A brief history of NBA MVPs getting traded, from Wilt Chamberlain to James Harden

James Harden got his wish…again, and has been traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Los Angeles Clippers. It marks Harden’s fourth team in three years which ties the record for most times a former league MVP has been traded in NBA history. Harden ties Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo and Russell Westbrook with this latest trade.

We’ll have to see if Harden’s time with the Clippers can be more successful than his previous two stints in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. But as the dust settles from the Harden trade, here’s a brief history of every time an NBA MVP was traded after winning the award.

Philadelphia 76ers receive: Wilt Chamberlain
San Francisco Warriors receive: Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer, $150,000 in cash
Trade aftermath:

This was an absolute steal for the 76ers. Neumann and Dierking were solid players, but neither ever even made an All-Star Game, while Shaffer retired immediately after the trade. With Chamberlain in town, the Sixers became a powerhouse. Chamberlain won three straight MVPs from 1966-68, and led the Sixers to a championship in 1967.

Coincidentally, the team the Sixers defeated in the Finals that year was none other than the Warriors, who, thanks to the arrival of Rick Barry in the 1965 NBA Draft, recovered quite well from trading one of the best players of all time. Barry would eventually lead them to a title of their own, though not until 1975.

Los Angeles Lakers receive: Wilt Chamberlain
Philadelphia 76ers receive: Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark
Trade aftermath:

After three-plus seasons in Philadelphia, Chamberlain requested a trade and his wish was granted, making it the first time a reigning MVP was dealt. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers were the major winners here. They were already a terrific team, and Chamberlain’s arrival only cemented that fact. They went to the Finals in four of his five seasons in Los Angeles, and won the title in 1972, with Chamberlain taking home Finals MVP.

As for the 76ers, things didn’t work out so well for them. Much like they didn’t give up much to get Chamberlain in the first place, they didn’t get much back for him,
Milwaukee Bucks receive: Oscar Robertson
Cincinnati Royals receive: Flynn Robinson, Charlie Paulk
Trade aftermath:

Ahead of the 1970-71 season, Milwaukee won the sweepstakes to acquire Robertson, who had soured on the situation in Cincinnati. Already a strong team with a young then-Lew Alcindor leading the way, the Bucks became dominant with Robertson added to the mix, and won the 1971 title while losing just two playoff games along the way. That would prove to be the first and only title the franchise has won.

The Royals, meanwhile, moved to Kansas City a few years later where they became the Kings. Now in Sacramento, the franchise has won just seven playoff series in 50 years since trading Robertson.

Just seven years after trading for one MVP big man, the Lakers did it again in 1975. And once again, things worked out tremendously well for them. Abdul-Jabbar won three more MVPs in Los Angeles and helped the Lakers win five titles. During his 14 years with the Lakers, the team went to eight Finals and missed the playoffs just once.

Considering the circumstances — Robertson retired in 1974, and Abdul-Jabbar wanted to live anywhere besides Milwaukee — the Bucks actually did alright for themselves. Winters and Bridgeman became franchise icons and helped usher in a successful era in the 1980s. However, the Bucks have not returned to the Finals since losing Abdul-Jabbar.

This was a bit of a weird one. Cowens actually retired in 1980, but decided to make a comeback two years later. Boston still held his rights, however, and had since added Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, so Cowens requested a trade. He was eventually dealt to the Bucks. who at that time were a really solid playoff team. Cowens had a decent season for them but ended up getting hurt and missing the playoffs, where they were lost to the Celtics.

The Celtics had reloaded in the aftermath of Cowens’ retirement and obviously went on to have plenty of success in the 80s with Larry Bird, McHale and Parish running the show. Getting anything at all for a player that had previously retired was a huge win for them, and Buckner became a nice role player for them.

After winning titles in 1970 and 1973, the Knicks tried to keep the good times rolling by adding McAdoo. But though they gave up basically nothing to get him, it didn’t work out. McAdoo was terrific, but the Knicks only made one playoff appearance in his three seasons at Madison Square Garden and were knocked out in the second round by the Sixers.

