The Portland Trail Blazers need to find a way to get into the 2016 NBA draft. Regardless of what any analyst or fan thinks of the available talent, having a draft pick or two tonight has potential to significantly benefit the franchise more than having picks in future seasons. Fortunately, the rising salary cap has created a chaotic scene in which the value of draft picks will vary greatly from team to team, leading to many transactions. GM Neil Olshey will likely be able to parlay that confusion into a pick for the Blazers.
Lottery picks are of nearly incomparable financial value in the NBA because first-round draftees are locked into "rookie scale" contracts. Those contracts are for a set salary based on draft pick position that dictates a rookie's wages for up to five years. When a player is successful that contract is far below market value. For example, last season the Blazers' two best players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, had the fifth and ninth highest salaries on the team, respectively, because they are still being paid on the rookie scale. Suffice to say, when a lottery pick is a "hit," or even a modest success, they instantly become one of the most valuable contracts in the league.
But the value of a first-rounder this year goes beyond that - the successful players from this year's lottery will potentially be some of the most underpaid players in league history. The rookie scale for this year's picks was set in 2011, before the NBA signed its massive new TV deal. As such, first round picks will be locked into disproportionately low deals for the next several seasons. Anyone drafted at No. 13 or later in the first round will have a salary of less than $2 million as the cap jumps to $107 million or higher in 2017. In other words, a team that drafts well this summer could have a starter who is using less than two percent of their salary by the player's second and third year.
The ridiculously low salary also mitigates most of the risk associated with a first-round pick. Mid-to-late first-rounders will only have guaranteed salary for three seasons and at under $2 million the guaranteed salary is so relatively low it will have little impact on the team's cap space. For comparison, the Blazers will be paying Anderson Varejao $2 million for the next several seasons. If a first-round pick can be acquired for cheap it needs to be done.
Given the circumstances, one would expect it to be a seller's market right now, but rumors suggest that nearly every first-round pick outside of the top two is available for trade:
Draft picks for sale! By my count that's picks 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, & 21 on the market https://t.co/Wk8FKlimOo— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) June 22, 2016
As 5:00 p.m. approaches the market will, presumably, correct itself by making these picks easier to get and the Blazers could jump in. Dave Deckard reviewed the specifics of how the Blazers could move into the draft yesterday, but at the least Olshey should be dangling the Cavaliers' pick next year to the teams that want to punt their late first-rounder into the future. For the Blazers, a team that needs talent sooner rather than later while being cognizant of cap realities this summer, it makes sense to try to snag a low-salary first-rounder ASAP.
Identifying teams with multiple picks, one of which lies in the mid-late 20s, is a good place to start when looking for potential trade partners. Without going into specifics, here are the teams drafting in each position:
The second round also provides the Blazers an interesting opportunity this year. As Dan Feldman explained on NBCsports.com yesterday, the ballooning cap has created an unusual situation wherein second-round picks could actually be paid more than first-round picks.
There's an unsaid - sometimes, said - tension behind every contract negotiation between teams and second-round picks. To retain a second-rounder's rights, a team must extend him a required tender. A required tender is a one-year contract offer, and because that's the only requirement, it's always for the minimum and fully unguaranteed.
K.J. McDaniels, the No. 32 in the 2014 draft, famously accepted the required tender rather than sign long-term with the 76ers. He then signed a three-year, $6,523,127 deal with the Rockets last summer. Despite getting just the minimum his first year, McDaniels has already made more than half of the players selected in the first round ahead of him.
Second-round picks that succeed in becoming rotation players this season will, possibly, be more difficult to retain than in previous seasons, assuming the player is confident enough to sign the minimum tender offer. This reality ups the risk of second-round picks for many teams - if they do succeed in finding a diamond in the rough, it will become costly very quickly. In other words, there might be three or four "Wes Matthews in Utah" situations next summer.
Here's where the Blazers could step in: Portland could offer to buy or trade into this year's second round with teams that are wary of having to commit money to a second-round pick next summer. Teams with multiple second-round picks, especially those in the early 30s, are the most likely candidates. If all goes well this summer, the Blazers will not have cap space in 2017 either way, so adding a second-round pick restricted free agent will have little or no affect on their cap space.
The upshot to all of this is that the logic of which picks are valuable/not valuable has changed this year as compared to previous drafts. Because of the insanely low guaranteed salaries, late first-rounders carry little risk, despite their longer contracts, while an early second-rounder could demand a relatively high salary in just his second season. In the past, late first-rounders were considered undesirable because of their guaranteed salary, while early second-rounders were looked upon favorably. This volatility could cause confusion about the value of picks depending on the priorities of different teams, creating an opportunity for Olshey to step in and snag the Blazers a low-risk draft pick on the cheap.