Most Unexpected Trades in American Professional Sports History
In the world of modern professional sports, a confluence of forces—including player injuries, financial limitations, and team strategy—can compel teams to enter the trade market.
As trade deadlines approach, teams constantly re-evaluate one decision: make a push for the playoffs by acquiring already-developed talent, or ship away current players to rebuild for the future.
Throughout the years, a few unexpected trades have been particularly influential.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS ACQUIRE KEVIN LOVE (2014)
King James Leaves Cleveland in Upheaval
Following several taxing basketball seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James initiated a series of career moves that would act as the catalyst for significant franchise mayhem and player acquisition.
First, in one of the most publicized sporting announcements in history, LeBron revealed his intention to sign with Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat during a live television event before the 2010-2011 season.
Pandemonium ensued. Jerseys were burned. In an instant, LeBron became the most vilified player in professional basketball.
After competing for the championship the previous year, the Cavs were left in disarray. They would manage to string together four seasons of remarkably unwatchable basketball in LeBron’s absence. However, such dismal performance did yield the Cavs three #1 overall draft picks throughout that span—each of whom would be cornerstones in future trades.
The Prodigal Son Returns
Then, in the summer of 2014, the prodigal son returned to his old stomping grounds in Cleveland after a four-year stint with the Miami Heat. Rumors had been swirling for weeks, but LeBron’s fateful decision to return would nonetheless shape the landscape of professional basketball in the coming years.
Almost immediately, the LeBron James signing catapulted the Cavs into “win-now mode.” Since that time, the Cleveland Cavaliers have re-emerged on basketball’s biggest stage, using a myriad of trades and free agency moves to do so. Perhaps the most important of these acquisitions involved an All-Star power forward from Minnesota: Kevin Love.
Kevin Love Joins a Star-Studded Cast
Kevin Love had enjoyed a remarkably successful career playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves up until the 2014 offseason. Through six seasons, he posted averages of 19.2 ppg and 12.2 rpg while shooting 36% beyond the arc—the prototypical “stretch four” for today’s modern game. Love was voted to three All-Star games during that span.
Throughout his early career, however, he continued to battle injuries to his left knee—even requiring season-ending surgery at one point. At the time of the trade, LeBron and the front office readily overlooked concerns about his health, as they were fully committed to pursuing a supporting roster that could contend for a championship immediately.
As his career matured, Love began to reexamine the protection and recovery processes he employed to optimize his health. One of the biggest shifts Love made to improve his durability was to employ a variety of products designed by a leading manufacturer of protective and performance sports equipment.
In 2014, Love began to exclusively use Shock Doctor mouth guards while playing, as well as Shock Doctor’s Ice Therapy for recovery. He also began to wear knee braces and calf compression sleeves on both legs. Together, these changes have enabled Love to enjoy three of his healthiest seasons in a row since his trade to the Cavs.
However, injuries remain a part of the game. During the 2014-15 playoffs, Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk dislocated Love’s shoulder while fighting for a rebound, forcing Love to undergo surgery and an extensive rehabilitation process. After six months rehabbing and wearing a shoulder brace, Love would eventually help win Cleveland a championship the following season.
Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett Depart for Minnesota
The price for Kevin Love was steep. The Cavs would have to ship away two of the #1 picks they made in the years of LeBron’s absence: Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.
Bennett would struggle to find his footing in the league, eventually taking his play overseas to Turkey. Andrew Wiggins, however, would turn into one of the best young players in the game and become a core component in Minnesota’s rebuilding process.
While the forces galvanizing this trade—primarily LeBron’s free agency signing—would develop in a rather quick and unexpected fashion, this trade appears to be one of the few that benefited both teams. The Cavs won a championship during the epic 2015-16 season using Love alongside superstars Kyrie Irving and LeBron. Meanwhile, Minnesota invested three years of development in Wiggins, and they have since surrounded him with a young core of immense talent.
