. In return, Chicago sent New York Eddy Curry, who was coming off his best NBA season at that point, and Antonio Davis, a former All-Star at the tail end of his career.
To call this trade – made two years into Hall-of-Fame point guard Isiah Thomas‘ tenure as president of basketball operations for the Knicks – one-sided would be underselling things, as the focal point of the deal that New York got back, Curry, never amounted to much in the NBA – certainly not into a player worthy of draft picks that became the No. 2 selection in 2006 and the No. 9 pick in 2007.
Of course, Chicago doesn’t come out of this smelling like roses, either, as it would trade the No. 2 pick, used on Aldridge – an eventual seven-time All-Star and five-time All-NBAer – to the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth pick that year, which it used to take defensive-minded swingman, Tyrus Thomas, out of LSU and… Viktor Khryapa.
Thomas would have moments of solid play, especially as a defender, during his time with the Bulls, but he could never put it all together consistently and was out of the league by his age-29 season while Khyrapa would play 41 games for Chicago and average 2.5 points.
Aldridge, meanwhile, would go on to become one of Portland’s best big men ever and, along with Brandon Roy, who was also taken in the 2006 draft, help the Blazers boast fun teams in the late 2000s and early ’10s.
Kyrie Irving (2011)
This one is particularly brutal, as the Clippers, in a salary-dump-motivated trade, lost out on owning the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft. That’s despite them finishing the 2010-11 season with a 32-50 record and the team having just a 2.8 percent chance of that pick becoming No. 1 overall.
Around the 2011 trade deadline in February of that campaign, the Clippers agreed to trade former All-Star point guard, Baron Davis, who had roughly $28 million left on his deal owed to him over two more seasons, to the Cavaliers in order to get rid of what was left of his salary. They would also send Cleveland a first-round pick to sweeten the deal, without any protections on it.
In return, Los Angeles would get a disgruntled Mo Williams and swingman Jamario Moon.
Well, that pick, despite the strong odds against it happening, wound up being the No. 1 selection of the 2011 draft, which Cleveland used on Irving, planting the seed for an eventual LeBron James return to the Cavaliers just three seasons later.
Could you imagine if the Clippers had just been patient and kept that pick, used their amnesty provision to get off of Davis’ salary (they’d use it on Ryan Gomes during the 2012 offseason, saving a whopping $4 million in the process) and drafted Irving instead, to form an electrifying pick-and-roll duo of Irving and an in-prime Blake Griffin?
That would have helped the Clippers keep even more assets, too, as, in this scenario, Los Angeles would not have felt forced to trade for Chris Paul, already having its point guard of the future on the roster in Irving. Getting Paul would cost the Clippers Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected 2012 first-round pick, which became Austin Rivers a year later.
Considering Paul wanted out of New Orleans by then anyway, who knows where the Point God would have ended up had the Clippers not wanted an elite point guard so badly?
Fun scenario to think about, though in the end, things didn’t turn out too badly for Los Angeles, either, as it boasted various contender-level teams in the Paul/Griffin era. It’s just entertaining to consider what a core of Irving, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, surrounded by Gordon, Rivers, Kaman, Aminu and other players, might have been able to accomplish.
Damian Lillard (2012)
Younger NBA fans may not remember this, but there was a time in the late 2000s when Gerald Wallace, affectionately known as “Crash” for his reckless abandon on the basketball court, was one of the league’s more fun players to watch as a high-flyer and major transition threat.
Heck, he even made an All-Star appearance during his career, back in the 2009-10 campaign when he put up 18.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks.
What even fewer will remember is Wallace actually played a major hand in Portland ending up with one of its all-time franchise GOATs, Damian Lillard, who was picked up with the sixth pick of the 2012 draft.
That’s because at the 2012 NBA trade deadline, the then-New Jersey Nets and the Blazers struck up a deal sending Wallace to the Nets in exchange for Mehmet Okur, who was on the last legs of his NBA career, and Shawne Williams… along with a conditional 2012 first-round draft pick.
In this case, credit to the Nets for at least making the pick top-three protected, unlike basically all of the other scenarios in this article. Still, that pick wound up being sixth overall, which Portland wisely used on a point guard out of Weber State in Lillard.
Lillard is now a six-time All-Star with the Blazers and six-time All-NBAer, and appears destined for a path headed straight to the Hall of Fame once his playing days are over.
Wallace, meanwhile, played well in his half-season with the Nets after being traded, averaging 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, but the team finished the campaign with a 22-44 record. In his lone full season with the team, his numbers crashed, too, to 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, and he was gone from the Nets by 2013-14.
