The biggest NBA GM mistakes ever made by each franchise
The job of a general manager in the NBA is a thankless job, one that is always criticized yet offers very little praise when you get the job done right. And when you fail, you are ridiculed and maligned beyond measure!
Well, sorry GMs, but that’s exactly what we plan to do as we recall your biggest blunders and greatest mishaps. These decisions were just so bad that the kindest words we can tell you is, “What were you thinking?”
So stop what you’re eating now ‘coz this list is going to make you throw up. Oh, and stop drinking, too. Otherwise, you might spew out coffee on your boss and he’ll find out you’re not really researching for that presentation after all.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the biggest, craziest, and ugliest GM mistakes ever made by every NBA franchise!
Biggest mistake: Trading Dominique Wilkins in 1994
I know, many would say that the Bill Russell trade in 1956 was the worst trade in Hawks history ever but the team still managed to win a championship with Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.
However, Dominique Wilkins was the Hawks’ franchise player when he was traded by GM Pete Babcock to the L.A. Clippers for Danny Manning.
He may not be the all-around player that Manning was but come on! This is the Human Highlight Film we’re talking about! Why trade a player of his stature in Atlanta for a player who’s got an expiring contract? Plus, Atlanta was in first place in the East with a 36-16 record when the trade happened.
The Hawks even added a 1994 first round draft pick.
Sure, Nique had an expiring contract as well and at age 34, he didn’t have many good years left in his tank. But out of respect for the player who was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, they should have given Wilkins the chance to negotiate with them and probably even retire in Atlanta.
During the summer, Manning left the team to join the Phoenix Suns and the Hawks were left with nothing to show for it. Bad move, Hawks.
Biggest mistake: Trading Antoine Walker and Tony Delk in 2003
The Celtics have rarely made mistakes but there were plenty during Danny Ainge’s early years as GM.
One trade that was totally baffling was the trade that brought in Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, and Chris Mills from the Mavericks in exchange for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. Walker was an All-Star and the first real superstar the Celtics had since Larry Bird. Delk was basically a back-up point guard but he was good at it. He once dropped 53 points in a game for the Phoenix Suns so you know he can score, too.
When Walker was dealt, Paul Pierce was left to man the fort, something he was incapable of doing without any help.
LaFrentz was supposedly the big catch here but he missed a lot of time due to injury but even when he did play, he still didn’t justify trading Walker. The Celtics were robbed in this trade.
Biggest mistake: Trading away draft picks for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry in 2013
The Brooklyn Nets wanted to win and win big in 2013. The owner wanted it and GM Billy King had to do it. They wanted to win with an aging core of players who had their best seasons behind them and it set the franchise back from which it has never recovered.
To facilitate this trade with the Celtics, the Nets had to give up draft picks for their Hall-of-Fame players and then some. Legends they may be, but they were on their last legs, too, trying to bring a championship to the franchise. Looking at the picks now in retrospect, the Nets surrendered the No. 17 pick in 2014, the No. 3 pick in 2016, the No. 1 pick in 2017, and a potential lottery pick in 2018.
This disaster of a deal is a lesson for NBA GMs who want to win now, which isn’t a guarantee, and suffer later.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS (formerly Charlotte Bobcats)
Biggest mistake: Drafting Adam Morrison in the 2006 draft
Michael Jordan became the head of basketball operations in 2006. Though Bernie Bickerstaff was the general manager, the blame for this falls squarely on Jordan’s shoulders.
Picking third in the 2006 draft, the Charlotte Bobcats selected Adam Morrison ahead of players such as Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, and Kyle Lowry. Morrison is perhaps the worst pick of the Bobcats/Hornets era as he failed to contribute anything of value to the franchise.
He was such a bad pick that he only played in the NBA for four seasons. As great of a player as he was, this was one of Mike’s biggest failures as an executive.
