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.
Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option
First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.
Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.
The Rockets are not picking up guard Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option for next season, making him an unrestricted free agent, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Sides mutually agreed to part ways.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 31, 2021
Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.
Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.
After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.
Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option
Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.
On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.
Source says Mavs are leaning toward picking up center Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.1 million option for next season. Deadline is Sunday and Mavs are waiting to see if situation unexpectedly materializes to make that cap space worth parting with a big man they like.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 31, 2021
This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.
However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.
Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.
Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.
Lakers Need More Than Big Three
The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.
The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.
The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.
Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.
The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?
For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.
The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.
As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.
LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis got together at LeBron’s house two weeks ago and agreed to set aside their egos and focus on winning a championship in LA. Per @BA_Turner pic.twitter.com/CDhidtvHxv
— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) July 30, 2021
Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.
When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.
Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.
What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 30, 2021
Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.
In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.
Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.
With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.
Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.
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