The Milwaukee Bucks struck gold by drafting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but everything loses its luster eventually.
On June 16, 1975 the Milwaukee Bucks traded Walt Wesley to the Los Angeles Lakers. Oh, and they included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well.
Kareem being traded is often cited as one of the worst trades ever, but it can only be seen as such without any context of the situation. The truth is there was no choice for the Bucks that would’ve turned out better than the trade Milwaukee made with Los Angeles.
This fantastic LA Times piece by Thomas Bonk has great details about the trade, including the now well-known fact that Kareem was the one who decided he would be leaving Milwaukee, because of Milwaukee.
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The city wasn’t right for Kareem. He felt it was too small, too blue-collar, too far away from his loved ones. He wasn’t really wrong about any of those things, honestly.
Kareem told the Bucks his decision at a dinner in October 1974. He didn’t go to the press, and he gave the team valuable time to make the best deal possible. The Bucks left the dinner hoping to woo him over the next season, but a variety of factors made that impossible.
The first and foremost might’ve been that Kareem’s mind was already made up. He wanted out, and according to Bonk he nor his camp ever really wavered.
An ulterior factor working against the Bucks though was how awful the team was in the year after that dinner. Two nights after it, the Bucks played a preseason game where Kareem was poked in the eye by none other than Don Nelson.
Kareem got frustrated and punched a stanchion, breaking his hand. He would miss the first 16 games of the 1974-75 NBA season, the first since Oscar Robertson retired. The Bucks went 3-13 without those two members of their former big three.
Even after Kareem returned, the Bucks finished the year just 35-31. 53 is a solid winning percentage, but nothing compared to the years before that. Since Kareem was drafted, the Bucks hadn’t won less than 68 percent of their games in a season.
They dropped to under 50 percent in the 74-75 season, finishing the year 38-44. Any chance the Bucks could’ve had at keeping Kareem was now snuffed out. Maybe another title or some epic playoff run could convince the star center to stay, but even with a second ring he might’ve wanted out anyway.
Milwaukee tried everything to keep Kareem. The thought of full time residency in New York for Kareem with travel accommodations to Milwaukee was seriously entertained, as was either GM Wayne Embry or head coach Larry Costello essentially firing themselves, were they the problem.
But the decision was made. Now all that was left was figuring out what fair value was for the best player in basketball. Milwaukee handled the trade smartly–the Bucks wanted to start a youth movement in Milwaukee.
They eventually settled on the Lakers as a trade partner both because it was one of Kareem’s chosen destinations, and due to Los Angeles’ stockpile of young talent.
In addition to 25-year-old center Elmore Smith and rookie guard Brian Winters, the Lakers possessed the second overall and eighth overall picks in the 1975 NBA Draft. Los Angeles didn’t want to give up Winters and the picks, but the Bucks insisted that’s what it would take.
The more common way of looking at the trade was that Kareem and the Lakers went on to win five titles together, while Milwaukee got none. In that sense, the Bucks lost.
Considering the team had to move Kareem, getting two players back who got their numbers retired in Milwaukee doesn’t seem like such a horrible deal. Winters and Bridgeman both got that honor.
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Meyers ended up being a draft bust and only lasted four seasons in the NBA, and Smith got traded halfway through his second season with the team. The Kareem trade wasn’t perfect, but considering the circumstances things could’ve been a whole lot worse.
Kareem threatened to sit out a season if his demands weren’t met, which could’ve led to his contract expiring. In those days there were no free agency rules–the Bucks weren’t sure if they would’ve been compensated at all for Kareem walking in free agency.
William Alverson, the team’s president at the time, told the LA Times that the Kareem trade actually saved the team. He might be right.
"“It is not immodest to say we saved our franchise with our deal,” Alverson said. “I don’t think it’s proven to be a bad deal for the Lakers, either. But it was not a good deal for Milwaukee, it was an absolutely sensational deal for Milwaukee."
The Milwaukee Bucks may forever hold a bit of regret over having to trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but at least the franchise can rest easy knowing they did well considering the circumstances.