Biggest mistake: Letting Phil Jackson walk away in 1998
The 1998 Bulls team had just won its third straight NBA championship, it’s second such feat in eight years and they decided enough was enough.
What’s the rush, Jerry Krause? The late Bulls GM was so excited to prove that he could build a championship contender on his own that he blew up one of the greatest teams of all-time. Every other organization would want to keep the roster intact to stay on top as long as possible but not owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Krause.
Krause hated Phil Jackson (these days, so do a lot of people) and wanted him to leave as soon as possible. Phil was the glue that held the team together because Michael Jordan did not want to play for a new coach anymore. So out went Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, too, when Jackson and Jordan left.
To this day, the Bulls have not come anywhere near sniffing distance of a championship 20 years later.
Biggest mistake: Trading Ron Harper in 1989
The Cleveland Cavaliers had a shot at an NBA championship way before LeBron James was drafted in 2003. A lineup of Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, John “Hot Rod” Williams, and Brad Daugherty was as devastating as any five-man crew in the NBA in 1988.
Despite injuries to key players, Ron Harper kept the team afloat as their leading scorer before he was traded to the L.A. Clippers for Danny Ferry, the 1989 second round pick who refused to play for the team that drafted him. Harper was Michael Jordan-lite, someone who played above the rim and one of the most exciting shooting guards in the league at the time.
GM Wayne Embry thought he was getting another Larry Bird. Instead, the Cavs received nothing more than a quality backup small forward who could shoot from the outside and not the all-around player they envisioned he would become.
Rather than compete for a championship, the Cavaliers would be eliminated by the Bulls time and time again. Their championship window closed after they were swept by the Bulls 4-0 in the 1993 playoffs.
Ron Harper would go on to play more than four fruitful years with the Clippers and end his career with five championships combined with the Chicago Bulls and the L.A. Lakers.
Biggest mistake: Blowing up the 2011 title team
The Dallas Mavericks had just won an NBA championship in June of 2011 and yet there was no talk of them repeating. Why? Because Dallas did not want to pay the players to stay and so Mavs GM Donnie Nelson, with owner Mark Cuban pulling the strings, decided to let go of key players in J.J. Barea, Caron Butler, and Tyson Chandler.
As expected, Dallas never came close to the Finals ever again. Dirk Nowitzki never even got the chance to defend their championship and show everyone that their championship wasn’t a fluke.
A championship is never a guarantee so you try to sustain it for as long as possible. Apparently, one championship was enough for Cuban and Nelson.
These days, Nowitzki is still with Dallas just because he’s their franchise player, but the current team is as bad as it can get.
Biggest mistake: Drafting Raef LaFrentz at No. 3 in the 1998 draft
Dan Issel is another one of those great players turned terrible GMs. In 1998, he chose a big guy over more talented players. Someone should teach these GMs that bigger isn’t always better!
Just look at the names of those he passed up: Vince Carter, Jason Williams, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce.
Three of these four players would become All-Stars and perhaps Hall of Fame candidates while the other, Williams, re-energized the Sacramento Kings franchise and played on one of the better Vancouver Grizzlies teams in the 2000s.
LaFrentz, though, played for four NBA teams and was a serviceable big man who could shoot and rebound a bit but that’s all.
Biggest mistake: Drafting Darko Milicic in the 2003 draft
Joe Dumars was a great player and one of the more competent executives when he became the Detroit Pistons’ GM. But everyone has a bad hair day.
In the 2004 NBA Draft, one of the deepest and best drafts ever, Dumars selected an unknown international player with the second pick when Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade were available.
Worse yet, almost every pick from the first round was better than what the Pistons received with Darko Milicic.
The Pistons were just crowned NBA champions and this was an opportunity to make them younger and more competitive for the next few years with a future franchise player. Not too many NBA champions get a shot at one of the top two picks in the next draft, but Detroit managed to blow this one.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Biggest mistake: Trading Mitch Richmond in 1991
Run TMC was the coolest nickname for an NBA team’s big three. No team in the NBA could outshoot and outgun Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin, three superstars who had no trouble sharing the spotlight or the basketball.
