Portland Trail Blazers fans are preparing to twiddle their thumbs on draft day. With neither a first, which went to the Houston Rockets, nor a second round pick — owned by the Memphis Grizzlies — the Blazers will have to wheel and deal if they want to partake on July 29.
And why wouldn’t they try if only to bring in players on cheap contracts to fill out an already bloated payroll?
Draft picks are currency in this league. A rebuilding team can rebuild as long as they are rich in picks. Picks symbolize hope and opportunity. They’re also sought-after pieces in big trades with contending teams often willing to relinquish selections up to seven years in advance to secure game-changing players — see Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and James Harden.
For the team receiving the pick, it’s an asset they can sell to fans, the belief that the franchise’s future is bright, while the contender heightens its chances of holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But the minute this type of trade is consummated, the work begins for the pick recipient who, without a prudent general manager and lottery success, has some lean years ahead. If incompetence is in charge, picks are almost certain to underwhelm, especially when their former star, the known quantity, achieves success elsewhere.
One argument — the argument we’re following in this piece — suggests that the perceived value of a pick is higher prior to the draft: once the selection is made the return often falls short of expectation.
Let’s dissect some recent examples.
The Covington trade
In order to secure the services of Houston’s Robert Covington last November, the Blazers parted with Trevor Ariza and two first-round picks (2020 and 2021), the first of which was sent on to the Detroit Pistons. Ariza’s name was also sent to Michigan, before bouncing around, eventually landing with the Oklahoma City Thunder where he never played a game. He was later traded to the Miami Heat in March.
The Pistons used last year’s first round pick (number 16) on Isaiah Stewart, a perfectly fine 6’9 center with NBA-rotation potential. Stewart, Mason Plumlee’s main understudy, started a total of 16 games last season, averaging 21 minutes, 7.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks for a team focused on giving opportunities to young players and earning high draft picks. The jury is out on whether Stewart flourishes into a reliable starting center but it’s hard to see him impacting the game at the same level as Covington.
The Rockets own the Blazers’ 2021 pick and will select 23rd on July 29. The New York Knicks selected Leandro Bolmaro at 23 last year before trading his rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Bolmaro is still in Europe and has yet to play an NBA game. The 23rd pick has actually yielded some pretty decent players, but for every OG Anunoby (2017), there’s a Sergei Monia (2004), for every Nikola Mirotic (2011), there’s an Ante Zizic (2016) and for every Aaron Holiday (2018), there’s a Josh Boone (2006).
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton highlights the disparity in pick value. Below he suggests that when using the top pick as a benchmark, teams selecting ninth get less than half the value and teams choosing 23rd get less than a quarter of the value.
Here's an updated version of my draft pick trade value chart that takes into account this year's increase in salaries for first-round picks. As always, note that this reflects what picks should be worth based on historical outcomes. In practice, teams pay a premium to move up. pic.twitter.com/Mm0fI6de8n— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) June 21, 2018
Consequently, the sum total of Covington’s return was a 35-year-old Ariza, Stewart, and a gamble on a player, selected deep in the first round. I’ll guarantee most Rockets fans were ecstatic with the return and fiscal flexibility the deal delivered — given the perception of what a first round pick brings. However, the reality might be very different.
The 2017 draft
Let’s discuss Portland’s 2017 NBA Draft, the day the Blazers traded two non-lottery picks (15 and 20) to the Sacramento Kings for the 10th pick, used to select Gonzaga’s Zach Collins. Just to be clear, this is not a Zach Collins bashfest. Collins had the potential to be a solid player at a position of need for the Blazers, but unfortunately his body has let him down.
The 15th pick was Portland’s own while the 20th pick, originally belonging to the Grizzlies, arrived in Portland via the Jusuf Nurkic-Mason Plumlee trade. Obviously Nurkic was a wonderful addition to the team, but at the time, the real prize was that pick.
The four players selected after Collins were Malik Monk (Charlotte Hornets), Luke Kennard (Pistons), Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz via the Denver Nuggets) and Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat) with John Collins taken at 19 by the Atlanta Hawks and OG Anunoby at 23 by the Toronto Raptors. Meaning that if the Blazers had held onto their picks, they could most likely have added the other Collins and Anunoby who would have better surrounded Damian Lillard and company.
The Blazers missed an opportunity here. They could have moved up to the same spot to take Mitchell or Adebayo who are currently making All-Star teams and deep playoff runs. Or used 15 and 20 to add two useful players, one of which featured heavily in Atlanta’s recent Eastern Conference Finals appearance and the other a part of the Raptors’ 2019 Championship run.
The Blazers also received the 26th pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers after they agreed to take on the aging Anderson Varejao who was consequently waived and stretched. Caleb Swanigan was taken with this pick, one spot ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma.
Just to be clear, I’m not chastising Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey for trading the picks. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. All I’m saying is that the Blazers came into that draft holding three non-lottery first round picks, two of which were brought in via opportunistic trades. They walked away with Collins and Swanigan, neither of whom may be on the roster next season.
The Gerald Wallace trade
Of course the pick recipient can also win the trade. I’ll point you to one Damian Lillard. As the former Portland regime blew up the 2011-12 incarnation of the team, veteran players were shipped off to other franchises for youth, picks and expiring contracts.
On March 15, 2012, the Blazers jettisoned Gerald Wallace to the then New Jersey Nets in exchange for Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a top three protected pick, which allowed Portland to snare its future franchise star with the sixth selection in the 2012 draft.
Looking back, this was the beginning of the end for Wallace, who up until then had proved to be a solid swingman and energy guy on both ends on the floor. Injuries and a bloated contract no other team wanted to touch made it even worse for the Nets with Wallace shipped to Boston in the forgettable Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce deal 12 months later.
The New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets didn’t have a great couple of years here, helping both Portland and Boston secure players they could build their respective franchises around over the next decade. Imagine the likes of Lillard, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown playing at Barclays Center. This example is a word of warning to the team looking for a star to contend now. Things can quickly turn bad and stay bad until you regain control of your own picks.
There’s nuance to the need for first round picks. The difference in players selected with the fifth and 27th picks might be worlds apart.
Experts and fanbases consistently state/demand that they’re not giving up a player without at least one first rounder. But if my team sends out a star to contend for championships over the next four or five years, how are picks in the mid 20s going to help me?
Trading veteran players for picks can often lay the foundations for teams rebuilding for the future, but unless those picks are guaranteed high lottery selections, a pick is only as good as the front office executing them.
And if the Blazers do eventually decide to trade Damian Lillard for a swath of first round picks, I only hope they are choosing the package with the highest picks while installing a front office capable of executing them.