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Few regrets in life are more haunting than the one that got away.
That’s just as true for NBA teams as it is for hopeless romantics. Dig through their transaction log, and you’re sure to find at least one player they cut loose far too quickly.
A few particulars before we get started. Players had to pass through the organization in some capacity to be considered. In other words, players who were traded as future draft picks won’t be considered, but those involved in draft-night deals are fair game. Also, since this list focuses on players that teams gave up on, anyone who forced his way out through a trade request is off the table, too.
With those parameters in place, let’s drown in our collective sorrows and reminisce about these crushing roster regrets.
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There’s only so much buyer’s remorse a franchise can feel about a trade that brought back an All-Star, but the Hawks will forever wonder what could have been had they just kept Luka Doncic on draft night in 2018.
Granted, they didn’t leave that exchange with nothing. Trae Young is one of the league’s most exciting young players, and Cam Reddish flashed intriguing two-way ability as a rookie, but they aren’t Doncic. He’s in the middle of authoring the best age-20 season in NBA history (highest player efficiency rating, most win shares per 48 minutes of anyone who played 1,500-plus minutes), and he’s already showing a genius-level hoops IQ.
“He’s a step ahead in a chess match,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per NBA.com’s Shaun Powell. “He’s different. He’s got this incredible knack for seeing the floor and knowing what’s coming next. … Gonna be a cornerstone in this league for a long time.”
Young might be an annual All-Star, but Doncic could be a yearly top-five finisher in MVP voting. As tough as it is to land a superstar, Atlanta let one slip through its fingers and out of its draft-night hat.
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The Boston Celtics had the bottom line in mind when they engineered a pair of trades during the 2019 draft.
After taking Matisse Thybulle at No. 20, the Shamrocks shipped him to the Philadelphia 76ers for the Nos. 24 and 33 picks. They then sent the No. 24 pick with Aron Baynes to Phoenix Suns for a future first-rounder—and, more importantly, to create enough cap space to chase a max player.
That maneuvering eventually led the Celtics to Kemba Walker, so they probably aren’t second-guessing that decision. But it won’t be easy watching Thybulle’s disruptive defense prop up an Atlantic Division rival.
Long, athletic and instinctual, he’s already climbing the ladder of the league’s top stoppers. He’s the only player in the top 25 of steals per game playing less than 24 minutes per game (he’s averaging 19.5), and he has the fourth-most deflections per 36 minutes of anyone who has logged at least 1,000 minutes. Those should be eye-opening numbers, but they feel like par for the course for the reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
The Celtics aren’t exactly hurting without him, as they sit fourth in defensive efficiency. But being able to deploy him alongside Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could’ve been the cheat code that transformed this team into a mobile stone wall.
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The Brooklyn Nets’ biggest problems with impatience manifested in the reckless sacrifice of future draft picks. But since those are excluded from this exercise, we can’t point fingers at them for throwing away first-rounders that would become Jaylen Brown and Collin Sexton, or the one traded for Jayson Tatum.
Instead, we’ll spotlight the Nets’ first attempt to accelerate their rebuild with the 2011 blockbuster move for Deron Williams. They sent two future first-round picks to the Utah Jazz along with Derrick Favors, the 2010 No. 3 overall pick, who was all of 56 games into his career.
While Favors never quite developed into a star, he’s been one of the league’s steadier bigs for more than a decade. An earlier move to play center full-time could have helped his stat sheet—he doesn’t fit the definition of a modern power forward—but even still, he cemented himself as an active rebounder, a tough defender in the post, a rim protector and an interior finisher.
Williams made only one All-Star appearance for the Nets, signed a five-year, $98.8 million deal in 2012, struggled with injuries, drastically declined and was bought out in 2015. He posted a PER above 18 only twice for the Nets; Favors is clearing that mark for the sixth time in seven seasons.
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With all due respect to Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, the Charlotte Hornets are still searching for the protagonist of the post-Kemba Walker era. It didn’t have to be this way.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander loomed as the perfect replacement. He even played Walker’s same position, only the youngster had the flexibility to suit up at multiple spots.
When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Gilgeous-Alexander as the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft, he had the makings of someone who could both improve the outlook with Walker and potentially man the spotlight if Buzz City’s star opted for a scenery change in 2019 free agency. But that dream was dashed almost immediately, as the Hornets moved Gilgeous-Alexander on draft night for the 12th overall pick, Miles Bridges, and a pair of second-rounders.
