In any sport, a proven player usually has a degree of increased value over a draft pick, who is an unknown commodity. However, the NBA pushes this adage past the extreme. This problem of properly valuing future draft picks is one of the reasons why there is so much tanking in the NBA.
The one franchise that seems to easily recognize this league-wide fatal flaw is the Boston Celtics. They have been capitalizing on it consistently for over 50 years, and at this point it looks like they are taking candy from a baby.
The Celtics started sniffing out this weakness in the year 1956. In the 1956 Draft, the St. Louis Hawks traded the Celtics the number two pick in the draft in exchange for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Those were two excellent players and the Hawks had hope after coming off a trip to the Western Division Finals. However, the only problem is that the Hawks gave away the pick which resulted in the greatest NBA player of all time getting drafted: Bill Russell. While many people today give the GOAT mantle to Michael Jordon, it’s sure hard to ignore that Russell won 8 NBA championships…in a row! Russell totaled 11 rings in his 13 NBA seasons, won 5 league MVP’s and was the player/coach for three of those titles. All that output from Russell for Macauley and Hagan? Red Auerbach sure had the Hawks seeing Red.
It had to be a difficult for the Hawks to pull the trigger on this trade because they knew which player would be obtained with their pick. However, think about how much easier it is for NBA teams to part with picks for future years, when the value of the pick is a complete unknown.
On September 6, 1979 the Celtics traded Bob McAdoo to the Pistons for two first round picks. One of those picks became the first overall pick of the 1980 draft. How could the Pistons make that trade? It’s like they saw McAdoo and fell into a “draft pick trance” and just lost their mind. They saw McAdoo as a new car and their future pick as an old bicycle and they traded accordingly.
Auerbach then used this pick from the Pistons to really cash in. Right before the 1980 draft, the Celtics traded the rights to this first overall pick and the 13th pick to the Warriors for the 3rd pick and Robert Parish. The end result of the trade was that the Warriors traded Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown to the Celtics for Kevin McHale and Parish.
For the Celtics, the “T” in ‘Boston Tea Party’ might just stand for “Trade”. They had done it again, and the Warriors saw their future being poured into the Boston Harbor.
Clearly Auerbach could evaluate talent on trade day much more astutely than the Hawks and Warriors could do at these times. But his trade with the Pistons reveals how little some teams value their future picks. If this happens once it could be seen as a mistake, but when it happens over and over, it looks more like an addiction or fatal flaw. This lack of value for future draft picks is at the heart of the tanking problem.
Danny Ainge has picked up where Red left off in snatching candy from babies. In 2013 Ainge took a look at his aging roster and started a fire sale, but somehow the sum of what he got in return was startling. Ainge’s return was exponentially larger than what he gave, so much so that it indicates some type of problem. The only defense that the other teams can really make is the Twinkie defense.
Many of these trades involved role players for salary cap purposes, and two were complex three team deals. But in the end the Celtics received a total of 9 first round future draft picks and the rights to swap picks next year with the woeful Nets! Following is a cliff notes version of the key pieces that were given and received, in order of significance:
- Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the downside of their careers, as well as Jason Terry to the Nets for the Nets unprotected first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 as well as the option to swap first round picks with the Nets in 2017.
- Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks for a 2015 first round pick, Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder.
- Brandan Wright to the Suns for a first round pick that is top 12 protected.
- Jeff Green to Memphis for a future first round protected pick, in an unspecified year.
- MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford to the Warriors, Warriors trade Toney Douglas to the Heat, and the Heat give the Celtics a 2015 first round draft pick and a 2016 first round draft pick.
- Future second round pick to the Cavs, Cavs trade Tyler Zeller a first round pick to the Cavs (protected from 2016-2018 and unprotected in 2019), Cavs trade Jarrett Jack to the Nets, and the Nets give the Cavs the draft rights to 3 past European draft picks.
These trades are all highway robbery. The Celtics took an aging team with no future, dangled a few big names and had cap space take on unwanted players from other teams, and somehow received a king’s ransom.
Why can’t NBA executives accurately value the equivalency of future draft picks for current talent? The easy answer is that NBA executives are judged by how many games they win each year and they are desperate to keep their job and maximize this number, even if it results in teams trading away their future. But it’s way more complex that this, because no GM wants to look like a fool in the long run and end up on the wrong side of history.
Whatever the reason, GM’s have trouble containing themselves, and the upshot of having so many protected picks floating around leads teams to tank. For example, the Lakers draft pick next season is top 3 protected due to their Steve Nash trade, meaning the Lakers will only keep this pick if they have one of the three worst records. They have incentive to be one of the three worst teams this season.
Tanking in the NBA is already dangerous enough with teams like the 76ers openly losing to get high draft picks and defiantly calling it “the process”. But now the plethora of protected picks everywhere further creates a tanking environment. It is ironic that protected picks were designed to protect teams from giving away the number one pick in the draft, but in return they increase tanking.
Part of the solution to tanking must involve getting GM’s to start valuing their future picks in a rational manner and limiting the number of protected picks from changing hands, if this is possible. And it may not be possible, because it’s never easy to fix a fatal human flaw. How could the lessons learned by the St. Louis Hawks and the Pistons of 1979 be ignored by the Nets of today?
Shortsightedness and the need for immediate returns in the NBA appear common. Once a GM feels they are close to competing for a title, they unload their future draft picks for the pieces they think they need, feeling as if their future is now. But sometimes it isn’t.
If the Celtics end up getting potential superstar Ben Simmons next year with the first pick in the draft from the Nets, it could be the biggest steal since 1956…and 1980.
Next in Part 3: Designing an Anti-Tank Weapon