What Is a Protected Pick in NBA?

Jimmy Remland
By Jimmy Remland 8 Min Read
8 Min Read

In the world of NBA drafts, where talent acquisition can make or break a team’s future, the concept of protected picks plays a crucial role. Whether you’re a seasoned basketball enthusiast or a casual fan, understanding what protected picks are and how they impact team strategies is essential. Let’s delve into the intricacies of protected draft picks in the NBA.

1. The Basics: What Is a Protected Pick?

protected pick is a draft pick that comes with certain conditions or limitations attached to it. These conditions serve to safeguard the pick from being transferred to another team under specific circumstances. In essence, protected picks act as a safety net for teams, ensuring that they don’t lose valuable assets without due consideration.

2. How Do Protected Picks Work?

Protected picks are typically expressed in terms of draft position or range. Here are some common types of protection:

  • Top-X Protection: This means that if the pick falls within the top X positions (e.g., top 3, top 10), the original team retains it. For instance, if Team A trades a draft pick that is “top-10 protected,” it means that Team A keeps the pick if it falls within the top 10. Otherwise, the pick goes to the other team.
  • Lottery Protection: Lottery-protected picks are even more specific. They apply only to the draft lottery, which includes the first 14 picks. If a pick is “lottery-protected,” the original team keeps it unless it lands in the lottery. If it does, the other team receives the pick.
  • Conditional Protection: Sometimes, protection clauses are tied to specific conditions. For example, a pick might be protected if it falls outside a certain win-loss record range or if a particular player is involved in the trade.

3. Why Are Picks Protected?

Protected picks serve several purposes:

  • Risk Mitigation: Teams use protected picks to mitigate risk. When trading away a future draft pick, they want to ensure they don’t lose it entirely, especially if it’s a high-value pick.
  • Strategic Flexibility: By attaching protection, teams can strategically navigate their future. If they’re in a rebuilding phase, they might trade for protected picks to secure assets down the line.
  • Asset Management: Protected picks allow teams to balance immediate needs with long-term planning. They can trade for established players while still holding on to valuable draft assets.

4. The Seven-Year Rule

The NBA has a seven-year rule that prohibits teams from trading draft picks more than seven years in advance. This rule prevents teams from making rash decisions that could impact their future for an extended period. It ensures a level playing field and protects future owners from the consequences of current management decisions.

5. Real-Life Examples

Let’s look at a couple of real-life scenarios:

  • The Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics: In the infamous trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, the Celtics received several unprotected picks. However, the Celtics also secured the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. This swap allowed the Celtics to benefit from the Nets’ struggles, ultimately leading to the acquisition of Jayson Tatum.
  • The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets: In the Russell Westbrook–Chris Paul trade, the Thunder received multiple protected picks from the Rockets. These picks are lottery-protected, giving the Thunder flexibility to rebuild while still having a safety net.

6. Trade Dynamics and the Art of Negotiation

Protected picks often become bargaining chips in trade negotiations. Let’s explore how they impact team dynamics:

  • Seller’s Perspective: When a team is trading away a player or assets, they want to maximize their return. By attaching protection to a pick, they can sweeten the deal without giving away too much. For example, if Team A is parting with a star player, they might offer a “top-5 protected” pick to ensure they don’t lose a high draft position.
  • Buyer’s Calculations: On the other side, the acquiring team evaluates the risk-reward balance. They assess the potential of the traded player and the pick’s protection level. If they believe the player will thrive, they might accept a less favorable protection clause.

7. The Unpredictability of the Draft

The NBA draft is a fascinating blend of talent scouting, analytics, and sheer unpredictability. Even with protected picks, nothing is guaranteed. Here’s why:

  • Draft Lottery Chaos: Lottery-protected picks hinge on the draft lottery results. The ping pong balls determine the fate of these picks. A seemingly safe pick could suddenly become a lottery pick, altering the entire equation.
  • Hidden Gems and Busts: Every draft class has hidden gems and potential busts. A late first-round pick could turn out to be an All-Star, while a top-10 pick might struggle. Teams must weigh these uncertainties when negotiating protected picks.

8. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Conundrum

The Memphis Grizzlies provide a compelling case study. In 2015, they traded Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics, receiving a future first-round pick. The catch? The pick was top-12 protected in 2019 and 2020. If it fell within the top 12, the Grizzlies would keep it; otherwise, it would convey to the Celtics.

  • In 2019, the Grizzlies defied expectations and secured the second overall pick. They drafted Ja Morant, who quickly became their franchise cornerstone.
  • The Celtics, meanwhile, received the Grizzlies’ 2020 pick (which fell outside the top 12) and selected Aaron Nesmith. While Nesmith has potential, Morant’s impact on the Grizzlies is undeniable.

9. The Future of Protected Picks

As the NBA landscape evolves, so do protected picks. Teams adapt their strategies based on roster needs, player development, and win-now versus rebuild scenarios. Here are some trends:

  • Future-Proofing: Teams increasingly use protected picks to future-proof their assets. They anticipate potential downturns and ensure they have valuable picks even during lean years.
  • Trade Deadline Drama: The trade deadline sees a flurry of activity, with protected picks playing a central role. Teams juggle their picks to secure immediate help or long-term prospects.

Protected picks are like insurance policies for NBA teams. They provide a safety buffer, allowing teams to make bold moves without risking their entire future. So, the next time you hear about a “protected pick,” remember that it represents calculated strategy, asset management, and the ever-present uncertainty of the draft.

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