Bridges looks solid, but his ceiling seemingly stops well shy of stardom, and Charlotte would need a miracle to turn those second-rounders into stars. Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander keeps climbing the ranks of the league’s best young players.
The 21-year-old piloted a playoff offense last season with the Los Angeles Clippers. This year, he’s handling off-ball duties and serving as the top scoring option of the fifth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Spencer Dinwiddie’s blink-and-you-missed-it tenure in the Windy City actually spanned two contracts.
He arrived in a June 2016 trade for Cameron Bairstow, but the Chicago Bulls waived him a few weeks later to carve out more cap space for free agency. Dinwiddie then impressed in summer league and inked a nonguaranteed deal shortly thereafter, only to be waived again in October.
He latched on with the Nets that December and has never looked back. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.1 assists in 2016-17, and since then, he has more than doubled his assists (6.8) and added nearly four points per game to his scoring output each season (he’s now up to 20.6).
Prior to the arrival of rookie Coby White, Chicago has effectively been searching for a point guard throughout Dinwiddie’s rise. Instead of just keeping him around, the Bulls went into that season with Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant and Isaiah Canaan all claiming backcourt jobs.
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Danny Green has been among the league’s most reliable role players for the better part of a decade, but it wasn’t always that way.
Drafted 46th overall in 2009, the UNC product struggled to find his fit on a Cavaliers team trying (and ultimately failing) to keep LeBron James happy ahead of his first free-agency venture. Green played only 115 minutes across 20 games as a rookie. When he returned for his sophomore season, James, head coach Mike Brown and general manager Danny Ferry were all gone.
Green didn’t make it through training camp—the Cavs waived him in mid-October—and he suited up in the G League and in Slovenia before he found a permanent NBA home with the San Antonio Spurs. He has since won a pair of championships while emerging as one of the game’s three-and-D greats.
“I had to learn that I’m not that special,” Green told Spurs.com’s Lorne Chan in 2015. “I may be talented, but I’m not the most talented in the world. And some of the most talented players don’t even make it. I had to have a higher IQ and outwork everyone.”
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Can the grass ever be greener than a championship roster? Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seemed to think so.
In 2011, Dallas was coming off the best season in franchise history: 57 wins, top-10 efficiency ranks on offense and defense and a long-awaited NBA championship. Interior anchor Tyson Chandler played a super-sized role in that success, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki in net rating differential (the Mavericks were 6.7 points better per 100 possessions with Chandler than without).
Free agency awaited Chandler that offseason—which was delayed by the lockout—and it seemed like a no-brainer for Dallas to keep him next to Nowitzki for as a long as possible. But the Mavs had other ideas, namely remaining as flexible as possible for future free-agency pursuits.
“The CBA (new collective bargaining agreement) changed everything,” Cuban told reporters in 2012. “We did what we thought we had to do, not because we wanted to do it.”
Dallas went big-game hunting in free agency seemingly every offseason thereafter and never hit its target. Chandler took a four-year, $52 million deal with the New York Knicks and immediately captured Defensive Player of the Year honors. He wound up spending the last season of that deal back in Dallas after a June 2014 trade, but the Mavericks didn’t have a contending-caliber roster by then.
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The Denver Nuggets might want to start ducking the Utah Jazz on draft night.
In 2013, Denver snagged Rudy Gobert with the 27th pick and promptly sent him to Utah for Erick Green (out of the NBA since 2016) and cash. In 2017, the Nuggets used the No. 13 pick on Donovan Mitchell and moved him to the Jazz for Trey Lyles (now a San Antonio Spur) and No. 24 overall pick Tyler Lydon (no longer in the NBA).
Now, would Denver have drafted and developed Gobert and Mitchell had it kept the picks? Neither would have filled an obvious need, so perhaps the answer is no. But here’s where we remind you that drafting for need over taking the best player available is almost always a bad idea.
The Nuggets presumably felt they didn’t need Gobert because they already had Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee in the frontcourt. That’s a brutal miscalculation. The same goes for wondering whether there’s room for Mitchell with Gary Harris, Will Barton and Malik Beasley around.
Gobert and Mitchell have transformed the Jazz into contenders. Even if there would’ve been some overlap, imagine what either one—let alone both—could’ve done for the Nuggets.
