The 2020 NBA Draft is scheduled for Thursday, June 25, 2020. While a number of NBA franchises are still vying for a playoff spot, plenty of teams have already begun to shift gears, putting themselves in the best position for the draft.
But there are a number of complications that hinder the approach for cellar-dwellers – most notably, draft debt. While trading away multiple future draft picks and/or including pick swaps is commonly accepted as unwise, it’s also unavoidable in a number of instances. The Los Angeles Clippers had to include five future firsts to procure Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder — without them, there was no deal to be had.
The same goes for the Houston Rockets, who parted with two future picks (and the option to swap picks on another two separate occasions), in their pursuit of Russell Westbrook.
Sometimes, it’s an unfortunate – yet unavoidable – risk, one required of talented teams looking to put themselves over the top. And, of course, the downside is that those players prove an awkward fit, the acquiring team is left to put the pieces together (or, even, admit defeat and move the player to another new team on the rise).
But what could be the downside for teams hunting for that draft capital?
Well, in fact, there are plenty. The draft itself is an inexact science, one based on intangibles and luck. But there’s another layer: potential versus realized value. And it’s nearly as unpredictable as the draft itself.
Draft picks are arranged based on standings. If Team A agrees to trade Player A to Team B for next year’s unprotected first-round pick, Team B’s success suddenly has a major impact on Team A’s future. Typically, teams looking to add future picks consider the future success of their trade partners when dealing with their picks. But what if the trade partner outperforms expectations? That teams pick is now less valuable and the odds that their trade partner selects a top-tier prospect is significantly less.
With that being said, let’s first identify all of the owed 2020 first-round picks and the likelihood that they change hands this June. Next, we’ll call out three takeaways from the imminent draft debt:
Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round draft pick to Atlanta – lottery protected through 2021. In 2022, it conveys as a 2022 second-round pick and a 2024 second-round pick. Fate: Likely to change hands
Cleveland – 2020 first-round draft pick to New Orleans via Atlanta – top-10 protected in 2020. It conveys as 2021 and 2022 second-round picks if it doesn’t change hands in 2020. Fate: Unlikely to change hands
Denver – 2020 first-round draft pick to Oklahoma City – top-10 protected in 2020. Fate: Likely to change hands
Golden State – 2020 first-round draft pick to Brooklyn – top 20 protected in 2020. If it does not change hands, it becomes a 2025 second-round pick. Fate: Highly unlikely to change hands
Indiana – 2020 first-round draft pick to Milwaukee – lottery-protected in 2020 and through 2025, at which time it becomes an unprotected first-round pick. Fate: Highly unlikely to change hands
Memphis – 2020 first-round draft pick to Boston – top-six protected in 2020, becoming an unprotected first-round pick in 2021 if it does not change hands. Fate: Likely to change hands
Milwaukee – 2020 first-round draft pick to Boston via Phoenix – top-seven protected in 2020, becoming an unprotected first-round pick in 2021. Fate: Very likely to change hands
Oklahoma City – 2020 first-round draft pick to Philadelphia – top-20 protected in 2020 and 2021, becoming 2022 and 2023 second-round picks if it does not change hands. Fate: Unlikely to change hands
Philadelphia – 2020 first-round draft pick to Brooklyn – top-14 protected in 2020, 2021 and 2022, becoming 2023 and 2024 second-round picks if it does not change hands. Fate: Likely to change hands
Utah – 2020 first-round draft pick to Memphis – top-seven and bottom-15 protected in 2020 and 2021, becoming top-six protected in 2022, top-three protected in 2023 and top-one protected in 2024. If it does not change hands by 2024, it becomes 2025 and 2026 second-round picks. Fate: Unlikely to change hands
Takeaway 1: Boston appears set to add three-2020 first-round picks – but none as high as they’d hoped
The Celtics have done a splendid job of accumulating first-round draft picks through trades. They have made 10 first-round selections in the last five drafts — and that trend continues in 2020.
But future draft capital is only theoretical until a selection is made. At times, picks lose value even before they’re made. For example, no future pick had been viewed as positively as the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick owed to Boston. The Kings famously outperformed even the most bullish of expectations last season, ending the year in the ninth spot in the West with a 39-43 record – good for the 14th pick. It’s always nice to add another lottery pick, but when you’re expecting a top-five pick – which is approximately where it was projected entering 2018-19 – the 14th pick feels like a consolation prize at best.
