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Players We Keep Drafting
Talking the business of sports
At any given time, there are 210 first-round picks in circulation within the NBA’s trade market. That figure represents 30 apiece for the next seven drafts, which is as far out as trades are allowed to go. In the past, that rule was almost never invoked. Trading picks seven years in the future simply represented a degree of risk teams were not willing to take for any realistically available reward.
There’s a perception around the NBA that teams are significantly more eager to take that risk now that superstars are being moved more frequently. There’s some truth to that notion, but not as much as you might think. Prior to writing this story, I posed a simple question to my Twitter followers: Of those 210 first-round picks in circulation, how many did they believe were no longer owned by their original teams? Or, put more simply, how many did they believe had been traded?
Every single guess was too high. The lowest offered was 60. The highest was 110. Even my own pre-count guess of 75 was far off. Of those 210 available first-round picks, only 47 no longer belong to their original team. Of those 47 picks, 12 are owed out through swap rights with another team while the other 35 are owed directly as picks going out for no further compensation. Of those 35 owed outright picks, just 14 are unprotected.
This suggests that despite the trigger-happy nature of modern general managers and team-hopping their best players frequently engage in, teams generally still value draft capital quite a bit. Despite appearances, it isn’t just being handed out like candy. Only 6.7 percent of those 210 accessible first-round picks have changed hands without protections. That figure may change as the Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell situations evolve, but for the time being, the crown jewel of the trade market is still a relatively rare asset. The ones that have been moved are therefore exceedingly valuable.

But just how valuable? Which team currently holds the single-best draft pick that originally belonged to somebody else? That’s what we’re here to find out. Below, we’re going to rank all 47 of those displaced first-rounders based on the following criteria:
So without further ado, let’s dive into these rankings.
Fake swaps are one of the funnier trends of recent star trades. When the Rockets traded James Harden to the Nets in 2021, they demanded swap rights … in 2021! The odds of them using the swap rights were infinitesimal, but it looks good in a press release to say that you got that one extra “asset”, so sure, why not? The Thunder were slightly more justified in grabbing 2023 swap rights with the Clippers in the Paul George deal just given the long-range upside of the ask at the time, but the Clippers are among the championship favorites and the Thunder are still rebuilding. This swap isn’t happening.
If you think LaMelo Ball is going to become an All-NBA player in the next few years, this pick could convey. But the Hornets have made the playoffs just once in the past eight seasons, Miles Bridges is facing serious legal issues and Michael Jordan remains one of the NBA’s cheapest owners on a team that’s getting pricey. There’s a very good chance this pick just turns into two second-rounders in 2025. 
OK, this swap is fairly complicated, so let me explain. First, the Thunder have the right to swap picks with the Rockets provided Houston’s own pick doesn’t land in the top 10. And then, once the dust has settled on that swap, Houston can swap whichever pick it winds up having with Brooklyn’s, which is unprotected. That Brooklyn pick is fairly valuable. This Houston pick probably isn’t. The Rockets will likely be trying to win by this point, but even if they aren’t, there’s limited upside in it for Oklahoma City because of the protections.
We’ll get to some of Milwaukee’s picks a bit later, because there’s an argument to be made that some of them will be pretty valuable. But swapping picks with the team that employs Giannis Antetokounmpo in his age-29 season probably doesn’t hold much value. The best-case scenario for the Pelicans is likely a swap slightly higher into the 20s, and that assumes they’re a contender by then.
A by-the-numbers pick. Boston, a contender, gave away its upcoming choice for a player who can help now in Malcolm Brogdon. It is reasonably protected, so the upside is limited, and Boston was the NBA’s best regular-season team from January on last season. So basically, it’s either going to be a pick in the 20s or not convey at all. Fairly low-value.
This pick beats out Boston’s for two reasons. First, the Celtics are better than the Mavericks. Second, the Knicks have three chances for it to convey, so if all hell breaks loose in Dallas this season, New York will still probably get a pick later. The same can’t be said if Boston has a disappointing season.
The Nuggets have a higher ceiling than the Mavericks, and this pick is slightly better protected. But Denver’s injury concerns in a loaded Western Conference makes it slightly likelier that it hands over, say, the 17th pick, than Dallas. Those two picks are a coin toss, though.
This is about as low as a fully unprotected pick can go. Maybe Antetokounmpo gets hurt, but otherwise, Houston is probably getting a pick in the late 20’s.
This pick looked great a few years ago, when Golden State had the NBA’s worst record. Not so much now, but it has a few edges over the last few picks. The protections are light. It’s guaranteed to eventually become a first-rounder. Stephen Curry will be at least 36 when it conveys. And the Warriors will likely have to give up at least one key player due to luxury tax concerns before the 2023-24 season.
