Ranking the 10 biggest trades in NBA history and of all-time

Ranking the 10 biggest trades in NBA history and of all-time

Kenneth Mwenda
updated at July 13, 2023 at 1:32 PM

The pages of NBA history are adorned with tales of incredible talent, fierce rivalries, and thrilling matches that have kept fans on the edge of their seats. Amid these narratives, the biggest trades in NBA history stand as pivotal moments that have often determined the course of the league. From seemingly minor swaps to high-profile exchanges, these trades have been catalysts for change, bringing about new eras and reshaping the dynamics of the sport.

Greatest trades in NBA history
LeBron James (23) of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant (24) of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during their game at Staples Center on January 19, 2009, in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein
Source: Getty Images

These trades have redefined franchises, set the stage for championships, and birthed dynasties. Each one is a story in itself, interweaving elements of calculated risks, strategy, and, sometimes, sheer luck. In retrospect, these monumental deals have become the stuff of legends, playing significant roles in the NBA's rich tapestry.

Top 10 biggest trades in NBA history

The biggest trades in history remind us that the sport is as much about the decisions made off the court as it is about the action on the court. These transactions have dramatically shaped the trajectory of teams and the league, serving as turning points in the narratives of franchises and players alike.

10. October 2, 1995: Dennis Rodman to Chicago Bulls

Biggest trades in NBA history
Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls looks on against the Utah Jazz during Game Two of the 1998 NBA Finals on June 5, 1998, at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Andy Hayt
Source: Getty Images

Kicking off the countdown of the top 10 biggest trades in NBA history is Dennis Rodman's move to the Chicago Bulls. On October 2, 1995, the San Antonio Spurs traded Rodman, known for his rebounding prowess and eccentric personality, to the Bulls in exchange for Will Perdue and cash considerations.

The addition of Rodman was a key component to the Bulls' dominance in the latter half of the 90s. It was one of the biggest blockbuster trades in history, as it solidified the Bulls' defensive tenacity and added a whole new layer of depth to the team.

9. July 1, 2007: Kevin Garnett lands in Boston

Top 10 biggest trades in NBA history
Kevin Garnett (5) of the Boston Celtics during the game against the New Orleans Hornets on January 16, 2013, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Jared Wickerham
Source: Getty Images

One of the largest NBA trades ever, the Kevin Garnett trade to the Boston Celtics, took place on July 1, 2007. This transaction sent shockwaves through the league, as Garnett had been a mainstay for the Minnesota Timberwolves for over a decade. This deal ranks among the biggest what-if trades in NBA history, reshaping the league's landscape.

The Celtics sent five players, two first-round draft picks, and cash to Minnesota for Garnett. The 15-time All-Star was the missing piece to the Celtics' new Big Three, leading the franchise to its first championship in over two decades in 2008.

8. July 14, 2004: Shaquille O'Neal moves to Miami Heat

Biggest blockbuster trades in NBA history
Shaquille O'Neal (32) of the Miami Heat plays against the Washington Wizards on December 15, 2004, at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. Photo: G Fiume
Source: Getty Images

In the summer of 2004, one of the greatest trades in NBA history occurred. The Los Angeles Lakers sent Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most dominant centres in history, to the Miami Heat. This was the biggest trade deadline in NBA history and the culmination of tension between O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Shaq's arrival immediately boosted Miami's standing in the Eastern Conference. By his second season in South Beach, the Diesel had powered the Heat to their first championship in franchise history.

7. July 11, 1996: Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles Lakers

Biggest what if trades in NBA history
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center on January 27, 2008, in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Lisa Blumenfeld
Source: Getty Images

As far as NBA trades history is concerned, Kobe Bryant's trade to the Lakers remains one of the most shocking. Bryant drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft, was traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. This has been labelled one of the worst draft trades in NBA history from Charlotte's perspective.

Bryant had an illustrious 20-year career in LA, winning five championships and solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest Lakers ever. Without this trade, the landscape of the basketball league might have looked significantly different.

6. April 21, 1970: Oscar Robertson to Milwaukee Bucks

Biggest trade deadline in NBA history
Don Chaney (12) of the Boston Celtics moves the ball upcourt against Oscar Robertson (1) of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game played in 1974 at the Mecca in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Raphael
Source: Getty Images

One of the NBA's biggest trades of all time saw Oscar Robertson, a 10-time All-Star and former MVP, being shipped from the Cincinnati Royals to the Milwaukee Bucks. The "Big O," known for his versatility and scoring ability, joined forces with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The partnership was fruitful, as it led to the Bucks winning their first championship in 1971. The trade is often viewed as a key moment in solidifying the Bucks as a competitive franchise in the NBA.

