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Three Takeaways On The 2020 First Round Draft Debt

While trading away draft picks is always tough from a team-building perspective, future assets don’t always pan out either. Drew Maresca examines every owed 2020 first-round pick and identifies three key takeaways.

Drew Maresca

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The 2020 NBA Draft is scheduled for Thursday, June 25, 2020. While a number of NBA franchises are still vying for a playoff spot, plenty of teams have already begun to shift gears, putting themselves in the best position for the draft.

But there are a number of complications that hinder the approach for cellar-dwellers – most notably, draft debt. While trading away multiple future draft picks and/or including pick swaps is commonly accepted as unwise, it’s also unavoidable in a number of instances. The Los Angeles Clippers had to include five future firsts to procure Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder — without them, there was no deal to be had.

The same goes for the Houston Rockets, who parted with two future picks (and the option to swap picks on another two separate occasions), in their pursuit of Russell Westbrook.

Sometimes, it’s an unfortunate – yet unavoidable – risk, one required of talented teams looking to put themselves over the top. And, of course, the downside is that those players prove an awkward fit, the acquiring team is left to put the pieces together (or, even, admit defeat and move the player to another new team on the rise).

But what could be the downside for teams hunting for that draft capital?

Well, in fact, there are plenty. The draft itself is an inexact science, one based on intangibles and luck. But there’s another layer: potential versus realized value. And it’s nearly as unpredictable as the draft itself.

Draft picks are arranged based on standings. If Team A agrees to trade Player A to Team B for next year’s unprotected first-round pick, Team B’s success suddenly has a major impact on Team A’s future. Typically, teams looking to add future picks consider the future success of their trade partners when dealing with their picks. But what if the trade partner outperforms expectations? That teams pick is now less valuable and the odds that their trade partner selects a top-tier prospect is significantly less.

With that being said, let’s first identify all of the owed 2020 first-round picks and the likelihood that they change hands this June. Next, we’ll call out three takeaways from the imminent draft debt:

Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round draft pick to Atlanta – lottery protected through 2021. In 2022, it conveys as a 2022 second-round pick and a 2024 second-round pick. Fate: Likely to change hands

Cleveland – 2020 first-round draft pick to New Orleans via Atlanta – top-10 protected in 2020. It conveys as 2021 and 2022 second-round picks if it doesn’t change hands in 2020. Fate: Unlikely to change hands

Denver – 2020 first-round draft pick to Oklahoma City – top-10 protected in 2020. Fate: Likely to change hands

Golden State – 2020 first-round draft pick to Brooklyn – top 20 protected in 2020. If it does not change hands, it becomes a 2025 second-round pick. Fate: Highly unlikely to change hands

Indiana – 2020 first-round draft pick to Milwaukee – lottery-protected in 2020 and through 2025, at which time it becomes an unprotected first-round pick. Fate: Highly unlikely to change hands

Memphis – 2020 first-round draft pick to Boston – top-six protected in 2020, becoming an unprotected first-round pick in 2021 if it does not change hands. Fate: Likely to change hands

Milwaukee – 2020 first-round draft pick to Boston via Phoenix – top-seven protected in 2020, becoming an unprotected first-round pick in 2021. Fate: Very likely to change hands

Oklahoma City – 2020 first-round draft pick to Philadelphia – top-20 protected in 2020 and 2021, becoming 2022 and 2023 second-round picks if it does not change hands. Fate: Unlikely to change hands

Philadelphia – 2020 first-round draft pick to Brooklyn – top-14 protected in 2020, 2021 and 2022, becoming 2023 and 2024 second-round picks if it does not change hands. Fate: Likely to change hands

Utah – 2020 first-round draft pick to Memphis – top-seven and bottom-15 protected in 2020 and 2021, becoming top-six protected in 2022, top-three protected in 2023 and top-one protected in 2024. If it does not change hands by 2024, it becomes 2025 and 2026 second-round picks. Fate: Unlikely to change hands

Takeaway 1: Boston appears set to add three-2020 first-round picks – but none as high as they’d hoped

The Celtics have done a splendid job of accumulating first-round draft picks through trades. They have made 10 first-round selections in the last five drafts — and that trend continues in 2020.

But future draft capital is only theoretical until a selection is made. At times, picks lose value even before they’re made. For example, no future pick had been viewed as positively as the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick owed to Boston. The Kings famously outperformed even the most bullish of expectations last season, ending the year in the ninth spot in the West with a 39-43 record – good for the 14th pick. It’s always nice to add another lottery pick, but when you’re expecting a top-five pick – which is approximately where it was projected entering 2018-19 – the 14th pick feels like a consolation prize at best.

