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Why the Trail Blazers Won’t Prioritize Picks at the NBA Trade Deadline

Portland might make moves, but the draft isn’t as attractive anymore.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers might or might not be active at the 2024 NBA Trade Deadline, but it’s a sure bet that their fans would rather see changes sooner than later. Since first-round draft picks are among the most prized, and tantalizing, trade assets, plenty of folks are writing the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag wondering if the Blazers can get some more. Is that a good idea, though? Let’s examine via this submission.

Dave,

I heard you say that the Blazers might not want first round picks in trade and Danny Marang said the same thing. My question is why? Have you heard of the Thunder? Look at them! They’re the literal pattern for a rebuilding project. Do you really think it’s possible to have too many first round picks?

Aaron

Let’s get a little nuance into the discussion.

If you’re going to have too much of something, first-round draft picks are the best thing to have too much of. They’re versatile, fungible, and still the best bang-for-your-buck way to add talent to a team.

Taking advantage of salary cap space and trades requires willing partners to dance with, be they free agents or opposing General Managers. With a draft pick, you just say, “I want that player,” and the player is yours for the next 4-5 years, guaranteed. The benefit is limited by the pool of available draftees and the position of the pick, but it puts more power in the team’s hands than any other way of acquiring players.

That said, it’s still possible to have to much of any asset, including picks.

Let’s start by debunking the Oklahoma City Thunder example just slightly. They’re in a great place. Everybody in the universe, including the Trail Blazers, would choose their situation over Portland’s right now.

But we can explain why the Thunder are so good in 5.5 words: Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They drafted Holmgren second overall in the 2022 NBA Draft. They traded Paul George for Gilgeous-Alexander. Between them, those two are at the heart of OKC’s 35-15, best-in-the-conference record. That record also makes the Thunder’s position with their remaining draft picks—10 (!) first-rounders and a Costco cart full of seconds—the envy of the entire league.

But what happens if you take away the two mega-stars? If Gilegous-Alexander were chronically injured, the Thunder had picked Jeremy Sochan instead of Holmgren, and their record was 15-35, you’d start to notice things.

Six of their ten prized picks come in 2024 and 2025, with the former, at least, forecast as a weak draft. Most of them come from winning teams and all are protected against lottery jackpots. Now all of a sudden, instead of going, “Oooooooh!” you’re saying, “Ohhhhh.” If the Thunder stank right now, you’d rightly predict that their own picks—the ones they had prior to any trades—were their best shot at moving forward.

Oklahoma City isn’t in great shape because they have a plethora of picks. They’re in great shape because they made a fantastic trade and accurately assessed one lottery selection. As long as those two things happened, they’d be golden even without the upcoming draft booty. If they didn’t happen, the extra picks wouldn’t save them.

The same is true for Portland. It should be noted that the Blazers have all their own picks in the fold—assuming they finish in the lottery for the foreseeable future—and have two pick swaps and two unprotected first-rounders coming at the end of the decade from the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. That’s way more high-lottery potential than OKC has. If the Blazers hit gold with one or two of the half-dozen potential chances at lottery nirvana, they’ll be where the Thunder are without requiring further moves to get there.

That’s not to argue against making those moves. We just need to admit that nobody’s trading away Top 4 pick potential for Jerami Grant or Malcolm Brogdon. Portland can add the side dishes like OKC did, but the main course depends on their own scouting prowess and a little ping-pong fortune.

Remembering that not all draft picks are created equal, we can see why having too many diminishes their value. Executing picks isn’t like walking into WalMart with your credit card, ready to buy whatever you want no matter who else has been in the store before you that day. It’s more like WalMart on Black Friday where two spectacularly-discounted TV’s are available. If you’re third in line, let alone twenty-fourth, the value of your position drops precipitously.

That story doesn’t change if you’re third, your mom is sixteenth, and your brother is twenty-ninth in line that day. You might be able to get someone to slip you some cash to trade into the line at one of your positions. Banking on selling all three of them is risky. And if you get stuck having to use them, how many box fans and incense burners can you buy?

It’s the same with rookies. A team can only absorb so many. There’s no way the Thunder can keep all of those first-round picks they got in trade along with their own. They’d have to fire Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren just to make room for the new players. They’ll be forced to sell. And the more they’re forced to sell, the lower the value gets, because other teams only have so many bathrooms for box fans and incense too.

Having plenty of first-round picks is better than not. But once teams like Oklahoma City and Portland reach a critical mass of them, they’re going to start prioritizing other assets instead of risking overloading the market.

The Blazers have room to acquire first-rounders for drafts between 2025 and 2027 without saturating the market, but if they do, it’s a sure bet they won’t be using all the picks they get. Given that, they’d probably prefer young players now over future draft capital so they can begin to sort out the mess—and maybe get a little better—before they have to make their big decisions in 2028 and 2029.

If Portland gets that elusive “sweetheart” deal and it’s centered around picks, they’ll go for it. Anyone would. Absent that, look for the team to prioritize other assets.

Thanks for the question! You can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer as many as we can!