Trading for an NBA superstar is more expensive than ever. Not long ago, teams could deal for All-Stars without giving up any future draft picks, or just one at the most. Now, every major transaction involves a pick bonanza.
But NBA teams are limited in their creativity when trading picks. They can’t trade conditional picks like NFL teams. They can’t trade first-round picks in consecutive seasons, thanks to the Stepien Rule from the 1980s. They can’t trade picks more than seven years into the future.
So when general managers seek more flexibility as they throw more and more assets into trades for superstars, they have increasingly turned to one of the avenues they are allowed to explore: pick swaps.
The Anthony Davis trade gave the Pelicans swap rights with the Lakers in the 2023 first round. The Paul George and Jrue Holiday trades gave the Thunder and Pelicans, respectively, two future swap opportunities. The James Harden trade gave the Rockets four possible swaps. And just this summer, three more blockbuster deals came with swap rights attached: one for the Spurs for Dejounte Murray, one for the Jazz for Rudy Gobert, and two more for the Jazz for Donovan Mitchell.
Here’s one way to quantify the unprecedented number of pick swaps flying around the league: It’s only 2022, and teams have already committed to offering more first-round swaps in the 2020s than in any previous decade.
But how valuable is a pick swap? To answer that question, we surveyed every first-round swap in NBA history, according to the Pro Sports Transactions archives. We recorded whether the swap was exercised, and if so, how much value the exercising team gained by exchanging picks, using Kevin Pelton’s calculations of pick values as a benchmark.
The results suggest that pick swaps aren’t anywhere near as important as they might seem. Historically, a first-round pick swap has been only about as valuable as the no. 36 overall pick. That’s worth repeating: The average first-round pick swap returns second-round value! And several team executives agree that—within the league itself, and especially in the public view—swaps are overvalued in a trade for a star.
The Celtics last decade provided a proof of concept for the ideal outcome of a swap, from the receiving team’s perspective. The 2016-17 Nets had the worst record in the league and won the lottery, while the Celtics had the best record in the Eastern Conference and were slated for the no. 27 pick in the draft. But thanks to swap rights they received in the Paul Pierce–Kevin Garnett trade four years earlier, the Celtics were able to take that no. 1 pick for themselves while the Nets slid to 27th. After a predraft trade for the no. 3 pick—which belonged to the 76ers thanks to a pick swap with the Kings—Boston added Jayson Tatum to a team that had just reached the conference finals.
While that outcome is the dream for any team acquiring swap rights, it’s far from the norm. Consider what happened the first time on record that a team traded swap rights. In October 1980, fresh off a championship, the Lakers gave Portland the option to swap first-rounders in 1984, in exchange for a journeyman big named Jim Brewer. To illustrate just how much trade valuations have changed over time, the Lakers hoped Brewer would address “their need for another backup center and power forward,” the Los Angeles Times observed at the time of the deal. Imagine the uproar if, say, the Bucks had traded a future swap for Serge Ibaka last season.
Even though Brewer averaged only 2.6 points per game over two seasons in Los Angeles, the Lakers didn’t rue the swap they’d surrendered. They were better than the Trail Blazers in 1984, so they had a worse first-round pick and Portland didn’t exercise the swap. (Instead, the Blazers got the Lakers’ pick near the end of the second round.)
This example provides a much more typical outcome. Out of 31 times through the 2022 draft that a team could have swapped a first-rounder, it did so on only 12 occasions. That means in 61 percent of the league’s possible swaps to date, the swap ended up being worth nothing.
(Note that three of the 19 swaps to date that weren’t exercised had pick protections that interfered. Most recently, Oklahoma City had top-four-protected swap rights with Houston in 2021 as part of the Russell Westbrook–Chris Paul trade. But the Rockets enjoyed lottery luck and landed the no. 2 pick, so the Thunder couldn’t execute. Yet even excluding those swaps barely changes the overall results. Protections aren’t the reason that swaps haven’t been historically valuable.)
What about those 12 exercised swaps? Many provided only a smidgeon of value for the team that was able to jump to a better pick, like a move from 20th to 18th, or 17th to 15th, or 26th to 18th. Some swaps—the Celtics-Nets exchange most of all—were much more valuable. But those were few and far between.
So overall, accounting for the swaps that weren’t exercised and the boosts in draft position for those that were, we can calculate that the average pick swap yields about as much value as the average no. 36 pick in the draft. That’s 20 percent the value of an average first-rounder—a massive difference in trade price between swap rights and an unprotected pick.
(Salt City Hoops’ Ken Clayton recently looked at a smaller subset of recent swaps and calculated that they’re worth about a third of the average first-round pick—so a bit more than my results show, but in a similarly underwhelming ballpark.)
