Former Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien traded away so many future draft picks, the NBA had to award Cleveland compensatory picks just to facilitate a sale of the team in 1983. In order to prevent that crisis from repeating, the league implemented what has been dubbed the Stepien Rule: Teams are prohibited from trades that could leave them without first-round picks in consecutive future drafts.
But teams – most notably the Nets – found a way around that restriction with pick swaps.
Teams must have the guarantee of a first-round pick in at least every other future draft. But the first-rounder needn’t be the team’s own.
So, in trading for Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Brooklyn dealt its 2014, 2016 and 2018 first-round picks – clearly allowed by the Stepien Rule. The Nets also granted the Hawks the right to swap picks in 2015 and the Celtics the right to swap picks in 2017, resulting in Brooklyn dropping from No. 15 to No. 29 in 2015 and from No. 1 to No. 27 this year.
The league has since discussed banning pick swaps between drafts in which a team already owes its pick to other teams; the tweak has been on the competition committee agenda, but has not been debated yet at length, sources say.
As long as the NBA deems it appropriate to protect teams from themselves with the Stepien Rule – wise considering revenue sharing – pick swaps should also be restricted. The current setup allows the Stepien Rule to be effectively circumvented.
The Nets are in shambles and probably will be for years to come. That’s a disaster for the league, especially in a large market.
For a while, Brooklyn will serve as a cautionary tale. Teams rarely offer unprotected first-round picks and swaps anymore.
But the Cavs once scared teams off that strategy, and people forgot. It’s only a matter of time until another team gets stuck in the same predicament – unless the NBA preemptively prevents it.