The NBA Draft is an annual opportunity for many. It’s a hugely profound moment for young prospects, as well as front offices hoping to revitalize a franchise and establish their own reputations.
For decades, most teams have understood the value of a first-round pick, and especially lottery picks. Those that didn’t – like the Isiah Thomas-led New York Knicks – were fleeced time and again, trading picks for projects.
More recently, a trend has emerged that’s seen teams amass a war chest of picks. This is additionally helpful in rebuilding, as picks can be used in the draft or as trade capital – and when a team amasses multiple future first-rounders, swapping out one or two is sometimes even better than using them as flooding a maturing roster with more youngsters isn’t always an ideal recipe for success – and it probably hurts the young players even more than it does the team.
It’s easy to assume that teams in control of the most future first-round picks are best-positioned for future success. Granted, examining a team’s future is about more than just draft picks. The problem is that with the exception of a select few concrete examples, grading a team’s front office is an exercise in anecdotal evidence, and predicting the growth of current players is nearly impossible – with Julius Randle’s recent rise being a great example as to why.
Still, we look ahead at the team’s collections of future picks. Triangulate that with current, young talent and you’re most of the way toward identifying the future favorites in the NBA.
So with that, let’s start assessing.
Without getting into the minutia of pick protections, only seven teams are owed first-round picks (or pick swaps), and only four teams – Atlanta, Memphis, New York and New Orleans – are owed at least one first-round pick without owing any first-rounders themselves.
Conversely, two teams – Dallas and Denver – are not owed a single first-round pick. Further, 17 teams owe future first-round picks, eight of whom owe multiple future firsts.
To summarize, just like the U.S.’s wealth disparity, a select few teams own a majority of the NBA’s future capital. Next, let’s identify the teams with the most and/or best future assets, beginning with the honorable mention list and ending with the best-positioned team.
– Atlanta Hawks (Oklahoma City Thunder, 2020)
– Golden State Warriors (Minnesota Timberwolves, 2021 top-three protected)
– Memphis Grizzlies (Utah Jazz, 2021 protected 1-7 & 15-30, 1-6 in 2022, 1-3 in 2023, 1 in 2024 and 2025 and converts to 2025 and 2026 second-round picks if not conveyed; 2024 Golden State (protected 1-4 in 2024, 1 in 2025 and unprotected in 2026)
– New York Knicks (Dallas Mavericks, 2021; Dallas Mavericks, 2023 protected; Los Angeles Clippers, 2021 swap)
3. Houston Rockets
The Rockets’ future looks considerably different than it did as of the end of last season. Gone are Russell Westbrook and James Harden and instead they’ve got John Wall, Victor Oladipo and plenty of draft picks. For a team that looked poised to be in trouble in the very near future due to over-leveraging themselves in their pursuit of Westbrook, it looks a whole lot different today.
2021 – Brooklyn Nets (swap)
2021 – Detroit Pistons (protected 1-16 through 2022, 1-18 in 2023 and 2024, 1-13 2025, 1-11 in 2026, and 1-9 in 2027. Converts to a second-round pick if not conveyed)
2021 – Portland Trail Blazers (protected 1-14 through 2027. Converts to a second-round pick if not conveyed)
2022 – Brooklyn Nets
2022 – Milwaukee Bucks
2023 – Brooklyn Nets (swap)
2023 – Washington (protected 1-14 in 2023, 1-12 in 2024, 1-10 in 2025, 1-8 in 2026. Converts to 2026 and 2027 second-round picks if not conveyed)
2024 – Brooklyn Nets
2025 – Brooklyn Nets (swap)
2026 – Brooklyn Nets
2027 – Brooklyn Nets (swap)
Before we get ahead of ourselves, the Rockets also owe their fair share – otherwise, they’d be a bigger focus of this article. Houston owes their 2021 first-round pick (protected) to the Oklahoma City Thunder if they finish behind the Miami HEAT and the Thunder. They also owe their 2026 first-round pick (protected) to the Thunder.
Houston is well-positioned, though, thanks to the Harden-to-Brooklyn deal. The Nets sent three unprotected first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps. Seven picks in total which arrive in a steady stream between now and 2027. Looking only at the 2027 pick, Durant will be 38, Harden 37 and Irving 34. At first blush, that appears to work out really well for the Rockets. The same will be true at least for the prior draft (2026) – and maybe even a few before that.