This is a high-risk, reasonably high-reward pick. That top-eight protection in 2026 wouldn’t have applied to any Wizards pick since 2013. Ted Leonsis prioritizes competence. But Bradley Beal will turn 33 in 2026 and he just signed one of the biggest contracts in NBA history. This pick in combination with the Stepien Rule makes it very difficult for Washington to trade future picks to upgrade the immediate roster. Basically, unless you really believe in the young players who are already here or the ones they’ll draft in the next year or two, you’re hoping that the Wizards can tread water once in the next four seasons. I personally think they’re trending down pretty aggressively and will eventually trade Beal and try to tank their way into keeping this pick.
I’d feel so much better about this pick if the protections in 2024 and 2025 were flipped. But realistically, I expect the Pistons to pick in the lottery again in 2023 and the top 18 in 2024. That leaves the Knicks with Detroit’s pick in 2025, when Cade Cunningham is kicking off his fourth season and likely in his prime. It’s too early to say how good the Pistons will be then, but I’d project this pick to be in the late teens at best, and more likely the 20s, just because of Cunningham.
Speaking of promising 2022 rookies, this will be Jalen Green‘s fifth season and Jabari Smith‘s fourth. Oh, and the Rockets will have multiple seasons of max cap space between now and this pick’s conveyance. Houston should be in good shape by 2026.
Indiana will only get one more shot at this pick after narrowly missing out last season, but the Pacers should feel pretty comfortable about Cleveland making the playoffs. The Cavs came just short last year, but didn’t get 70 games out of a single starter. Collin Sexton missed most of the season. Their young players will be better. I’d estimate this pick lands in the higher teens with the Cavs as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed.
How long can Danny Ainge realistically tank? History says not very. He rebuilt twice in Boston. The Celtics missed the playoffs just twice in the years prior to the first Kevin Garnett trade, and then returned to the postseason after only a one-year absence when they dealt Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. There’s added risk here with the obligation extinguishing after 2026, but the reward of a possible late lottery pick is reasonably high.
A quick note that will apply to Denver and a few other teams that owe multiple protected picks: If an earlier pick is delayed by protections, all subsequent picks are delayed as well. So if Denver misses the playoffs this season and holds onto its 2023 pick, the earliest Orlando could get this pick would be 2026. That’s not likely to matter in this instance, but it’s something to keep in mind. The more protected picks that lie in front of the one that is owed, the likelier it is that said pick never conveys. In this case? The 2023 pick is likely to convey, so this one should be expected in 2025. It’s relatively lightly protected on a team with multiple injury question marks and a history of cheap ownership. Nikola Jokic likely protects against the worst outcomes, but this pick could be decent.
Trae Young is the only core Hawk under a guaranteed contract for the 2025-26 season. That provides a bit of ambiguity value, but in all likelihood, multiple key players will be re-signed by then, and Young, as an All-NBA player, caps the ceiling on this swap.
Minnesota’s swap rights in 2026 are slightly more valuable than Atlanta’s just because of age. Rudy Gobert will be 34 when the 2026 draft arrives, and Karl-Anthony Towns will be 30. If Anthony Edwards is as good as advertised, though, this pick won’t be all that high.
As we’ve covered, there’s a fair bit of risk here. Denver has two picks ahead of this one that could slow it down, but again, Jokic’s mere presence probably ensures things don’t get that bad. But so much can change by 2027 that this probably has to be the most valuable outstanding Nuggets pick by default. If nothing else, I somehow doubt Denver is going to pay the tax five seasons in a row, so there will probably be some cost-cutting by this point.
This is around the point where Milwaukee’s picks start to look interesting. Giannis will be 31 at this point. Khris Middleton will be 34. Jrue Holiday will be 36. Brook Lopez will be 38. Oh, and the Bucks have none of their own picks or any cap flexibility to replenish their roster. The exact moment isn’t clear yet, but at some point between now and 2027, Milwaukee’s picks are going to start to look pretty good.
Do I expect the Rockets to actually swap picks with the Nets? Absolutely not. Houston has been the NBA’s worst team two years in a row. But Brooklyn is in such a state of chaos right now that the idea of the Nets finishing in the lottery isn’t exactly farfetched. Houston doesn’t have to decide on the swap until the draft order is determined. Essentially, that means that if the Nets do finish in the lottery, Houston not only has all of its own lottery balls, but all of Brooklyn’s as well. In the 2023 NBA Draft that’s going to yield Victor Wembanyama, and that is enormously valuable. No single team in the lottery will have a better than 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. But if the Rockets and Nets both somehow end up at the bottom of the league, Houston’s swap rights essentially give it a 28 percent chance. The odds probably won’t be that high, and the Nets probably won’t even be in the lottery, but the mere hope of a few extra shots at Wembanyama (or Scoot Henderson) is worth more than picks likely to fall in the 20s.
