Long ago, just two or three years ago, the NBA’s richest coastal powers became the league’s boldest teams – franchises most likely to go all-in with a flush draw.
The Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round picks, and a trade for Anthony Davis. The Clippers traded Shai-Gilgeus Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five firsts and two trades for Paul George. And the Nets traded Jarrett Allen, Carys LeVert, three first-place finishes, four trades, and a partridge in a pear tree for James Harden.
The similarities between these blockbusters were obvious, their overarching message clear: all three teams were rich with veteran stars signed as free agents, so who needed a draft built slowly from the inside? The Lakers could have won the title in their first season with LeBron James, Davis and the role players around them.
In the 2022-2023 off-season, this dynamic changed, with teams with a small market seizing the initiative. On Thursday, the Cavaliers made a secret trade deal for Donovan Mitchell, trading three first-round picks and two trades for the disgruntled Jazz star. This followed the Timberwolves’ all-in to former Mitchell teammate Rudy Gobert in July, who in turn followed the Hawks’ all-in to Dejount Murray in June.
Not so long ago, Los Angeles and New York were the most daring hunters for stars at any cost in the NBA. Cleveland and Minnesota now fill that role. Who needs an oceanfront beach when the Great Lakes are nearby?
This new development represents just the latest step in the evolution of superstar trading in the NBA. Until recently, trades to All-Stars were usually based on another standout plus one or two picks, rather than fifty-year draft picks. In 2004, Houston traded for Tracy McGrady, turning down Steve Francis and two other players, but with no choice. That same year, the Heat signed Shaquille O’Neal in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and just one first round player. In 2007, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett, ditching Al Jefferson, other young players, and two first players (including one they were bringing back to Minnesota).
Even for much of the 2010s, this was the norm for large deals. En route to the Clippers—after some interference from Commissioner David Stern—Chris Paul brought in a few players, but only one at first. Same with Kyrie Irving in Boston. Toronto’s package for Kawhi Leonard included several players but only one protected pick.
But then Leonard helped his new team win the title in his only season in Toronto, and some combination of LeBron, Davis, Rich Paul and Klutch Sports pushed Davis to Los Angeles at all costs. After the summer of 2019, the league saw a new norm of star return structure. Of course, young players like Ingram or Gilges-Alexander were important to making a deal, but more attracted by the many often unprotected picks stretching far into the future, which gave unglamorous teams like the Pelicans and Thunder multiple chances to count. . Lottery luck to find another star.
In this scenario, the gap between attractive destinations for free agents and prospective second-tier markets seemed to widen. The Lakers could afford to sacrifice any chance of recruiting youngsters. But the Thunder would never sign a star as a free agent, they thought (not to mention they had signed George after a trade for him), so they had to rely on the draft to create another contender.
“What you see doing OKC is how most teams should be doing business these days when you are realistic about how to build a team,” CEO. told ESPN in 2020, shortly after the Lakers won the title with Davis. The team vice president added: “There is a disparity in access to elite players and it’s getting bigger.”
But less than two full years later, that prediction no longer seems to hold true. While All-NBA heavyweights near the end of their contracts can still make their way into the glamorous markets, teams with a smaller market can also gain access to elite players on the trade –if they are ready to put up with an uncertain future, like their counterparts in large markets, but without the same geographic advantages that could hasten a possible reconstruction.
The key link tying the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets deals to the recent moves of the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Hawks is another franchise deal in a small market. In 2020, the Bucks sent three first-round picks (two of their own and one from the Pacers) plus two trades to New Orleans in exchange for Jrue Holiday.
Unlike the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets, the Bucks formed their backbone internally: Giannis Antetokounmpo in the draft and Chris Middleton through an early career trade. But just as the Lakers, which had noticeably missed the playoffs in LeBron’s first season in an injury-ridden Los Angeles, needed Davis to take the next step toward a title challenge, the Bucks needed another star. and Holiday gave them a second creator and a better protector. they were looking for. In a pivotal game in the NBA Finals the following summer, with the series tied at 2-2 and the Bucks leading by a single point, Holiday stripped Devin Booker and triumphantly outplayed Giannis at the other end. Milwaukee won the title, and the prospect of losing a future draft was irrevocably worth it.
Now it looks like other small market teams are emulating the Bucks model, using a rough cut to create the core and then a risky trade to add the final piece. The Hawks selected Trae Young and paired him with Murray, who should be the perfect addition in the backcourt. The Timberwolves decided no. 1st pick Carl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards could score with anyone, so they bolstered their defense with Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Cavaliers drafted Darius Garland and Evan Mobley and traded for Allen, giving them a strong defensive core (#5 defensively last season) but a weak offense (#20). Enter Mitchell, whose dynamic offensive abilities but flimsy perimeter defense make him the perfect candidate for this squad.
None of the three were cheap: Atlanta, Minnesota, and Cleveland haven’t actually been selected in years. This means they can no longer build through drafts; it also makes any additional upgrades more difficult because they don’t have a choice. (They can always try to outbid the new star if things fall apart like the Nets did with Harden, but it’s not an easy turn.)
So all three deals represent huge gambles, especially since the buyers this summer are not yet close to a real rivalry in the final. Giannis was already MVP and the Bucks were already the best regular season team in the East before they were traded to Holiday. In contrast, Towns only made two third teams for Minnesota, Young only made one third team for Atlanta, and no one in the core of Cleveland has a single pick. And instead of winning no. 1 seed last season, all three teams were in the play-in zone in the middle of the league.
Cleveland is clearly hoping that Mitchell, who turns 26 next week and has three years left on his contract, will grow alongside Allen (24), Garland (22) and Mobley (21). If Mobley turns into the Cleveland version of Giannis, it’ll be nice if Mitchell is already on the list when he does. Cavaliers don’t need to win the title immediately after the trade, as the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, and Celtics did with Holiday, Davis, Leonard, and Garnett, respectively. They can go up a round at a time and still be happy with their progress, especially in the Eastern Conference, which looks absolutely busy at the top.
Besides, if the backbone of the Cavaliers grows and stays together for years to come, the unprotected picks they sent to Utah won’t be as valuable; The Pelicans likely won’t get a single valuable pick from their holiday trophy as long as Giannis stays healthy. This is unknown in both directions – historically, spades sold many years in advance ended up randomly scattered throughout the first round.
But the resulting landscape of the league looks very strange, given where the supposed haves and have-nots sat just one or two years ago. This chart shows the teams with the highest and lowest future asset values in the first round of the draft, based on analysis Pro Sports Transaction Data. For ease of understanding, we have made unprotected choices equal to two points, and protected choices and exchange options equal to one. (Each team not shown is within two dots of the neutral position.)
Future winners and losers in the draft