The Nets dealing three future unprotected first-round picks and four pick swaps for James Harden would have seemed unimaginable not too long ago, especially given their history with those kinds of trades. That doesn’t even count all the players (Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs) they ended up sending out, as well. But mortgaging the future has become the only way to contend for a title in the NBA. Brooklyn is now the fifth franchise to trade away almost all of its future draft picks in the past two years. It’s no coincidence that four of those five teams—the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, and Nets—are also the four teams most likely to win it all this season.
The sticker shock is long gone. No one blinks anymore when picks that won’t come due for almost two full presidential terms are traded. But it’s worth looking at just how many future assets the top teams in the NBA have given away recently:
Traded Draft Assets
|2022, 2024, 2026
|2021, 2023, 2025, 2027
|2022, 2024, 2026
|2021, 2023, 2025
|2022, 2025, 2027
Similar to most major trends in the past generation of NBA players, it all started with LeBron James. Soon after he joined the Lakers in 2018, he began pushing for the franchise to acquire Anthony Davis. LeBron was 33 years old entering his 16th season in the NBA. He didn’t have time to wait for their younger players to mature. Los Angeles ultimately traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and almost every pick it had for the next five years to the Pelicans for Davis.
It didn’t matter to LeBron how the deal would impact the Lakers’ future. He had a short window of time to contend, and couldn’t afford another season like his first in Los Angeles, when the team missed the playoffs. LeBron won’t be around for whatever happens to the Lakers in the late 2020s. Why should he care? They should consider themselves lucky that there’s a rule on how far into the future teams can trade picks, or LeBron would have forced the front office to trade its 2030 first-round pick to upgrade the bench.
The Davis trade was the final step in a long process of self-empowering decisions that LeBron has made going back to 2010, when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. LeBron flipped the conventional dynamic between player and team on its head. He signed shorter contracts with opt-out clauses and used the threat of his departure to force his team to keep him happy. The way for his teams to appease him was to go all in and build the best possible team around him each year. But the end result of a team constantly making decisions for the present is that it has no future. And that’s when LeBron moved on to the next one.
He spent four years in Miami, four years back in Cleveland, and is now in his third year in Los Angeles. He was contending for a title in 10 of those 11 seasons. That level of championship contention would be much harder to pull off had he stayed in one place. LeBron’s teams can rebuild after he leaves, not while he’s there.
LeBron raised the bar for what a star could demand and forced his peers to catch up. That’s what happened in 2010, when his decision to form a superteam sparked a chain reaction of other stars teaming up in free agency. And that’s what happened again in 2019, when more stars began pressuring their franchises to make win-now moves. Less than a month after the Lakers traded for Davis, Kawhi Leonard demanded the Clippers trade for Paul George before he would sign with them. Giannis Antetokounmpo wanted a better chance of winning a title before he would re-sign with the Bucks this offseason, so Milwaukee emptied out its draft cupboard for Jrue Holiday.
Those types of power moves don’t always work, even in the short term. James Harden forced the Rockets to overpay for Russell Westbrook before asking out a little over a year later. The beauty of being a player with that type of influence is that you don’t have to live with the consequences of your bad decisions. Brooklyn, or more accurately Kevin Durant, just agreed to pay the steep price to get Harden out of Houston. And history could repeat itself again if the Nets aren’t careful. Both Durant and Harden have opt-outs in their contracts in 2022.
The superstar who isn’t willing to leverage his team’s future for his own best interest is suddenly at a disadvantage. Look at what’s happening with Steph Curry in Golden State. The Warriors just spent the no. 2 pick on a 19-year-old center (James Wiseman) who may need three or four years before he’s ready to play a significant role on a title contender. Helping Wiseman develop may be in the best interest of the franchise, but it’s not necessarily in Steph’s, who will be 36 when Wiseman is coming off his rookie deal. Does Curry want to spoil the rest of his prime to keep the Warriors relevant when he’s at the end of his career? Or will he eventually go to the front office and tell them to move Wiseman and all their future picks for a more established star?
It’s the same problem that stars who have wanted to stick with one team have experienced over the past decade. Take Damian Lillard in Portland. His chances of winning a title would be much higher if he had pushed to join a superteam somewhere else. That doesn’t mean that his decision to stay with the team that drafted him is bad. But he’s at a disadvantage in comparison to his peers. The Blazers have traded only one future first-rounder (2021) to upgrade their current team. It’s fair for Lillard to ask why so many picks are burning a hole in their pocket.
Future-minded teams are at the same disadvantage. They all want to be like the Spurs, who won five titles and made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons. But that ability to balance the present and the future might be a thing of the past. San Antonio’s competition wasn’t trading away seven future first-round picks to boost their chances of beating the Spurs in a single postseason. You can make the argument that it’s now harder to win an NBA title than ever before because so many teams keep going all in.
Look at the Celtics and the 76ers, the two teams that were supposed to be the future of the Eastern Conference. Boston has been reluctant to strike any trade that would jeopardize its treasure chest of young assets, while Philadelphia was just outbid for Harden despite offering Ben Simmons. Neither team’s young core has made a Finals appearance, and there’s no guarantee that either will in the near future. What separates them from the Nets and Bucks is that Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid aren’t close enough to free agency to immediately force their team’s hand. That’s the biggest reason Boston still has all its future first-rounders, and Philadelphia has all but one. Both will probably have to cash those picks in at some point in the next few seasons.
There’s a quasi–prisoner’s dilemma rippling through the league. No contender really wants to mortgage its future. But if one contender does, then it almost forces everyone else to do the same. A team that hasn’t traded away all of its future draft picks is not taking every opportunity to compete for a title. And they will probably lose to a team that does. The NBA has become an all-in league. Any team that won’t take the plunge doesn’t have any business sitting at the table.