Coach Don Nelson had a core group of players that loved playing with one another. What more could you ask for? The problem was, the Warriors needed a big man to complement their perimeter attack and there was no help in sight.
After only three years together, Nelson, who was also the GM, decided to trade Richmond to the Kings to acquire a young big man by the name of Billy Owens. As good as Owens was, even he wasn’t enough to get the Warriors deeper in the playoffs.
In Sacramento, Richmond went on to become one of the best players in the NBA. He became an All-Star MVP and averaged more than 20 points for seven more years with the Kings.
At the time of the trade, Nelson said it was “the toughest decision” he had ever made. And it was just as hard for us too, Nellie. Even now.
Biggest mistake: Trading Moses Malone in 1982
The Houston Rockets, under GM Ray Patterson, traded Moses Malone to the Sixers for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round draft pick. Malone was the league’s MVP the year before! Why would anyone in their right mind trade an MVP for a center whose best days were behind him?
No one! And even if you were to trade him, the asking price should have been another MVP-type player or at least an All-Star.
Moses would soon lead the Sixers to the Promised Land the next year, giving Dr. J his first NBA championship.
Jones, in the meantime, would only stay for two seasons before moving to Chicago, Portland, and San Antonio.
Biggest mistake: Trading Alex English in 1980
GM Slick Leonard and the Indiana Pacers were reminiscing about the days when George McGinnis led them to back-to-back ABA championships in 1972 and 1973 that they traded for him in exchange for Alex English and a first-round draft pick.
That sentimentality would cost them dearly.
But this was 1980, and McGinnis was at the tail end of his career. He would only play two more seasons for the Pacers before he retired.
English, on the other hand, became one of the best players in the 1980’s, scoring at least 25 points per game for seven consecutive seasons and at least 20 points for 10 straight years.
Biggest mistake: Drafting Michael Olowokandi in the 1998 draft
When you’re not sure about who to draft, you go big, right? And Olowokandi was as big as they come. Drafted first overall in 1998 by Elgin Baylor, the Kandi Man looked like a franchise player at 7 feet. The problem is, he just looked the part.
Olowokandi suffered through several injuries but even when he was healthy, he didn’t play like the star they thought he was going to be.
What’s worse is the Clippers passed up on some quality players such as Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce who are all worthy of the first pick of the draft.
Carter became a worldwide icon as a Toronto Raptor. Can you imagine how big of a star he would have been in L.A.?
Biggest mistake: Trading Shaquille O’Neal in 2004
The Lakers just lost the NBA championship in the 2004 NBA Finals. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were still in their primes but were feuding. Rather than fix the issue between the two players, Lakers ownership decided to trade one of them and Shaq had to go since he was older.
Rather than trade him for another franchise player, GM Mitch Kupchak decided to trade him for a bunch of very good players in Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a couple of draft picks.
In the NBA’s math, however, three very good players never equal one transcendent player.
The Lakers would flounder for the next three years prompting Bryant to demand a trade in 2006. Things got better for them later on as the gift of Pau Gasol fell in their laps in 2008 after a lopsided trade with the Grizzlies.
Speaking of the Grizzlies…
Biggest mistake: Drafting Hasheem Thabeet in the 2009 draft
I was tempted to choose the trade with the Lakers for Pau Gasol, but there was a more idiotic move from the franchise in 2009.
Perhaps Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace thought he was drafting the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon. But Hasheem had very little in common with the Hall-of-Famer other than they were both centers and their names sounded the same.
The players he passed up on? James Harden, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, and DeMar DeRozan to name a few. Any of those four players could have changed the franchise’s fortunes in the immediate future.
Despite being 7-foot-3, Thabeet averaged no more than 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, both accomplished during his rookie season. Curry would become a two-time MVP and an NBA champion while Harden has been an MVP candidate since moving to the Rockets. DeRozan is now the Raptors’ star player while Evans is playing one of his best seasons this year.