The Braves had a nice run in the mid-1970s with McAdoo leading the way, but trading him was essentially the end of professional basketball in Buffalo. They moved to San Diego a few years later, and are now the Los Angeles Clippers. We all know how things have gone for them.

Led by Bird, Parish and McHale, the Celtics were one of the dominant teams of the 1980s and had won the title in 1981 and 1984. But after losing to their arch-rivals, the Lakers, in the 1985 Finals, they decided they needed some a boost. They found it in the form of Walton, who was nearing the end of his career and hampered by injuries. He stayed healthy in 1986, however, and won Sixth Man of the Year and Finals MVP as the Celtics reclaimed their throne.

Walton’s time with the Clippers was not successful, and at that point, the franchise was a complete mess. They were bad and Walton was often injured, so getting Maxwell and a first-round pick (which actually later became Arvydas Sabonis) was a fine return, but it just didn’t matter. As we know, it would take a few decades before the franchise did anything of note.

With the arrival of Julius Erving in 1976, the Sixers became one of the best teams in the league. They kept falling short in the Finals, however, losing in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Fed up with those results, they made a move to acquire Malone. He proved to be just what they needed, and they won the title in his first season with the team.

The Rockets did not want to pay to keep Malone, and this was a rare case where moving a former MVP actually worked out well for both parties. They took a big step back in the first few years without Malone, and as a result ended up with the No. 1 pick in the 1983 and 1984 drafts, which they used on Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Meanwhile, the pick from the Sixers became Rodney McCray. They were back in the Finals in 1986 and won two titles in the mid-1990s with Olajuwon leading the way.

Following their back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, the Rockets tried to extend their championship window by making a number of moves, including trading for Barkley. They almost did so in his first season with the club, but ultimately lost in the Western Conference finals. That was their last real run, and Barkley’s final three seasons with the club saw them win zero playoff series.

Barkley’s time in Phoenix had run its course by 1996, and both sides were ready to move on at that point. They did pretty well all things considered. Most notably, Cassell was later flipped for Jason Kidd, who later on was then turned into Steve Nash. Phoenix never made it back to the Finals without Barkley, but they were a regular playoff team.

Olajuwon’s relationship with the Rockets disintegrated towards the end of his career, which is how he ended up having a one-year cameo with the Raptors. The fledgling franchise saw an opportunity to add a legend and a veteran presence to a team that was coming off a strong playoff run. Olajuwon played a decent role for the team, but they ended up losing in the first-round of the playoffs, and he retired due to a back injury.

The most notable of the two draft picks from the deal was Bostjan Nachbar, which is all you need to know from the Rockets’ side of things. At that point in his career, getting a return for Olajuwon was a “hey, better than nothing” situation.

His relationship with Kobe Bryant and the franchise in tatters, O’Neal wanted out, and the Heat saw a tremendous opportunity. It was clear Dwyane Wade was on his way to becoming a star, and adding O’Neal made them an instant contender. They went to the Eastern Conference finals in 2005, then won it all in 2006, giving the Heat their first title in franchise history.

The Lakers, meanwhile, dropped way off in the next few seasons. However, they eventually regrouped, thanks in large part to the return they got in the O’Neal trade. Butler was flipped for Kwame Brown, who then became the centerpiece of the Pau Gasol trade, and that first-round pick became Jordan Farmar. Gasol, Odom and Farmar all played key roles on the Lakers teams that won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.

Iverson was nearing the end of his prime at that point but was still the reigning scoring champion, and the Nuggets hoped they would be able to make some noise in the Western Conference by pairing him and young Carmelo Anthony. It never quite went to plan, however. They were a good team, to be sure, but lost in the first round in his first two seasons with the club, and he was eventually traded to the Pistons.

The 76ers were well past the point of contending with Iverson at the time of the trade, and to be honest they haven’t come all that close to doing so since. In the 15 years since Iverson’s departure, they’ve won three playoff series.

After trading for Ray Allen ahead of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Celtics seized their opportunity to put together a true big three and added Garnett to the mix. Those two, along with Paul Pierce, took the league by storm. They won 66 games in their first season together and defeated the Lakers in the 2008 Finals to win the Celtics’ first title since 1986. They never again won it all but made another Finals trip in 2010, and a conference finals appearance in 2012.

