the deal of the draft

words: kelly dwyer

Like clockwork, the NBA is always good for a trade shake-up at the top of the draft every few years. Running a team that fields just five to a side one requires having an outsized ego when it comes to measuring up individuals; this leads to boffo cash-ins with high-end lottery picks and veteran stars changing hands. While there’s an inherent flaw in trading for a prospect before we even know what he looks like with a hat on, every season general managers (and the fans who think they can replace them) desperately look to move players with actual track records in exchange for teens or near-teens who have just poked through the strangest year of their lives.

Over the last the league has fetishized draft picks to a degree that somehow hasn’t yet revealed itself as destructive or foolish—odd work considering how iffy the last few Rookie of the Year races have been and how terrible most of us were at everything at age 19. The cast of characters involved in this year’s big Philly/Boston swap could make for Child is Father to the Man cover reshoot: Danny Ainge, the genius square with a whole lot of weird bookmarks about phrenology; league darling Joel Embiid; the burgeoning Markelle Fultz, already a chat show tipping point; and supporting players like GM-by-birth Bryan Colangelo, Dr. J, Bill Russell, the partly-beloved Sam Hinkie; and sprightly Isaiah Thomas, denied yet another un-imaginary friend and forced to play catch with yet another asset.

But this entire dealing enterprise is nothing new. It began where these things always do: In either exploring market inefficiencies, or as a reaction to deadening oppression. Prior to the 1956 draft, Boston’s Red Auerbach had a very easy answer for a St. Louis Hawks team that may not have wanted to field a Black star and definitely did not want to pay any draft pick a healthy signing bonus. The Celts would deal the very good and very white Ed Macauley, an All-Star in all six All-Star Games played up to that point, alongside stud swingman (and also white) Cliff Hagan in exchange for the No. 2 pick and the shot at one William Felton Russell. The trade changed absolutely everything for the sport, the NBA, the Celtics, and Russell—everyone but Red, who cackled apace. There’s not a lot of difference between names like “Ed” and “Bill,” but Red found the one handing out trophies on ABC sixty-odd years later—all by converting a pair of high-class veterans into a hope with hops.

In 1957, Hot Rod Hundley and Charlie Tyra— the top two picks in the 1957 draft and 2007’s undisputed ringtone kings—were dealt immediately after the draft. But despite the tumult that the franchise uncertainty and goofball owners visited upon the league in the sixties and seventies, it was years before any major deals went down at the top of the draft. Then In 1976, the Kings dealt Tiny Archibald to New Jersey for two consecutive top-three picks that somehow only netted Otis Birdsong (not a Ben Sidran album) and Phil Ford (not your dad’s boss).

Of course, it was Red Aurebach and the Celtics who once again ignited the charge. The Rolling Stones hardly put out rock and roll’s best album each year but were still considered the paragon of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970’s. Similarly, it didn’t matter that the Celtics had frittered away several seasons that decade, because in 1980 Red Some Girls'd his way into two Hall of Famers with one draft night trade.

In 1979, Boston had signed M.L. Carr as a free agent after his contract with Detroit expired and owing to the era’s prehistoric rules around free agency, the league was able to push for a compensation deal. Pistons coach and GM Dick Vitale asked for Celtic disappointment Bob McAdoo in return for two future first-rounders. A year later, Auerbach used Detroit’s pick (now first overall) to bait Golden State into dealing center Robert Parish and Golden State’s third overall pick in exchange for the chance to use the top pick on Purdue product Joe Barry Carroll. Auerbach then used the third pick to nab Kevin McHale. Boston had pulled off the signature draft day swipe of the Mustache Era, with Golden State surrendering the lesser two-thirds of the greatest frontcourt in history in exchange for Carroll, a ready-made punchline for dads and grads throughout the decade due to his penchant for empty stats and passive play in a league that seemed to be moving away from such things. 

Auerbach’s involvement and Boston’s CBS ubiquity in the 1980s gifted fans and media a ready-made story, albeit one usually relayed without noting how clumsily esteemed Boston pol Lawrence O’Brien—maybe the league’s worst-ever commissioner—handled the onset of free agency. The deal also stands as an early example of the very iffy person-as-asset thinking that the league and its followers are still trying to wrestle a safe argument out of to this day.