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The Detroit Pistons have been searching for an impact wing for approximately…ever. Is this their punishment for discarding Khris Middleton in a July 2013 swap ostensibly headlined by Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings?
Clearly, Detroit didn’t realize what it was giving away.
Middleton barely hit the hardwood as a rookie, averaging only 6.1 points in 17.6 minutes over 27 games. But the Milwaukee Bucks entrusted him with a starting spot as a sophomore, and he’s been surging ever since. He averaged 12.1 points in 30.0 minutes that season, 13.4 in 30.1 the next and has been on an almost consistent climb from there.
He’s currently costarring for the league leader in wins and net efficiency rating. He’s equal parts scorer, stopper and sharpshooter. His 21.1 points per game are a new career high, and he’s right on the cusp of joining the 50/40/90 club (49.9/41.8/90.8 slash). ESPN.com’s real plus-minus metric rates him 25th overall this season, directly ahead of Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid.
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If there’s a downside to building a dynasty, it’s the limited access to high-upside prospects.
This past draft was the first in which the Golden State Warriors have added multiple players since 2012. They didn’t add any in 2013, 2014 or 2017. That dearth of up-and-comers proved a glaring weakness this season, as the Warriors didn’t have many youngsters to develop with their stars sidelined by injuries.
Kendrick Nunn should have been among them. Before he was bolstering the Miami Heat’s playoff resume, he was giving buckets to the Warriors’ G League affiliate in Santa Cruz. He averaged 19.3 points in 29.0 minutes per game with a 47.3/33.5/85.6 slash line in 2018-19.
Nunn’s agent, Adam Pensack, told The Athletic’s David Aldridge that he “pushed pretty strongly for a 10-day (NBA contract),” but the Warriors were already in the luxury tax and didn’t have an open roster spot. So, the Heat swooped in and swiped Nunn with a three-year deal last April.
Nunn is now only the sixth rookie in NBA history to average at least 15 points, three assists and two three-pointers, while the Warriors appear woefully short on young talent.
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In 2011, the Rockets deemed Marcus Morris Sr. worthy of the 14th overall pick. By the 2013 trade deadline, that valuation had apparently changed, as they let the Phoenix Suns have him for only a second-round pick (later spent on Isaiah Canaan).
What happened in between? That’s a good question.
Morris barely saw the floor as a rookie, and when he did, it wasn’t pretty (2.4 points per game on 29.6/11.8/75.0 shooting across 17 appearances). But he found his footing as a sophomore and had upped his output to 8.6 points on 42.8/38.1/65.3 shooting before the deal.
Still, the Rockets moved him out to clear the way for 2012 No. 5 overall pick Thomas Robinson, who wound up playing only 19 games in Houston and hasn’t had an NBA gig since 2017.
Morris, meanwhile, just sparked a bidding war between contenders anxious to add his two-way versatility. The Los Angeles Clippers cast the winning bid, which netted the New York Knicks a 2020 first-rounder, 2021 first-round swap rights, a 2021 second-round pick and Maurice Harkless.
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Indiana Pacers fans, you knew this was coming. Let’s just yank off the Band-Aid and get through this, OK?
The abbreviated summary of the 2011 draft-night swap is brutal. Indiana took Kawhi Leonard 15th overall, and traded him—along with the No. 42 pick (sharpshooter Davis Bertans)—to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill.
But it gets worse. As badly as the Pacers coveted Hill, whom they viewed as the ideal point guard in their system, they sensed something special about Leonard.
“Indiana loved Kawhi Leonard,” Zach Lowe relayed in a 2013 Grantland article. “The Pacers had him about No. 5 or No. 6 on their draft board, and they thought very hard about scrapping the Hill deal and just taking a guy they never expected to be alive at No. 15.”
The Pacers did the deal anyway, in part due to questions of how Leonard would fit with Paul George—his now teammate on the Los Angeles Clippers—and Danny Granger, whose knees betrayed him shortly thereafter.
Hill had a fine run in the Circle City, but Leonard has ascended to superstardom. The 28-year-old is already a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Finals MVP.
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Eric Bledsoe, the 18th overall pick in 2010, couldn’t spread his wings behind Chris Paul. The Clippers couldn’t see the two coexisting, either. Bledsoe logged 1,553 minutes in 2012-13—his last season in L.A.—and he spent all but 186 of them away from Paul.
