Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers

The first round pick can change in value massively from June to February

The variance in the value of first round picks

At the 2016 NBA Draft, a few trades occurred, and some others were agreed upon that for salary cap purposes only were fully finalised two weeks later. This is all normal.

Quite a few of these trades involved draft picks, picks for both that year and the future, and quite a few of those draft picks were first rounders. This is also normal.

The perceived value of them, however, was abnormally inconsistent.

#12 pick Taurean Prince was traded by the Utah Jazz in a three team deal that netted them George Hill straight up.

#13 pick Georgios Papagiannis was combined by the Phoenix Suns with #28 pick Skal Labissiere and 2014 #27 pick Bogdan Bogdanovic, then shipped to the Sacramento Kings for #8 pick Marquese Chriss.

#20 pick Caris LeVert was traded by the Indiana Pacers, along with a future second round pick (protected 45th through 60th from 2017 to 2022 and only thereafter unprotected, thereby almost certainly ensuring the pick will be a high second rounder), to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Thaddeus Young.

#21 pick Malachi Richardson was traded by the Charlotte Hornets to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Marco Belinelli.

And finally, #31 pick Devonta Davis and #38 Rade Zagorac pick were combined by the Boston Celtics and sent to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for a 2019 first round pick, protected through the first eight picks.

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards

In summation, the #12 pick had seemingly enough value to obtain a very high quality starting point guard in the prime of his career, while the pick immediately after it had to be packaged with two other first rounders just to move up five spots in a weak draft. Similarly, while admittedly packaged with a likely decent second rounder, the #20 pick was deemed sufficiently good to get Young, a valuable and versatile contributor in the prime of his career with at least two years to run on his contract, whereas the pick below it yielded only Belinelli, a journeyman backup shooting guard on an expiring contract who, while fine, is demonstrably less effective than Young as an NBA player, and who was coming off of the worst season he has had since his rookie campaign.

Notwithstanding the oddness of some of those trades – we see above the unlikely situation whereby Sacramento made off with tremendous value, while Memphis clearly wanted the immediacy of Davis’s few minutes to forego the fact that 2019 is the year their Grit and Grind core will have pretty much run its course, and that is the best year for them to have picks in – the inconsistency of their yields despite being traded at the same time speaks to a wobbling value of first round picks in the NBA, one that is increasingly difficult to determine.

Come draft time, however, a first rounder has leverage. Or at least, it seems that it can do on that pick’s date of reckoning, the draft night on which it goes from asset to player rights.

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The trade of Chriss speaks to one thing that seems to crop up every year. If a team really, really wants a player, and is not convinced that that player will fall to their own draft selection (whether that fear be justified or not), any team picking a few spots before them can agree to pick that player - or take a calculated gamble and pick that player in the hopes that a future trade will be forthcoming – and then dangle them.

In wanting to trade up, Phoenix had little to no leverage; in knowing they wanted that, Sacramento could be quite demanding, and seemingly were. This practice is fairly common, or at least not that uncommon. The Boston Celtics once allegedly offered six picks to the Hornets for the 2015 #9 pick that eventually became Frank Kaminsky. But Charlotte resisted that package and kept the pick (which Boston supposedly would have used on Justise Winslow instead) in favour of taking Kaminsky for themselves. Boston’s love for one player was somehow worth six picks, yet Charlotte’s love for one player was somehow worth even more than that. Seemingly, on draft night itself, and when specific players are on deck, immediate first round draft picks are ridiculously precious.

Nevertheless, selecting a rookie and holding the team you know to really want them hostage, receiving in exchange a possibly disparate yet valuable bundle of bits both present and future, can return a good yield of pieces in in a way that a trade of a veteran cannot. Especially midseason. As evidence of this, we can look at the past trade deadline, at which there were more deals that included first round picks.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks

Nerlens Noel was traded by Philadelphia to Dallas in exchange for a protected first round pick (one that will almost certainly convert into two second round picks due to the very ambitious protection on it), along with Justin Anderson and the filler contract of Andrew Bogut.

Washington attached a lottery protected first round pick to the bad contract of Andrew Nicholson and the filler of Marcus Thornton in order to get Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCulloch from the Brooklyn Nets.

About three hours after announcing the dismissals of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, followed by the hirings of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the L.A. Lakers traded Lou Williams mid-career year for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first round pick from Houston.

Toronto attached a 2017 pick to Terrence Ross and moved them to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Serge Ibaka.

And in unquestionably the biggest deal of the deadline, New Orleans traded their 2017 first round pick, along with 2016 first round pick Buddy Hield and the filler contracts of Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, to Sacramento in exchange for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi.

