Editor's Note: Following the success of last week's NBA Cult Classics series, each SB Nation team site will be contributing an article on the best trade in franchise history. The Bullets Forever contribution, from Thomas, is the deal that brought all-time great and scoring machine Elvin Hayes to the DMV. Join the conversation by voting in our poll or by tweeting with the hashtag #NBABestTradeEver.
The franchise currently known as the Washington Wizards has been involved in many brilliant trades that have gone on to define a franchise. Unfortunately, these lopsided deals have more often than not created contenders in other cities and left the Wizards/Bullets in the NBA's basement for years at a time.
It hasn't always been that way, though, and in 1972, the then-Bullets managed to pull off the greatest swap in franchise history: small forward Jack Marin was traded straight up for power forward/center Elvin Hayes.
To make a long story short, Hayes is still remembered as one of the greatest players in league history, a phenomenal scorer and rebounder who, along with Wes Unseld, led the Bullets to numerous NBA Finals appearances and one NBA title. Marin, immediately coming off his first all-star season, had one more above-average season and quickly declined, eventually retiring in 1977.
In retrospect, this trade looks like a no-brainer, but there was plenty of controversy at the time. We'll take a trip down memory lane and re-examine the deal and its consequences after the jump.
Elvin Hayes as a player was a legitimate all-time great and wholly deserving of his 1990 Hall of Fame induction. An elite scorer who led the league in points per game as a rookie, he was also one of the most dominant rebounding power forwards in the league's history. Hayes was highly reliant on an almost-unstoppable turnaround jumper, a bit of a volume shooter, and not a particularly great passer. While he'd had plenty of success as an individual before coming to the Bullets, his San Diego/Houston Rockets teams were always pretty weak. However, teaming with Wes Unseld -- an all-time great rebounder, excellent passer, and top notch defensive center -- seemed to cover up for Hayes' weaknesses while complementing his strengths.
Most NBA fans have heard of Elvin Hayes, but he's not one of those iconic players like Dr. J, Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar who fans really seem to know a lot about. Looking back at the trade, it's as important to remember what type of person Hayes was off the court as he was on it.
Along with Don Chaney, Hayes was the first African American member of the University of Houston Cougars' basketball team. Possibly as a result of pressure created by being a trailblazer at the ripe old age of 18 as well as his high national profile resulting from his NCAA clashes with UCLA and Lew Alcindor, Hayes became very well known for his off-court tantrums and arguments with coaches. In fact, a large part of what led the San Diego Rockets to trade Hayes to the Bullets was his continued rivalry with head coach Tex Winter.
Most coaches admitted they would rather take arsenic than Elvin Hayes. His reputation was that of a man with a fragile ego who alternately stormed and sulked at criticism, who was sometimes sullen with his teammates and coaches, who could cause dissension in the Partridge family. At the press conference announcing the deal, Shue was asked if it was strictly one-for-one. "No," he replied, "we get Elvin's psychiatrist, too." -- Peter Carey, Sports Illustrated
There were legitimate questions about Hayes' on-court fit, too. While Marin was coming off of an all-star season and was one of the top shooters in the league, Hayes played the same position as the similarly-sized Unseld. While Wes was a good enough passer to play the high post and allow Hayes to operate on the block, there was legitimate cause for concern that he and Hayes could get in each other's way on the court, similar to how Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry weren't able to work together in the frontcourt for the Knicks 30 years later.
However, once he came the Bullets, he instantly seemed to mesh with the team, both on and off the court. Combining with Wes Unseld to anchor a potent double post offense that dominated on the boards, Hayes' arrival allowed coach Gene Shue to play an up-tempo, fast breaking three guard lineup that improved from 38 to 52 wins in just one year. The team never looked back and was a legitimate juggernaut for the rest of the 1970s.
Marin, on the other hand, did give the Rockets another all-star season, but that was about it as far as his NBA career. He stuck around the league for a little bit longer, and while he wasn't terrible by any means, he seemed to lose the scoring ability that made him a legitimate threat to go off for 20 points on any given night up until then. While Washington was lighting up the scoreboard and dominating the Central Division, Houston stayed mediocre, trading Marin to the Buffalo Braves just over a year after acquiring him for a bona fide superstar.
So what can the Wizards learn from this deal almost 40 years later? Hayes' reputation for selfishness and struggles with authority would most likely get him labeled a knucklehead today. However, the deal can offer a glimmer of hope that, in the right environment and with the right complementary players, a talented but troubled superstar can get it together and become a franchise cornerstone.
That's not to say that the Wizards should go out and trade half of the team for DeMarcus Cousins. Far from it. However, with the right culture and the right system, a deal for a similarly troubled-but-talented player might pay just as huge dividends.