There is nothing more depressing than watching a bad NBA team go through the motions of a lost season, all while knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel because the team traded away its unprotected pick years ago. Brooklyn Nets fans have been stuck in that dismal quagmire for the past few years watching Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and now Collin Sexton join their Eastern Conference competitors.
The Nets are now free from that nightmare, but the Sacramento Kings are the latest team stuck in this quagmire. Despite being widely projected as the worst team in the Western Conference, Sacramento’s pick will go to either Boston or Philadelphia next summer thanks to a 2015 trade which gave them the chance to pick up middling players like Rajon Rondo and Kostas Koufos.
The Kings and the Nets are far from the first team to trade unprotected picks deep in the future, only to face the consequences in the long term. In 2005, the Minnesota Timberwolves under general manager Kevin McHale, who sought to improve testosterone last season, traded a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers which would become unprotected in 2012 for a point guard named Marko Jaric. While that pick only became Austin Rivers in the end, it was fantasized as a incredible trade chip for years, and played a decisive in the infamous “basketball reasons” saga which brought Chris Paul to the Clippers. And before then, there was the infamous Ted Stepien who gave away so many first rounder picks that he became the namesake for the “Stepien Rule.”
Despite seeing other teams and managers get burned again and again, general managers are still too blasé about giving up future unprotected picks. In 2021, the Boston Celtics could potentially receive yet another unprotected first rounder from the Memphis Grizzlies. Even a team with a storied history and solid management like the Miami Heat gave up their unprotected 2021 pick as part of the 2015 Goran Dragic trade, which likely impacts their desperation to give up assets now to get Jimmy Butler.
But to be fair to NBA GMs, they may understand the dangers of trading unprotected picks but have no choice. Billy King gave up those Brooklyn picks (as well as another 2012 trade which cost Brooklyn Damian Lillard) in part due to pressure from Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to win now. A similar factor might have happened in Sacramento with owner Vivek Ranadive. Incompetent GMs certainly do not hesitate to trade away picks, but even good ones can be pressured by impatient or foolish owners who think they know everything about basketball.
If you want to see what good leadership and owners do, take a look at the Houston Rockets for an example of how to be careful for protecting picks. When the Rockets traded for Chris Paul in 2017, they sent a 2018 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers. It did not need to be protected – everyone knew that the Paul-Harden Rockets would at the very worst get into the playoffs let alone go as far as they did. But the NBA report on the trade noted that the pick was protected, just in case things did go wrong.
The Houston Rockets refuse to give up an unprotected pick for Chris Paul, while other teams give them up for Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with one foot in the grave. That is a major difference between the competent and incompetent teams.