December 15, 2009

1. Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat from the Lakers for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick; July 14, 2004Shaq wanted out of L.A. Kobe Bryant wanted him out, too. This trade lifted Miami from a 42-40 team that was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs to one that reached the conference finals in 2005 and won it all in 2006. It didn't turn out as badly for the Lakers as first thought. The immediate hit the Lakers took in '05, when they missed playoffs, provided them with the No. 10 pick in the draft, which brought center Andrew Bynum. If Bynum had not been injured, the Lakers might have won the title in 2008. They won it last season, with Odom playing a vital role. If they hadn't been suckered by Kwame Brown's eternal potential and traded Butler for him, they'd be even better, although Brown did serve a purpose in 2008 (see No. 3).

2. Kevin Garnett to the Celtics from the Timberwolves for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, two first-round picks and cash; July 30, 2007

Ray Allen and the draft rights to Glen Davis to the Celtics from the Seattle SuperSonics for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the draft rights to Jeff Green; June 28, 2007

With two fell swoops, Celtics president Danny Ainge undid five years of aimless floundering and landed two stars to go with Paul Pierce. With Rajon Rondo, they formed a constellation that brought 42 more victories than in the previous season (a record turnaround) and the championship in 2008. Garnett, Allen and Pierce just might have enough juice left to contend for another year or two.

3. Pau Gasol and a second-round pick to the Lakers from the Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and two first-round picks; Feb. 1, 2008Gasol had proved in Memphis that he isn't the type of player to build a team around, but he's the perfect complement to a great player, like Kobe. The Lakers couldn't have won the title without him last season. At 29, he could pick up a few more rings.

4. Jason Kidd and Chris Dudley to the Nets from the Suns for Stephon Marbury, Johnny Newman and Soumaila Samake; July 18, 2001The swap of All-Star point guards worked out far better for the Nets directly, but also great for the Suns indirectly. Kidd led the Nets to the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance, in 2002, and another one the following season. Marbury was an All-Star for the second time in 2003, when the Suns were eliminated by the Spurs in the first round, but eventually fulfilled his eternal destiny of wearing out his welcome and was traded to the Knicks in 2004 -- and that opened the door for Steve Nash to return to the Suns.

5. Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons from the Hawks as part of a seven-player, three-team deal; Feb. 19, 2004This present from Atlanta general manager Billy Knight (with an assist from Boston's Ainge, who helped facilitate the deal) made up for the Darko-est day in Pistons draft history, when general manager Joe Dumars wasted the second pick on big man Darko Milicic. Wallace, who had played one game for Atlanta on his stop-over from Portland, should have come gift-wrapped with a bow taped to his head. The trade for the versatile power forward cost the Pistons only four backups (Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, Bob Sura and Zeljko Rebraca), two first-round picks (Nos. 17 and 25) and cash. Wallace provided the missing link for Detroit's championship run that season and helped the Pistons advance to the conference finals in each of the following four seasons.

Note: Free agents who re-sign with the same team are not included on this list.

1. Chauncey Billups, Pistons; July 17, 2002Billups was coming off a solid season in Minnesota when he became a free agent in 2002, but he had been with five teams in five NBA seasons and nobody was predicting what was to come. After signing a six-year, $35 million deal with the Pistons, he led them to a championship in 2004, winning Finals MVP honors, and a Finals appearance in 2005. He worked the same magic in Denver last season, transforming the Nuggets from an offensive-obsessed team to a more mature group that reached the Western Conference finals.

2. Steve Nash, Suns; July 14, 2004Dallas owner Mark Cuban considered Nash too injury-prone and too old at 30, so he let him slide back to Phoenix. The Suns got him for six years and $66 million, money Dallas used to sign center Erick Dampier instead. Nash went on to win two league MVP awards, and while the Suns fell short of reaching the Finals, they became the league's most entertaining team and helped transform the thinking of some NBA coaches with their up-tempo style.

3. Bruce Bowen, Spurs; July 31, 2001He had finally established himself in Miami, earning second-team All-Defensive honors after knocking around the league for five seasons, when the Spurs signed him to a two-year, $1.5 million deal. There were no reports of cannon fire or confetti celebrating that meager transaction for a 30-year-old journeymen -- that sort of thing came after Bowen went on to play a vital role on three championship teams. Bowen was the kind of semi-dirty player opposing fans hated but secretly admired. He earned five consecutive first-team All-Defensive accolades and turned himself into a legitimate three-point threat. The phrase "gets in your grill" was probably invented with him in mind.

4. Hedo Turkoglu, Magic; July 14, 2004The versatile forward had five productive seasons in Orlando, earning the Most Improved Player award in 2007-08 and playing a crucial role in its run to the Finals last season -- nice return for his six-year, $36.8 million mid-level exception deal (Turkoglu opted out of the final year and became a free agent last summer). The five-year, $53 million deal he got from Toronto as part of a sign-and-trade with Orlando last July is a different story -- and so far not a promising one for the Raptors -- but he paid off for the Magic.

