- With the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline rapidly approaching, The Crossover's Front Office breaks down the first-round picks that could change hands.
With one week until the NBA’s trade deadline, moves are trickling out and rumors are flying fast. And within the connected realm of the draft, that means teams are shopping picks.
As with any asset, the trade value of a first-round pick is fluid and relative, but the baseline utility of owning one is always high. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the worth of controlling a talented young player on a scaled long-term contract out of the gate, and being able to fit them into any salary cap structure.
For rebuilding teams, dangling useful veterans for draft considerations will always be a viable deadline stance, and first-round selections are often the keys to getting these types of deals done. We’ve already seen Detroit move this year’s first with light protections to obtain Blake Griffin. New Orleans dealt their 2018 first with "minimal protections" to Chicago in adding Nikola Mirotic on Thursday.
Teams have until 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 8 to complete trades, and with that in mind, here’s your handy guide to the state (and availability) of first-round draft picks around the league.
As you may have just guessed, there are rules about trading draft picks, so let’s start with a quick refresher. The NBA’s Stepien Rule dictates that teams cannot go consecutive drafts without owning a first-round pick. The rule is named after over-aggressive former Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien, who from 1982–1985 traded away five consecutive first-round selections to land average to above-average veterans and thusly mortgaged away a chunk of the team’s future. That’s no longer allowed.
Teams can still offer conditional pick swaps in between years, like the Nets did in the infamous trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that currently has the Celtics on the verge of long-term dominance. Also important to remember: the rules don’t account for which teams the picks originally belonged to, only that teams aren’t going consecutive drafts without first-rounders (for example, the Cavs currently don’t have a 2019 first but have two for 2018 so they’re allowed to move one of them if they choose).
Also, remember that it doesn’t matter if a team placed protections on a traded first-rounder. If there’s any possibility that a pick can convey and create a two-year gap in firsts, it can’t work. And lastly the Stepien Rule only applies to future drafts: if your team didn’t have a first in the 2017 draft, but currently owns one in the 2019 draft, it can still legally trade away its 2018 first (just go with it).
Teams that can’t trade first-rounders
Got all that? Let’s go around the league. Because the Kings and Grizzlies have already traded their 2019 first-round selections, they cannot move their 2018 firsts. The Bucks, Heat, Lakers, Pistons, Raptors, Rockets and Thunder don’t own 2018 firsts, so they can’t offer 2019 firsts, either. And the Pelicans moved their 2018 first to the Bulls on Thursday, adding them to this group.
Teams that own multiple first-rounders
Let’s start with the Clippers. Fresh off dealing Blake Griffin and his mega-contract, L.A. possesses the Pistons’ first (protected 1–4) and its own. This situation is a bit more fluid, given that DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams have been discussed in trades. There’s a chance the Clippers continue to be sellers, and since they own two potential lottery picks, there’s not much reason to move one barring some radical shift in approach. They’d ideally obtain more draft assets in any deal involving Jordan and Williams, who both could be signed to long-term extensions this summer. Although the Clippers just acquired Avery Bradley from the Pistons, as they angle to create cap space, his pending free agency could make him a candidate to move again.
Elsewhere, the Hawks have the Rockets’ first (protected 1–3), the Timberwolves’ first (lottery-protected), and their own. The Suns have the Heat’s first (protected 1-7) and the Bucks’ first (protected 1–10 and 17–30). The Nets have the Raptors’ first (lottery-protected) and their own. All three teams are building for the long-term and would be remiss to surrender any draft assets. And the Bulls nabbed a second first-rounder on Thursday in the aforementioned Mirotic deal.
Of course, the Cavs also have two firsts, but more on that in a minute.
Teams that *might* own multiple first-rounders
Please direct your attention to the Lakers’ first-round pick, which will go to either the Celtics or Sixers and is destined to create real drama in the draft lottery due to its unusually structured protections. It’s even crazier when remembering that this situation exists thanks to Philly moving up from No. 3 to No. 1 so it could select Markelle Fultz, while Boston happily wound up with Jayson Tatum.
If this Lakers pick (which originally belonged to Phoenix before arriving in Philly in exchange for Michael Carter-Williams at the 2015 deadline) falls between selections two and five, it conveys to Boston. If it becomes first overall or lands anywhere after six, Philly gets to keep it. If that happens, the Celtics will get a draft pick from the Sixers in 2019, whichever is more favorable between Philly and Sacramento (protected for pick No. 1). Yeah, it’s a little confusing.