2. New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans has accumulated a significant number of future first-round picks. Hard to look past the Pelicans youth in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram – but either way, the Pelicans are in incredible shape. Here’s a look that the future picks they’re owed:
2021 – Los Angeles Lakers (protected 8-30, and unprotected in 2022)
2023 – Los Angeles Lakers (swap)
2024 – Los Angeles Lakers (can choose 2025 instead)
2024 – Milwaukee Bucks (swap)
2025 – Milwaukee Bucks
2026 – Milwaukee Bucks (swap)
2027 – Milwaukee Bucks
Of note, the fact that they possess the power to wait an extra year (from 2024 to 2025) until receiving the second Lakers pick, if so desired, is big. LeBron James has to get old at some point, right? It’s inadvisable to bet against him this season – and probably next year, too – but eventually it’s bound to happen. If he’s still performing in 2023-24, the Pelicans have the luxury of playing the odds and holding off one more season.
Additionally, they received a haul in return for Jrue Holiday, and rightfully so. But arranging the picks so that they receive a swap in 2026 and an unprotected first-rounder in 2027 is ideal. By the end of the 2026-27 season, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be 32 going on 33. While the odds are in the favor of Antetokounmpo in terms of maintaining his athleticism and greatness at least into his mid-30s, who knows what happens between now and then.
Also, just the sheer number of incoming first-round picks moves the needle for New Orleans. The Pelicans do not owe any first-round picks, meaning that could have either two first-round picks in three of the next five drafts (2021 and 2024), or they could have three first-round picks in 2025. In any case, well done, Davin Griffin.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Buckle up because Sam Presti has put on a master class in rebuilding.
2021 – Golden State Warriors (protected 1-20 – if pick falls within protections, Thunder receive Minnesota’s 2021 second-round pick)
2021 – Miami and/or Houston (swap) (Thunder to receive two most favorable of its 2021 first-rounders between Miami and Houston, both are protected 1-4.)
2022 – Phoenix Suns (protected 1-12, 1-10 in 2023 and 1-8 in 2024. Becomes unprotected in 2025)
2023 – Denver Nuggets (protected 1-14 through 2025. Pick converts to 2025 and 2026 second-round picks if not conveyed.
2023 – Los Angeles Clippers (swap)
2023 – Miami HEAT (protected 1-4 through 2025 and unprotected in 2026)
2024 – Houston Rockets (protected 1-4. Pick converts to 2024 second-round pick if not conveyed)
2024 – Los Angeles Clippers
2025 – Houston or Los Angeles Clippers (swap) (Houston pick protected 1-10. Converts to Clippers unprotected pick swap if not conveyed)
2025 – Philadelphia 76ers (protected 1-6, 1-4 in 2026 and 2027. Converts to 2027 second-round pick if not conveyed)
2026 – Houston Rockets (protected 1-4. If not conveyed, converts to 2026 second-round pick)
2026 – Los Angeles Clippers
That’s quite the list. High-level, taking into consideration that the Warriors are unlikely to transition their 2021 pick and other near certainties, the Thunder are owed nine additional first-round picks between 2021 and 2026. NINE.
Notably, the Clippers picks are especially enticing as they are all unprotected. That would be meaningless this season, as the Clippers currently boast the second-best record in the NBA, but they owe picks as far in the future as 2026.
Their success is also entirely tethered to the presence of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard is currently 29 and George is 30. So, as of the start of the 2023-24 season – the one immediately following the first draft in which a pick changes hands – Leonard will be 33 and George will be 34. Assuming they’re both still on board, that’s probably still safe for Los Angeles.
But what about 2024? And most alarmingly, 2026? Those picks will be incredibly valuable! As of the 2026 NBA Draft, assuming Leonard and George are even still playing and on the Clippers, they will be 34 and 36, respectively.
The NBA Draft is less of a science than we’re led to believe in the run-up to it. But that only furthers the idea that collecting as many picks as possible is a brilliant strategy. If having one pick to select a long-term contributor amongst the first 30 is challenging, having two narrows the odds and having three improves them exponentially.
With negotiations around the possibility of allowing high schoolers into the NBA Draft as soon as 2022 and the implementation of the G League Ignite team, there are new and innovative ways of procuring talent beyond just the NCAA and international leagues.
That should only further the availability of top-tier talent in the draft, making first-round picks all-the-more valuable for the foreseeable future – but between Presti, Stone and Griffin, those selections are in good hands.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.