Ultimately, this trade continues to influence the state of the Cavaliers even today. After several successful seasons playing together, Kyrie Irving began to grumble about how much of the spotlight he was garnering. This tension eventually culminated in another blockbuster trade this offseason.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS TRADE KYRIE IRVING (2017)
An All-Star Demands a Trade
Despite the fact the Cavs battled the Celtics in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, the two sides came together to swap All-Star point guards only months later.
While both sides agreed to this trade in principle, it remains pending on physical examinations of the players involved. Kyrie, like many professional athletes, has suffered his share of injuries. To help protect against injuries in the future, Kyrie now wears knee compression support and a left arm sleeve.
However, this trade would likely be the largest trade in professional basketball over the past decade. Kyrie Irving is a four-time All-Star player and boasts career averages of 21.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, and 38% from three-point land.
While the Cavs are receiving a large talent pool in return for his departure, he nonetheless remains the best player in the trade and a significant asset to give up in any circumstance. Only because Kyrie Irving demanded a trade did the Cavs even begin to entertain offers.
Both sides likely also felt inadequacies when measuring up to the Golden State Warriors, a team that had just let Harrison Barnes leave in free agency so they could sign 8-time All-Star and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.
The Celtics Offer a King’s Ransom for Kyrie
It is important to note the state of the Celtics prior to this point. They had accumulated an immense stockpile of top draft picks following a rather one-sided trade a few years prior. They had just been in serious contention for a championship only months before. Thus, they felt compelled to acquire seasoned talent to make a playoff run, even at the expense of a few of their young players.
The Cavaliers were in a more precarious position. After LeBron and Love’s quest culminated in a Cleveland championship, rumors again began to circulate that LeBron would leave in free agency following the 2017-2018 season. This became particularly probable once Irving revealed his desire to leave, which threatened to break up the core of the team.
In the end, the Celtics would find themselves up to the challenge. Both teams would agree to a deal that would swap Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and an unprotected first-round pick in 2018.
An All-Star Point Guard for An All-Star Point Guard
Perhaps the most coveted asset in this trade is the first-round pick offered by the Celtics, as it may eventually be the top pick in the 2018 draft. However, Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star point guard in his own right, and he is coming off a season in which he garnered significant attention for MVP. Thomas boasted the most statistically efficient 4th quarter averages of any player in the league last year.
Standing at 5’9”—miniscule by professional basketball standards—he has developed a reputation for being a scrappy player. On occasion, his frenetic style of play has gotten him into trouble. Playing against the Wizards in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, Isaiah Thomas received an elbow to the face that caused his front tooth to dislodge and fly across the arena.
Since then, Thomas is sure to always wear a mouth guard. If nothing else, this incident reveals the importance of safety precautions even in a sport with relatively little physical contact. Thomas can also be seen donning calf compression sleeves during games to help minimize the wear and tear basketball has on the lower body.
Ultimately, Thomas represents a key component in this trade. Only time can tell how this trade will affect both sides as well as how it will affect championship-contending teams around the league.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS ACQUIRE DEMARCUS COUSINS (2017)
DeMarcus Cousins Already an Elite Center
After several tumultuous seasons in a mismanaged Sacramento Kings organization, Cousins clearly desired a new atmosphere. He is widely considered the best center in basketball, but he has played on poor teams throughout his career. Cousins boasts career averages of 21.2 ppg and 10.8 rpg on his way to three All-Star seasons.
DeMarcus Cousins also possesses something that centers and power forwards often lack: adequate health. Cousins represents yet another player dedicating significant attention to recovery and physical maintenance processes.
In 2016, Cousins made a statement regarding his usage of perhaps the most universal protective tool across all sports: the mouth guard. Similar to Kevin Love, he also partnered with Shock Doctor.
After agreeing to the partnership, Cousins had this to say: “I spend every game fighting physical battles in the post with some of the largest and strongest athletes in the world. Throughout my professional career, I have always worn a mouth guard, and I am excited to be partnering with the No. 1 mouth guard company in the world to promote adoption of this crucial protective equipment.”
Cousins, like Love and many other professional athletes, also began wearing calf compression sleeves and knee braces to help preserve his physical longevity in the league. Aside from that, he can be seen sporting a headband during games.
