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NBA PM: Biggest Deadline Deals in NBA History

The 2011 Carmelo Anthony deadline deal was one of the wildest ever, but where does it rank all time?

Joel Brigham profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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The trade deadline approaches and while there typically is no more exciting time for NBA fans hoping to see roster changes than perhaps the beginning of July, this year it is certainly starting to look like we’ll be lucky to see even one remotely significant deal go down in the coming six days.

Historically, fun things do tend to happen this time year, as the following list proves. These are the most significant February deals to have gone down in modern NBA history:

#10 – Miami gets itself a killer crossover (1996) – When Rick Adelman brought Tim Hardaway, one of the best point guards in the league at that time, off of the bench, he grew understandably upset and that discord led to a deadline swap that sent him to South Beach in exchange for Kevin Willis and Bimbo Coles. Miami got two All-Star seasons out of Hardaway, who helped lead a really tough HEAT team that also featured Alonzo Mourning, while Willis and Coles did considerably less out in Oakland.

#9 – The point guard carousel spins round and round (1999) – The trade that sent Sam Cassell to Milwaukee, Stephon Marbury to New Jersey and Terrell Brandon to Minnesota ended up being one of the largest trades in league history, but the impact for Milwaukee and New Jersey was especially noteworthy. The Nets ended up with Marbury, who injected some (short-lived) energy into the franchise, while Milwaukee got some good miles out of Cassell. In the history of the league there, haven’t been many trades where three starters at the same position have been shifted around in a single transaction but this one accomplished that. Only Minnesota really “lost” on this three-way deal, as Brandon faced loads of injury issues the rest of his career.

#8 – Seattle removes The Glove (2003) – This was an instance where probably the greatest Sonic of all time was shipped out for a great scorer in Ray Allen to avoid watching Gary Payton potentially walk away from the franchise for nothing as a free agent that summer. Milwaukee, meanwhile, hoped Payton would walk away following the season so they could cash in on the cap space his expiring contract would create. It impacted both franchises in a major way and has to be considered one of the bigger deadline deals ever. At the very least, it was jarring to see a Seattle lifer like Payton sent off to a new employer.

#7 – Cleveland gives up on Kevin Johnson (1988) – At the time, this pick made a ton of sense for the Cavaliers because Mark Price was simply too good to afford K.J. much playing time and Larry Nance filled a different positional need. But Phoenix came out the big winners here, as Johnson would eventually prove to be every bit the player Price was and more. As an added bonus, the draft pick Cleveland threw Phoenix’s way in this deal turned into Dan Majerle the following summer.

#6 – Houston acquires Houston legend Clyde Drexler (1995) – Drexler did just barely get himself a championship ring immediately following the deadline deal that saw Portland ship him and Tracy Murray to Houston in exchange for Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola and a 1995 first-round draft pick (Randolph Childress), but he’s not going to quibble about how he earns his jewelry. Drexler certainly put in his fair share of elite seasons over the course of his career, including two more All-Star appearances after the trade.

#5 – The Clippers trade away the pick that becomes Kyrie Irving (2011) – Even at the time, pundits scratched their heads over L.A. trading an unprotected first-round pick just to come away with an extra $11 million in cap room over two years, but that’s exactly what they did. The pick they traded away ended up being the top overall pick in the draft, which became Kyrie Irving, while all the extra cap space netted L.A. the talents of Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye. It ended up being a massive deadline deal and one of the worst trades of all time, period.

#4 – Philadelphia ups the defense with Dikembe Mutombo (2001) – Heading into the deadline as the Eastern Conference’s best team, the Sixers needed to make a deal for a big man to replace the injured Theo Ratliff. Somehow, they convinced Atlanta to take on Ratliff (as well as some other somewhat desirable pieces like Toni Kukoc and Nazr Mohammed) in exchange for Mutombo, who won Defensive Player of the Year that season and ended up playing an integral part in getting Philadelphia to the NBA Finals.