With Paul now excelling in two and even three point guard lineups on the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s fascinating to think what kind of havoc he could’ve created with Bledsoe. Defensively, they would have been a nightmare for opponents, and Paul’s passing might have brought the best out of Bledsoe’s athleticism.
But the Clippers deemed shooting a more dire need, so they sent Bledsoe packing in a July 2013 three-team trade. He wound up in Phoenix, while the Clippers added JJ Redick and Jared Dudley.
Bledsoe actually landed in a multi-point guard system, but the Suns never could quite get the other pieces to line up. They eventually moved him to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he’s become a key cog for a title contender.
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This gets complicated for the Los Angeles Lakers, as all of their early subtractions were either followed by or coincided with enormous additions. They never got the best out of Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball, but considering they flipped both for Anthony Davis, it’s tough to argue with the result.
D’Angelo Russell is in a similar boat. When L.A. used him to anchor the 2017 Timofey Mozgov salary dump, it had all eyes on the 2018 free-agent market.
“We were able to get amazing salary-cap relief and space so that in July 2018, we have the ability to add hopefully two max-salary players to our franchise,” general manager Rob Pelinka told reporters.
July 2018 is when LeBron James arrived, so that cap space proved critical. But the Lakers still sold low on Russell.
They never quite gave him complete control of the offense (he averaged 28.5 minutes with them), and his numbers were held in check. Two seasons after his departure, his per-game production blew up to 21.1 points and 7.0 assists, the kind of numbers that could’ve done a lot more than sweeten a cost-cutting transaction.
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Want to know a good indication that a trade probably didn’t work out so well for your team? When the executive on the other side of the swap considers it the best move of his career.
Even though the Rockets have been separated from Kyle Lowry for nearly a decade, Daryl Morey still chuckles at the point guard’s trade price. The Memphis Grizzlies had kept Lowry on a short leash, and they deemed him expendable after selecting Mike Conley with the No. 4 overall pick in 2007.
So, Morey’s Rockets swooped in to land Lowry—someone they had targeted for years—in a deal that somehow only cost them Rafer Alston. Meanwhile, Memphis walked away from the February 2009 three-teamer with Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and a 2009 first-rounder later used on DeMarre Carroll.
Foyle made a three-minute appearance and was waived. Wilks arrived injured and never suited up for the Grizzlies. Carroll eventually proved a nice find as the 27th overall pick, but Memphis traded him long before he found his NBA niche.
Lowry just made his sixth straight All-Star appearance. Last season, he co-starred for the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. He’s been an All-NBA third-teamer and a six-time conference Player of the Week. Had he played out his career in Memphis and posted the same numbers, he’d be the franchise’s all-time leader in points (13,381), assists (5,623) and steals (1,226).
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Miami has a potent player development program and usually doesn’t let a hidden gem out of its grasp, but Patrick Beverley stands out as the one that got away.
The Heat traded for him during the 2009 draft and brought him to training camp in 2010 after two productive years in Europe. His trademark hustle and defense turned heads in South Beach, but he couldn’t survive the roster cuts of the superteam that had just entered championship-or-bust mode.
Beverley wouldn’t make it back to the Association until January 2013, when Houston picked him up. He thrived almost immediately. It took him less than a month to lock down a regular rotation role, and when the postseason rolled around, he started five of the Rockets’ six games and played 33.3 minutes per night.
He’s been a full-time starter almost ever since, and his resume features a pair of All-Defensive honors. He has this season’s 22nd-highest raw plus-minus at plus-262 over 1,299 minutes.
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Is it possible for a team with an .800-plus winning percentage to second-guess anything? Absolutely.
The Bucks don’t exactly seem to be missing Malcolm Brogdon, but he’d only make them stronger had they kept him around. There were stretches last postseason where he was Milwaukee’s second-best player. His ability to blend his game with others made him an invaluable contributor at both ends of the court.
He was a restricted free agent last summer. The Bucks controlled his situation, and keeping him came down to dollars and cents.
“Because Milwaukee owned Brogdon’s Bird rights, it could have kept him at a cost of nothing but ownership’s money,” SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell wrote. “Milwaukee had the chance to sign [Khris] Middleton, [Brook] Lopez, [Eric] Bledsoe and Brogdon, but it simply chose not to.”