The 2020 Grizzlies pick was presumed to be equally valuable as Memphis was expected to struggle with a young core. Most experts exited them to either 1.) receive a top-six pick – thus, changing the pick to an unprotected and even-more-valuable 2021 first-round pick – or 2.) transition a 2020 pick in the 7-10 range. The same kind of bad luck couldn’t strike in back-to-back seasons, right?

Unfortunately for Bostonians, that appears to be exactly what’s happening. Contrary to pre-season projections, the Grizzlies appear well-ahead of schedule thanks to rookie Ja Morant and sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. They are currently hanging on to the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference and the 14th-best record in the league. And while the draft lottery factors into pick protections, odds that Memphis jumps to a top-six pick is quite slim. So it appears that instead of adding a top-10 pick, the Celtics will instead add a mid-first-rounder.

But when viewed in totality, it’s not all bad in Boston. The Celtics will also add Milwaukee’s 2020 first-round pick, which has laughable top-seven protection considering that the Bucks possess a three-game lead on the Lakers for the best record in the NBA. That means that Boston will have their own pick (likely in the 20-25 range), Milwaukee’s pick (likely 29 or 30) and the Memphis pick (likely in the 13-17 range).

The Celtics may not want to bring on three rookies with guaranteed salaries, but they could package a combination of all three in for a higher pick. Or they could go big game hunting this season and swap some combination of first-round picks and dead salary for players like Marcus Morris or Robert Covington. Either way, the Celtics should be active with their picks, be it at the trade deadline of in June.

Takeaway 2: Golden State set to add major asset in June (or maybe sooner) thanks to pick protections

Half of the 2020 first-round picks owed appear set to change hands this year. Golden State’s isn’t one of them – but it was supposed to be. The Warriors included top-20 protection well before Stephen Curry went down with a hand injury that may have ended his 2019-20 season. The idea was that adding D’Angelo Russell was far better than keeping their 2020 pick.

But with their injuries, the Warriors are on pace to finish with one of the three worst records in the entire league. And while the 2019 draft lottery change makes it less of a certainty that a bottom-three record ensures a top-three pick — it is a virtual certainty that the Warriors land a top pick. That means they’ll add a valuable draft asset (or whomever they can add in exchange for the pick) to a core of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and either Russell or whomever they return for him. That is a scary core capable of dominating the league for another few seasons — or more.

Much like the San Antonio Spurs — who benefited from an MVP-caliber player going down with a season-ending injury just over 20 years ago (David Robinson missed 76 games in 1996-97)  — the Warriors appear poised to benefit greatly from the timing of Curry’s (and to a lesser extent, Thompson) injury. While the league continues to tweak its rules to even the playing field, it appears that the rich really do get richer — at least in this instance.

Takeaway 3: Brooklyn’s lack of a 2020 first-round pick will sting even more this offseason

In an attempt to clear additional salary cap space in order to sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, Brooklyn swapped Allen Crabbe, the 17th pick in the 2019 draft and their 2020 first-round pick for Taurean Price and the Hawks 2020 second-rounder. Brooklyn smartly attached a 2020 lottery-protection, but with the Nets currently in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and with the teams beneath them (Detroit, Orlando, Chicago and Charlotte) being a step back in terms of talent, the Nets should hold off the competition. That means that the Nets should qualify for the playoffs and will, therefore, forfeit their 2020 first-round pick.

Qualifying for the playoffs provides the team with tons of teachable moments. But it also means that Nets will be unable to add a young and talented player on an affordable deal to a veteran team in need of role players. Since the Nets already committed $140.2 million in 2020-21 – well above the estimated 2020-21 salary cap – the Nets have one less way to add talent for next season and beyond. If Kyrie Irving is correct in his recent assessment of the Nets needs, it will be difficult for them to add the requisite pieces needed to win.

Including future picks in trades has led to lots of interesting scenarios in the past. Dealing away future draft picks is always dangerous, but it clearly has deeper and more complicated implications than is often assumed. Sure, a nondescript mid-to-late first-rounder doesn’t sound too valuable, but All-Stars have been selected well after the lottery. Unless adding a generational talent and/or solidifying a championship-caliber core, teams should pretty obviously avoid swapping future first-rounders. But for the aforementioned situations mentioned above, we can only wait and see for now.

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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.

Bobby Krivitsky

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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.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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

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.

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