Anyway, the prospect of the extra lottery pick puts both teams in position to be aggressive. Philadelphia can move its first-rounder if it feels there’s a move that can get them firmly into the postseason, and will be coming into summer cap space. Knowing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the long-term building blocks certainly helps when it comes to being aggressive. Also, Philly owns seven extra second-round picks between now and 2021 in addition to its own. Hinkie! The Sixers were tied to Memphis and Tyreke Evans through reports on Wednesday, reportedly balking at the asking price of their own first-rounder. The expiring contracts of Trevor Booker and Amir Johnson could possess value for teams looking to create space.
Speaking of Evans, the Celtics have also been tied to the veteran swingman, who seems certain to be moved before the deadline (Memphis opted to sit him out of games starting Wednesday to ensure he can be moved in good health). Although Boston could wait to see what Cleveland does to up the ante, the Celtics are in position to go for it and win the East, and also have an enviable wealth of young talent. The Celtics have held fast to their trove of picks in the past, but it’s worth noting that they could own five first-rounders in the next two drafts (depending on how protections shake out and when the aforementioned pick conveys from Philly). Marcus Smart might be a name to watch for Boston as he approaches free agency.
Teams that are unlikely to trade a first
The Warriors and Spurs value their draft picks highly, and are rarely desperate enough to deal one. Although they draft late in the first round every year, both teams have had success finding talent in that range. For organizations with top-heavy cap sheets, finding the right rookies to contribute on reasonable salaries can be a massive boost, and drafting well is imperative. When you have a well-established culture in place, it’s easier to draft on high upside and look past any perceived risk.
The Pacers have a solid youth movement going and should make the playoffs, but aren’t in position to make a run at the East, so patience is warranted. The Knicks are fighting to sneak in, but are focused on building around Kristaps Porzingis through the draft. The Mavericks and Magic are full-on rebuilding and would (rather obviously) love to add draft picks instead of dealing them.
The Hornets are known to have made their entire roster available in trade talks, but would have little business dealing a pick as they head for the lottery and rethink their roster. Similarly, the Jazz have been active in talks outside of their core pieces, but there are few scenarios where surrendering a first would make sense.
Given John Wall’s injury and the team’s recent slide, moving a pick with all the uncertainty may not make sense for the Wizards, who are in the luxury tax and have all their major players under contract for next season.
Here’s where this gets interesting. The Trail Blazers are in the luxury tax, and given their top-heavy salary structure, owning a first-rounder is pretty valuable. Parting with a pick would only make sense in a deal with a chance to get Portland over the hump. The Blazers are among the teams that have been tied to DeAndre Jordan. The Nuggets have historically valued their draft picks, owning at least one first-rounder every year since 2011. Denver is in the playoff hunt and if the right opportunity to consolidate players and picks came around, it could pose an opportunity to push the envelope with Paul Millsap on the mend.
The Timberwolves own the Thunder’s lottery-protected pick, which is likely to convey this season, and if Tom Thibodeau gets impatient, they could conceivably move it. With Andrew Wiggins’ max extension set to kick in next season, Karl-Anthony Towns due for one and Jimmy Butler approaching free agency next summer, the Wolves are in a tricky position both financially and competitively. It’ll be hard for them to absorb long-term money.
Drumroll… the Cavs
We saved the best for last, or at least the most dramatic. There’s a sense around the league that contending teams are waiting to see what the Cavaliers do before making any drastic moves, and it’s a guarantee that their two first-round picks will come into play on some level in negotiations.
Cleveland has come upon dire straits with LeBron James’ free agency on the horizon, backsliding at a bad time and with some locker room conflict becoming public. But LeBron’s mere presence, as always, creates the distinct possibility that the Cavs can turn things around quickly and at the right time, as they’ve done many times in recent years. The Cavs’ defense has been particularly abysmal all season and with owner Dan Gilbert reportedly calling the shots, it’s possible Cleveland does something drastic, with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson’s big contracts potentially able to bring back something of substance (Love’s hand injury, however, has probably dampered any immediate talks). On a lesser level, Channing Frye is on an expiring deal and Iman Shumpert has also been rumored in talks.
The elephant in the room is the Nets’ unprotected first-rounder, which is likely to fall in the Top 10 and serves as an insurance policy of sorts to kick-start the team if James leaves. Cleveland can also deal its own first-rounder, but can only move one of the two draft picks. If the Cavs do nothing to improve, what message does that send LeBron? Dealing the Nets pick may not be prudent, but it’s certainly something they have to consider.
Given their lack of leverage from the outside looking in, for the Cavs to dump a bad contract or acquire something of immediate value, it may well require them to attach a first. Other teams can drive a hard bargain knowing that the clock may be ticking for Cleveland to fix things. As it stands, there’s no team in a more difficult position.