The 2020 Grizzlies pick was presumed to be equally valuable as Memphis was expected to struggle with a young core. Most experts exited them to either 1.) receive a top-six pick – thus, changing the pick to an unprotected and even-more-valuable 2021 first-round pick – or 2.) transition a 2020 pick in the 7-10 range. The same kind of bad luck couldn’t strike in back-to-back seasons, right?
Unfortunately for Bostonians, that appears to be exactly what’s happening. Contrary to pre-season projections, the Grizzlies appear well-ahead of schedule thanks to rookie Ja Morant and sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. They are currently hanging on to the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference and the 14th-best record in the league. And while the draft lottery factors into pick protections, odds that Memphis jumps to a top-six pick is quite slim. So it appears that instead of adding a top-10 pick, the Celtics will instead add a mid-first-rounder.
But when viewed in totality, it’s not all bad in Boston. The Celtics will also add Milwaukee’s 2020 first-round pick, which has laughable top-seven protection considering that the Bucks possess a three-game lead on the Lakers for the best record in the NBA. That means that Boston will have their own pick (likely in the 20-25 range), Milwaukee’s pick (likely 29 or 30) and the Memphis pick (likely in the 13-17 range).
The Celtics may not want to bring on three rookies with guaranteed salaries, but they could package a combination of all three in for a higher pick. Or they could go big game hunting this season and swap some combination of first-round picks and dead salary for players like Marcus Morris or Robert Covington. Either way, the Celtics should be active with their picks, be it at the trade deadline of in June.
Takeaway 2: Golden State set to add major asset in June (or maybe sooner) thanks to pick protections
Half of the 2020 first-round picks owed appear set to change hands this year. Golden State’s isn’t one of them – but it was supposed to be. The Warriors included top-20 protection well before Stephen Curry went down with a hand injury that may have ended his 2019-20 season. The idea was that adding D’Angelo Russell was far better than keeping their 2020 pick.
But with their injuries, the Warriors are on pace to finish with one of the three worst records in the entire league. And while the 2019 draft lottery change makes it less of a certainty that a bottom-three record ensures a top-three pick — it is a virtual certainty that the Warriors land a top pick. That means they’ll add a valuable draft asset (or whomever they can add in exchange for the pick) to a core of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and either Russell or whomever they return for him. That is a scary core capable of dominating the league for another few seasons — or more.
Much like the San Antonio Spurs — who benefited from an MVP-caliber player going down with a season-ending injury just over 20 years ago (David Robinson missed 76 games in 1996-97) — the Warriors appear poised to benefit greatly from the timing of Curry’s (and to a lesser extent, Thompson) injury. While the league continues to tweak its rules to even the playing field, it appears that the rich really do get richer — at least in this instance.
Takeaway 3: Brooklyn’s lack of a 2020 first-round pick will sting even more this offseason
In an attempt to clear additional salary cap space in order to sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, Brooklyn swapped Allen Crabbe, the 17th pick in the 2019 draft and their 2020 first-round pick for Taurean Price and the Hawks 2020 second-rounder. Brooklyn smartly attached a 2020 lottery-protection, but with the Nets currently in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and with the teams beneath them (Detroit, Orlando, Chicago and Charlotte) being a step back in terms of talent, the Nets should hold off the competition. That means that the Nets should qualify for the playoffs and will, therefore, forfeit their 2020 first-round pick.
Qualifying for the playoffs provides the team with tons of teachable moments. But it also means that Nets will be unable to add a young and talented player on an affordable deal to a veteran team in need of role players. Since the Nets already committed $140.2 million in 2020-21 – well above the estimated 2020-21 salary cap – the Nets have one less way to add talent for next season and beyond. If Kyrie Irving is correct in his recent assessment of the Nets needs, it will be difficult for them to add the requisite pieces needed to win.
Including future picks in trades has led to lots of interesting scenarios in the past. Dealing away future draft picks is always dangerous, but it clearly has deeper and more complicated implications than is often assumed. Sure, a nondescript mid-to-late first-rounder doesn’t sound too valuable, but All-Stars have been selected well after the lottery. Unless adding a generational talent and/or solidifying a championship-caliber core, teams should pretty obviously avoid swapping future first-rounders. But for the aforementioned situations mentioned above, we can only wait and see for now.