The Greatest Draft Day Trade In NBA History

On April 30, 1956, an NBA draft day trade went down that would change the course of basketball history in a way that has rarely been matched since.

Sure, there was the Greatest Fleecing in NBA History—when the Boston Celtics snookered the Golden State Warriors out of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale for Joe Barry Carroll in 1980, still the most one-sided draft day trade if not the most one-sided trade, full stop, in NBA history—but a great trade should benefit both teams in either the short or the long term to truly be considered a masterwork of a player swap.

Which is why the Celtics, having just drafted Tom Heinsohn with the first overall pick as a “territorial pick” from the College of the Holy Cross, deserve extra credit for prizing away third pick Bill Russell from the St. Louis Hawks for Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.

Don’t believe that was a fair trade? Consider that Hagan is in the Hall of Fame. Macauley wasn’t happy in Boston; he was from St. Louis, had made his NBA debut there for the ill-fated St. Louis Bombers franchise that was contracted ahead of the 1950-51 season, and had played in the league’s first six All-Star Games.

Macauley himself is in the Hall as well, so the Celtics traded two Hall of Famers in order to get a guy who retired as the GOAT in 1969 and held that title at least until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired 20 years later and possibly until Michael Jordan hung up the shoes in 1998 (no, MJ’s time on the Wizards never happened. You hear me? Never happened.)

The Hawks won a title in 1958 at the expense of Russell’s Celtics.

Between 1957 and 1961, the Hawks made it to the Finals four times in five seasons, playing Boston every time, winning that title in ’58 and coming up just short the other three times. The Lakers broke that streak in 1959—it was Elgin Baylor‘s rookie year—but the butt end of the Eisenhower administration belonged to St. Louis and Boston the way the late 2010s belonged to Stephen Curry and LeBron James in Oakland and Cleveland.

It brings up an interesting philosophical point when you trade the future for the now.

Macauley was out of the league after the 1959 season. He was an All-Star in his first year in St. Louis and a key contributor to the title team in ’58, but the modern equivalent would be trading a high draft pick for someone like Chris Paul. You know he’s not going to be there forever, but when he is there, you’re going to get at least one great season out of him, maybe two, before he retires when his contract is up.

Hagan was around a lot longer—his last All-Star season was in 1962, he was on all four Finals teams, and he hung around so long that he even had three seasons with the Dallas Chaparrals in the ABA between 1968 and 1970, retiring a year after Russell did—but he too was ultimately a short-term contributor, lasting just five years as an elite player compared to Russell’s 13.

But if you’re St. Louis in 1956, do you make that trade again, even knowing that you’re not getting anywhere after 1961 while the Celtics go on to win 11 titles in 13 years?

I’d say you do. What’s more, it’s not like Russell was a guarantee in St. Louis. Yeah, he was great, but the Celtics drafted Hall of Famers Heinsohn and K.C. Jones in that 1956 draft. They got Sam Jones with the eighth pick in 1957. Tom Sanders came along in a 1960 draft in which Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Lenny Wilkens (that last picked sixth by St. Louis) went in the first round. John Havlicek joined the Celtics in 1962, and it’s not like the Hawks whiffed when they grabbed Hall of Famer Zelmo Beaty third in that draft.

Tell any team that “if you make this trade, you’re going to make four Finals and win a title in the next five years.” I think they make that trade, especially given they were getting a proven All-Star and a guy with a ton of upside who eventually turned into a Hall of Famer for a black player—remember, this was 1956, and black players were considered high-risk, all the more so since Russell would be going to a city that would become infamous for its racist fans—who would be playing on the opposite coast from where he went to college.

The trade ended up benefiting both sides. Three Hall of Fame players were involved, and the trajectory of four of the next five NBA Finals and all five of its championships could be traced to that one decision on April 30, 1956.

That’s why Macauley and Hagan for Russell is the greatest draft-day trade in NBA history.