It’s harder to fault the Nets as much as other teams on this list because, for one, at least they did put a top-three protection on the pick. Plus, the 2012 draft was thought to be very top-heavy with a lot of uncertainty after the consensus top prospect, Anthony Davis. (Dion Waiters went fourth that year despite never starting a game at Syracuse.)
But, again, this is why teams are so protective of first-round picks these days and usually refuse to trade them unless they are getting a certified stud in return. Shipping away a first-rounder for an aging player like Wallace, who was so dependant on his athleticism, was a pretty bad call in hindsight.
Draymond Green (2012)
This one is also slightly unfair to the Nets, who traded away a second-round pick in the 2012 draft on Feb. 23, 2011, along with Troy Murphy, to the Warriors for Brandan Wright and Dan Gadzuric.
After all, second-round picks so rarely become anything of value, let alone turn into future Defensive Player of the Years with extremely unique skill-sets on offense.
At the time, this was pretty much seen as a nothing trade, with Murphy getting bought out by the Warriors without playing a minute for them in that stint, so he could sign with a contender ahead of the playoffs. Golden State was still rebuilding at the time and firmly in draft-asset-acquisition mode.
Wright and Gadzuric, meanwhile, were on expiring contracts, allowing the Nets to open up cap space for the upcoming offseason by acquiring them while letting Golden State deal with buying out Murphy’s expensive $12.0 million contract.
Getting out from under that money for a pair of expiring contracts while only having to lose a measly second-round pick?
No-brainer for the Nets.
Except that draft pick ended up being the 35th selection in the 2012 draft and after all 30 teams passed on him once, the Warriors used it to select Draymond Green.
The rest is history, with Green becoming one of the most important members of the eventual Golden State dynasty, a four-time champion, four-time All-Star, a Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-time All-Defensive Team member.
So the two draft picks the Nets traded away in the 2012 draft ended up becoming Lillard and Green, two of the best players of their era.
Jayson Tatum (2017)
Two trades, one that took place years before the 2017 draft, saw Jayson Tatum eventually go No. 3 overall to the Celtics.
Originally, the pick was slated to belong to the Sacramento Kings. However, during the 2015 offseason, in a move that can only be described as asinine (or insane), Sacramento agreed to trade Nik Stauskas (coming off of an uninspiring rookie season that saw him average 4.4 points) and veterans Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, along with a 2019 first-round pick and first-round pick swaps in 2016 and 2017 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
What did the Kings receive in exchange for all of that juicy draft capital?
The draft rights to Artūras Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic.
Neither player has played a minute of NBA basketball yet.
And why did they do that?
To make a splash in free agency that year by ridding themselves of the hefty salaries of Landry and Thompson. And by hefty, we mean the former was owed $6.5 million and the latter $6.4 million the next season. Landry did have one more year on his deal after that (worth another $6.5 million) but Thompson’s deal was non-guaranteed after that one campaign.
The Kings did wind up landing one of their top free-agent targets that year in Rajon Rondo, who played one season with the club and performed admirably, averaging 11.9 points and a league-leading 11.7 assists. But the team still went 33-49 and missed the playoffs.
So basically, Sacramento traded three extremely valuable draft assets for a year of Rondo, who it lost a year later to the Bulls anyway after refusing to pay him what Chicago was offering.
It’s not hard to see why Vlade Divac is no longer calling the shots over there.
Regardless, the draft pick that became Tatum would be traded again, this time to the Celtics by the Sixers. That deal was a blockbuster by the two rivals, one that was supposed to help Philadelphia land the final piece of The Process and turn the franchise into contenders.
The 76ers traded the No. 3 pick to Boston, along with a 2018 first-round pick that they got from the Lakers if that pick fell between the second and fifth spot. When that didn’t happen, the pick the Celtics actually got from the Sixers became the No. 14 pick of the 2019 draft, a selection originally owned by the Kings. That pick would become Romeo Langford, so a pretty inconsequential loss for the 76ers (and the Kings, for that matter).
In return, Philadelphia got the No. 1 pick and used it on the consensus top prospect on the board that year, Markelle Fultz.
Truth be told, the Sixers got somewhat unlucky there, as that trade could have turned to gold for them if Fultz had developed into the player many saw him as in college, a three-level scorer and playmaker with length and athleticism who could defend, too. Fultz, along with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, was supposed to form an elite, young Big 3 in Philadelphia.
Instead, he’s now a member of the Orlando Magic coming off a major knee injury, and Tatum, the player the 76ers could have had had they just kept their pick, has blossomed into one of the best players in the league.
A Tatum-Embiid tandem doesn’t sound half-bad in hindsight, does it?