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans

There is an all-too-common thread to be found amongst those deals. Concurrent with that dichotomy in trade value between rookies and veterans is a reduction in the heightened alertness to the value of first rounders that had built up over the past decade. A few years ago, on the topic of first rounder value, I wrote this:

In practice in today's NBA, however, first-round picks have become much more important than that. It was only a few short years ago that enterprising types such as Kevin Pritchard at Portland made their name and fame by exploiting the league-wide undervaluing of first-round picks, whose regard among NBA executives at the time mirrored that of the fans and media mentioned above. Many team executives are on short-term contracts and know full well the high turnover that accompanies their job. The sacrifice of long-term assets for short-term gains was an easy sacrifice to make when job security is often predicated on said short term. Nevertheless, after Pritchard et al found good success in picking them up cheaply, their successes reverberated around the league, and now all executives regard first-round picks as valuable commodities for talent acquisition. As well they should.

This was true at the time. It still mostly is. In comparison to generations past, even recent ones, draft picks (and particularly first round draft picks) are still held in a higher regard than they were. Even in these post-Kaminsky times. But since that 2013 piece was written, the market has oscillated. Specifically, there is now a more liberal attitude towards the sacrificing of long term assets for immediate talent acquisition than there was then, and this deadline speaks to that.

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans

With the exception of Cousins and Williams, both with deals that run through the end of 2017/18 season, the primary returning pieces for the picks in each of the above trade deadlines deals all have contracts that expire this summer.

Trading first round picks for players hitting free agency that summer usually does not end well for the team that gave the pick away. This is especially true when the traded player is not the type of player that moves the needle. Arron Afflalo (from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers) and Jeff Green (from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Sacramento Kings) are two notable examples of this in recent history.

Both the Afflalo and Green deals came after the above blurb was written, as indeed have all trades mentioned in this piece. Both Afflalo and Green are now replacement-level players on big deals unbefitting of their impact, and were not much more than that then, yet they still yielded first round picks with only a couple of months to spend on their new team. Both walked in free agency the following summer. In both cases, the immediacy of the “we need help for the upcoming playoffs and then maybe re-sign them later” situation that both teams put themselves in saw them give away a future asset for thirty-ish games of not very much from these rental players. The largely self-inflicted pressure cost them the prospect.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three

It is true that a first rounder might only get you a prospect that becomes a player equal to the calibre of Afflalo or Green. But a first rounder will at least get you that player for a lot longer, for less money, and with likely resale value. They also might get you more than that calibre of player in a better, well-timed deal. It seems, however, that the immediacy of the rewards in a mid-season deal are still too tempting, an idea reinforced by this deadline.

With this in mind, a lot of teams tried to sell their soon-to-be free agents for a first round pick as well. For example, Phoenix supposedly tried hard to get a first round pick for P.J. Tucker, eventually receiving two seconds. And while seemingly finally mindful of the fact that they tend to lose quality players for nothing in free agency – Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Omer Asik, and, essentially, Luol Deng – Chicago tried to stave that off for a change and get picks for their upcoming expirings. They tried to sell Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and, while not expiring, Doug McDermott. And yet although they did manage to shift the last two in exchange for Cameron Payne and two other players they did not target, they somehow were still the ones giving up the 2018 second round pick to do it.

On draft night, although teams can and do make trades, they cannot trade players who are free agents that summer, or who could be via an option. Expiring contracts, therefore, are often to be sold at the deadline, particularly by those teams out of the running. However, rarely are those players re-signed. This February flea market is the basketball equivalent of baseball’s long standing practice of selling off veterans for mid-level prospects down the home stretch of a long season. But the significant differences between the trading of a future unquantified intangible asset in the form of a draft pick and the tangible quantified asset in the form of a player contract come in both the uncertainty of the quality of the pick (both its draft slot, the players who will be available at the time, and sometimes even the year it is available in), and the far smaller rosters on a basketball team (thereby making each player or pick given up more important).

Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks

Essentially, be it due to the hunger to make immediate deals to maybe go one series further, or the all-consuming overpoweringly intoxicating gotta-get-my-guy obsessions of draft night, first round picks go through a cycle in about eight short months. At the trade deadline, sod the non-lottery picks, get the good player for right now. But on draft night, if our guy is on the board….you know what, we’ll keep it.

Sometimes, pick value is gauged fairly well, as seen in the Ibaka deal (a decent deal for both teams, although Orlando’s trade to move Ibaka out does also highlight just how bad their deal to bring him in was). Yet rarely is that so, and history supports it. With the jarring exceptions of the gross underpayments enjoyed by Dallas and New Orleans in acquiring Noel and Cousins – for whom the extenuating circumstances have played too big a role to be considered in depth here, although Cousins’s situation certainly was here – first round picks have a scattergun value, increasingly often missing on the side of incaution, but sometimes being really, really, really highly valued.

It is of course accepted that not all picks are created equal. That much is obvious. Draft spots and talent levels of draft classes vary wildly, and thus so does the variance in their values. But when one team trades a first rounder for 82 games of Marco Belinelli, and another team will not part with picks for mid-20s All-Stars, that variance is increasingly hard to fathom.