The NBA’s greatest source of renewable energy is hope, and thus the most prized asset is a future first-round pick—a prayer and a wish for lottery luck and ping-pong fortunes. So when the Knicks dealt Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas in a surprise trade last week, two future firsts were included among their haul.
But they may have to wait a while for those picks to actually make it to New York. The Knicks will receive an unprotected first-rounder two years after the Mavs send a first to Atlanta, so likely in 2021, and the second first-rounder won’t arrive until two years after the first one, so likely in 2023. They aren’t the only team thinking ahead, either. The Pelicans, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks recently noted, may be better off asking for 2023 and 2025 first-rounders from the Lakers in return for Anthony Davis, to coincide with LeBron James’s decline. And both the Celtics and Sixers acquired future selections—the Kings’ 2019 first and the Heat’s 2021 first, respectively, which had already gone to other teams years earlier—in exchange for trading down in the past two drafts.
But even though future first-round picks are clearly desirable in the abstract, what are they worth in terms of results? We still don’t know where Dallas’s or Sacramento’s or Miami’s traded picks will slot, but let’s turn to history to try to suss out the expected value of a long-term future first.
We’ll define “long-term future firsts” as ones that don’t convey for at least 3.5 years, which is half the maximum allowable length of a tradable future pick. So for a 2018 draft pick to have qualified for this list—as both the Collin Sexton and Mikal Bridges selections did—it had to have been dealt by December 2014 at the latest.
And we’ll start our analysis in 1983, because of Ted Stepien. The Cavaliers’ situation grew so dire in the early 1980s because of their owner’s habit of trading away future firsts that the NBA created the “Stepien rule” to prevent teams from trading away firsts in consecutive years. So this list begins after Stepien’s tenure ended, with trades made in 1983 or later.
To date, 33 first-rounders qualify by these criteria—about one per season. That number makes sense given modern trends: Looking ahead, two 2019 picks might qualify, as might one in each of 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. Let’s check out the results:
Future First-Rounders Traded Well in Advance
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The immediate takeaway is that these players fall well short of the expectations from when they were just future picks. Of the 33 players, Gordon Hayward—whose draft slot was dealt six years in advance by the Knicks, in exchange for Stephon Marbury, and then forwarded from Phoenix to Utah a month later for Keon Clark—is the only one to make an All-Star team. By PER, only four of the 33 have been even average per-minute contributors, and two of those ostensible success stories have come primarily in reserve roles. (For reference, a 15 PER is average.)
That analysis isn’t totally fair for two reasons. First, recent picks like Murray, Bridges, and Fox (whose pick confusingly went from Philadelphia to Orlando in 2012 before going back to Philly in the draft-night trade for Elfrid Payton and then to Sacramento in a pick swap) all look like they will enjoy various levels of NBA success, even if there isn’t a definite All-Star among the group. They deserve more credit than they receive from this chart.
Second, even if the results reflect the uncertainty inherent to the draft—which only amplifies the questionable viability of trading for far-off future picks—they’re not fully indicative of each team’s process. The Celtics were thrilled in 2017 when the pick they had acquired four years earlier from the Nets landed at no. 1 overall; ditto the Pistons with the no. 2 pick in 2003, courtesy of a 1997 trade with the Grizzlies. Those moves were still sound even if the picks became Fultz and Milicic, respectively.
Instead of actual player outcomes, then, we can try looking at where picks ended up in the draft—and there, the results aren’t much more enticing. Only rarely—just four times out of the 33—does such an asset turn into a top-five selection. It’s far more likely to fall into the later stages of the lottery, or toward the back end of the first round. That distribution matters, as expected production falls quickly past the very top of the draft. In the lottery era, according to DraftExpress’s tabulation, about half of players picked in the 6-10 range never become consistent starters, let alone All-Stars or better, while more than two-thirds of players picked 11-15th never do. And that’s just the top half of the first round—nearly half of the picks in this study came in the bottom half, where collective player outcomes are even bleaker.
This breakdown also doesn’t account for potential future firsts that ended up as second-rounders instead, after their initial protections expired. In recent years, that scenario befell several teams that thought they were pouncing on a prized pick only to be rewarded with second-round dregs—and it could happen with the second of the Knicks’ new Dallas first-round picks, too, which is top-10 protected in 2023, 2024, and 2025 and will turn into a second if it doesn’t transfer to New York by that final year. The same goes for a pair of future Thunder firsts that belong to the Magic and Hawks and might instead turn to seconds because of various protections.
These pick distributions don’t change much when restricted to just the seemingly juicy firsts that come from moribund franchises; they’re often more dream than substance, too. The Clippers, for instance, had finished the 1999-00 season with a 15-67 record when they traded a future first for a package headlined by Corey Maggette, but by the time that pick conveyed in 2006, it was just no. 22 overall because the Clippers were a playoff-caliber team by that point. The player picked in that spot—point guard Marcus Williams—started just 10 games in four NBA seasons. A similar scenario unfolded with the early-aughts Wizards, who had recently wrapped a 19-63 season when they dealt a future first for Brendan Haywood; that pick nabbed only Julius Hodge at 20th overall, because Washington had become a winning team in the interim. Hodge scored just 28 total points in his brief NBA career.
More recent examples follow the same trend. The Wolves’ 2012 pick, a key return for the then-Hornets in the Chris Paul trade (after going to the Clippers for Marko Jaric more than half a decade earlier) landed only at no. 10 and fetched Austin Rivers, while the Kings’ pick this year looks destined for the late lottery rather than the top of the draft, as Philadelphia and Boston might have expected.
That pattern continues across the board. Teams that trade far-off future firsts have averaged a 48 percent win rate; by the time their discarded picks convey, that win rate barely budges to 49 percent. And of the 10 worst teams to trade such a pick, nine improved by the time it conveyed, as they jumped from an average 25-67 record when they made their deals to an average 38-44 record by the time their idiomatic rooster came home to roost.
Pick protections play an undeniable and complicating role; the overall family of future firsts would look more flattering if some hadn’t deferred before finally transferring. But pick protections should matter in this analysis, for two reasons. First, teams still acquire protected future firsts, as New York did with Dallas; and second, even the unprotected variety often falls short of lofty expectations, as Sacramento’s 2019 pick is set to exemplify once again.
This isn’t to say that teams should never seek longer-term assets; all it takes is one clear success story to set up a franchise, even if that one clear success story doesn’t emanate from any of the history thus far. But at least from that history, it seems like a team that acquires a far-off future first is probably selling hope instead of real, tangible results. Welcome to the NBA in 2019.