Player movement in the NBA is as active as it’s ever been. Blockbuster trades and major free agency signings are the norm, with prominent rosters being shaken up nearly every offseason. Of course, paradigm-shifting trades have always been a part of the League’s identity, and the right moves at the right times have fundamentally changed the course of basketball, for better or worse, many times over.
But what about the trades that didn’t happen? What about the deals behind closed doors that almost sent one star or another to a new home, in a way that would have altered the NBA landscape? What about the ones that could have, but didn’t? “What-if” scenarios are a popular topic of conspiracies and speculation for basketball die-hards, and each one has its own story of why it nearly happened, and why it ultimately didn’t. These are ten of those stories.
10. Kyrie Irving – Milwaukee Bucks (2017)
When Kyrie Irving was gearing up to leave LeBron James and Cleveland behind him, the Milwaukee Bucks were apparently ready to make big plays for the All-Star guard. During the 2017 offseason, it was heavily reported that Milwaukee had offered a package for Kyrie that included Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and a future first-round pick.
Kyrie ended up heading to Boston instead, but what might the past few years in the East have looked like had he gone to the Bucks? While Brogdon and Middleton became stars in Milwaukee alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascendance, the Bucks still haven’t made it to the Finals, and Brogdon wound up being traded anyway. Kyrie’s reliable scoring and clutch potential might have been exactly what Giannis needed to take his team the extra mile. And honestly, a Bucks trade might have given Cleveland a bit more to work with in 2018 too.
9. Tracy McGrady – Philadelphia 76ers (1999)
Before the world fully saw Tracy McGrady for the talent he was, Toronto was prepared to trade him to Philadelphia for, of all people, Larry Hughes. At the time, Vince Carter was the clear Raptors star, and it wasn’t apparent just how good T-Mac would become. The trade never happened though, and McGrady went to Orlando the next year, where his true potential was unleashed.
But what if he’d teamed up with Allen Iverson on the Sixers instead? McGrady’s numbers during the 1999-2000 season weren’t quite so outstanding to suggest he could have helped Philly topple the Jalen Rose/Reggie Miller/Mark Jackson Pacers, but what about the next year? T-Mac popped off in 2001, and he could have been the perfect partner for AI to contend with Shaq and Kobe in the Finals. A true rivalry could have formed, with potential back-to-back Finals face-offs between the Sixers and the Lakers. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
8. Chris Paul – Los Angeles Lakers (2011)
CP3’s almost-journey to the Lakers is one of the more notorious alternate timelines in recent NBA history, largely because of why it didn’t happen. Negotiations between the Lakers, Rockets and New Orleans Hornets had worked out a deal where Paul would join Kobe Bryant in LA, and Pau Gasol would head to Houston. Then at the last second, Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade.
If not for that veto, a lot of things might have gone differently in the League. Paul could have helped keep the Lakers relevant long-term after their 2009 and 2010 title runs. The Rockets likely couldn’t have obtained James Harden the next year with so much cap space dedicated to Gasol, and a different trade package for New Orleans might have meant Anthony Davis going elsewhere for his rookie deal. As a whole, it’s one of basketball’s biggest recent “what-ifs.”
7. James Harden – Golden State Warriors (2012)
James Harden for Klay Thompson, at the precipice of the Warriors Dynasty. OKC was looking to free up their finances by parting with the promising young guard (ultimately to Houston, of course), and they reportedly called Golden State very early in the process. As far as anyone can say, this trade never went past the proposition phase, as neither team really had what the other was looking for at the time.
Still, the idea of a Steph/Harden backcourt, given what the last decade has given the world of basketball, is fascinating. Would the Warriors have worked as well? Klay’s defense was as essential to the Warriors at their peak as his scoring, and his unique chemistry with Steph would likely not have been matched by a player with as much massive star status as Harden.
It’s possible that Golden State would have found similar success with two MVP-level players. Or it’s possible it would have been too much, and LeBron’s Cavs would have dominated the era. Whatever might have been, the Houston trade gave us all a Rockets/Warriors rivalry that’s truly one for the ages, and a Steph/Klay backcourt that will go down in history as possibly the greatest of all time.
6. Scottie Pippen – Seattle Supersonics (1994)
After Michael Jordan’s first retirement, the Bulls were close to trading away Scottie Pippen – and with him, in all likelihood, their shot at a second three-peat. The Seattle Supersonics, who had dealt Pippen off after drafting him in 1987, wanted to take the All-Star back in exchange for Shawn Kemp.
