Tanking in the NBA: Mistakes in Trading First-Round Picks

Giving up first-round picks rarely works out.

With how bad the Eastern Conference has been so far this year and how supposedly loaded and deep the 2014 draft class is, the idea of tanking is as big as ever. Some teams (the Jazz) are doing it on purpose, and some (the Bucks) are doing it just because they're really bad. There have been numerous articles written around the web arguing about whether tanking works or not. This article is less about that and more detailing how trading valuable first-round picks has come back to bite teams.

The table below is how the NBA draft would go if the standings, as of 1/14/14, dictated draft order and if the lottery picks (top three) went to the teams, in order, who had the highest probability of winning it. Put simply, the Bucks have the worst record, thus get the first pick in this hypothetical scenario. The table will show which team is slotted to pick and which team would actually make the hypothetical pick.

Obviously, the standings will change throughout the year and teams will rise and fall in their respective draft order. There isn't much difference between a lot of teams - the Knicks are slotted in the playoffs right now, but are close to the Nets (same winning percentage, but get the nod in head-to-head). Despite the same percentage, the difference between being 8th and 9th in the East will likely mean 5 or 6 draft spots. Following the table, I will break down each pick in which a team doesn't make their own pick and re-examine the past trade that led to it and whether it was a win/loss in hindsight.

PickTeam ProjectedWould Go To
1Milwaukee BucksMilwaukee Bucks
2Orlando MagicOrlando Magic
3Philadelphia 76ersPhiladelphia 76ers
4Utah JazzUtah Jazz
5Boston CelticsBoston Celtics
6Cleveland CavaliersCleveland Cavaliers
7Sacramento KingsSacramento Kings
8Los Angeles LakersLos Angeles Lakers
9Charlotte BobcatsCharlotte Bobcats
10Brooklyn NetsAtlanta Hawks
11New Orleans PelicansPhiladelphia 76ers
12Memphis GrizzliesMemphis Grizzlies
13Minnesota TimberwolvesMinnesota Timberwolves
14Denver NuggetsDenver Nuggets
15New York KnicksOrlando Magic
16Detroit PistonsCharlotte Bobcats
17Chicago BullsChicago Bulls
18Washington WizardsPhoenix Suns
19Atlanta HawksBoston Celtics
20Toronto RaptorsToronto Raptors
21Phoenix SunsPhoenix Suns
22Dallas MavericksOklahoma City Thunder
23Golden State WarriorsUtah Jazz
24Houston RocketsHouston Rockets
25Los Angeles ClippersLos Angeles Clippers
26Miami HeatMiami Heat
27Oklahoma City ThunderOklahoma City Thunder
28Portland Trail BlazersCharlotte Bobcats
29San Antonio SpursSan Antonio Spurs
30Indiana PacersPhoenix Suns

Pick #7 - Sacramento Kings

How We Got Here: The Kings owe a first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls, but it is top-12 protected this year, so it will currently not move. However, with the addition of Rudy Gay from Toronto, it seems that the Kings are definitely trying to win and could maybe move up past the top-12 range. The Kings lost this pick by trading it plus Omri Casspi to the Cavaliers for J.J. Hickson in 2011.

Grading in Hindsight: It's quite laughable now that the Kings thought that Hickson was worth Casspi plus a first-round pick. It's good that it is top-12 protected this year, but it becomes only top-10 protected in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Now the pick is set to go to the Bulls in the recent Luol Deng trade. If the Bulls fall out of the playoffs and Kings get up into the 13/14 range, then the Bulls could have two lottery picks in this loaded draft, while also getting Derrick Rose back for next year. Not too shabby.

Pick #9 - Charlotte Bobcats

How We Got Here: The Bobcats owe a first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls, but it is top-10 protected this year. In 2010, the Bobcats sent Flip Murray, Acie Law, and this first-round pick in exchange for Tyrus Thomas.

Grading in Hindsight: This is probably the worst trade for a first rounder in this year’s draft. It's still a mystery as to why the Bobcats thought Thomas was worth a first-round pick, and at only top-10 protected, this pick could actually turn into a good player. They currently are sitting at the number 10 spot, so it’s very feasible that they move up at least to number 11, and then the pick would be the Bulls. If not, the pick is top-8 protected in 2015 and then it becomes unprotected in 2016.