The Bucks sign-and-traded Brogdon to the Pacers, who have received the best volume contributions of his career. He’s averaging personal bests in points (16.3), assists (7.1) and rebounds (4.7), and his 17.8 PER would rank as the fourth-best in Milwaukee.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves decided they could only be Timberpups for so long.
Their patient rebuild was rushed into fast-forward from the moment Tom Thibodeau arrived, and today was suddenly more important than tomorrow. Rather than banking on internal growth, Minnesota made a major move for an accelerator, packing Zach LaVine with Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen in a June 2017 trade for Jimmy Butler.
The Wolves had the instant gratification of a drought-snapping playoff trip in 2018, but the good times were short-lived. They were bounced from the postseason in five games, and they melted down shortly thereafter. Butler forced his way out in November 2018, and Thibodeau was axed the following January.
After LaVine worked his way back from an ACL tear, he skyrocketed his stats in the Windy City. He’s one of only 16 players averaging 24 points, four assists and four rebounds since the start of last season, leaving Timberwolves fans—and himself—to wonder what could have been had Minnesota practiced patience.
“It would have been Kris Dunn, me, Andrew [Wiggins], [Karl-Anthony Towns] and Lauri because that was their pick,” LaVine told CBS Sports’ James Herbert in 2018. “That’s a pretty good young lineup right there.”
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Give the New Orleans Pelicans credit: They left few stones unturned in their attempt to surround Anthony Davis with as much talent as possible. But when you’re constantly pursuing win-now purchases, you’ll inevitably miss out on some intriguing young players along the way.
That’s how a player like Buddy Hield, the sixth overall pick in 2016, arrives to and departs from the same franchise in less than a calendar year. Even if he wasn’t Buddy Buckets during his short stay in the Crescent City, he still had enough appeal to anchor the Pels’ February 2017 trade for DeMarcus Cousins.
New Orleans didn’t have enough time to make a playoff push with Cousins in his first season, and his second ended abruptly with a torn Achilles. He wouldn’t get a third go-round with the group, as the Pels let him walk in 2018 free agency.
Hield looked reborn after the trade and was back to being his net-shredding self. He averaged 15.1 points on 48 percent shooting the rest of that season, and he has taken most of his stat sheet to new heights since. Dating back to last season, the 27-year-old’s nightly contributions include 20.3 points, 3.6 three-pointers and a 44.5/41.1/87.3 shooting slash.
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The New York Knicks’ split with Kristaps Porzingis was beyond messy, and it could prove disastrous. Dennis Smith Jr. is the only player remaining from the Knicks’ end of the deal—which went down in January 2019—so it’s imperative they put the Dallas Mavericks’ two first-rounders that they added to great use.
But the big fella put that deal in motion with a trade demand, so that gets the Knicks off the hook for our purposes.
Instead, we’ll go back to the February 2011 blockbuster that brought Carmelo Anthony to town but shipped out most of New York’s young talent. Chief among that outgoing group was Danilo Gallinari, a jumbo scoring forward with an unfair combination of shooting and shot-creation for his size.
Had Anthony and the Knicks just waited to join forces in the offseason—he was a free agent that summer—the team wouldn’t have needed to deplete its assets. Instead, it lost out on guys like Gallo, who went on to become one of the best support scorers in the business. He’s the only player to average 19 points and two triples and splash 40 percent of his long-range looks both this season and last.
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James Harden is the best scorer of his era and may be the league’s best point-producer since Michael Jordan. The Thunder traded Harden away in October 2012—when they were fresh off an NBA Finals run and he was set to become a restricted free agent the following summer.
OKC’s hangup was a whopping $6 million dollars. Harden was eligible for a four-year, $60 million extension. The Thunder capped their offer at $54 million over four seasons, and they gave him only an hour to consider it before shipping him off to the Rockets.
“After everything we established—everything we had done—you give me an hour?” Harden told Adrian Wojnarowski (then of Yahoo Sports) that November. “This was one of the biggest decisions of my life. I wanted to go home and pray about it. It hurt me.”
As it turns out, it hurt the Thunder much, much worse.
Harden snagged an All-Star spot his first season in Space City and has yet to relinquish it. He’s about to capture his third straight scoring title, and he won an assists title in 2016-17. He has five top-five finishes in MVP voting and took home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in 2017-18.
OKC’s total haul for this future Hall of Famer was Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin, plus draft picks that would become Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary. Adams is the only player still on the Thunder, and Lamb is the only other one still in the NBA.