Thus, Cousins not only posted gaudy statistics throughout his early career, but he also possessed the most important professional ability of all: availability. For these reasons, his trade to the Pelicans would reverberate throughout professional basketball.
Pelicans Partner the Two Best Centers in Basketball
Because Sacramento appeared ready to move the franchise in a different direction, the New Orleans Pelicans felt compelled to jump at the opportunity to acquire DeMarcus Cousins for a relatively low price. In the end, they would only have to part with minimal assets to acquire his services all to achieve one of the most unexpected trades in basketball history.
In return for Cousins, the Kings were to receive rookie Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and two future draft picks. While this seems like a large haul, only Buddy Hield and one of the future draft picks represent anything of real value.
Ultimately, the Kings received significant criticism for agreeing to this trade. Things haven’t gone perfectly in New Orleans, either. The Pelicans falsely hoped Cousins would mesh well with Anthony Davis, the elite center already on their roster. However, both players have yet to play well together, despite the fact each possesses immense talent.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS ACQUIRE PK SUBBAN (2016)
An Unusual One-For-One Swap
Because trades remain somewhat of a rarity in professional hockey, when the Montreal Canadians elected to trade PK Subban, it was immediately dubbed a trade for the century. What made this trade even more compelling is that it was an unusual one-for-one swap: The Predators were receiving PK Subban, while the Canadians were receiving Shea Weber.
The Canadian fan base had grown particularly fond of PK Subban over his seven-year tenure, both because of his loud personality and flashy playing style. However, Weber is a player of almost equal caliber, and he is vastly superior during power plays.
Ultimately, it appears the Predators were willing to adopt PK’s athletic abilities despite his flamboyant persona; the Canadian front office was not. Both Subban and Weber have remained on similar career trajectories, indicating the driving force behind this trade was likely one of team chemistry.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS ACQUIRE YU DARVISH (2017)
The Dodgers Add to their World Series Hopes
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been a playoff team for the last several years, yet they failed to win the Fall Classic in each of those seasons.
Thus, after they played the first half of this season at a blistering pace -- they have a shot to garner the most wins ever by an American professional baseball team—the Dodgers decided to push all their chips into the middle by acquiring Yu Darvish.
Darvish is in the final year of his initial contract from when he transitioned to American baseball from the Japanese league in 2012. Because only one year remains on the deal, Darvish likely becomes only a rental for the Dodgers. The Dodgers likely won’t have cap room to sign him after this season.
Darvish's numbers during his tenure in American professional ball reveal his very respectable 3.41 ERA—making him one of the top 30 pitchers in the game. For this reason, the Dodgers were willing to part with a few young prospects to bolster their starting rotation, if only for one epic playoff run.
Darvish also protects himself from the adverse effects sports can sometimes have on the body. Baseball players universally wear soft cups to protect themselves against contact with the baseball which can ricochet around the diamond at speeds as high as 120 mph.
An Exciting Trade Deadline
While the Dodgers would ultimately achieve success in their pursuit of Darvish, the deal came with its share of drama. Both the Dodgers and the Texas Rangers would engage in a heated dialogue in the hours leading up to the trade deadline. The deal itself wouldn’t even break until after the deadline itself—a first in professional baseball.
The Dodgers were forced to give up a bevy of attractive prospects, including a major-league-ready Willie Calhoun and two high-upside talents in Brendon Davis and A.J. Alexy. With Darvish likely only in LA for a season, the success of this deal hinges largely on how well the Dodgers do in the playoffs. Anything short of a Fall Classic victory would be a disappointment and would likely mar this deal in the eyes of many Dodger fans.
In the end, professional sports represent one of the few career paths in which franchises can almost entirely dictate the fates of their employees.
Players are selected by teams in the draft, and they remain subject to the direction of the franchise over the years. Rarely will a player compete for the same team throughout his or her career. For a variety of reasons, this adds a layer of excitement to sports.
Ultimately, these major roster shake-ups represent the most interesting trades in recent years. Going forward, they will continue to make professional sports even more compelling.