5 of the Most Surprising NBA Trades of All Time

Ellie Shippey May 31, 2022

When NBA players are traded, it can come as a shock to fans. Once deals are announced, the emotions of entire cities run high with excitement or grief. 

Trades are made for many reasons. They can be done to improve an NBA team’s performance, save money, or avoid a large luxury tax.

Many high-profile deals prove to be tragic for one franchise, while propelling the other toward long-term success.  

Let’s look back on five of the most surprising NBA trades of all time.

1. The Celtics Trade Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets (2013)

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During the 2013 NBA Draft, Boston sent long-time Celtic Paul Pierce and All-Star Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. 

They also gave up D.J. White and Jason Terry for Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, and Gerald Wallace.

The players the Celtics got were essentially used to offset salaries, but the X factor for Boston came by acquiring Brooklyn’s first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2017.

At first glance, the trade had advantages for the Nets with the acquisition of Boston Celtic’s powerhouse players. But the entire scheme imploded.

The Nets only made it as far as the second round in the 2014 NBA playoffs. After one season, Paul Pierce left for Washington, and shortly after, Kevin Garnett was traded to the Timberwolves.

Nets fans were left sobbing as the Celtics turned picks into players like Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Jason Tatum. 

2. The Philadelphia 76ers Trade Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers (1968)

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When contract negotiations with Wilt Chamberlain hit a wall, the 76ers traded their three-time MVP to the Los Angeles Lakers. 

After Chamberlain returned from a trip adamant that he no longer wanted to play for Philadelphia, there was very little that could be done. 

He demanded to be traded to a West Coast team or he would join the American Basketball Association in L.A. 

Rather than have Chamberlain leave for the American Basketball Association or send him to the Philadelphia salvage yards, the 76ers made a deal with the Lakers and Chamberlain was traded for Archie Clark, Jerry Chambers, and Darrall Imhoff.

Upon arriving in L.A., Chamberlain’s points decreased while playing alongside superstars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. However, in 1972 the Lakers won an NBA title, the second of Chamberlain’s career.

3. The SuperSonics draft-and-trade Scottie Pippen to the Chicago Bulls (1987)

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 In the 1987 NBA draft, the fifth overall pick, Scottie Pippen, was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics and then quickly traded to Chicago on draft night. 

While the Chicago Bulls acquired Scottie Pippen and the 1988 or 1989 pick swap, the Seattle SuperSonics exchanged their draft pick for Olden Polynice, the 1988 second-round pick, an option to exchange 1988 or 1989 first-round pick, and the three-top protected pick, which would be B.J. Armstrong. 

The decision to let Scottie Pippen go to the Bulls lost Seattle a Hall of Famer and helped the Bulls win six championships. 

To add insult to injury, the picks the SuperSonics got did not perform as expected, and in 1989, the first rounder the Bulls got from the SuperSonics was B.J. Armstrong.

Scottie Pippen played 12 seasons for the Bulls alongside Michael Jordan and was part of two three-peats. Armstrong played a critical role on the first Bulls three-peat.

4. Charlotte Hornets Trade Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers (1996)

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In one of the most egregious front office missteps ever, the Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant 13th overall and then traded the 17-year-old high schooler to the Lakers for veteran Vlade Divac. 

Some saw Bryant’s age as a risk, but any general manager unable to see his raw talent deserved what they got.

Bryant became a generational talent, teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal to become a super duo. 

Kobe and Shaq went on to win three straight titles. Then Kobe won two straight on his own, staying with the Lakers for 20 years. 

Divac lasted just two seasons with the Hornets. He was a good player but not nearly as legendary as the “Black Mamba.”

5. Milwaukee Bucks Trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles Lakers (1975)

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar summed it up: “The problem is that I don’t have any family or friends in Milwaukee. 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.” 

Any anxiety among Bucks fans was confirmed three months later when Abdul-Jabbar along with Walt Wesley were traded to the Lakers for Brian Winters, Elmore Smith, and rookies Junior Bridgeman and Dave Meyers.

The rest is the stuff of legends. Abdul-Jabbar won back-to-back MVP awards in his first two seasons in L.A.

During his 14 seasons there, the Lakers won five championships.

Ellie Shippey

Ellie Shippey is a digital marketing specialist and expert writer at Best Bet On Sports. In her free time, Ellie enjoys rock-climbing, parenting her plants and cat, and telling people bad jokes.

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