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NBA Daily: The History of Sacrificial Lambs

DeMar DeRozan is the latest in a long line of players traded before their team took a step up to the next level, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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In order to become great, you have to give up something good.

It sucks having to trade away something that you treasure, but as the Toronto Raptors have shown in these playoffs when you have the opportunity to assemble a championship team, that’s a sacrifice you have to make.

DeMar DeRozan was that sacrifice for Toronto. Although it appears that DeRozan has accepted the Raptors’ decision to trade him, it stings that the team that developed and featured him is one win away from its first NBA title without him.

Because of the team’s newfound success in the wake of its trade for Kawhi Leonard, DeMar has labeled himself as “the sacrificial lamb.'” Honestly, he’s not wrong. Whether Toronto finished off Golden State of not in these finals, they’ve reached a higher level with Kawhi than they ever would have with DeMar. In so doing, DeRozan joins the likes of Pete Best, Eduardo Saverin, Drew Bledsoe and Walter White as professionals who were cut out of their businesses just as said businesses were about to take off.

Toronto’s success makes DeRozan the modern example of a sacrificial lamb, but that does not make him the first one. For decades, NBA teams have used sacrificial lambs in an attempt to raise their ceiling enough to win a championship. This has oddly led to some mixed results.

The prime example of a sacrificial lamb dates all the way back to the first one back in 1956 with NBA Hall of Famer Ed Macauley. Macauley was one of the NBA’s best players in the 50’s, participating in multiple All-Star games and making multiple All-NBA teams with the Boston Celtics.

Macauley’s play on the court didn’t translate into much playoff success, as the furthest the Celtics got with him was the Division Finals – before it was called the conference finals. Despite Ed and his supporting cast featuring Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, it was clear the Celtics’ had a limited ceiling.

After being eliminated by the Syracuse Nationals in the 1956 semi-finals, Red Auerbach made what was perhaps the first truly shocking trade in NBA history: trading Macauley, along with the draft rights to Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the second overall pick in the draft, Bill Russell.

This trade was shocking for reasons both on and off the court. Macauley was one of the league’s most accomplished players, and Russell was a just a rookie. As a young black man, Russell starting his basketball career in Boston – a city notorious for its racism at the time with its professional sports teams being no exception – A lot was riding on this deal.

The gamble worked out better than anyone could have hoped. The Celtics put up the most dominant era we have ever seen in professional sports, and Russell became one of the most successful athletes of all time. This set the precedent for teams willing to part ways with their talented players for upgrades if it meant a championship was possible.

Over the next few decades, we saw teams sacrifice some of their best players to acquire NBA greats in their prime. Players like Darrall Imhoff, Flynn Robinson and Brian Winters were the centerpieces traded for Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respectively. Odds are, you’ve never heard of the players mentioned in the former, but they were talented players given up for something better in hopes of going the distance.

This was how the sacrificial lamb strategy operated until the 1980’s when the Pistons added a little variation to it. The Bad Boy Pistons put the league on notice in the mid-to-late-80’s. After suffering defeats at the hands of the Celtics and the Lakers, the Pistons knew they had to make one more alteration in order to get to the next level.

That started with trading Adrian Dantley, who once upon a time, was the player who originally put the Pistons on the map. Dantley was one of the NBA’s finest scorers of his era, whose specialty was his advanced ability to score despite his lack of size and athleticism. By 1988, he wasn’t necessarily making the Pistons worse, but what he demanded as a player on the court got in the way of them reaching their potential. Mid-season he was traded for a player with a very similar reputation in the NBA: Mark Aguirre.

Swapping Dantley for Aguirre was seen as a downgrade, and Aguirre’s numbers proved just that. However, the Pistons winning the next two championships after acquiring him showed that it was a necessary move. Aguirre may have been a scorer, but he didn’t demand the ball or as many minutes as Dantley, so the Pistons’ offense flowed more and the available minutes went to defensive mastermind Dennis Rodman.

Dantley, in summary, was the sacrificial lamb because less was more in this instance. The Pistons could have won the championship with Adrian anyway, but them winning two titles after trading him proves that the move was beneficiary. The sacrificial lamb doesn’t necessarily have to be about getting the better player, but about doing what’s best for the team.

For all the success that teams have had from making this sort of sacrifice, there is always the chance that pulling off this move doesn’t work out. But even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.

The Houston Rockets may not have had much success when they traded for Tracy McGrady, but they probably have no regrets since all they had to sacrifice was Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. The Lakers may have had to suffer through the “Dwightmare” in 2013, but all Dwight Howard cost was Andrew Bynum, who played 26 games total after Los Angeles traded him – Can you believe that guy is only 31?! Even more recently, the Celtics’ chances of keeping Kyrie Irving are slim, but even with all that Isaiah Thomas did for them, they would make that trade for Kyrie again in an instant.

Though it doesn’t happen often, sometimes, the sacrificial lamb gets the last laugh. Miami used Lamar Odom as the primary sacrificial lamb when they traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. Miami got what it wanted from Shaq two years later while Odom in that time got flamed for not helping the Lakers have playoff success.

That all went up in smoke when Odom played a huge role in the Lakers winning two championships and reaching three consecutive finals appearances. He wasn’t the primary factor, but he was the glue of those Lakers’ championships. Even if he had to pay a few dues first, being that sacrifice for the Heat wound up being the best turn for his career in the long run.

In others’ cases, being the sacrificial lamb isn’t exactly easy. In fact, it can be the worst. A fair amount of the time, the sacrificial lamb is a young player who is acquired in hopes of rebooting the franchise by replacing the star player who was traded for him. There are plenty of examples of this, but there may not be a better one than Al Jefferson.

Jefferson was a bright spot in a dismal Celtics season. After he evolved into one of the league’s most promising bigs, Boston traded him for Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. He went from one young rebuilding team to another while Boston went from the bottom all the way to the top. Things didn’t really turn around for him after that.

When Big Al started coming into his own in 2009, he tore his ACL mid-season. Even when the Timberwolves had brought in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, Jefferson was already off to Utah. Once he arrived, the Jazz were headed for a fallout with both Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. Al had himself a little hurrah in Charlotte, but it was too short and injuries got in the way again.

There aren’t that many players who had a long career who endured as many bad breaks as Jefferson did, and it all started when he was the sacrificial lamb for the Celtics back in 2007.

Being sacrificed so your previous team can have more success isn’t exactly what most players would want. DeMar DeRozan embraced Toronto through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like the others, it’s tough to miss out on so much success when you’re responsible for not only getting your former team in the spotlight in the first place but also being betrayed by your team when you could have done the same when you had the chance and elected not to.

At least he can take solace that he, like the others that were mentioned, helped form a team that will be remembered fondly forever.

That counts for something… doesn’t it?

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

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