A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, which explains why NBA teams continue to ship off future draft assets in exchange for current NBA players that can help them win now. It has happened time and again over the course of the last few years, despite mountains of evidence that unprotected or poorly protected picks really can come back to bite a team in the rear end.
This year’s draft lottery seems to come with an especially high amount of drama with several different scenarios that could play out in ways that do not help the teams that traded their picks.
We already know that the Brooklyn Nets will have to swap their elite selection with the Boston Celtics this summer as a result of a trade that took place four years ago. What that probably means is Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball is headed to what could be the Eastern Conference’s best team next season, and the even worse news is that Brooklyn doesn’t even get to swap first-round picks with the Celtics in 2018. Boston just gets that pick outright as a result of the same deal.
It’s fair to say that when this one is all said and done, Brooklyn fans are going to wish that former Nets general manager Billy King had never existed. They probably think that already.
Of course, they aren’t alone in their misery. The Los Angeles Lakers owe a pick either this year or next as a well, a result of the Steve Nash trade that ruined every NBA reporter’s Fourth of July in 2012, which occurred about an hour before most of the East Coast was preparing to set off fireworks. If the Lakers don’t land in the top three this year, that pick goes to Philadelphia. If they keep the pick this year, it goes to Philly next summer unprotected.
And then, of course, there’s the Sacramento Kings, who dumped a bunch of salary to the Sixers a couple seasons ago for a handful of goodies, including the right to swap picks this year should the Kings end up with a better pick than Philadelphia, which could very well happen.
The 2017 NBA Draft brings an extreme set of circumstances that frankly aren’t common, but that doesn’t mean these types of things haven’t happened before. It’s not that every traded “future draft pick” turns into a stud, but that’s how it happened for the teams on this list. These are “future draft pick” trades that still give fans of certain franchises nightmares:
Los Angeles Lakers “Magic” in the 1970s
In August of 1976, the New Orleans Jazz traded, among other things, a 1979 first-round draft pick as compensation for a trade that landed Gail Goodrich in the Big Easy. As it turns out, the Jazz stayed bad and that 1979 pick ended up being the top overall selection the year that generational talent Magic Johnson left Michigan State University.
After that one went down, no team should have traded a first round pick ever again, but it did not serve as any sort of deterrent. None whatsoever.
Cleveland Sends L.A. a “Worthy” 1982 Draft Pick
That actually wasn’t the last time the Lakers would trade for a future draft pick and end up on the right side of history. Back in February of 1980, before the ubiquity of home computers and cell phones, when the typewriter was king and everything the Los Angeles Lakers touched turned to gold, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded a future 1982 first-round pick and a player to L.A. for Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick. Cleveland drafted Chad Kinch (not exactly a household name), while the Lakers used that future pick to haul in future Hall-of-Famer James Worthy.
There are seven Lakers jerseys in the rafters at Staples Center, and three-time NBA champion James Worthy is one of them. Kinch meanwhile, was out of the league after a year and unfortunately passed away at age 35 due to AIDS-related complications.
There are no jokes here, but it’s clear the Lakers got the better end of that deal.
Memphis Loses #2 Pick in 2003
The 2003 NBA Draft Lottery had to have been excruciating to watch for Memphis Grizzlies fans. The team, represented that year by Jerry West, was in a really nasty spot thanks to a 1997 trade that shipped away a future first-rounder for Otis Thorpe. It took forever to convey the pick because of the protections that were placed on it, but by 2003 it was only top-one protected.
The tension for that particular lottery was deep-seeded for fans of all lottery teams, mostly because it was the year everybody was hoping LeBron James would fall into their laps. So it was a small miracle when the Grizzlies were one of the last two teams standing while the pick envelopes were unsealed. West was one ping pong ball away from landing James in Memphis, but thanks to that stupid Thorpe pick he couldn’t even settle for Carmelo Anthony.
Thorpe played 47 games for the Vancouver Grizzlies that season and then was traded to Sacramento. James and Anthony have been, you know, way better than that.
John Paxson Fleeces Isiah Thomas in 2005
In one of Chicago’s greatest trades of all time, John Paxson managed to trade Eddy Curry, a player they were not likely to re-sign anyway, for a slew of players and picks that ended up helping them build a future Eastern Conference Finals team. In that deal, the Knicks sent Chicago, among other things, an unprotected first-round pick in 2006 and the right to swap picks in 2007.
While Chicago didn’t keep him, that 2006 ended up being LaMarcus Aldridge, selected second overall, while the following year the Bulls swapped the #23 pick for New York’s #9 pick, and ultimately used it on Joakim Noah. One of the second-round picks in the deal ended up being Omer Asik, and another was used to help trade up for Thabo Sefolosha. All those assets came via trades for future draft picks, and all of them proved miserable for Thomas, who seemed to bail out the Bulls a lot in the mid-aughts.
The Clippers Dump Their Way Out of Kyrie Irving in 2011
The 2011 trade deadline was maybe the greatest trade deadline of all time, with Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams all getting shipped off to new teams in February. The trade that has resonated most in the six years since, however, has been the one that sent an unprotected pick and the salary-dumped Baron Davis to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon.
It saved the Clippers a boatload of cash, and as then-Clippers GM Neil Olshey explained after the fact, the team felt like they were heading in the direction of playing like a perennial playoff team and felt the cap space was more valuable than entertaining “a kid that’s 19 years old with one year of college experience.”
So L.A. ended up with the 8th-worst record in the league, giving them only a 2.8 percent chance at landing the top pick, which they of course did. That pick then went to Cleveland, who drafted Kyrie Irving, who many may recognized as “a kid that’s 19 years old with one year of college experience.” Today, Irving is a bona fide superstar and NBA champion, while Davis has been out of the league for years. Los Angeles survived the blunder, and it clearly didn’t rattle Olshey’s confidence as he moved onto Portland, but that one’s gotta sting, no matter how much Olshey may want to justify it.
The Nets Gift-Wrap Damian Lillard for Portland in 2012.
In a similar salary dump, the Nets sent Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a 2012 first-round pick (top-three protected) to Portland in exchange for Gerald Wallace. The Nets wanted to be good, and they wanted to clear cap space to make a run at Dwight Howard, so they used the pick to clear out the funds.
That pick was the sixth one in the deep 2012 NBA Draft and landed the Blazers one of the league’s elite scorers, and all Portland had to do was pay a little extra money that summer. Totally worth it.
So how will this year’s owed lottery picks pan out for the teams that traded them away? Chances are that at least one of them will regret it deeply, but that’s the way professional sports go. Many owners and front offices are much more concerned with players that can help them win immediately rather than the possibility of a future draft pick panning out. Draymond Green, for example, came as a result of a toss-in second-round pick in an old Troy Murphy trade, but how many second-round selections have anywhere near that impact in the NBA?
It’s not a guarantee that even first-round talents will be immediate contributors. When that draft pick ends up being a high one, though, it stings, and it stings for a long time.
You know what they say, though: that which does not kill you, only makes you stronger. Unless, you know, that thing comes in the form of LeBron James. Then he’s going to kill you over and over and over again.
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