As for Thabeet, he would jump from team to team and be out of the league in five years.
Clearly, Wallace drafted one of the worst second picks of any draft in NBA history.
Biggest mistake: Drafting Michael Beasley at No. 2 in the 2008 draft
The Miami Heat have drafted some great players and have generally made some wise decisions over the course of their franchise’s history. But in 2008, GM Randy Pfund made one of the biggest mistakes of his career with the Heat.
By drafting Michael Beasley with the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, he passed up on some of the best players in today’s game such as Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Serge Ibaka, George Hill, DeAndre Jordan, and Goran Dragic. In fact, other players such as Danilo Gallinari, Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert and Javale McGee could have helped the Heat, too!
And what about that potential backcourt tandem of Westbrook and Dwyane Wade? That’s probably the toughest and scariest backcourt in the history of the NBA!
Ten years later, Beasley has bounced from one team to another, never realizing the potential the Heat saw in him.
Westbrook and Wade. Still can’t get over that one.
Biggest mistake: Trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s best big man and already one of the all-time greats in 1975. For someone who led the franchise to an NBA title, the Bucks should have received more than what they got from the Lakers.
The Lakers had to “give up” Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman to obtain the 7-foot-2 legend. There’s a reason why those names don’t ring a bell to even the most avid NBA fans. If you are going to trade a once-a-generation player, you need to receive a similar player in return.
The Bucks GM Wayne Embry didn’t follow that unwritten rule and paid dearly for it. They would watch Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers win five NBA championships in the 1980’s while the most the Bucks could do was lose in the Eastern Conference Finals at best and miss the playoffs altogether at worst.
Biggest mistake: Drafting Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in the 2009 draft
Ok so David Kahn actually drafted three point guards in the first round of the 2009 draft but Ty Lawson doesn’t count because he was taken much later and he was traded anyway.
But how can Kahn select two point guards back-to-back at No. 5 and No. 6 without taking Stephen Curry? The Warriors happily took him at No. 7 and are now two-time NBA champions in this decade mostly because of Curry.
Rubio has since been moved to the Utah Jazz and Flynn only played three seasons in the league.
As for Kahn, maybe he should have been called Kahn’t because he could not do his job right.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (formerly Charlotte Hornets)
Biggest mistake: Trading Kobe Bryant in 1996
Kobe Bryant was one of the first high school players to enter the NBA Draft, just a year after Kevin Garnett tried and succeeded modestly. In 1996, the Hornets picked Bryant and GM Bob Bass shipped him off immediately to L.A. like he had the plague!
Never mind that Bryant wanted to play for the Lakers only, even though he says that they never wanted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell who’s telling the truth here but the fact was, the Hornets had Bryant in their hands.
Charlotte may have gotten a veteran big man and one of the best during that era in Vlade Divac, but Kobe turned out to be one of the greatest players ever. This was as lopsided a trade as they come.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Biggest mistake: Trading Patrick Ewing in 2000
You do not trade a legend like Patrick Ewing even if he was on the last legs of his career. But GM Scott Layden did it anyway and it is one of the most disrespectful deeds you can ever do to someone of Ewing’s stature.
Sure he was not as good as he once was but he should have been surrounded with younger, complementary players. The Spurs did it with Tim Duncan and the Knicks should have thought of it back in 2000.
Instead, the Knicks traded Patrick Ewing, Chris Dudley, and a 2001 first round pick for Glen Rice, Travis Knight, Vernon Maxwell, Vladimir Stepania, Luc Longley, Lazaro Borrell, and four draft picks to the Seattle Supersonics.
Jason DiStefano of Fadeaway World adds that the Knicks also “took a 90-million-dollar cap hit till the year 2004. Many people consider this trade the beginning of the downfall of the New York Knicks organization in the 21st century, as the organization was never really able to deal with that cap hit.”