Pick #10 - Atlanta Hawks from Brooklyn Nets

How We Got Here: Atlanta has the right to swap picks. The Hawks traded Joe Johnson for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, Johan Petro, Houston’s 2013 first-round pick (Shane Larkin), the right to swap picks, and the Nets' 2017 second-round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: Atlanta doesn’t get the Nets pick here, they just get to move up. The Celtics actually get Brooklyn’s pick (#19 after the swap), which we’ll discuss below.

Pick #11 - Philadelphia 76ers from New Orleans Pelicans

How We Got Here: During last year’s draft, the 76ers sent PG Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson to New Orleans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and this 2014 first round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: Things look very good for the 76ers, as they were able to get a potential lottery pick as well as a potential franchise center in Noel in exchange for Holiday, who they easily replaced with their other first-round pick last year in Michael Carter-Williams. If the 76ers can make a few more trades before the deadline and move Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, or Thaddeus Young for future assets, then the 76ers fans can be very pleased about the future of their franchise.

Pick #13 - Minnesota Timberwolves

How We Got Here: The Timberwolves owe a first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns, but it is top-13 protected this year. In 2012, the T-Wolves sent Wesley Johnson and this first round pick in exchange for a bunch of picks in a salary dump type of trade.

Grading in Hindsight: The T-Wolves were trying to create cap space to sign free agent Andrei Kirilenko. In the end, he only played 64 games for them last year and they missed the playoffs. This pick is protected in the future as well (top 12 in 2015/2016), and will turn into two second-round picks in 2016 and 2017 if the first round isn’t used in 2016. It is definitely possible that the Wolves move up into at least the #14 spot and lose this pick. However, with their history in the draft, they would probably botch it anyway.

Pick #14 - Denver Nuggets from New York Knicks

How We Got Here: The Nuggets' first rounder is actually going to the Orlando Magic, which will be detailed below. However, they received a first rounder from the New York Knicks and get to pick in the most favorable spot between this pick and the pick they give to the Magic. This pick would be one spot higher, thus they would pick in their actual spot, despite the movement of said picks. Confusing, I know.

Anyway, the trade - the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman, Shelden Williams, a 2015 second-round pick, and the option to switch first-round picks with Knicks in 2016. The Knicks gave away Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and this 2014 first-round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: Though the Nuggets gave away a franchise guy in Carmelo Anthony, things are looking pretty good now. They were able to swap Felton for Andre Miller, who was an upgrade for them at the point and had a better contract at the time. They could very realistically both make the playoffs and have a lottery pick in the same year. Add in one of these 2014 young studs from the draft to an already good roster, and Denver could be set for many years. The Knicks are having a rough season so far this year and don’t have many picks upcoming - they don’t have a first rounder this year or in 2016 and they gave away second rounders in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Pick #15 - Orlando Magic from Denver Nuggets

How We Got Here: Orlando gets the least favorable first round pick from the Nuggets. Since they’re already slotted for the number 14 pick due to the Knicks trade listed above, this pick would go to the Magic. Orlando traded Dwight Howard, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, and Earl Clark for Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Nikola Vucevic, a 2013 second round pick, this 2014 first round pick, a 2015 first round pick from the 76ers, a 2015 second round pick from the Lakers, and a 2017 first round pick from the Lakers. The Nuggets received Andre Iguodala.

Grading in Hindsight: This one is a doozy to sort through since it was a very jumbled four-team trade back in 2012. The Magic are definite winners as they were probably going to lose Howard in free agency anyway, and managed to replenish their roster as well as get a whole heap of picks in the process as well.

Pick #16 - Charlotte Bobcats from Detroit Pistons

How We Got Here: The Bobcats traded Corey Maggette for Ben Gordon and this 2014 first-round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: Well, considering Maggette hasn’t been relevant in a couple years, I would say that this is quite a steal. The Pistons only got one season out of him – he posted a stellar line of 5.3 points per game and 1.4 rebounds per game while shooting 35.5% in 14 minutes. I think the Bobcats should exceed that production with this first round pick.

Pick #18 - Phoenix Suns from Washington Wizards

How We Got Here: The Wizards traded Emeka Okafor and this 2014 first-round pick for Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown, and Malcolm Lee.

Grading in Hindsight: The Wiz were hoping in this trade that Gortat would solidify their frontcourt and boost them into a top-four seed in the East. Right now they’re sitting in the fifth spot, two games behind Toronto and Atlanta for the third. While Gortat probably isn’t worth a first-rounder, the Wiz are in “win-now” mode and if they can make it to the second round of the playoffs, I would consider this a good move for them, especially taking into consideration their franchise history.

