The Significance of Pick Protection

The Significance of Pick Protection
Fri 26th April 2019

In recent articles we’ve been exploring the art of NBA front-office management. As we addressed last week, one way for an NBA franchise to pull itself out of a less-than-desirable roster situation is by trading players and draft picks in creative, out-of-the-box ways. 

A regularly used but often-misunderstood term which always creeps up in any discussion involving NBA trades is the idea of “protected” draft picks. 

Like most of the other major American sports, the NBA’s trading rules allow teams to put what are known as “protections” on the picks that they trade away.

Protections are restrictions on the conditions under which a pick included in a trade is ultimately transferred between teams. They can mean a draft pick included in a trade has a variety of possible values depending on how the team trading the pick performs in the future and, of course, the results of the draft lottery.

Whilst players are generally the centrepieces of trades (and for good reason – they provide a human face to what is intrinsically a business transaction), draft picks can often be the real nucleus of the deal. 

For example, in the blockbuster Tobias Harris trade earlier this year, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Harris, Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet.

Those were the tangible assets that were involved in the trade. Understandably, as those players arrive at a new team and can have an immediate impact, this aspect of the deal is what gets the most media attention.  

What was not so well-documented (or appreciated) at the time the deal went down was that the Clippers would also receive Philadelphia’s protected 2020 first-round pick, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons’ 2021 and 2023 second-round picks.

This is worth breaking down in some more detail. Their own first-round pick that the 76ers sent to LA is “protected Nos. 1-14 from 2020-22”. 

What this means is that if the 76ers’ receive a pick within the top 14 in the 2020, 2021 or 2022 drafts, they will hold on to that pick and can do whatever they like with it.

If the 76ers receive a first round pick outside the top 14 in any of those three years then that pick is immediately “conveyed” (given) to the Clippers.

If the pick does not convey to the Clippers (i.e. the 76ers receive a top 14 pick in all three years and thus do not have to give it up), then the Clippers will automatically get Philadelphia’s 2023 and 2024 second round picks. This is a typical condition placed on a protected pick and ensures that there’s no chance the Clippers walk away empty-handed. 

This effectively gives Philadelphia two options; either they tank, receive top 14 picks in each of the next three drafts (unlikely for obvious reasons) and leave the Clippers with a pittance; or they simply have to part with a mid-to-late first round pick in one of the next three drafts.

Philadelphia also gave LA the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. Whatever pick Miami receive in the first round 2021 NBA draft automatically conveys to the LA Clippers; whether that pick is the number 1 overall or the 30th. 

This part of the transaction is the crux of the deal, and is likely the only factor which pushed it over the line from a Clippers perspective.

An unprotected pick is an enormous price to pay. There are so many ways this could end up disastrously for the Heat or 76ers, and you don’t even have to look too far back through the annals of NBA history to see the true extent of just how bad it could be.

Midway through 2010, the Clippers needed to free up some cap space for a potential playoff charge. They found a suitor (Cleveland) to offload Baron Davis’ 5-year $65 million contract, and picked up Jamario Moon and Mo Williams in return.

Unbelievably, LA also threw in a 2011 unprotected first-round pick. Their hoped-for playoff push never came; that pick (against the odds) ended up being the number 1 pick; the Cavaliers snapped up Kyrie Irving, and the rest is history.

Conversely, the true value of an unprotected pick remains indeterminate until the moment the draft lottery concludes. It could be pick 1, or it could be pick 30.

Given the decent amount of cap space the Heat will have going in to the summer of 2020 (somewhere in the vicinity of $48 million thanks to Hassan Whiteside’s expiring contract), and their perennial status as an attractive free-agent destination, there’s every chance Miami will be a contender in the East in 2020-21.

That could leave that unprotected pick well outside the top 15, and would result in an enormous sigh of relief from Philadelphia and Miami.

To understand the true machinations of a trade, it is essential to be aware of what picks are involved, and what protections are placed on those picks.

Without being able to parse that information, it’s impossible to accurately assess the winner and/or loser of a trade.

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