NBA Superstar trades have worked out better than you think

Jimmy Butler has been traded to Philadelphia for Dario Saric and Robert Covington. At first glance, that package may not seem like enough for Jimmy Buckets. However, when we take a look back at the all-star trades of the past two seasons, you may be surprised how well they turned out.

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Category 1: Superstar for Established Veterans

These trades weren’t a part of a rebuild project. The team trading the superstar wasn’t looking for a long-term investment, they were looking to win now. This category includes the Kyrie trade and the Blake Griffin trade. The Cavs and Pistons both received one first-round pick, but also some players that could help the team win in the short term.

Kyrie Irving to the Celtics

When Kyrie requested a trade out of Cleveland, there was all kinds of speculation as to where he would end up. But the NBA world was shocked when he was dealt to the Eastern Conference rival Boston Celtics. A large portion of this shock was a result of Boston trading Isaiah Thomas after he played through an injury and his sister’s death in the 2017 playoffs. However, the Celts sent Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn pick to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. At the time, the trade seemed pretty fair. But Isaiah’s injury arguably derailed his career, and the Cavs were forced to give up on him after a half season. Now, all Cleveland has to show for it is Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton. This return isn’t awful. Hood has some potential, and Sexton is a top-ten pick, but for Kyrie Irving? It’s not at all what they hoped to get out of Isaiah. Meanwhile, the Celtics’ side of the trade looks incredible. Kyrie was great last season, and they got off Isaiah at just the right time.

Blake Griffin to the Pistons

This one was a shocker. Six months to the day after the Clippers signed Blake to an extension, he was sent to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Detroit’s 2019 first-rounder. It’s possible that long-term financial flexibility was Los Angeles’s primary motivation. Blake’s 5-year, $137 million contract seemed impossible to trade, but the Pistons took in on in favor of improving their team in the moment.

The jury is still out on this trade. The pick turned into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a big guard who’s been playing really well for the Clippers so far. Harris and Bradley have played pretty much as expected. On the other side of the deal, Blake Griffin has been great in the first twelve games of 2018-19: 25.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists. Just judging off player performance, one might claim the Pistons won the trade. However, we have to remember that the Clippers want to be players in free agency. Without BG’s contract on the books, signing a max player is far more plausible. Plus, Bradley and Harris are good players, and who know what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will become.

Category 1: Conclusion

These deals haven’t worked out great for the team trading its superstar, especially in Cleveland’s case. Both trades include one first round pick, which looks pretty promising so far, but it seems like the best path is trying to get youth in return for your star player.

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Category 2: Superstar for young players, draft picks

These trades weren’t win-now moves. These teams were looking to build for the future. All three had one superstar on the roster, and were looking to clean house and get younger. One of the deals ended up working out in the short-term too, but all three look great in hindsight.

DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans (February 2017)

When Boogie was finally dealt from Sacramento in 2017, people laughed at the return that the Kings got. At the time of the trade, Cousins was averaging 27.8 points and 10.6 rebounds. He was a consensus top 10–15 player. However, his contract was expiring in a year and a half, and the Kings knew he wasn’t going to re-sign in Sacramento, so they shopped him in advance of the trade deadline, and ended up shipping him to New Orleans, in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and New Orleans’ 2017 1st and 2nd rounders. At the time, this package was laughable. The best center in the league for Hield, Evans, Galloway, and one first-rounder? It was midway through Buddy Hield’s rookie year, and he was averaging 10.6 points per game, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists.

Now that we’ve seen the results of those picks, and Boogie has reached free agency, things are looking very different. The Pelicans got exactly 65 games out of Cousins, who tore his achilles midway through the 2017–18 season. Meanwhile, Buddy Hield has blossomed. Through ten games this season, he’s averaging 19.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. How about that improvement? The Pelicans lost Cousins to Golden State in the 2018 offseason, and Hield has been great in Sacramento. You could even argue New Orleans is better off without Cousins on the floor, so Anthony Davis has more space to work. It’s fair to assume the Pels would undo that trade if they could.

Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves (June 2017)

After the “Three Alphas” Experiment, the Bulls ended with the eight seed, and the front office finally decided to initiate a rebuild by trading Jimmy Butler. After lots of trade speculation, they finally dealt the star on draft night, to Minnesota. The return package was Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the 7th pick. The Bulls also gave up their own pick, #16, alongside Butler, who made All-NBA Third Team the previous season. At the time, many (including me) questioned why that 16th pick was included in the deal. Butler was supposed to make the Wolves contenders in the West. Dunn had had a poor rookie season, and LaVine had been struggling with injuries. It seemed like a steal for Minnesota.

In hindsight, this trade may be the most lopsided of all. The Wolves got Jimmy Butler for 69 games, and he got them… and eight seed and a first round exit. That 16th pick turned into Justin Patton, who played only one game his rookie season due to injury, played four minutes and scored two points. Meanwhile, the Bulls got their core of the future. Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen. Let’s look at how these guys panned out. Dunn’s numbers were vastly improved from his rookie season in Minnesota. With the Wolves, he averaged 3.8, points, 2.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. With the Bulls last year, he averaged 13.4 points, 4.3 boards and 6.0 assists. That’s an incredible improvement, not to mention Dunn has established himself as an excellent defensive point guard. How about LaVine? He’s been one of the breakout stars of the first three weeks of this young season. In twelve games, Zach is averaging 27.4 points per game, not to mention 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists, plus and improved 35.2% from deep. It really looks like LaVine’s explosiveness is back after that ACL injury. And of course, we have Lauri Markkanen, one of the best picks in the 2017 draft. Lauri averaged 15.2 and 7.5, plus 36% from three in his rookie season, which earned him all-rookie first team honors. The Bulls are set up for the future, thanks to those three guys and Wendell Carter Jr., the product of Chicago’s own pick in 2018, 7th overall. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves just dealt Butler for a couple below average role players from Philly. A package of Dunn-LaVine-Markkanen looks far better than Covington and Saric, doesn’t it? It’s fair to say the Bulls won that trade.

Paul George to the Thunder (June 2017)

This trade is probably the one that looked the most lopsided at the time. Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Let’s take a look at these players’ stats at the time, just to put it into context. Paul George was the man in Indianapolis. He’d made four straight all-star games, excluding the season he missed with the broken leg. PG had just put up 24, 7, and 3 the season before. As George’s 2018 free agency loomed, word around the league was how much he wanted to be a Laker. It was the first example of “pre-agency”, when a player is on the trade market the season before his free agency. We’ve since seen it with Kawhi Leonard, and now Jimmy Butler. Any team that traded for George risked losing him in a year. Boston and Cleveland were reported frontrunners, then out of nowhere, Oklahoma City stepped in, grabbing PG in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. In the past season, Oladipo averaged 16, 4 and 4, and Sabonis 6, 4, and 1. After this trade, NBA fans were baffled. That was all it took for a four-time all-star?

Since, things look incredibly different. In ESPN’s #NBARank they did before the season, Victor Oladipo was ranked 15th, and Paul George 13th. In the 2017-18 season, Oladipo averaged 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists. George? 22 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists. Pretty similar. Oladipo is also two and a half years younger than PG. But here’s the real difference—Oladipo is getting paid $21 million a year in comparison to George, whose $31 million increases by $2 million each year, up to $37 million in in 2021-22. So who has a higher value now? It very well may be Oladipo. However… the deal wasn’t straight up. Domantas Sabonis has been great this season for Indiana. He’s averaging 14 and 9, plus 2.5 assists, and 67% from the field. The Pacers win total went up after making the trade, and I think it’s fair to say the trade was definitely a win for them.

Category 2: Conclusion

All three of these trades worked out great. It’s crazy to take a look back, because all three were considered steals at the time. Now, the returns look incredible. LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Sabonis, Oladipo, and Hield have all come into their own on their new teams. So what can we take from this? Situation is very important for young players. Oladipo is the best example of this. Playing next to Russell Westbrook was awful for his development, but having his own team in Indy allowed him to blossom. Who knows? Maybe Robert Covington or Dario Saric is the next Oladipo. Only time will tell.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago. I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan my entire life, and basketball has always been my favorite sport. In high school, I founded a Sports Media Club, where my classmates and I wrote articles and produced podcasts. After graduating, I kept writing and podcasting on my own. Now I’m a freshman at Purdue University, and I am excited to join Lineups and continue to further the growth of the content side of the site.

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