Pippen was coming off a great season in the wake of Jordan’s departure, averaging 22 points per game at 49 percent shooting, in a 50-win season that only ended after a fraught 7-game series loss to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks. Pippen was a hot commodity and a boon to any team. But if he’d left, would MJ have come back? It’s less likely. And if he had, would the Bulls have taken their 4th, 5th and 6th rings without Scottie? We’ll never know for sure.
5. Kevin Garnett – Los Angeles Lakers (2007)
After years of incredible personal performances were repeatedly cut short by a lack of support from the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett decided to take his talents elsewhere in search of a ring. Ultimately, of course, he landed in Boston, forming a superteam with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo that took the title in 2008. But he almost wound up on the team they beat.
That’s right – the Big Ticket was nearly traded to the LA Lakers in ’07 for Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Garnett had always wanted to play with Kobe Bryant, and it’s hard to imagine the Celtics still pulling out a victory the next year if KG was on the Lakers instead. In the end, the deal fell through, and while LA lost in 2008, Bynum and Odom became key players in the team’s back-to-back chip runs in 2009 and 2010. Still, a KG/Kobe team-up would certainly have been spectacular to watch.
4. Steph Curry – Milwaukee Bucks (2012)
In 2012, the Golden State Warriors wanted Andrew Bogut, and they were willing to put Stephen Curry on the trading table to get him. Despite some good showings in his early seasons, Curry was far from the superstar he later became, and his repeated ankle troubles at the time caused the Bucks to wave the offer. Ultimately, the Bogut trade went through for a different package of players.
Then-Warriors GM Larry Riley has since said that he never truly intended to trade Steph, but hindsight is 20/20. Golden State still got what they wanted, and kept the man who would change the very nature of basketball. And the Bucks got Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh.
It’s impossible to know if Curry would have remained in Milwaukee if he’d been traded, or if he would have found anywhere near the same level of success. But any hypothetical of a Steph/Giannis team-up is a fun one.
3. Dirk Nowitzki And Steve Nash – Toronto Raptors (2002)
In 2002, at the peak of Vinsanity, the Dallas Mavericks proposed a trade – Dirk Nowitzki and Canadian national Steve Nash, for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis. Glen Grunwald, Toronto’s then-GM, said no. He was unwilling to part with VC for two players who, at the time, seemed unproven.
Then over the next few years, Nowitzki and Nash won three League MVPs between the two of them. Both made numerous playoff runs. And Dirk eventually brought home a title to Dallas. All while Vince Carter got traded to Brooklyn for a few pieces that, in the end, didn’t help the Raptors much at all.
If Dirk and Nash had gone to Toronto, the city might have claimed its first chip long before Kawhi Leonard arrived. It could have been a dynasty that lasted for years. Or, maybe not. But Nash and Dirk staying together remain one of the NBA’s greatest “might-have-been” scenarios.
2. Kobe Bryant – Chicago Bulls (2007)
Publically frustrated with the Lakers in 2007, Kobe Bryant became the subject of a number of major trade rumors. One of the most likely destinations that almost became the superstar’s home, was Chicago. The trade reportedly would have brought Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon, and Joakim Noah to LA. But Kobe refused to go through with it (a luxury of his contract’s no-trade clause) unless Deng remained in Chi-Town with him.
This wasn’t even the first time Kobe considered going to the Bulls – the team of his idol, Michael Jordan. In 2004, after the Laker’s embarrassing Finals loss to the Pistons, Kobe has said that he was looking at houses in Chicago when Shaq was suddenly traded to Miami. If Kobe had paired up with Deng, and been around for Chicago’s Derrick Rose era, it could have been a game-changer for the Bulls.
Plus, we could have gotten some great Kobe/LeBron playoff showdowns for the ages.
1. Michael Jordan – Los Angeles Clippers (1988)
Yes, even MJ was almost traded. In 1988, Jordan was coming off his second League scoring title, and his first regular-season MVP. But could he take Chicago to the Finals? Could he bring home a championship? Many thought not.
In the midst of that uncertainty, the LA Clippers made an offer (per The Jordan Rules) – that year’s number 1 and number 6 draft picks, and three of their current players, for MJ. The Bulls basically had a blank check, but thankfully for them, they opted to keep the young star, and we all know the rest of the story.
Would Jordan have succeeded so impressively outside of the exact situation he found in Chicago? Without Phil Jackson, and Scottie Pippen? Maybe not. But he would have still been a transcendent talent, who could have turned the Clippers’ early laughingstock days into something much brighter. Instead, he got six rings.