The NBA is a strange little marketplace, especially in June. There are a finite number of actors — 30 — and it’s never entirely clear who’s buying versus selling. The merchandise is NBA talent, which as products go is a fairly volatile commodity. Everybody prioritizes different pieces of the puzzle, and the sheer number of guys who surprise in one direction or the other makes this as inexact a valuation as you’ll find in any market ecosystem.
Because of all of that weirdness, draft picks are an interesting currency around the summer solstice. Picks get attached to deals all year long, but suddenly values start to shift as teams get more or less attached to the talent available. Differing viewpoints on draft tiers, player strengths, specific needs and risk thresholds create a lot of ambiguity around the value of those assets.
The Knicks are a perfect example. Many teams would covet #4 in a draft with a rich six or seven-man start, but reports this week indicate that Gothamites aren’t that impressed beyond their presumed top three. Depending on how the picks ahead of them play out, their pick could be had for the right veteran and a pick in the Jazz’s range. Value is in the eye of the beholder.
Perhaps because of this complexity, the past 15 drafts have included just 83 trades wherein a team acquired a first-rounder (or moved up) on draft day or immediately before1. It’s just plain hard to get buyers and sellers on the same page.
But those 83 trades2 tell us a lot about the value of different first-round ranges. Rumors of available picks are bouncing around that have caught Jazz fans’ attention, so it’s important to understand what the established costs are. Below is a breakdown of every one of those trades, listed from the viewpoint of the team acquiring the highest pick in the trade. Let’s see what we can glean from history about the going rate for buying in or moving up.
Shooting the moon: 1-5
First off, #1 doesn’t move. The top pick has literally never been included in a draft-adjacent deal in the rookie scale era3.
But the message in this range is clear: if you want a top 5 pick, you have to surrender your own top 10 pick within 2-3 spots (something the Jazz don’t have) or one of your best players. Eight of these nine trades required a multiple-asset package built around either a top 6 pick or a star-level player. Minny’s ’09 deal for Ricky Rubio might be an exception since they “only” gave up two non-star starters, but they also absorbed a bunch of salary. Two of the players they had to absorb never appeared in Wolves gear, and the third played all of 447 minutes for ‘Sota before he was out of the league.
That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of teams that got away with a good fleecing. I have no idea how Portland got to LaMarcus Aldridge by attaching only Viktor Khryapa4, and history says the Jazz should have needed more than just two 20s picks to move up three spots in ’05.
But overall, the ticket to entry in this range is to start the bidding with your own top 6 pick or a near All-star talent.
Other top 10 spots: 6-10
These 14 deals were a bit cheaper for the acquiring teams. These deals generally required two or more assets, and one of them had to be a starter-level player or a late lottery pick.
Again, a few teams pulled a fast one and got away with paying less. The ’04 Luol Deng deal still perplexes me: how the Suns got to #7 with that package is beyond me. And both the ’13 Jazz and the ’00 Bucks jumped further than they should have been able to with just late picks5.
But generally speaking, a starter-level player or asset is the starting price to get into the back half of the top 10.
What if the Jazz deal their pick: 11-15
It has been widely speculated — even on a national level — that the Jazz might be well served to use #12 to add to their rotation in different ways. Let’s look at 15 years’ worth of trades involving picks 11-15 to assess what Utah might reasonably expect in return.
Team have only acquired these picks nine times in draft-adjacent deals, probably because we’re in a range where value is really subjective. Seven of those nine trades were simple move-up deals; the team moved somewhere between 2 and 10 picks up by attaching a rotational player, additional picks, or cash. If someone the Jazz like can be had a few spots later, it’s not a bad idea to follow that model and pick up an extra asset6.
The two exceptions were the Magic and Pacers. Orlando simply punted their pick to Dallas, deferring it to the next draft7. The Pacers got an established veteran for #15 and turned him into a valuable starting PG — but that deal still looks lopsided in retrospect because #15 turned into a Finals MVP.
If Utah wants to add an impact player, the deals involving Hill, Samuel Dalembert and Jarrett Jack are their precedent. Just keep in mind: after scouring 15 years of draft-adjacent trades, those are the THREE examples of 11-15 yielding rotation-quality veterans.
Acquiring an extra pick
There are still another 50 trades that can teach us a little about the historically proven value of first rounders, so let’s not stop at #15. Here are the requirements to acquire a pick in the latter half of the first round.
The cost of picks 16-20 is all over the board, depending largely on a team’s situation. Sometimes, like OKC did in 20108, you can find someone using their pick to drop salary commitments. Sometimes, a team just wants a reserve, like Chase Budinger or Michael Doleac. Other times, you can move up, or find a team who wants to move out altogether, trading for future firsts with loose protections.
Nearly all of the trades that netted a 21-25 pick cost a later pick (or a deep reserve) plus some combination of cash and second rounders. A couple went for less, though. Portland was able to essentially buy #24 because they took James Jones, and when compared to other deals in this area, the Jazz probably could have demanded more than just a future 1st for #21 in 2004.
At the very end of the draft, the trade motto is “make us an offer.” It doesn’t take much to pry these away from teams since they bring fringe first-round talent but with guaranteed salary9. It often just takes a second-rounder, a future pick or a nominal move-up fee. And teams like Portland have even made a habit of just buying picks outright.