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The Orlando Magic have several options here, which…props for finding talented players, but maybe consider keeping them around a little longer?
In February 2016, the Magic decided there were better ways to spend $16 million annually than on Tobias Harris. That seems laughable now that he’s collecting $32.7 million, not to mention earning his keep with 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a 47.2/36.2/80.6 shooting slash. Even worse, the Magic dumped Harris for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings, neither of whom they kept after that season.
But the June 2016 trade for Serge Ibaka looks even worse. He was in the final year of his contract, Orlando had a crowded frontcourt and it still decided to give up both Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to get him.
Oladipo could be the choice here, as he made two All-Star trips after leaving, but the Magic at least had a decent idea who they were giving away after developing him for three seasons. They never even took a look at Sabonis, as they drafted him 11th overall and moved him the same night. He just made his All-Star debut in February, and he’s on course to become only the 11th player ever to average at least 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
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The Sixers were one shot—a four-bounce miracle make at that—away from a trip to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. Even still, they overhauled a significant portion of their roster last summer.
JJ Redick was one of the casualties. He bolted to the Big Easy for a chance to line up alongside Zion Williamson, but he said “there was an opportunity” to stay in Philadelphia, where he had previously planned to spend the rest of his career. The Sixers, who have plummeted from eighth to 18th in offensive efficiency, haven’t been the same without him.
“They miss his shooting and more so his presence on the court as a threat,” an NBA scout told Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Teams had to honor that, so it created more spacing for a guy like Ben [Simmons] or a guy like Joel [Embiid].”
The Sixers don’t have a sniper of Redick’s caliber. Furkan Korkmaz comes the closest, but he doesn’t have Redick’s track record, reputation or off-the-dribble game.
If Philly fails to capitalize on its championship window with Simmons and Embiid in their primes, it will regret not doing everything in its power to keep Redick.
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This is a tricky exercise for a lot of teams. The Phoenix Suns aren’t one of them. They’ve shown as much patience as a driver who perpetually changes lanes in a traffic jam.
They packaged a first-round pick with Goran Dragic to get Aaron Brooks at the 2011 deadline, only for Brooks to bolt to China during the lockout and never return to Phoenix. The Suns then signed Dragic to a four-year, $30 million deal in 2012. They traded Isaiah Thomas for Marcus Thornton and a draft pick later used on Skal Labissiere. They gave the Pacers a second-rounder just to take T.J. Warren, which Indy first thought was a joke offer.
But their 2006 draft night sacrifice of Rajon Rondo might be the worst of the bunch.
After taking him 21st, the Suns quickly shipped him with Brian Grant to the Boston Celtics for a 2007 first-rounder. Phoenix later spent that first-rounder on Rudy Fernandez, then traded him with James Jones to the Portland Trail Blazers for cash a few weeks later.
In other words, the Celtics landed the starting point guard of their championship team and a four-time All-Star, while the Suns got cash. Sheesh.
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For a team that dismantled nearly an entire 50-plus-win core, the Portland Trail Blazers don’t have many regretful subtractions. They perhaps could’ve extended their competitive window, but there are no major gripes with when they split from LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum.
With that said, they probably want a do-over for the 2015 trade that sent Will Barton out of town.
It seemed like a sensible swap at the time—the Blazers bolstered their bench with Arron Afflalo for prospects and picks—but Matthews’ Achilles tear derailed everything. A potentially deep postseason run instead lasted only five games, and Afflalo left that summer in free agency.
Barton struggled to find his footing in the Pacific Northwest, but he looked like a natural fit with the Nuggets. During his first full season in Denver, he finished within the top five in both the Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player voting, capturing at least one first-place vote in each. His stats have continued trending up ever since.
This season, his first as a full-time starter, he’s up to 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He has the second-biggest net differential of all their rotation players (plus-5.8 net rating with him, minus-1.6 without).
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
The Sacramento Kings were always hesitant about handing over the keys of their offense to Isaiah Thomas. They constantly sought out different options at lead guard—Greivis Vasquez, Jimmer Fredette, Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks—but Thomas outplayed them all.
When the undersized point guard needed a new deal in 2014, Sacramento again showed its reluctance. Even though he was coming off a season in which averaged 20 points and six assists, the Kings “valued Thomas around the $5 million per season range” and “may not have even gone that high to retain [him],” per NBC Sports Bay Area’s James Ham.
