Trading down from a prime spot in the lottery is a rarity in the modern NBA. Since 1980, there have been only 12 trades in which a team with a top-five pick has moved back within the same draft. No team has done it since 2008, when the Timberwolves flipped the rights to the third pick, O.J. Mayo, to the Grizzlies for the fifth pick, Kevin Love. The Wolves felt Love was the better prospect, but they aimed to maximize value by effectively trading down in a draft-night move to acquire assets and dump salary, rather than simply selecting Love with the third pick, per reports at the time.
Nearly a decade later, the 2017 draft could see the return of the trade-down. It’s not a secret that every scout, executive, and general manager has different draft rankings than what you see online. Sure, most NBA folks have Markelle Fultz ranked first on their board. But it’s a total toss-up after that. Some scouts I’ve talked to have Lonzo Ball second, others have Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, or someone else. With no consensus in the lottery, we could be poised for some interesting moves come next Thursday.
Take the Lakers, for example. There’s been noise in NBA circles this month that they have significant interest in Kansas forward Josh Jackson. On The Bill Simmons Podcast, Bill and I discussed the NBA scuttlebutt that the Lakers are looking to swap positions with the Suns: The deal would move L.A. down from no. 2 to no. 4; Phoenix’s cost of doing business involves eating Luol Deng’s albatross contract. It’s hard to trust what you hear from teams this time of year, but it does line up with reports that Jackson had canceled workouts with the Celtics and had a second workout with the Lakers on Tuesday. In theory, it makes sense. Lonzo Ball, whom the Suns could draft second, is an absolutely perfect fit next to sharpshooting 2-guard Devin Booker. On the flip side, Jackson would help complete the Lakers’ core while they start clearing cap space to make a push for Paul George and possibly LeBron James the following summer. This dream scenario appears redundant on the surface, but the more versatile forwards a team has in the modern NBA, the better. Jackson is better suited to defend wings and guards, anyway. All three of them would also be able to share primary ball-handler duties alongside D’Angelo Russell; at point guard is where the real repetition for L.A. could come.
Los Angeles moving from no. 2 to no. 4 would echo Minnesota’s move for Love back in 2008: draft the prospect the team perceives as the best player available, maximize value, and dump salary. But trade-downs don’t happen often because the value of draft picks rapidly falls off a cliff the further you go down the order. From 1980 to 2012, 23 of 33 (69.7 percent) no. 1 picks have been named to at least two All-Star teams, per the Draft Express pick-expectations tool. That’s an amazing hit rate. Anytime a team has a top pick, it has a strong chance at a superstar. By comparison, only 41 of 132 (31.1 percent) players in the no. 2 to no. 5 range have met the same All-Star qualifications. It drops nearly exponentially from there: just 26 of 165 (15.8 percent) in the no. 6 to no. 10 range, and only 35 of 660 picks (5.3 percent) through the rest of the first round. You can find aberrations in each range like Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady, and Jimmy Butler, but historically it becomes increasingly harder the deeper you go in the draft.
Naturally, teams can get burned by trading down. In 2006 the Bulls played themselves by trading second pick LaMarcus Aldridge to the Blazers for a package headlined by fourth pick Tyrus Thomas. One year prior, in 2005, the Blazers made a predraft trade that sent the third pick (Deron Williams) to the Jazz for the sixth (Martell Webster), the 27th pick (Linas Kleiza), and a 2006 first (Joel Freeland). In one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history in 1987, the SuperSonics traded the fifth pick (Scottie Pippen) — and a future first-rounder, if you can believe it — for the eighth pick (Olden Polynice) and other assets.
These are the franchise-altering horror stories that can keep front offices up at night if they so much as consider trading down. Teams pass on future superstars all the time; the NBA draft is an unpredictable beast. It’s one thing to miss on a prospect when standing pat, but it’s a different kind of headache when you actively give away an All-Star talent in exchange for what amounts to extra pocket change, like the Sonics did by trading Pippen.
While historical precedent matters, every draft is different, and teams need to trust their scouting evaluations. I was told in May that multiple members of the Wolves front office were extremely high on Paul George and came close to drafting him in 2010. They had the no. 4 pick, selecting Wesley Johnson while George slipped to no. 10 and blossomed into a superstar. Their evaluation was sound: George had special upside, but they didn’t have the audacity to take such a "risk" with the no. 4 pick. There’s always a chance a similar situation could occur in this year’s draft, or a future year’s. Let’s use a hypothetical example to illustrate: If the Suns, at no. 4, want OG Anunoby, who will likely go in the no. 10 range, they could always look to trade down. It’s not that easy, though.
Straight-up trades are risky. Most draft-night deals are conditional; one team drafts a player, then another team drafts a player, then they swap after the picks are made. Players don’t always fall to particular spots, though. If the Suns took, let’s say, Jayson Tatum, fourth, they theoretically could have a contingent trade to swap Tatum for the no. 9 pick, Anunoby, and more assets. But the team at no. 9 might end up deciding against the trade, because the player they were hoping for ended up falling to them. Let’s reiterate that I’m just spitballing; the point is that trades aren’t as simple as they seem in the trade machine. There’s so much misdirection and misinformation out there leading up to the draft. Teams gather as much intel as they can. They read between the lines of rumors, just like we do. But it’s so hard to know what to trust, which makes any conditional trade hard to bank on.
The easiest trades are the ones that involve a swap of adjacent picks. Think along the lines of one move in 1998, when the Raptors moved back one spot to exchange Antawn Jamison for Vince Carter, or when the Bucks did the same in 1996, trading Stephon Marbury for Ray Allen. But the unique circumstances of the 2017 draft offer avenues for teams to think even bigger.
What if the Sixers are set on Malik Monk, but think they can get him with the seventh pick? What if the Kings get nervous they won’t get De’Aaron Fox, and the Sixers take advantage by trading down and landing the fifth and 10th picks? The Sixers have been hoarding assets for years, so it might seem counterintuitive to trade down, but they have reached an enviable position in the league through value-based trading, and they aren’t good enough to change course now. You’ve probably heard of "coaching trees" in sports, and that same method of tracing lineage applies to assessing an asset’s value, too. For example, Philadelphia’s no. 3 pick, acquired through a pick swap with Sacramento, was a direct result of a 2015 trade for Nik Stauskas. However they use this asset will continue to live on as a result of the original Stauskas trade. If Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo can flip that pick into more assets and still get whomever his primary target is in the draft, then it’s a no-brainer for the team.
Or what if the Celtics are happy taking Fultz at no. 1, but instead look for an even greater return from a team that blows them away? The nice perk for the Celtics is they can take Fultz, then see how the board falls before making any decision. The Celtics should hold on tight because Fultz is a transformative prospect with few holes in his game, but be willing to let go if the offer is right.
The league has seen the team with the no. 1 pick trade down twice since 1980. That year, the Celtics dealt the top pick (Joe Barry Carroll) for the third pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish. The trade kick-started a dynasty. Then, in 1993, the Magic traded the no. 1 pick (Chris Webber) for no. 3 (Penny Hardaway), and three future firsts (1996, 1998, and 2000). "I thought it was the greatest trade in history," current Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. "I thought Penny Hardaway was the best player coming out of college that year. Straight up, I thought it was a pretty good trade, and still do. And three no. 1 picks? C’mon."
There are no guarantees a general manager will be able to rekindle that same kind of draft-night magic this year. That’s the entire thrill of the draft: There are no guarantees, but the environment sure seems ripe for them to try.