That Rockets-Nets swap was all about upside. This pick is the opposite. Chicago cannot get a lottery pick from Portland … but it has six more chances to get a first-round pick of some sort. Unless you expect the Blazers to vault from the lottery into the championship picture in a single offseason, that pick will likely eventually convey in the teens.
The Pelicans are the kings of trading fake picks. The Bucks almost certainly won’t be picking in the top four in 2025 … but New Orleans literally just got away with trading two protected picks that it wound up keeping in the last year. So the Knicks are probably getting this pick … but it would be so very Pelicans of it to wind up back in New Orleans after a disaster in Milwaukee.
An unprotected pick when Kawhi Leonard will have just finished his age-32 season and Paul George will have already turned 34 is appealing on paper, but the upside here is somewhat limited by Steve Ballmer. The Clippers just had a season in which it got only 31 combined games from George and Leonard. Their pick still wound up being No. 12. Ballmer spends so much money, both on the court and in assembling one of the NBA’s best front offices, that it’s just hard to imagine his picks ever being all that high.
Conversely, Kings picks historically almost always end up being pretty good. That’s the problem here. Sacramento’s pick has landed outside of the top 10 just twice since 2009. This year’s roster looks fairly good, but there is a chance this pick never conveys. If it does? It’s probably going to be pretty good.
Antetokounmpo’s contract expires after 2026. Make of that what you will.
The 2024-25 season is going to be an inflection point for Atlanta. DeJounte Murray becomes a free agent in 2024 and almost certainly won’t extend before then due to the league’s restrictive extension rules. Onyeka Okongwu and De’Andre Hunter will both need to be on market-value contracts by this point. The uncertainty here provides for some value, but Young again caps this pick’s value.
Any unprotected pick from the 2023 Western Conference holds meaningful value just because of how deep that conference is. Minnesota doesn’t even have to have a year from hell to give Utah a decent pick. Let’s say Anthony Edwards stagnates and Rudy Gobert misses 25 games. In a normal conference, Minnesota would still be good enough to easily make the playoffs. In the 2023 West? That could knock them into the play-in, where they were a year ago.
I’ve swapped these next two Bulls picks half a dozen times. The 2023 pick has lighter protections and is almost certain to convey, but the Bulls should be worse in 2025 than they are in 2023. Regardless, there’s plenty of room for both of these picks to be valuable. As good as the Bulls were at their best last season, there’s a ton of room for regression. Chicago finished 10 games above .500 last season despite having a negative point differential. They were buoyed by absolutely absurd shot-making luck late in close games. They also dealt with serious injuries, but remember, Zach LaVine has had multiple knee surgeries, Lonzo Ball has never had a sustained stretch of good health in his career, DeMar DeRozan just turned 33 and Nikola Vucevic is about to turn 32. In a deeper East, these Bulls picks have some real upside.
The 2023 pick ultimately wins out because of certainty. It’s going to convey, and it’s probably going to be in the teens. The 2025 pick might come right at the beginning of a rebuild, allowing the protections to keep it from ever conveying. Even if it does, the 2023 pick has higher disaster potential because of the lighter protections.
Here’s where we really get into the projection. A possible Kevin Durant trade makes this swap significantly more appealing to San Antonio. If the Celtics give up Jaylen Brown for Durant, they’d be spectacular right now… but probably not in 2028, when Durant would turn 40. Jayson Tatum can become a free agent as soon as 2025. Without a long-term co-star in place, you have to imagine he’d be open-minded about finding one elsewhere. Of course, without a Durant trade, the Celtics still have a very strong long-term trajectory.
Hey, speaking of blockbuster Brooklyn trades, here’s Kyrie Irving‘s preferred destination! If the Nets hold Irving and Durant into the season, well, there’s not much reason to believe the Lakers are better than they were last season. That means another possible lottery pick going to New Orleans. But stars tend to get what they want. If Durant forces the issue, Irving to Los Angeles is a natural byproduct, and this pick becomes far less enticing.
This is the “we’re betting against Atlanta” pick. Young’s contract expires after the 2026-27 season. In other words, if he’s not happy in Atlanta, recent memory suggests he’d try to force a trade before this pick conveys, making it far more valuable. If you’re bullish on Atlanta’s long-term future? This pick drops in these rankings.
The same logic applies here as it did to the 2026 pick, except this one isn’t a swap. Gobert will get old quickly. Edwards might be good enough for that not to matter. If he doesn’t? This is a possibly valuable pick.