The Timberwolves have truly never recovered from moving Garnett. In the 13 seasons since he’s been gone, they’ve had the No. 1 overall pick (twice) more often than they’ve been to the playoffs (once).

By 2016, Rose had undergone multiple knee surgeries and was nowhere near the MVP-version of himself. He played fine, but the Knicks were bad and late in the season he suffered a torn meniscus that required another surgery and ended his time in New York.

The Bulls were firmly Jimmy Butler’s team by the time of the trade, though he himself would eventually be moved a year later. Save for a frisky playoff appearance in 2017 that ultimately ended in a first-round exit, the Bulls have done nothing of note on the court since the Rose deal.

As the relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul dissolved, the Rockets made the stunning decision to trade Paul to the Thunder for Westbrook. Looking back, it’s clear now that that was the beginning of the end for the Harden era in Houston. The Rockets were still good, but no longer a title contender without Paul, and they lost to the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs inside the bubble. Now, both Westbrook and Harden are gone.

The Thunder, on the other hand, made off like bandits in this deal. Paul led them to the playoffs in his one season with the team, and they eventually flipped him to the Suns for a bunch of assets that they used to get even more assets. Altogether, they ended up with four first-round picks for Westbrook, which is a good bit of business considering how his career has gone in the past few seasons.

Brooklyn wanted to pair Harden with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, immediately making them even tougher title contenders. But that goal was never realized as injuries and suspensions limited the trio to only 16 games over a season and a half together. Harden then again requested a trade, this time hoping to land with the Philadelphia 76ers to reunite with team president Daryl Morey.

For the second time, Harden landed on his preferred destination of the Sixers, as Philadelphia wanted to pair the former MVP with their franchise centerpiece of Joel Embiid. The Sixers were a year removed from an embarrassing fall in the second round of the postseason and were trying to move Simmons, who requested a trade from Philadelphia after receiving significant criticism for his performance in the playoffs. Once Harden asked out of Brooklyn, it was a mostly easy swap of the two stars.

While the Sixers won 50+ games in each of the two seasons Harden was on the team, the Sixers failed in both years to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. Fast forward to this past summer, with Harden deciding to either opt-in to the final year of his contract, or become an unrestricted free agent, the All-Star guard shocked everyone when he opted in on his player option and then immediately requested a trade from the Sixers. Harden cited a deteriorating relationship with president Daryl Morey, calling him a “liar” in front of a crowd of people and saying the relationship was irreparable. He hoped to be traded to the Clippers to try and still compete for a championship.

Brooklyn Nets receive: Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, four unprotected first-round picks and a 2028 pick swap

Phoenix Suns receive: Kevin Durant, T.J. Warren

Trade aftermath:

Durant originally requested a trade the summer before the 2022-23 season, but at the time, the Nets did not find a deal for him. He agreed to rejoin the team, but after Kyrie Irving requested a trade in February 2023, Durant shortly followed as he saw the writing on the wall in what would be a full rebuild for Brooklyn. He was sent to his preferred destination of the Phoenix Suns, who just two years prior made an NBA Finals run and were looking to get back there.

At the time of Durant being traded he was still dealing with an injury, and after returning from that to play in three games for the Suns, he was put back on the injured list with an ankle sprain. He was mostly healthy for the postseason, but Phoenix fell in the second round to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. Phoenix then added Bradley Beal via trade prior to the start of the 2023-24 season, but the ruling is still out on if they can do enough to win a championship.

Did team acquiring MVP win a title with them?: No

Prior to Harden, there were 15 MVPs traded at some point after winning the award
Seven went on to win titles with their new team: Chamberlain, Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Malone, O’Neal, Garnett
Seven did not win a title with their new team: Cowens, McAdoo, Barkley, Olajuwon, Iverson, Rose, Westbrook (It’s worth noting that of those seven, Cowens and Olajuwon were in the final years of their career, and Rose had suffered major injuries)
Three of the 15 players went on to win additional MVP Awards with their new teams: Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone
Coincidentally, that same trio — Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone — were the only players to be traded after winning multiple MVP Awards

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