Exploring the effects NBA free agency will have on next year's draft picks
In advance of the NBA’s impending salary cap explosion, teams raced to spend money this summer, before nearly every team will find itself flush with cap space. Some moves shifted the league’s balance of power—San Antonio reloaded, Portland rebuilt—and now the focus is on how the free agency shuffle will affect the league’s immediate outlook.
All player movement has ripple effects, and while there are teams that are building for a championship run next season, there are plenty of teams more concerned with their long-term futures than on-court prospects for 2015-16. A lot can happen between now and next summer, but here’s a look at how this year’s free agency period affected the potential value of some of next year’s traded draft picks.
The Celtics did not make a big splash in free agency. For Boston fans hoping to land Kevin Love, adding the likes of Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder had to be disappointing. But Danny Ainge has been acquiring assets for years, and he did score not one, but two potentially big wins this off-season courtesy of DeAndre Jordan.
Dallas was one of the best teams in the league when it traded for Rajon Rondo, and it surely expected the top-seven protected first-rounder sent to Boston in the deal to land in the mid-20s. But Jordan’s eleventh hour decision to return to the Clippers left the Mavericks in the lurch. The soon-to-be 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki will be surrounded by a guy coming off a torn Achilles (Wes Matthews), a guy coming off knee surgery (Chandler Parsons), and a whole bunch of question marks.
After the dust settled, Dallas has found itself in danger of missing the playoffs in the still-strong Western Conference, but may not be bad enough to keep that top-seven protected pick, creating a nightmare scenario where Boston ends up with a late lottery pick—or even a selection at the back-end of the top 10.
The Celtics could end up with another lottery pick via their own selection. Boston was a playoff team this year, but with the Pacers and Heat getting stars back from injury, the Celts could fall out of the postseason picture.
The same goes for Brooklyn. This summer all the cap-strapped Nets could really do was bring back their own free agents in Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. But they did ship out young center Mason Plumlee in a trade for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, leaving themselves with just the newly-signed Andrea Bargnani as a backup for the injury-prone Lopez.
Brooklyn also agreed to the buyout with Williams in order to alleviate the franchise’s massive luxury tax bill. Williams’ salary aside, losing him leaves the Nets starting Jarrett Jack at point guard with Shane Larkin as his backup, so it’s reasonable to expect the team’s on-court product to suffer. When all is said and done, the Williams-to-Dallas deal may have helped the Celtics two-fold: It could potentially make the Nets worse, while simultaneously keeping the Mavs just good enough to lose their pick.
In all, Boston could have as many as four first-round picks next year, though only three are likely to convey. (The fourth comes from Minnesota and is top-12 protected; In the extremely likely event it falls in the top 12, it becomes two second-round picks.) The realistic best-case scenario for the Celtics is ending up with three lottery picks, and possibly multiple selections in the top 10.
The Philadelphia 76ers are not a team that has looked to compete in free agency—or on the court—the last couple years. But the Sixers did score one significant win this year, all thanks to a series of moves by the Los Angeles Lakers. Philadelphia owns the Lakers' 2016 first-round pick, which is protected only if it lands in the top 3. When GM Sam Hinkie traded Michael Carter-Williams for the pick at this year’s trade deadline, he was gambling that L.A. would remain bad enough that the pick would retain its value next summer. Now, Hinkie’s got to be pleased with the way the offseason unfolded for the Lakers. After missing out on all their top free agent targets—Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and Greg Monroe—L.A. could have chosen to embrace their rebuild, ride youngsters D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, and hope to be one of the league’s three worst teams in order to maximize the chance of keeping next year’s first-rounder.
Instead, Mitch Kupchak made a series of moves intended to make his team better immediately, adding several veterans in Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass. Now the Lakers are likely in purgatory; not good enough to seriously contend for the playoffs in the crowded West, but just good enough to lose that 2016 pick. Barring a major acquisition, it looks like a strong possibility that the pick the Sixers end up receiving will be in the 5-10 range.
Now, Philadelphia is likely to have four first-round picks next June. In addition to the L.A. pick, the Sixers have their own selection, a pick coming from the Thunder, and a pick coming from the Heat. Those latter two teams figure to be much better next year after suffering disastrous injuries in 2014-15, meaning those picks could both end up in the 20s. Still, the Philadelphia's absolute best-case scenario is ending up with picks No. 1 (their own), 4 (Lakers), 11 (Heat, top-10 protected), and 16 (Thunder, top-15 protected).
The Nuggets are a team at a crossroads, and they’re taking their time deciding what direction to take. Per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Denver is the only team in the NBA to not add a new contract via free agency or trade so far this off-season. If Denver decides to go with a full-on rebuild, its pick is very likely to fall in the top 10 for the second straight season.
That would give the Nuggets the enviable position to choose between two juicy picks: their own and a pick from the Knicks. Denver has the option to swap picks with New York next summer, and the Knicks are coming off a 17-65 record, worst in franchise history. New York, like the Lakers, missed out on top-tier free agents, and Phil Jackson elected to add veterans in Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez.
Armed with both of those picks, Denver has the flexibility to wait on trading Lawson in order to see how the Knicks look. Either way, it seems like a safe bet that either Denver or New York will be among the NBA’s ten worst teams next year, ensuring a top-10 pick for the Nuggets.
Denver did catch a bad break this offseason, thanks to Aldridge’s move to San Antonio. The Trail Blazers owe the Nuggets a first-round pick, but it’s lottery protected in 2016 and 2017. With Aldridge leaving, Portland quickly jumped into rebuild mode, turning over 80% of its starting lineup. Now what once looked like a sure-fire first-round pick likely will become a 2018 second-rounder, unless the Blazers vault back into the playoffs within the next two seasons.
Denver is also owed a first-round pick from Memphis, protected from picks 1-5 and 15-30, meaning it would only convey in the unlikely event the Grizzlies miss the playoffs.
The lesser of Denver’s pick options will go to Toronto as part of the Bargnani trade. That allowed the Raptors the luxury of improving their team in the present while still knowing they’ll likely have a lottery pick next summer. Masai Ujiri did just that, signing DeMarre Carroll, solidifying Toronto as a likely playoff team in the East.
The Raptors still own their pick, and in a best-case scenario, would receive a top-10 selection as well.
The Phoenix Suns are getting a first-round pick from the Cavaliers, and the value of that selection hasn’t changed much. Cleveland is bringing back its core free agents—Love, LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, and presumably Tristan Thompson—and is adding veterans like Mo Williams too. The pick is top-10 protected, but it would take an utter catastrophe in Cleveland for that pick not to convey. The pick is likely to be one of the last in the first round, whether the Suns hold onto it or use it as a trade sweetener.