Pick #19 - Boston Celtics from Atlanta Hawks

How We Got Here: The Celtics actually get the first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets, but sit in this spot since Atlanta has the right to swap picks (thus taking the higher, better one). This pick was from this past summer when Brooklyn traded Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph (two Kris’ with a “K” in the same trade!), Keith Bogans, this 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 first round pick, and the option for the Celtics to swap first-round picks in 2017 in exchange for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and DJ White.

Grading in Hindsight: This trade was pure robbery by the Celtics. With Nets C Brook Lopez out for the season, Brooklyn is no threat to Miami or Indiana, which is what this trade hinged on. They mortgaged their entire future (two first rounders!) for aging veterans that would hopefully tip them over the edge and compete for an NBA title this season. Instead, they signed rookie head coach Jason Kidd and have been very average. They went on a recent win streak to get into the playoff picture, but they still don’t look like any sort of threat to the top dogs of the East.

Pick #22 - Oklahoma City Thunder from Dallas Mavericks

How We Got Here: In 2011, the Mavericks traded a first-round pick to the Lakers for Lamar Odom. The next year, the Lakers sent that pick plus Derek Fisher to Houston in exchange for Jordan Hill. Then, the pick made its way to Oklahoma City in the Thunder and Rockets deal for James Harden.

Grading in Hindsight: For the Mavericks, the number 22 pick in the draft isn't going to hurt them that much, although Odom turned out to be a disaster. The real winner here was Houston, who was able to flip a bunch of picks and assets they had accumulated in similar deals in order to land All-Star guard James Harden.

Pick #23 - Utah Jazz from Golden State Warriors

How We Got Here: The Warriors sent Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush, this 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 second-round pick, a 2017 first-round pick, and 2017 round pick (the Jazz also got a 2018 second rounder from Denver) in a salary-dump type trade. The Jazz sent Kevin Murphy to the Warriors since all parties are required to give up something.

Grading in Hindsight: The reason the Warriors dumped all this salary and threw in so many picks was so they could sign free agent Andre Iguodala. I would say that’s working out well for them so far, as the Warriors starting five of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iggy, David Lee, and Andrew Bogut are destroying the league this year. In all lineups with at least 200 minutes this season, they have by far the highest NetRtg at 20.6 (OffRtg 117.8 – DefRtg 97.1). The next closest is the Reggie Jackson-led Thunder starting five, with a NetRtg of 13.5. This was worth it for the Warriors - they’re legit title contenders this year.

Pick #28 - Charlotte Bobcats from Portland Trail Blazers

How We Got Here: The Bobcats traded Gerald Wallace for Dante Cunningham, Joel Przybilla, Sean Marks, a 2011 first round pick (Tobias Harris), and this 2014 first-round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: While Wallace isn't producing great stats now for the Celtics, he was a good player once. While this looks like a bad situation for the Trail Blazers, considering they only got one season of production from Wallace in which they lost in the first round of the playoffs, they redeemed themselves big time. After the season, they flipped Wallace to the Nets for Shawne Williams, Mehmet Okur, and a 2012 first round draft pick. That pick was none other than their franchise PG, Damian Lillard.

This could have had all the makings for a great deal for the Bobcats, but they traded away the best player in this deal (Tobias Harris) on draft night to the Bucks in a deal where they received back Corey Maggette and the draft rights to picking Bismack Biyombo at number seven. Biyombo has not worked out, but thankfully the Bobcats have a chance to redeem themselves in this upcoming draft when they use their first round pick they received from the Pistons in a Maggette trade, as mentioned above.

Pick #30 - Phoenix Suns from Indiana Pacers

How We Got Here: The Suns traded Luis Scola for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and this 2014 first-round pick.

Grading in Hindsight: The first-round pick may not end up being worth much, as this late it’s a coin flip whether the player will be useful. However, the players that the Suns received - Green and Plumlee - have been very productive for the surprising Suns this year. Plumlee worked his way into the starting rotation before the beginning of the year, and Green is there now since Eric Bledsoe is injured. They’re both having career years and look like solid pieces for the Suns in the future. The Pacers got a big man in Scola to help solidify what was one of the NBA’s worst benches last year. Though in hindsight, I would’ve rather had Green, Plumlee, and the pick, Scola will definitely help them come playoff time.