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The Top Ten Times Teams Stumbled onto a Great Player

We're going to start producing top 10 videos! I know, welcome to the internet. Here's our first crack. And if you don't have time for the video, the script I worked off is below. Enjoy!

Original script

Getting players that rack up wins is key for success in the NBA. Sometimes shrewd and savvy franchises [ Auerbach/Poppovich] run a tight ship to control their own destiny. Sometimes though teams just luck into wins. For some reason a top player just falls into the lap of a lucky franchise and with that comes success! This week I’ll be listing the Boxscore Geeks top 10 examples in NBA history of this.

The Rules:

  • We’re excluding draft picks on this list. There’s too much randomness and hindsight bias to go along with this. However, we may do a future list on that topic.
  • We should just admit we have a modern bias on this list. Of course, given that in the historical NBA the free agency rules were much less open, this isn’t strictly a problem.
  • We are looking for examples of teams gaining lots of success from the move. Since we haven’t seen Durant stick around in Golden State, he won’t make this list. Nor will players that only stuck around for a season or two.
  • As seems obvious, we’re going for single players here. That said, I can’t think of too many multiple star deals/luckouts. Lemme know if I missed any!

Honorable Mention Adrian Dantley to the Utah Jazz in 1979.

In 1977 as a rookie Dantley averaged over 20 points a game on great shooting. He ended up on the Lakers midseason in 1978 and, again, had a great output, leading the NBA in Wins Produced! In his third year in the NBA Dantley had a slight setback, missing over 20 games and seeing a small production decrease. So the Lakers decided to trade him for a 30 year old Spencer Haywood. Dantley would go on to be the best scorer of the 1980s, and utterly wasted in Utah. Haywood lasted only one season in Los Angeles. Just imagine if Kareem and Magic had been next to Dantley for the 80s? This definitely qualifies as a stumble as, the Lakers basically gifted one of the best young talents in the NBA for next to nothing. To add insult to injury, Dantley’s amazing skills were utterly wasted on a horrible Utah Jazz!

Honorable Mention James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012

Four million dollars! That’s what it boiled down to. After going to the Finals with the Thunder 2012 in a season where he was one of the league’s best scorers, it seemed obvious the Thunder were set to be a dynasty. Sadly they ran into contract disputes with Harden wanting the max and the Thunder wanting, as far as I can tell, to be stupid. The Rockets were able to swoop in and pry James Harden away for a song. Harden would go on to play great on the Rockets including a season where he was runner-up MVP to Steph Curry. The Thunder didn’t go away empty-handed, though. One of the picks the Rockets traded for James Harden turned into Steven Adams, and he’s been great for the Thunder. So, hey, not a complete loss.

On to the main list.

#10 Dikembe Mutombo to the Atlanta Hawks in 1996

In five seasons with the Nuggets Dikembe earned three All-Star berths, a defensive player of the year award, and helped in one of the most iconic upsets in NBA history (1994 vs. Sonics in the 1st round). He wanted to re-sign with the Nuggets and wanted a decade-long commitment. The Nuggets couldn’t commit and he wound up on the Hawks, where he’d earn three more defensive player of the year awards. Bickerstaff called it his only regret as the Nuggets General Manager. An understatement if you ask me.

#9 Andre Iguodala both the Nuggets and Warriors, 2012 and 2013

Andre Iguodala joined the Nuggets and helped the team to a franchise record 57 wins. He then went to the Warriors, where he helped them to a franchise and NBA record 73 wins. And in both cases, the teams should have had zero shot at him. In 2012 the 76ers decided to start their “rebuilding process.” It’s the start of the 2017 season and they’re a few seasons away from the playoffs I’d imagine. Anyway… In one of the most complicated deals in NBA history, the Lakers turned Andrew Bynum into Dwight Howard. The Orlando Magic ended up with lots of assets. The 76ers ended up with Bynum. And the Nuggets somehow ended up in the trade and wound up with Iguodala. I consider this a “Stumbling on Wins” move as there was really no need for the Nuggets to be involved. Yet, they got the best player in the deal given Bynum and Howard’s injuries.

On that note. Iguodala decided he wanted to play for the Warriors despite them not really having the cap to make it work! Iguodala and his agent managed to work out a deal with the Warriors and a season later Iguodala helped the Warriors host their first title in three decades as Finals MVP.

#8 Moses Malone to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982

In 1982 Moses Malone had just won his second MVP award. The Houston Rockets held his restricted Free Agency Rights and yet, decided he wasn’t in their plans. He joined Dr. J and Mo Cheeks to form one of the best teams in NBA history. The 76ers would go on to win a title and stay one of the top teams in the 1980s. Jeeze, what is it about NBA teams letting marquee bigs walk out the door?

#7 Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008

Depending on if you’re a conspiracy theorist, this one might not be entirely luck. That said, in 2008 the Lakers were starting to slip. Shaq had left a few seasons ago and had already taken the Heat to a title. Kobe’s Lakers had missed the Finals and become one of the only teams to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Playoffs. Side note, we’re recording this in 2016. How nuts were this years’ playoffs? Anyway, the Lakers had started looking strong again with a young Andrew Bynum playing well. Then came the killer blow. In exchange for … Kwame Brown???? The Lakers got a hold of Pau Gasol. Three consecutive Finals and two titles later, and the Lakers were back! How lucky.

