The worst place to be in the NBA draft is picking late in the first round, after the lottery picks and the mid-first-round steals are off the board.
What you’re going to be stuck with is a guy on a guaranteed contract who may never play a game at the NBA level and who is just as likely going to be a garbage time staple who maybe, somewhere down the road, might crack your rotation.
Now imagine picking early in the second round, like picks 31 through 35 overall.
All of a sudden, the risk is gone; you are playing with house money.
If you pick a guy who’s a good defender with a suspect offensive game, you might get the next Draymond Green.
You might also get a guy who’s such a putrid shooter that he makes Lonzo Ball look like Stephen Curry, a guy who no matter how good he is on defense, will also by simple virtue of making you play 4-on-5 at the offensive end, be the best defender on the other team as well.
San Antonio took Manu Ginobili late in the second round in 1999 knowing that they wouldn’t have his services for a fair while due to Manu’s commitments in Argentina.
It was a no-risk pick. If Ginobili never played a game outside of South America except in the Olympics, all it cost the Spurs was a throwaway pick toward the end of the draft; Tim Young, who played an undistinguished 25 games with the Warriors in 2000 and scored just 54 career points, went 56th and Eddie Lucas, who never played an NBA game, went 58th and last in the then-29-team league.
In fact, in the entire second round that year, 11 of 29 players never played, another 11 played but posted a negative career VORP, and of the remaining seven, Ginobili’s 106.4 career Win Shares are more than twice as many as the other six guys combined (42.4.)
My point is this. You’ve got a late first-round pick (to use that 1999 draft again, the last 10 players taken in the first round featured four negative-VORP guys and three players—Jeff Foster, Kenny Thomas, and Andrei Kirilenko—who went on to have solid 30+ WS careers.)
You have a chance to trade that pick out of the first round and, say, pick 35th while your trade partner picks 27th.
Wouldn’t you be crazy not to pull the trigger on that trade? Since the Stepien Rule only applies to future drafts, you wouldn’t run afoul of it even if you’d already traded next year’s first-rounder.
You’re getting a guy with an almost equal chance of making an impact at the NBA level and you don’t have to pay him a guaranteed salary unless he impresses in Summer League or you want to stick him in the G-League on a two-way contract.
Or, if you’re a team like the 2016 Pacers, wouldn’t you rather trade that pick for a known rotation player or, better still, a starter?
Sure, if you’re the Nets, maybe you want LeVert—that’s why they made the trade, after all—but in terms of advanced stats over the life of the deal and, let’s be honest, LeVert’s career, the Pacers won the trade.
The point here is that late first-rounders, because of the way the league’s salary structure and rookie contracts work, are often worth more if you get rid of them than if you keep them.
Look at this season. I like Aaron Holiday, but during the draft I was one of the loudest voices on Twitter arguing that the Pacers should do another 2016 and ship that pick out—at the time, it was still an open question whether Thad would opt in, so I was calling for trading that pick to the Lakers for Julius Randle, but it could’ve been anyone—trading a guy with a very shaky shot in Summer League for a proven rebounder and basically the upgrade-button version of Al Jefferson.
And sure, it all worked out—the Pacers signed Kyle O’Quinn to do that job—but the point is they’re paying Holiday guaranteed money when he’s not a guaranteed talent.
And it all speaks to a broken incentive structure in the NBA.
And it’s not something the league even needs to fix. It’s a front office problem, as smart teams get better value in trades than on the talent boards of the picks they have available to select and develop.