On July 14, 2004, the Lakers broke up one of the more legendary partnerships in NBA history, sending Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick. After firing Phil Jackson, the Lakers moved to reload around Kobe Bryant, while the Heat dismantled a promising, young team that won a first-round series the previous season.
“We went from basketball hell to basketball heaven in 18 months because this man was available,” Heat coach Pat Riley said of the acquisition of Shaq. Such is the power of a superstar in the NBA. The Heat went from 42-40 to 59-23, and the next season, Miami was NBA champion. The Lakers, meanwhile, dropped to 34-48, and Butler and Grant were gone before the next season.
It’s hard to get a fair return for a superstar. It's an issue the Milwaukee Bucks may soon face if Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign a contract extension this summer. The Greek Freak, who has averaged nearly 30 points this season, is eligible for a five-year “supermax” extension through 2026-27. The Bucks can pay him 35% of the salary cap with 8% annual raises, which could be over $250 million in total salary.
But Giannis can also opt out of his current deal and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Milwaukee can still pay him more than any other team, but if he’s leaving, the Bucks may not want to lose him for nothing. Even winning a title is no guarantee their superstar will stay — just look at Kawhi Leonard, who departed Toronto for the Clippers after winning a title.
So what should the Bucks try to get if they decide to deal Giannis? The three things a team should look for when it moves a superstar are:
Although the Heat quickly won a title and Shaq was second in the MVP vote in 2005, the Lakers didn’t do terribly on that front.
Odom and Butler were both just 24, with a lot of basketball left. Odom was a huge part of the Lakers’ titles in 2009-10, and Butler became an All-Star in Washington. Grant was an overpaid disaster, but the “Allan Houston Rule” got his salary off the cap. The real mistake by the Lakers was trading Butler for Kwame Brown in 2005. Los Angeles didn't get equivalent value for O'Neal, one of the NBA’s greatest players, but it’s about as well as the Lakers could have hoped for in a Kobe-Shaq divorce settlement.
In trades of an NBA All-Star in his prime since the Diesel went to South Beach, there have been a wide range of returns. Perhaps there's also a blueprint for Milwaukee to emulate in the best of these trades.
In 2018, the Spurs traded 27-year-old Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Pöltl, a first-round pick and $5 million. San Antonio chose to reload its veteran team, getting older and more expensive with the 29-year-old DeRozan. The Spurs didn’t get much else. Poeltl is OK, but he plays 16 minutes per game, and Toronto’s first-round pick in the deal ended up No. 29 overall.
The really bad
Technically, this happened just before the Shaq deal. In June 2004, Orlando traded Tracy McGrady (along with Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue) to Houston for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato. Francis and Cato had huge deals, so the Magic got no salary relief, nor did they get future picks. T-Mac starred alongside Yao Ming, but all three players the Magic got were traded within two years.
David Stern thought it was great
After the commissioner vetoed their trade to the Lakers, New Orleans sent Chris Paul to the Clippers in 2011 for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2012 (Austin Rivers). Kaman’s expiring deal gave them salary relief, but Gordon and Aminu had success only after leaving New Orleans. It’s a shame New Orleans couldn’t get more future picks with Anthony Davis arriving the next year.
Good In theory
In 2007, the Timberwolves sent Kevin Garnett to the Celtics for Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff and two 2009 first-rounders. KG led the Celtics to a title, but Minnesota got everything you’d want in this kind of deal: Jefferson, Green and Telfair were all 23-and-under, with star potential. Ratliff’s expiring contract gave salary relief, and one of the picks was No. 6 overall. The trade would look a lot better if Jefferson hadn’t torn his ACL in 2009, or if the T-Wolves drafted Steph Curry instead of Jonny Flynn in '09.
A small win
The four-team, 12-player Dwight Howard deal in 2012 was insanely complicated, but when the dust settled, Orlando got Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Mo Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Al Harrington and two first-rounders, while also shipping out Jason Richardson, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon. It really didn’t seem like the Magic got enough for Howard, but considering the Lakers only got one disappointing season from him, it was a decent return. Every other team did worse: Andre Iguodala, who was traded by the 76ers, left Denver after the season; the Lakers lost Dwight for nothing; and Andrew Bynum, who was dealt by the Lakers, never played for the Sixers. At least the Magic saved money while missing the playoffs for seven straight years. Just trust me on this wacky deal.
Another small win
Indiana was initially derided for trading Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in 2017, but after three combined All-Star appearances in three years for the young Pacers, the deal must be considered a success.
The key to the following, truly successful deals is leverage. Anytime a player has a specific destination in mind, the trading team suddenly regains the leverage they’ve lost because of the player's impending free agency and/or trade request.
In 2019, New Orleans couldn’t have done much better in the deal that sent Anthony Davis to the Lakers. The Pelicans got Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round picks and another pick swap. Ingram became an All-Star this season, Lonzo learned to shoot, and New Orleans flipped the 2019 first-rounder for two other young players. Best of all, New Orleans didn’t have to take back any salary, so it is set up nicely to build around Ingram and Zion Williamson. Still, the Lakers have no regrets, but neither should the Pelicans.
The Knicks give up too much (again)
Not only did Carmelo Anthony want to be dealt to the Knicks in 2011, he wanted the trade (and his subsequent contract extension) to happen before the impending lockout. So the Nuggets got a lot back: Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, a pick swap, and a 2012 second-rounder. The Knicks got Melo and Chauncey Billups, whom they waived that December. Gallinari was Denver’s best player for the next five years and the key piece of a 57-win team in 2012-13, and Mozgov gave them four solid years before he was flipped for two first-rounders in 2015.
OKC makes a holdup
The Thunder probably weren’t planning to trade Paul George at all last summer, but when Kawhi Leonard demanded the Clippers acquire PG-13 before he’d sign there, GM Sam Presti exploited his leverage. OKC got second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the aforementioned Gallinari, and a whopping five first-round picks -– plus two more potential pick swaps. If George opts out of his contract next summer, the Thunder could be harvesting first-round picks five years after he leaves LA.
Finally, these last deals were pre-emptive strikes to ditch a star who wasn’t part of the team’s long-term plans
The Nets mortgage future for a star
When Deron Williams and the Jazz got sick of each other in 2011, Utah traded him to the Nets for the previous year’s No. 3 pick, Derrick Favors, plus Devin Harris and two No. 1 picks. It was an odd trade for the Nets, who weren’t really ready to compete at the time. They were ready to trade lots and lots of first-rounders, sending out one the next year for Joe Johnson, and three more in 2013 to get Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Meanwhile, Utah sold very high on Williams, saved money, and added a lot of young talent -– though they never quite replaced D-Will at point guard.
Detroit overpays for a lemon
Blake Griffin signed a five-year maximum contract with the Clippers in 2017. Six months later, he was headed to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a first-round pick. It was a shocking deal, which the Clippers doubled down on by sending Tobi and Bobi to Philadelphia for Landry Shamet and two first-rounders a year later. Given Griffin’s big contract and even bigger list of injuries, it was a staggering return for the Clippers, who saved big money and got future assets (which they used to land George).
Ultimately, if the Bucks must trade Giannis, the best way to maximize their return would be to trade him to the Knicks or whoever employs Billy King. Otherwise, their priority should be obtaining as many draft picks and expiring contracts as possible. Yes, it’s rough to go from a championship contender into a rebuild, but if you lose Giannis Antetokounmpo, you’re not going to bounce back quickly no matter what.