#3 – Detroit steals one-day Atlanta Hawk Rasheed Wallace (2004) – It’s hard for a deadline deal to result immediately in a championship because the team really only has about 30 games left in the season to jell well enough to make that a reality. However, the 2004 Pistons definitely made it work with Rasheed Wallace, who reinvigorated himself just in time to bring the team their first ring since Isiah Thomas was an all-world point guard for Detroit. When you consider the fact that all the Pistons gave up to get ‘Sheed was Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a first-round pick, this trade has proven to be one of all-time rip-offs in league history. Even weirder is that it was Atlanta who shipped Wallace off after having employed him for a single game.

#2 – New York sells the farm for Carmelo Anthony (2011) – In the five years since this deal went down, we’ve seen varying degrees of success from the players that Denver acquired as well as various degrees of success from the Anthony-led Knicks themselves. But the point is that in 2011, this really felt like one of the most significant and exciting trades of all time – deadline deal or otherwise. Wilson Chandler, Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov all left the Rockies for the Big Apple, as did three draft picks (none of which amounted to much for Denver) and some cash. In his prime, Anthony was a top-five player in the NBA. Those kinds of guys don’t get moved at the deadline often, which is what made 2011’s deadline so exciting.

#1 – L.A. lands Pau Gasol, wins championships (2008) – If Marc Gasol hadn’t transformed into an eventual All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year, this would have been one of the most lopsided deals in history. Considering that Marc was just a throw-in for this deal and that it could have been literally any “draft rights” guy in that spot, it may still be one of the dumbest deals ever from the Memphis perspective. Still, for the Lakers the acquisition of big brother Pau Gasol led to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two of which resulted in championships. The brother-for-brother narrative doesn’t hurt anything here either, especially considering how good Marc Gasol turned out to be too.

Honorable Mention:

Wizards trade Antawn Jamison to Cavaliers (2010) – While it didn’t pay the sort of dividends Cleveland would have liked (like winning a championship and keeping LeBron James in his home state), there’s no understating that this was a pretty huge trade for the Cavs at the time. It was tough to give up Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the deal, but he was immediately bought out by the Wizards, waited 30 days, and then returned to the Cavs. Essentially, Cleveland ended up with an All-Star forward for virtually nothing.

Nuggets trade Mark Jackson back to the Pacers (1997) – Donnie Walsh made the decision in the winter of 1997 to bring Jackson back to Indianapolis after having traded him to Denver just the season before. Seeing how much Indy dropped off the Eastern Conference map, it only made sense to bring Jackson back, and sure enough the Pacers were in the NBA Finals only a few years later. All it cost them (the second time) was Vincent Askew, Eddie Johnson and a second-round pick.

Sixers trade Jeff Hornacek to the Jazz (1994) – As good as John Stockton and Karl Malone made the Utah Jazz, it wasn’t until they added sharp-shooter Jeff Hornacek that they really started to look like a championship team. Hornacek added a whole new dimension to that team, while Jeff Malone—who they traded for Hornacek—wasn’t quite as valuable over the rest of his career.

Hornets trade Baron Davis to the Warriors (2005) – It was a relatively risky move for Golden State at the time considering how many injuries Davis had faced in his short career with the Hornets, but they only had to give up Dale Davis and Speedy Claxton to make it happen. Considering that a couple seasons later Baron’s Warriors would best the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in one of the most exciting first round series ever, it worked out fairly well for Golden State. That said, they never did get out of the second round with Davis at the helm—not that they had done much better before the trade.

Kings trade Chris Webber to the Sixers (2005) – Toward the end of his career, Webber still had enough gas in the tank to make a reasonable influence on his new team, but the Sixers were extremely disappointing with Webber on the roster. They lost in the first-round in 2005 and missed the 2006 playoffs completely.

Clippers trade Danny Manning to Hawks for Dominique Wilkins (1994) – It couldn’t have been easy to trade ‘Nique after 11 and a half seasons in Atlanta, but then-coach Lenny Wilkens felt that Manning would help the Hawks perform better during the playoff stretch. It didn’t work out though, as the top-seeded Hawks would lose in the second round to the Indiana Pacers. Those 26 games Manning played for the rest of the ’94 season were the only ones he’d ever play for Atlanta, but considering he’d never really be 100 percent healthy the rest of his professional career, that was probably a good thing.

Deadline day is unpredictable, and very often big-name players are swapped without any sort of warning in deals that completely blow our minds. These are the best of those deals, and for the sake of excitement, let’s hope this year’s deadline offers something just as thrilling.

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Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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