5. June 22, 1987: Scottie Pippen becomes a Bull

Best trade deadline in NBA history
Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 30, 1997, at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. Photo: Rocky Widner
Source: Getty Images

A transformative deal went down on the eve of the 1987 NBA Draft. The Seattle SuperSonics selected Scottie Pippen with the fifth overall pick, but he would never suit up for them. Instead, he was sent to the Chicago Bulls for Olden Polynice and a swap of future draft picks.

The Pippen trade is one of the best trade deadlines in NBA history. Pippen was the perfect complement to Michael Jordan, playing a crucial role in the Bulls' six NBA championships in the 1990s.

4. June 16, 1975: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers

Largest NBA trade ever
Kareem Abdul Jabbar (33) of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots during a game against the Philadelphia Sixers on January 01, 1980. Photo: Focus on Sport
Source: Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks made what many consider one of the worst decisions in NBA trades history when they traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. The Bucks received four players in return, but none came close to replicating Abdul-Jabbar's production.

In LA, Abdul-Jabbar flourished, winning five titles and becoming the league's all-time leading scorer. This trade undeniably altered the course of NBA history, making it one of the largest trades ever.

3. July 10, 2010: LeBron move to Miami Heat

Biggest trade deadline in NBA history
LeBron James (6) of the Miami Heat in action against the Milwaukee Bucks during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bradley Center on April 25, 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo: Mike McGinnis
Source: Getty Images

While not a conventional trade in the strictest sense, no conversation about major NBA player movements would be complete without discussing LeBron James' famous "Decision." On July 10, 2010, LeBron made the most significant free agent move in NBA history when he announced that he was leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, to join the Miami Heat.

This was not simply a relocation but a televised spectacle that marked a dramatic shift in the league's balance of power. The implications of this decision were immense, leading to a reshuffling of forces in the NBA that significantly altered the league's landscape.

In Miami, LeBron teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, creating a new "Big Three" that dominated the Eastern Conference for four years. They made it to the Finals every year and won two championships. LeBron's 'Decision' is among the biggest what-if trades in NBA history, as it begged the question - what if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland?

2. August 5, 1976: Magic Johnson to the Lakers

Worst draft trades in NBA history
Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a portrait circa 1980 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Photo: NBA Photos
Source: Getty Images

Undeniably, Magic Johnson stands as one of basketball's most exceptional talents. He was chosen first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1979 draft.

Interestingly, the Lakers were not the original owners of this pick. They acquired it in 1976 when Gail Goodrich inked a deal with the New Orleans Jazz, a budding team. The Lakers permitted Goodrich to join the Jazz, garnering two first-round picks and a second in return, including the prized first pick in the 1979 draft that would eventually become Magic Johnson.

The Lakers used the pick to draft Magic Johnson, setting the stage for their "Showtime" era. Magic would go on to lead the Lakers to five NBA championships, forever leaving his mark on the franchise and the league as a whole. This is undoubtedly one of the top 10 biggest trades in NBA history.

1. April 30, 1956: Bill Russell to Boston Celtic

NBA's biggest trades of all time
Wilt Chamberlain (13) goes up to block Bill Russell's shot during action at Boston Garden as Tom Heinsohn (#15) & Woody Sauldsberry (#14) look on. Photo: Bettmann
Source: Getty Images

The deal that brought Bill Russell to the Boston Celtics is topping the list of the biggest trades in NBA history. The St. Louis Hawks drafted Russell with the second overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft but traded him to the Celtics for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.

The impact of this trade cannot be overstated. Russell led the Celtics to an unprecedented 11 NBA championships in his 13 seasons, an accomplishment yet to be matched. The trade remains a prime example of the power of intelligent trading in shaping the future of an NBA franchise. It is a stark reminder for the NBA trade rumours mill that one trade can alter the course of history.

While these top 10 biggest trades in NBA history span several decades, they collectively highlight the transformative power of such deals. From the careful manoeuvring of draft picks to the strategic acquisition of established stars, these trades have drastically altered the league's landscape, shaping the future of teams and influencing the evolution of the sport.

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Kenneth Mwenda photo
Kenneth Mwenda
Kenneth Mwenda is a business and sports writer with over five years of experience. At Sportsbrief, he contributes to writing biographies and listicles.
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