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5 draft deals that rocked the NBA

Few days on the basketball calendar matter more than the NBA Draft. Clearly, this is a defining moment for the sixty or so men selected for the Association, but it is also an opportunity for the franchises themselves to make or destroy their future fortunes. Picking the right player can lead a club to success for a decade or more, but the wrong move can be devastating. And since NBA teams are often traded right during the draft, the possibility of a feast or starvation is only exaggerated.

Some transactions and swaps on draft day go relatively unnoticed or may not matter much in the long run. At the same time, however, some of the game’s best players were actually traded during the draft. Lucky or shrewd teams can seize the prospect of their dreams or otherwise attract established talent by striking the right deal.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest NBA draft deals in history.

Celtics dropped Bill Russell on draft day (1956)

AP Photo

The Boston Celtics are no strangers to making deals during the NBA draft. In 2017, the club brought in Jason Tatum with a deal with the 76ers. A decade ago, the Celts brought Ray Allen on board in a deal that helped usher in the era of the Big Three at the Hub. Back in 1980, Boston drafted Robert Parish and Kevin McHale through a pick trade with the Warriors.

However, in 1956, the Celtics made perhaps the largest trade in NBA draft history. Boston traded for Bill Russell during the 56 draft and never looked back.

The Rochester Royals already had a center and selected Seahugo Green at number 1 overall. Then the St. Louis Hawks took Bill Russell from San Francisco, but immediately traded the future GOAT to Boston. The Hawks wanted Ed Macaulay, a St. Louis native and six-time All-Star. Celtics maestro Red Auerbach agreed, eventually sending Cliff Hagen to the Hawks as well.

Louis went to the NBA Finals four times over the next five seasons, winning the title in 1958. For that reason, the deal definitely worked for the Hawks.

But Boston clearly won. Not only did Russell lead the Celtics to a record eleven NBA championships, he and the Seas actually beat the Hawks in three different finals in the following years.

Drafting Bill Russell is arguably one of the most profitable trades in NBA history. However, Russell is not the only future champion to change teams during the draft.

The Hornets Trade Kobe Bryant (1996)

Photo by Andy Haight/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the 1996 draft, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Charlotte Hornets discussed a deal involving big LA player Vlade Divak. The Lakers were intent on getting Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent that summer, and the Hornets were eyeing the seasoned veteran.

When the 13th overall pick was drawn in the 1996 NBA draft, the Hornets didn’t even know who they were picking; the deal has already been closed. Los Angeles is called Charlotte only minutes before their choice was associated with a name. Bryant impressed then-general manager Jerry West during pre-draft practice.

Divak effectively threatened to resign rather than play for the Hornets, and for several days it looked like the deal might fall through. Divak eventually relented, and Kobe became a player for the Lakers. The rest is history.

Hawks and Mavs trade Doncic and Young (2018)

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the draft’s most intriguing day trades is still hotly debated by fans. This is because the dust at this step is still far from settled. In 2018, the Hawks selected Luka Doncic with the third overall pick in the NBA draft and then traded the European stallion to Dallas in exchange for a fifth pick and a future first-round player. Atlanta selected Trae Young just moments later.

The future looks very bright for Doncic and Young. Both have since grown into up-and-coming superstars, earning the eighth and eleventh best-selling T-shirts respectively. in 2022. Each led his club to the conference finals. And this season, both defenders earned All NBA awards.

Kawaii Lands in San Antonio (2011)

AP Photo / Mel Evans

After losing 4-1 to the Chicago Bulls in the first round, the Indiana Pacers wanted me. In the 2011 draft, the club traded the 15th pick for George Hill. Two seasons later, the Pacers played in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not a bad trade for Indiana.

In the meantime, their trading partner, the San Antonio Spurs, did a great job with the deal. Along with the landings of Erazem Lorbeck and Davis Bertans, the mysterious Kawhi Leonard landed in San Antonio. The scouts understood that he had physical abilities, but it was not clear what kind of player Leonard could become.

As it turns out, Leonard thrived at the Spurs. He was the perfect combination of athleticism and discipline for the aging San Antonio dynasty. In 2014, Kawhi was named the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, joining Magic Johnson as one of the youngest recipients of the award.

Bulls draft Scottie Pippen (1987)

AP Photo/Morry Gash file

The Bulls dynasty of the 90s is impossible without Michael Jordan. Perhaps there can be no Michael Jordan without Scottie Pippen. And if not for the 1987 draft, there would be no Scottie Pippen in Chicago.

Until Pippen became an established star, Jordan and the Bulls couldn’t get past tougher clubs like the Celtics or the Pistons. The sometimes maligned forward was an important pillar of one of the NBA’s greatest teams.

In 1987, the Chicagoans took Scotty Pippen (and Horace Grant), but only after the Bulls traded Alden Polinis, the eighth pick and future draft capital, to the Supersonics. In exchange, Chicago received the rights to Scottie Pippen of Central Arkansas, who had been drafted No. 5 just minutes earlier.

It wasn’t obvious at the time that Chicago had made one of the largest draft trades in league history. Pippen averaged just 20.9 minutes per game in his rookie season and would not become a regular starter until next year. However, just a few seasons later, Pippen and the Bulls set the NBA world on fire.

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