LAS VEGAS — An intriguing question has arisen after last month’s mega trades from Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert — what’s going on with so many first-round picks dealt?
The number of picks sent in both deals was certainly uplifting. So was the reality that most of them were unprotected. If first-round picks are valuable commodities and protections are distributed like MCU movie ratings, why does it seem like the Hawks and Timberwolves ditched them like they were selling a chest of drawers to Deborah Vance during their garage sale? An interesting question also arose: Has the value of first-round picks changed in the league this offseason?
The answer, of course, is complicated. But talks with league sources reveal an answer that could point to both the league’s booming economy and how the acquisition of star players has changed over the past half-decade.
It is important to note, first of all, that boffo pick packages are not new. The Lakers sent the rights to four first-round picks (three picks, including one unprotected, and one trade) to get Anthony Davis. The Clippers sent the rights to five first-round picks (either through trades or unprotected picks) and two Heat picks for Paul George. The Bucks sent five drafts, including two unprotected picks and two trades, to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday. The Nets sent four trades and three firsts to the Rockets for James Harden, and Houston got another first in what was ultimately a four-team trade.
These trades have all built on each other and have seen an escalation in the number of asset projects processed. They also included some really good young players in every trade – Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert – to make them work.
The Murray and Gobert agreements were different. Those earlier trades could be seen as knockouts for a title contender, but they were escalations for young teams coming out of Play-In Tournament appearances. And picks were the only significant vehicles for bringing those players to new franchises. The Spurs picked up unprotected firsts in 2025 and 2027 from the Hawks and trade rights on their 2026 pick, as well as a first in the first 16 protected Hornets in 2023. The Jazz got three unprotected firsts, a pick trade, a top-five protected pick in 2029 and the No. 22 pick just picked in the 2022 draft.
Although Murray and Gobert are stars, they are not considered impact players of the same caliber as Davis, George and Harden. This is why these offers are so popular. If it seems like these deals reduced the value of first-round picks, that might not be true.
While there’s no consensus, one team executive pointed out that first-round picks may actually become more valuable. It’s now increasingly rare to see stars in their own right entering free agency, let alone with the intention of leaving their team. It’s just too lucrative for stars to keep re-signing with their teams and taking the money instead of potentially giving up the guaranteed $50+ million, as was Zach Lavine’s scenario when he first re-signed to Chicago. Those who do, the team manager said, are the exception.
Since 2019, when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant joined the Nets and Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers, the only stars who have changed teams have done so through a trade. It’s been three free agency cycles as only one multiple-time All-Star in his prime has reached a deal to sign elsewhere (DeMar DeRozan to the Bulls in 2021)*. From 2016 to 2019, nine multiple-time All-Stars in their prime used free agency to switch teams, either by direct signing or sign-and-trade.
* Kyle Lowry switched teams in 2021, but it’s hard to say a 35-year-old Lowry was in his prime.
Teams no longer hoard cap space because the real stars don’t reach free agency. The only teams with cap space lately are the bad ones — the five teams with the most cap space in 2022 had all 11 first picks; of the top six teams in the cap space in 2021, only two were among the top six seeds in their conferences. While top-tier free agency had already been shut down for some markets, it’s less of a route to top players than it had been during the great player rotation of the past decade.
Free agency isn’t totally closed – the next CBA might also factor that in some way – but right now the best way to get stars is through trades, and getting a star in an exchange takes a lot of choices.
Other leaders believe there has been less change and that each movement could simply live in a silo, with its own particular circumstances. The Hawks had a window to increase their competitiveness as Trae Young entered his second contract; the Wolves have new owners, a new president of basketball operations and two young franchise stalwarts already in place. These bring their own pressures and incentives for high-risk moves.
Each previous exchange set a precedent and this caused an escalation in the number of choices needed to close a deal. Time will tell what the return of Donovan Mitchell and Kevin Durant will be, should either be traded. But the Gobert trade was so expensive for the Timberwolves that it’s hard to see how the Nets can find a deal that will improve this comeback in this new paradigm.
“It’s not changing significantly,” one playoff team executive said of the change in the value of first-round picks. “But it’s moving.”
This executive said draft picks are more valuable to him as business assets than as a player they would otherwise take, even if contenders need first-round picks to bring young players to cheap contracts that can exceed their salaries. But the 2017 collective bargaining agreement helped erode some of that marginal value by tying rookie-scale contracts to the salary cap – although the need for these types of players is heightened when multiple max-contract players are in place. .
A Western Conference executive saw merit in the idea that big pick packages are the tool needed to extract star players now, but he also saw Hawks and Wolves trades as an expense for players who are likely to play a lot of regular season games, which can help win a lot of games and acts as a safety net for the type of meltdown that leads to giving up high draft picks. Murray has played in 89.3% of Spurs’ games over the previous three seasons; Gobert played in 90.7% of the Jazz’s regular season games during this time.
There’s value in deals like this, this executive said, if a trade like this takes your franchise to new heights, it may not have reached before or in a long time, like 60 wins, even if it is not a championship. Still, he added, this exchange had better be done after a long discussion with the team owner.
“It could really make us look shitty in three years,” he said. “Then you better have the prize in mind.”
• Getting NBA players, especially stars, to play more often has been a priority for commissioner Adam Silver lately. He said it will be a topic of conversation in future ABC talks. While he no doubt wants to see stars play more frequently, Silver has also tied it into NBA media rights deals, to provide media companies with a product worth paying for.
This week, he had an interesting wrinkle in his thoughts on load management, throwing game-played incentives into the fray as something that could be discussed with the NBPA.
“Maybe there are additional incentives that we can offer as well,” Silver said after the league’s board of governors meeting on Tuesday. “It ties in a little bit with your streaming question, is that I’m all for guaranteed contracts, but it may be that on top of your typical guaranteed contract, some extra money would have to be based on the number of games played and the results of those games. I mean, that’s how most industries work where there are financial incentives, even among the highest paid executives, for performance. So, everything we should be looking at when we sit down, considering what the modern NBA looks like.
• NBA players recently got a welcome surprise when the NBA cut the amount of money they took from their paychecks during the 2021-22 season. The league regularly takes 10% of each player’s salary and places it in escrow, and could then redistribute it if there is a shortfall in revenue allocated to players through the CBA. That number has increased over the COVID seasons and was pegged at 15% last season, with the league expecting a continued decline in basketball revenue due to the pandemic. But with a revenue windfall exceeding expectations, players were left with just 7.5% of their checks last season, according to league sources.
(Photo by Rudy Gobert and Dejounte Murray: Scott Wachter-USA Today)