The Celtics went on to win three titles with their hulking, Miller Lite-fueled frontcourt of Bird, McHale, Parish and super-sub Bill Walton. This heft was likely what drove the Philadelphia 76ers to improbably try and turn Charles Barkley into a small forward in 1986. Philly had Moses Malone, which should have been enough, but got greedy and decided to deal the legend to Washington the day before the 1986 draft for 6’10” bruiser Jeff Ruland and 6’10” forward/center Cliff Robinson (not the one you remember from the nineties, but for the purposes of this height demonstration a perfect fit). Philly then dealt its No. 1 pick (acquired in 1979 when they traded Kobe’s dad to San Diego) for Cavalier Roy Hinson, a forward/center who a season before had beamed that it was “a lot nicer shooting over guys who are three inches shorter than you” at power forward, “than trying to shoot over guys three inches taller than you.” The Sixers could have selected Brad Daugherty, a fantastic center who would have been marvelous alongside Charles Barkley and the aging Julius Erving, but instead went with the inch-obsessed Hinson and cost themselves a bright future.

The next ill-fated coup came in 1993, when the Magic sent 1993’s top overall pick—the estimable then-as-now Chris Webber—to Golden State in exchange for the No. 3 pick, a coltish Anfernee Hardaway. One of the biggest draft night deals of all-time was also one of its most off-beat. Don Nelson clearly wanted a run at the long shorts game then in vogue; Orlando’s slipshod leadership at the time included Pat Williams, a wonderful man and author of over 100 books that take 100 plane rides to read, and literally slicked executive John Gabriel, who would later go on to help perfect the burn-the-village-to-save-it line of rebuilding with the Magic.

Webber and Nellie, who would have been so wonderfully suited for each other’s quirks in a world without Johnnie Walker or Billy Owens, never got on, and Golden State subsequently turned Webber into Tom Gugilotta via trade before turning Googs into Donyell Marshall. They managed to deal Googs before he became a 1997 All-Star and let Marshall go right at 2000 when really good stretch power forwards like Donyell were just becoming a thing (fortunately Golden State was sated with Jason Caffey at the time). As grace note, Golden State eventually re-acquired one of the picks sent to Orlando prior to using it on Academic All-American center Todd Fuller instead of Kobe Bryant in the 1997 draft.

The preps-to-pro era and boon of international prospect only upped the ante on draft night weirdness. In Chicago, Jerry Krause and his staff (including powerhouse Clarence Gaines Jr., a current Knicks deputy) were used to being three steps ahead of other teams, which made Krause’s panicky insecurity undeserved and fascinating. However, he’d earned the anxiety by 2001, with the Jordan years already a distant memory and primo free agents wholly uninterested in his overtures. Dulled after two slow-to-start picks in the 2000 draft (blind bruiser Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford, a 35 percent shooter in his rookie year), Krause badly needed to push his franchise.

The plan belied basketball orthodoxy from a different time: pair a sporty and slick defensive guy with a dedicated low post master on offense. Certain that high school product Tyson Chandler wouldn’t fall to Chicago at No. 4, Krause dealt Elton Brand just twelve months after the 20-and-10 forward won Rookie of the Year for the Clippers’ No. 2 pick. Krause then used the No. 4 pick on fellow teen Eddy Curry, betraying his years-long refusal to hire local talent.

Seemingly mature beyond their age due to the heap of exposure they’d enjoyed throughout their high school careers, Curry and Chandler were in theory ideally matched, as one’s bumps could fill the other’s dents. But sadly, Curry didn’t love basketball, and it took years for basketball to love the oft-injured Chandler back. Curry never developed his very serious set of skills and battled weight and health problems before Chicago dealt him to New York in 2005. As a Bull, Chandler struggled to develop the skills would make him a 2011 champion and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year with Dallas after he was traded in a salary dump. Krause, who mixed the immediacy of a scout with the daring of a dreamer (a line was probably stitched onto a pillow of his somewhere) had overplayed his hand. He stepped aside in 2003.

Krause’s machinations succeeded in deflecting attention away from a similarly bone-headed move by the Hawks. Nestled between each of Chicago’s picks in 2001 was eventual Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol, selected by an Atlanta front office that wanted nothing to do with him. Billy Knight, who preferred an addition he could explain, sent Gasol to the Grizzlies in return for veteran scorer Shareef Abdur-Rahim. American high schoolers made for the easiest story templates but it was Gasol topped all rookies in 2001-02. Oh, and Billy passed on both Chris Paul and the once-killer Deron Williams in order to draft Marvin Williams No. 2 in 2005.

Maybe he should have just traded the pick. Maybe not. Too bad Red Auerbach wasn’t the one making the call.