A few factors help explain why swaps often don’t fulfill teams’ lofty ambitions. First, it’s worth emphasizing again that swaps aren’t often exercised at all. The teams trading swap rights are generally contending, while the teams grabbing swap rights are generally rebuilding, so the odds are that the former would finish with a better record, and thus a worse draft pick, than the latter.
One of the swap options that Houston landed in its trade of Harden to the Nets, for instance, was in 2021—the same year that the deal happened. There was no chance that Brooklyn would have had a better draft pick than Houston that summer.
Acquiring teams therefore try to push their swaps farther into the future, when the current contenders might no longer be near the top of the standings. The three swap options Utah grabbed this summer are in 2026 (from Minnesota), 2026 (from Cleveland), and 2028 (Cleveland). It’s almost impossible to predict team quality beyond a year or two—fewer than half of 50-win teams are still that good three years later—so it’s possible that Utah will enjoy another Nets/Celtics switcheroo later this decade.
But even then, it’s not likely that a swap will occur. There’s only a 50 percent chance that any random team will finish with a better draft spot than any other random team, so even in a best-case, long-term scenario, teams should count on gaining precisely zero value from a swap half the time.
Just look at the swaps up next summer: In the 2023 draft, the Thunder can swap picks with the Clippers, which is unlikely. The Rockets can swap with the Nets, which is also unlikely, unless the Nets completely implode and the Rockets overperform. The Pelicans swapping with the Lakers, on the other hand, is more possible.
Moreover, even the swaps that are exercised have trouble generating tremendous value. That’s because the top of the draft is so much more impactful than the rest. According to Pelton’s draft chart, the gap from pick no. 1 to pick no. 5 is about as large as the gap from pick no. 5 to pick no. 30. The gap between pick no. 1 and pick no. 7 is about as large as the gap between pick no. 7 and pick no. 60.
To recoup real value from a swap requires moving up to the top of the draft—and that’s extremely rare. Only twice has a team used a swap to move into the top five. One was the Nets’ transfer to the Celtics in 2017. The other involved a Hall of Famer, as a swap allowed the SuperSonics to jump from the 18th pick in the 1987 draft to no. 5. Having fallen to no. 18, the Knicks took Mark Jackson; at no. 5, Seattle selected Scottie Pippen and traded him to the Bulls for a package that included, incidentally, a future swap.
The Knicks were also on the losing end of the third-most-impactful pick swap in league history. In 2007, the Bulls jumped to no. 9 while the Knicks fell to no. 23 as part of the Eddy Curry trade, which is how Chicago ended up drafting Joakim Noah.
(OK, there’s one more swap worth mentioning with the Knicks. The long tail of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster continued through the 2016 draft, when the Nuggets exercised swap rights to take the no. 7 pick while the Knicks landed no. 9. There’s scarcely any difference in expected value between the average no. 7 and no. 9 picks, so this shouldn’t have been a big deal. But the Nuggets drafted Jamal Murray, while the Knicks—well, they didn’t draft anyone at no. 9, because they owed a 2016 first-rounder to Toronto as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade.)
Still, that makes for only three times out of 31 that a swap gave a team the equivalent of a top-20 pick or better, using Pelton’s values as a baseline.
Exercised First-Round Pick Swaps
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And finally, it’s important to remember that unlike with most pick trades, the team receiving the swap isn’t actually gaining an extra selection. In the Kings-76ers swap in 2017, Philadelphia merely jumped from no. 5 to no. 3. As that chart shows, the difference in expected value between picks 3 and 5 is about equivalent in value to the no. 30 pick, and nobody should get too excited about what is essentially adding a late first-rounder.
So if swaps so often underwhelm, why have rebuilding teams sought them with increasing frequency in recent seasons? This shift is partly out of necessity, as the cost for stars skyrockets on the trade market. In the Mitchell trade, the Cavaliers agreed to give Utah their unprotected picks in 2025, 2027, and 2029, but because of the aforementioned Stepien Rule, they couldn’t add actual picks in 2026 or 2028. They could only offer swaps for those in-between years.
Yet team executives also suggest that the league at large is overvaluing swaps because they offer the tantalizing glimmer of upside. One lead analyst compares swaps to the draft lottery itself—any individual tanking team probably won’t land the no. 1 pick, but it can still dream of that outcome. If a team adds a bunch of swap options—like the Rockets did in one big trade, or the Jazz did in separate transactions—then it increases the odds that at least one of them will hit big, like the Celtics did in 2017.
But as history demonstrates, that kind of jump requires a real outlier set of circumstances. Teams will likely keep trading stars for swap rights as the 2020s continue, but more often than not, those swaps will fade without much impact.