Another complicated one. Remember those 2023 Nets-Rockets swap rights we covered? Well, the Nets are going to end up with one of those two picks, whichever is worse. By virtue of the James Harden trade, they also landed Philadelphia’s 2023 pick unprotected. Of the two picks the Nets will have, the worst one is going to Utah in the Royce O’Neale trade. Regardless, this pick has plenty of disaster potential. We all saw James Harden melt down in the playoffs last season. PJ Tucker is 38. Joel Embiid gets hurt every year. The 76ers will probably be quite good, but few contenders are as prone to disaster as this Philly team should be.
This pick was far less valuable a few months ago, when there were three layers of lottery protection before the unprotected year in 2026. The Heat themselves removed two of those years of protections at the trade deadline for reasons I explained here. But now, all Oklahoma City needs is one lottery season from a team built around a then-35-year-old Jimmy Butler to score an unprotected Heat pick in 2026. Miami almost never rebuilds, but given the age of some of their key players, this pick has very strong potential.
Now we’re starting to get into the most valuable picks on the board. All of that Philadelphia disaster potential gets magnified here with Philadelphia’s roster several years older.
There are scenarios in which the Nets bring the bulk of their roster into the 2022-23 season, but doing so a year later would mean re-signing Kyrie Irving. The Nets don’t seem too interested in doing so, and at that point, it’s worth asking whether the Nets would even have enough championship equity to make keeping an aging Kevin Durant worthwhile. The 2023 Nets pick might be valuable. The 2024 pick almost certainly will be.
The 2025 Philly pick wins out over 2027 because of its lighter protections and longer runway. If the 76ers are forced to rebuild by the middle of this decade, it’s better to have three chances to get this pick than only two.
Gobert might make the Timberwolves very good in 2023. He’ll be 37 in 2029. Towns will be 33. Here’s the kicker: if Edwards demands a player-option on the last year of his projected max rookie extension, even he could become a free agent before this pick conveys. This is a perception value pick. I have no idea how good the Wolves will be in 2029. I know that at some point between now and 2029, things are going to look bad enough for them for this pick to hold immense trade value.
The grim scenario outlined above likely won’t be quite as bad in 2027, but this pick is unprotected, so it gets the slimmest of edges.
At this point, Leonard and George will have aged enough for these picks to gain at least some measure of upside value. The Clippers are deep and well-run that they’re probably not ever going to have one of the five worst records, but if things go badly, landing in the lottery and jumping up with some luck becomes feasible at least.
The Rockets probably won’t be overtly tanking a year from now… but they probably won’t be playoff-ready in the stacked Western Conference, either. The lottery might wind up pushing Houston into the top-four, but if it doesn’t, there’s a very good chance the Rockets wind up sending the Thunder a late top-10 pick.
Everything positive I’ve written about the Clippers continues to apply, but by June 2026, the nine currently highest-paid Clippers will be in their 30’s. In fact, all of them but Luke Kennard will be 33 or older. Unless there’s some serious roster retooling between now and then, the disaster potential is as high here as it will ever be for the Clippers unless they start trading future picks to kick this can down the road.
I’ve covered this topic in more depth here, but it bears repeating with Boston looking like the likeliest Durant trade destination: the league’s limitations on raises through extensions makes it a near-certainty that Jaylen Brown will become a free agent in 2024. If he is the centerpiece of a Durant trade, Brooklyn has two years to convince him to stay. If it can’t? Oh baby, Houston’s hit the jackpot. 
I could write an entire story on this pick alone. To try to limit this piece’s already behemoth word count, I’ll limit myself to three points:
The possibility of an Irving trade is the only thing keeping the Lakers out of the No. 1 slot. Otherwise, the deferral rights would push this pick to the top of the board.
We’ve already covered what makes Brooklyn’s picks so enticing. One last thing I’ll add that pushes the Nets over the top is their own history. They painstakingly clawed their way back into relevance after giving away the Tatum and Brown picks to Boston in the Garnett and Pierce trade. How did they handle regaining control over the picks? By trading them all again to get Harden. How’d that one turn out? Organizationally, it’s just hard to envision the Nets giving away any more of their own future picks even if it makes the 2026 and 2027 teams better. It would be like Portland spending another top pick on an injury-prone big man. The Lakers might sell out their future for Irving. The Clippers might do the same as soon as they can. But the Nets are the likeliest of the three to exercise caution moving forward. After all, Marks remained patient the last time he owed out picks. That only makes these picks more valuable.
The winner, by virtue of not being a swap, is Brooklyn’s 2026 first-round pick.
With the Durant and Mitchell situations ongoing, it’s worth covering some of the picks that might be involved in those trades. While I won’t rank them specifically for obvious reasons, I’ll offer a ballpark on their value:
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