While there are many dumb and dumber trades and draft picks over the years in Knicks history, this move was the worst one.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Biggest mistake: Trading James Harden in 2012
Boy, that 2011 Oklahoma City Thunder team that reached the NBA Finals was loaded wasn’t it?
Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden were supposed to form the core of the Thunder’s future. But in 2012, Sam Presti couldn’t reach an agreement with Harden on an extension.
So off he went to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. When you consider that Harden has been playing at an MVP level for the past three years, you have to scratch your head and shake that finger at Presti telling him, “You should have gotten more for Harden!” Or you should have at least given him a better offer.
Every bucket that Harden makes for the Rockets must be painful for OKC fans.
If the Thunder had kept Westbrook, Durant, and Harden together all these years, there’s no question they would have challenged the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy every year and in the years to come.
Biggest mistake: Lowballed Shaquille O’Neal and lost him to the Lakers in 1996
It was the summer of ‘96 and the Orlando Magic had just been spanked by the rampaging Chicago Bulls with a 4-0 sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals but the future was still bright for this young team.
Shaquille O’Neal was a free agent and GM John Gabriel had the chance to negotiate a deal that would keep him in a Magic uniform for the foreseeable future.
Instead of serenading his accomplishments and expressing their gratitude to him, the Magic lowballed Shaq while criticizing his rebounding and defense that were declining since his first few years in the league. This was the Magic’s ploy not to give in to Shaq’s $20 million per year request rather than their $13.5 million offer.
In other words, they disrespected a man whose primary need was to be appreciated. So, when the Lakers finally got their act together, O’Neal bolted for L.A. and never looked back.
But I’m sure the Magic have been looking back ever since, hoping they did things differently.
Biggest mistake: Trading Moses Malone in 1986
What’s worse than trading away your Finals MVP, former NBA MVP, and All-Star center? Trading him away with Terry Catledge, the 21st pick in the 1986 draft, and a first-round pick in 1988 for an injury-prone Jeff Ruland and a three-year rental in Cliff Robinson.
Malone feuded with the coach and the team was far from its 1983 NBA championship form, but Pat Williams should have gotten far more out of the trade than what they received. Rather than return to the Finals, the Sixers floundered the next few years, making the playoffs most times, but bowed out early each time they made it.
As for Malone, he played at an All-Star level for the next five or six more years.
Biggest mistake: Traded Charles Barkley in 1996
Charles Barkley is a Hall of Fame player and one who demonstrated that fact throughout his career. When he came to the Suns before the 1992-93 season started, it completely changed the franchise. They immediately went to the Finals in 1993 before his good friend Jordan defeated them in six highly-contested games.
Later, Barkley picked a fight with owner Jerry Colangelo which practically sealed his fate. Plus, the Suns weren’t getting any better as a team and their championship window had closed by 1996.
So Colangelo’s son Bryan, the team’s GM, decided to ship him off to Houston for Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Mark Bryant, and Chucky Brown. Horry and Cassell are wonderful players in their own right, but neither of them was anywhere close to being the franchise player that Barkley was.
Barkley was the face of the franchise and even if you can’t work things out with your best player, you don’t trade him for a bunch of good role players.
This wasn’t just a bad deal. It was terrible!
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Biggest mistake: Drafting Greg Oden in 2007
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
That’s exactly why drafting Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft isn’t as bad as this one. The Portland Trail Blazers got suckered for the second time and it was GM Kevin Pritchard’s fault.
Greg Oden was huge and his potential to be great was there. But Kevin Durant was the national player of the year, winning the John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. Why wait for someone to reach his potential when someone who was already the best in the nation was already available? And he was just a freshman in college!
Oden is no longer in the NBA and Durant is still playing for the Warriors and arguably the second-best player in the planet.
Sorry, Blazers, but you can’t justify this one this time.