5. Robert Horry, Spurs; July 24, 2003Big Shot Rob had already won five championship rings when he signed a two-year, $10.5 million contract with San Antonio. He found room for two more with the Spurs, in 2005 and '07 (the latter after he re-signed). The Spurs got their money's worth based on one performance alone: With the 2005 Finals tied at two games apiece, Horry scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime and made the go-ahead three pointer in the final seconds of San Antonio's victory at Detroit.

The focus again is on players who switched teams in free agency. Players acquired through sign-and-trade deals (such as Grant Hill with Orlando, Eddy Curry with New York and Dampier with Dallas) also are excluded.

1. Jerome James, Knicks; Aug. 2, 2005After the 2004-05 season, James' list of NBA accomplishments consisted entirely of one solid playoff series for Seattle, in 2005, when he averaged 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in a first-round elimination of Sacramento. Never mind that he was 29 by then and had never averaged more than 5.4 points during a regular season; that playoff tease was enough to persuade New York to offer him a five-year, $29 million contract. He's played 90 games since then and never averaged more than three points per game over four full seasons. He was included in a trade to Chicago last winter, and has yet to play for the Bulls. Consider James the representative on this list of New York's failed Isiah Thomas era, which also included the signing of Jared Jeffries (five years, $30 million) and the sign-and-trade acquisition ofCurry(six years, $60 million).

2. Ben Wallace, Bulls; July 13, 2006You can't blame the Bulls for trying. They thought they were an experienced big man away from taking a major step forward in the East, so they went after the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. Problem is, they overdosed on hope and gave the offensively limited Wallace a four-year, $60 million deal at age 32. Wallace has covered the gamut because he was a bargain when he signed a new contract (six years, $30 million) with the Pistons as part of the Hill sign-and-trade with Orlando in 2000. No longer. The Bulls won 49 games and reached the second round of the playoffs his first season, but tradeed him to Cleveland the next season as part of a three-team swap of bad contracts. They went on to win 33 games, but that turned out to be a great thing because they got lucky in the lottery, wound up with the first pick and landed Derrick Rose. Big Ben, then, made a great contribution to the Bulls in the long run. Not that they deserve credit for it.

3.Larry Hughes, Cavaliers; Aug. 2, 2005There was logic to the Cavs' decision to sign him to a five-year, $70 million deal. He was coming off a season in Washington in which he had averaged career highs of 22 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists, and they needed someone to divert defensive attention from LeBron James. It didn't work out. Hughes missed a lot of games, playing just 36 in his first season with the Cavs. He played 70 the next season, but a shooting guard who shoots often while shooting at or below 40 percent from the field doesn't live up to the expectations of a $70 million deal. Hughes was traded to Chicago as part of a three-team deal in 2008 that sent Ben Wallace and Joe Smith to the Cavs. That didn't work out particularly well, either. Hughes has since been traded to New York, where he's pulling in $13.7 million on the last year of the Cavs' misguided magnanimity.

4. Brian Cardinal, Grizzlies; July 14, 2004He's the overachieving prototype, a second-round draft pick in 2000 who persevered and carved out a place for himself in the league. His breakthrough came in 2003-04 when he averaged 9.6 points for Golden State. A timely free agent, he parlayed that into a mid-level exception contract with Memphis, reportedly the byproduct of GM Jerry West's aggravation with owner Michael Heisley, who wondered why he hadn't yet signed anyone. Now in his ninth season, Cardinal is averaging 1.5 points for his fifth team, Minnesota. For that he's making $6.8 million in the last year of the gift from West that kept on giving.

5. Baron Davis, Clippers; Elton Brand, 76ers; Corey Maggette, Warriors; July 2008The combination of these three signings was like one of those chain-reaction car accidents on an icy highway. Messy, not to mention expensive. Davis started it off by leaving Golden State to sign a five-year, $65 million deal with the Clippers. He crossed paths with Maggette, who left the Clippers to sign a five-year, $50 million deal with the Warriors. And then Brand, who was expected to re-sign with the Clippers and team with Davis, took Philadelphia up on a five-year, $80 million deal. All of this happened within about a week. And it hasn't worked out well for anyone, players or teams. Everyone might as well have stayed put and saved all the hassles of moving.

1. Darko Milicic, Pistons, 2nd pick, 2003The Pistons were coming off back-to-back 50-win seasons and already had Richard Hamilton, Billups, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince -- four-fifths of the unit that would win the title a year later. Dumars could have selected Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade, but went with the 7-footer from Serbia based on Detroit's need for a big man and his supposed potential. Dumars was saved when he got Rasheed Wallace for next to nothing the following season, which helped shift the attention from this monstrous gaffe. Milicic is still seeking his potential with his fourth team, the Knicks.

2. Kwame Brown, Wizards, 1st pick 2001Ten years in, he's averaging 4.4 points as a backup center for Detroit. Not quite what Michael Jordan had in mind when he plucked him out of high school. Brown still inspired hope in his third season when he averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds, but now he's on his fourth team and fading. Classic case of the guy who came out too soon, lost confidence and now couldn't find his potential with a GPS. He'll always have March 17, 2004, however. That night, he scored 30 points and grabbed 19 rebounds against Sacramento. Two months earlier, he had 25 points and nine rebounds against Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, who would go on to finish third in the MVP voting. So we're left to wonder: Were those games tantalizing hints of what could have been, or absolute aberrations to what is?

3. Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Nuggets, 5th pick, 2002Tskitishvili, a 7-footer coveted in the draft for his shooting ability as a 19-year-old, never averaged more than the 3.9 points he managed as a rookie despite having opportunities with four teams after the Nuggets gave up on him. He has since returned to Europe. Denver could have had Amar'e Stoudemire or Caron Butler instead of Tskitishvili. It also could have negated its first-round blunder by taking Carlos Boozer with the fourth pick in the second round, but instead chose Vincent Yarbrough. Boozer went two picks later to Cleveland. Yarbrough? He's also in Europe.

4. Darius Miles, Clippers, 3rd pick, 2000The 2000 draft was one of the worst in league history. Somebody has to represent that group, and Miles is as good a candidate as any. It didn't start out badly. Miles, drafted out of high school, averaged nearly 10 points his first two seasons, and peaked with Portland in 2005-06 with a 14-point average. The previous season, he had scored 47 points against Denver. Ultimately, however, he was a migraine for every team that dared to employ him. Once, while playing for Cleveland, he approached Indiana coach Isiah Thomas and said, "Come and get me, I want to play for you guys." This was during a dead ball in the fourth quarter of a game, mind you. He later cursed out Portland coach Mo Cheeks and was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. A knee injury kept him out for two seasons and led to controversy when Portland released him after the injury was deemed career-ending and then threatened to sue any NBA team that signed him just to stick the Blazers with his salary-cap busting deal (his signing with Memphis left Portland on the hook for the remaining $18 million on his contract).

5. Rafael Araujo, Raptors, 8th pick 2004Araujo was drafted this high because he was a really big guy -- 6-11, 270 pounds. The Raptors hoped to make him Chris Bosh's enforcer. He averaged 3.3 points as a rookie and 2.3 points in his second season, then was traded to Utah. He averaged 2.6 points for the Jazz, who didn't pick up his option after that season. Araujo succeeded mainly in getting Raptors GM Rob Babcock fired, which might not have been all that bad, considering it created the opening for Bryan Colangelo. Unlike the others on this list, Araujo didn't come out too early; he was a four-year collegian. Andre Iguadola, Andris Biedrins, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith and Jameer Nelson were selected soon after Araujo.

1. Tony Parker, Spurs, 28th pick, 2001The skinny point guard from France was the last player taken in the first round. By the fifth game of his rookie year, the 19-year-old was starting. Parker had a solid first season, averaging 9.2 points and 4.3 assists, then helped the Spurs win a championship the following season and two more after that. Parker was the Finals MVP in 2007.

2. Gilbert Arenas, Warriors, 31st pick, 2001He was one of the highlights from an upside-down draft. Kwame Brown went first, Eddy Curry fourth, Eddie Griffin seventh, DeSagana Diop eighth and Rodney White ninth. Parker went 28th, Arenas 31st, Mehmet Okur 38th and Earl Watson 40th. Arenas, now with Washington, hasn't proved himself to be a winning point guard, he seems to have identity crises and he's struggled with knee injuries. But there's no doubt that when healthy he can score: He averaged at least 25 points in three consecutive seasons for the Wizards, making the All-Star team in each of those years.

3. Michael Redd, Bucks, 43rd pick, 2000Looking back, it's difficult to understand what the problem was. He's 6-6, has outstanding character, led Ohio State to the Final Four as a sophomore and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior. All these years later he has a career average of 20.4 points, played in the All-Star Game in 2004 and played on the Olympic gold-medal team in 2008.

4. Carlos Boozer, Cavaliers, 35th pick, 2002The power forward has career averages of 17 points and 10 rebounds, with one All-Star appearance to his credit. The only players in the 2002 draft who could legitimately claim to have had better careers are Yao Ming (first) and Stoudemire (ninth), and their arguments would have debatable.

5. Tayshaun Prince, Pistons, 23rd pick, 2002Monta Ellis (40th pick in 2005 by Warriors) would have been a good choice here, but Prince is the pick for his impact on highly successful Pistons teams.For reference sake, and to give folks in Detroit a good laugh, here are the 12 players taken immediately ahead of him: Jared Jeffries, Melvin Ely, Marcus Haislip, Fred Jones, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Dixon, Curtis Borchardt, Ryan Humphrey, Kareem Rush, Qyntel Woods and Casey Jacobsen. Prince has a 12.6 career scoring average and is an elite defender. It could be argued he won the 2004 NBA championship for the Pistons with a single superhuman block of Reggie Miller's layup; the Pacers could have taken a 2-0 lead in the conference finals if not for that play. And to think the Pacers nearly drafted him, but went with Jones because they already had a capable small forward in Ron Artest. (We'll say it again: Draft talent, not need.)

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