The Kings sign-and-traded him to the Suns, who inked him to a four-year, $27 million deal. He wouldn’t last a full season in Phoenix, but once they dealt him to Boston, he rocketed into stardom. He booked All-Star trips in 2016 and 2017, and he followed the latter with a fifth-placed finish in MVP voting. A hip injury has plagued him ever since, but clearly the Kings misjudged his ability.
And somehow, it gets worse. Since this was a sign-and-trade, that meant something had to be headed back to Sacramento. The total haul—remember, for a two-time All-Star—was the rights to 2013 second-rounder Alex Oriakhi (whose next NBA game will be his first) and a trade exception that the Kings never used.
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The San Antonio Spurs should’ve known Goran Dragic had a chance to be good. They drafted him, after all.
San Antonio has mined the back end of the draft as well as anyone, and Dragic should be another feather in the franchise’s cap. The 45th pick in 2008, he’s been named Most Improved Player, booked an All-Star spot and made an All-NBA team.
The problem is, he did none of those things for the Silver and Black.
The Spurs traded him on draft night to the Suns for Malik Hairston, cash and a 2009 second-rounder. Hairston played 62 games for San Antonio. They spent the pick on DeJuan Blair, who had some good moments but was gone from the Alamo City after four seasons and out of the NBA in seven.
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P.J. Tucker has twice headed north of the border, but his two tours of duty with the Raptors have spanned all of 41 regular-season games.
They brought him into the league as the 35th pick in 2006, but they couldn’t find a fit for him in the rotation. He logged 83 minutes across 17 contests that season before they waived him that March. That sent him on a five-year journey back to the league which included stops in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany.
The Suns snagged him ahead of the 2012-13 season, and he shined as a versatile defender and decent (if sporadic) outside shooter. During his fifth season in the desert, he again caught Toronto’s eye and headed there in a deadline deal for Jared Sullinger and two second-rounders.
But Tucker needed a new contract that summer, and that’s where things again fell apart. The Raptors put a three-year, $33 million offer on the table, but the Rockets came calling with a four-year offer (albeit for less money), per B/R’s Jonathan Abrams. Tucker’s camp asked Toronto to up its offer, but the Raptors balked, so Tucker was off to Space City.
He’s now handling small-ball center duties as a 6’5″, 245-pounder. The Raptors might have won the title without him, but his toughness and versatility could’ve made their roster even stronger.
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This selection technically breaks the rules, but hear me out.
Yes, Gordon Hayward chose to leave the Utah Jazz on his own volition, which seemingly absolves them of any guilt. But they set the wheels in motion for his departure years before his official exit by forcing him to find his own offer sheet as a restricted free agent in 2014, as he later told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t CBS Sports’ Colin Ward-Henninger).
“As a player, you’re sitting there thinking like, ‘What the hell?’ You look at all these other players where teams are like, ‘He’s our guy.’ Like, ‘We’re going to give him the max.’ Blah, blah, blah. And I’ve got to out and get one? Like, ‘Do you not believe in me?’ Like, ‘Do you not feel like I’m the guy for you?'”
Hayward wasn’t a clear-cut max candidate back then, so Utah’s apprehension is understandable. With that said, he had grown into a max player (and All-Star) by the time he returned to the market, and this previous (perceived) slight hurt the Jazz’s chances of bringing him back.
They have done an admirable job recovering without him, but it’s hard to say they don’t miss him when he’s averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season.
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Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
The Wizards have made some head-scratching decisions over the years, but their changing valuations of Bojan Bogdanovic stands out as the worst.
In February 2017, they thought enough of the scoring forward to part with a first-round pick (later used on Jarrett Allen) to pry him out of Brooklyn. By that July, Washington had seemingly moved on from Bogdanovic, withdrawing its qualifying offer and watching him ink a two-year, $21 million deal with Indiana.
“[The Wizards] had a strategy. They didn’t offer me anything,” Bogdanovic told NBC Sports Washington’s Ben Standig in February 2019.
That strategy apparently involved matching the four-year, $106.5 million max offer sheet Otto Porter Jr. received, a deal Washington went on to shed at the 2019 trade deadline.
Bogdanovic signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the Jazz this past summer, and he has since rewarded them with his best production to date. He went into the season’s suspension averaging 20.2 points, 3.0 three-pointers and 2.1 assists while compiling a 44.7/41.4/90.3 shooting slash.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.