Biggest mistake: Trading DeMarcus Cousins in 2017
DeMarcus Cousins was the Sacramento Kings’ best player and arguably the best center in the NBA in 2017.
But during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, GM Vlade Divac and the Kings were working out details of a trade that would send Cousins and Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans for Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Buddy Hield, a 2017 1st round draft pick and a 2017 2nd round draft pick. Those picks resulted in Zach Collins and Frank Mason. Who?
And this was just a little more than a week after Divac said they weren’t trading Cousins.
Did I mention that you shouldn’t trade a franchise player without getting one in return?
It’s an unwritten rule (I think I said this before, right?), but it’s one that general managers keep breaking over and over again.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Biggest mistake: Trading Dennis Rodman in 1995
Back when Gregg Popovich was the general manager for the San Antonio Spurs in 1995, he made a huge mistake by trading away Dennis Rodman, the league’s leading rebounder for the past four years, to the Chicago Bulls for backup center Will Perdue.
Sure, Rodman was a headache for the Spurs but he was a player who could help bring a championship with his hustle, defense, and rebounding.
He may not be a franchise player, but the Spurs just wanted to get rid of The Worm as soon as they could, and the Bulls were happy to take them off of their hands. The Spurs could have gotten more for him such as a draft pick or two.
Rodman led the NBA in rebounding once again during his years in Chicago and helped bring three consecutive championships to the Windy City.
As for Will Perdue, he was a nice backup center but nothing more.
Biggest mistake: Trading Vince Carter in 2004
Vince Carter brought respectability to the Toronto Raptors at a time when the Canadian teams (the Vancouver Grizzlies was the other) were struggling to fit in with their American counterparts.
He was the second coming of Michael Jordan and he was in Canada. They even had a cool nickname for him like Jordan did—Air Canada.
But a feud with his coach resulted in plenty of bench time for Carter and he was sulking as bad as any player who didn’t get along with a coach. Naturally, the Raptors’ record of 8-17 showed how badly they needed a boost.
GM Rob Babcock decided that it was best to trade the player rather than fire the coach.
So, in December of 2004, Babcock sent Carter packing to the Nets in exchange for a health-risked Alonzo Mourning who didn’t want to play for the Raptors anyway, Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and two first-round picks.
It was such a lopsided deal that the Raptors have never again become as relevant as they were then. Even as the 2017-18 team has become one of the best teams in the NBA, the magic that Air Canada brought to Toronto has never been matched ever since.
Carter is the greatest player in the history of the Raptors franchise.
Biggest mistake: Trading Dominique Wilkins in 1982
Dominique Wilkins, the Human Highlight Film, was drafted by the Utah Jazz with the third pick in the 1982 draft. But Wilkins didn’t want to be there especially if they were going to play him at the power forward spot.
The Jazz also needed cash at the time GM Frank Layden traded him to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for John Drew, Freeman Williams, and $1 million cash.
Drew was the primary piece for the Jazz and he played well in 1982-83, averaging 21.2 points per game. But his performance would dip in the next two seasons and he was out of the league by December of 1984 because of drug addiction.
Meanwhile, Wilkins soared as an Atlanta Hawk, as he would lead the league in scoring in his fourth season in the league while averaging more than 21 points per game for 11 consecutive seasons. By the end of his career, ‘Nique was a nine-time All-Star, a 7-time All-NBA team member, and one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Biggest mistake: Trading Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond in 1999
Wes Unseld was the GM of the Washington Bullets/Wizards in 1999 when he traded one of the best big men in the game in Chris Webber for the Sacramento Kings’ Mitch Richmond. It wasn’t that big of a deal at the time because Richmond was a perennial All-Star and a 20-points per game scorer throughout his career.
Webber, on the other hand, wasn’t as indispensable since they still had Juwan Howard who plays the same position as he does.
The problem was, Richmond’s body started breaking down that year in Washington and during his time with the Wizards, he was a shell of himself while Webber enjoyed the best years of his career in Sacramento.
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