#6 LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014

I’m not going to count Miami on this list as Pat Riley maneuvering when he had Dwyane Wade, a playoff team, and a tax-free market in Miami. These aren't’ really things I’d associate with being an underdog or lucky. However, LeBron going back to Cleveland has to be one of the luckiest things in NBA history. After having a Hall of Fame career with Cleveland from 2003-2010 Bron left and Cavaliers management burned a few bridges. A comically bad letter from owner Dan Gilbert had analysts like myself convinced that LeBron would never return to Cleveland. And yet, he did. A hilarious cameo in the movie Train Wreck, two finals, and a title later, and I guess it’s all water under the bridge. Lucky for Cleveland fans, to say the least.

# 5 Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976

Dr. J was the ABA. Coming off back to back title runs with the New York Nets, the ABA MVP should have turned the New Jersey Nets into something special. Sadly, joining the NBA proved costly for the Nets. The Nets owed the Knicks $5 million for “invading their territory.” Because of this owner Roy Boe decided he was unable to afford the doctors’ services. A boneheaded move to say the least. The 76ers were able to pick up Dr. J’s three-million dollar contract in exchange for paying the Nets’ three million. Six million for one of the greatest players in NBA history? The 76ers were doubly lucky to get Dr. J as the Nets offered Dr. J’s contract to the Knicks if they’d ignore the territory fine. The Knicks passed! Anyway, current 76ers fans may want to remember how lucky they once were.

#4 Ben Wallace to the Detroit Pistons in 2000

In 2000 the Pistons were losing one of the best players in the NBA. People may forget this but Grant Hill at one point earned more NBA All-Star votes than Michael Jordan! In NBA etiquite when you acquire another team’s star, you typically do a sign and trade. At least, that was how it used to go before the last NBA CBA. The star player gets their max contract, and the old team gets at least a few assets to help the sting. Usually this comes in the form of draft picks or a role player or two. The Pistons were offered Ben Wallace. And boy did that work out. Wallace went on to win four defensive player of the year awards and was a huge cornerstone of a Pistons team that made six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, back to back Finals, and pulled down a Title over the Lakers in 2004. Grant Hill had nagging injuries and never returned to his MVP form, making this doubly-lucky for the Pistons.

#3 Shaquille O’Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996

http://www.espn.com/30for30/film?page=thismagicmomentIf you haven’t seen the fantastic 30 for 30 on this subject, stop watching this list and go check it out now. I’ll wait. The Orlando Magic seemed blessed as an expansion team. First they lucked into one of the greatest centers ever in the 1992 draft. Then they lucked into one of the most versatile “point guards” in the very next draft. But after losing a Finals, where they were the heavy favorites, everything fell apart. The Magic decided to play hardball with Shaq while Jerry Buss and Jerry West were working behind the scenes. By the time the Magic got their heads on straight, Shaq was headed to the Lakers to play with a promising high-schooler named Kobe Bryant. While I give the Lakers a ton of credit for their maneuvering, this counts as luck and top three because Shaq had no reason to even be on the market. The Magic’s first move should have been – offer Shaq a max deal and move on.

#2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975

Milwaukee arguably lucked into Kareem in the NBA draft. The ABA was courting Kareem hard but in a common mistake, decided to play hardball in negotiations and Kareem ended up in the NBA. With the Bucks Kareem was magical, earning multiple MVPs and a title with Oscar Robertson. After the Big-O retired, Kareem decided Milwaukee wasn’t for him. Side note, it’s 2016 and the Bucks GM admitted Milwaukee has a major issue with racism. Shocker Kareem wasn’t that interested in living there in the 70s! Anyway, Kareem wanted to head to either New York or Los Angeles. In an even luckier move for the Lakers, the Bucks rejected offers that included Walt Frazier! Instead the Lakers offered up “youth” in a collection of players that never turned into anything. In exchange they got an MVP center that would end his career as the NBA’s leading scorer. Talk about lucky!

#1 Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls in 1995

The Bulls looked like they were on a downhill slide. First, they lost MJ to retirement. Then Horace Grant left them to play for Orlando. However, Michael decided he was back and the Bulls were one piece away from being a contender again. According to his biography, Phil Jackson had a list of 10 names for players that could fill in as a big for the Bulls. Number ten was Dennis Rodman. However, due to some friction with the Spurs front office, Rodman ended up on the trading block. In a take it now move, the Bulls would up with one of the most prolific rebounders in NBA history. Rodman joined Michael and Pippen to form the ultimate big three. From 1996-1998 the Bulls won over 200 games, three consecutive titles and Dennis Rodman’s league leading rebound numbers and lockdown defense were a huge part of that. A player that shouldn’t have been on the market leading to the greatest squad in NBA history gets my vote for the luckiest stumble.


Did you agee with my picks? What names did I leave off. Let me know in the comments below and I’ll talk to you next time. Check out Boxscoregeeks.com for more lists and more sports analysis if that’s your thing!