Years before Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead saying “f*** them picks” went viral, GMs of NBA contenders had started living that mantra.
The Lakers traded three first-round picks plus the swap rights to another to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis (a trade that won the Lakers a ring). Brooklyn sent four unprotected first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps to Houston for James Harden. Oklahoma City has been stockpiling picks, including a few from the Clippers in the Paul George trade. This summer, we saw Utah tear it down by trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for a combination of seven first-round picks and some first-round swap rights. Those are just the big names. Teams like San Antonio, Orlando and Indiana are stockpiling picks as well.
The result is a wild stat from Bobby Marks of ESPN: eight teams control 85 first-round picks over the next seven years. That’s 40% of all the first-round picks in the next seven years.
The Jazz and Thunder each have 14 picks first-rounders under their control when you count their own picks plus trades and swaps. While the added picks and swaps are nice, their own picks are generally the most valuable for these teams — Utah is not going to win a lot of games this year and if they get a high draft pick in a stacked class it is most likely their own. That pattern follows with other teams.
Two things are driving this trend.
One is teams using draft capital to go all-in on roster upgrades. That’s not totally new, but it used to be reserved for moves like the Lakers made to get Davis — trades that vault teams into contender status. The Milwaukee Bucks gave up a lot to land Jrue Holiday, but that move resulted in a ring. This summer we saw Minnesota give up four unprotected picks to land Rudy Gobert — a center who makes them good, a playoff team, but not a contender. (You can argue that trading for Gobert was the right move for the Timberwolves, but that was an overly steep price they paid to do it, the market was not that intense for his services.) Cleveland went all-in on Donovan Mitchell with three picks, again a trade that does not make the Cavaliers an instant contender (it could, in a few years, if things go right). Teams are willing to use picks and swaps in trades to be better now, even if that is not contender-status better.
The other is part of Sam Hinkie’s philosophy with “the process” in Philadelphia — get as many swings as you can take. The idea is that, even with the best scouting and eye for talent, the draft is a crap shoot. The 76ers landed Joel Embiid, the cornerstone of a title contender, through the process, but also drafted Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz, and Ben Simmons (to be fair, Simmons was an All-Star level player who may not have fit in Philly but they were able to trade him for James Harden). Not every top draft pick will be a home run or even a solid single, so get as many swings as possible. Rebuilding teams have taken that to heart.
The result is that 40% of all first-round picks over the next seven years belong to eight teams.