The 2014 NBA Draft is unique in that way fewer teams than usual are actually slated to play a heavy role. A whopping 10 picks will not be made by the original team that earned them, and three others would have been moved if not for specific protections. One other pick was involved in a multi-team transaction and therefore also stood a chance of moving. Many, many more selections could move on Thursday, even in the lottery.
By contrast, last year's draft, long seen as one of the weakest in years, only had six picks traded before the draft.
This seems to counter the idea that first-round picks are more valuable than ever due to the new CBA. If these picks are so important, why did so many teams give them up? And is this the beginning of a trend or just a one-year blip?
Time will tell on the second question, but for now, it appears that a coalescence of many specific factors to this year can explain these deals.
The rise of pick protections
Teams are constantly in fear of suffering the same fate that the Los Angeles Clippers did three years ago. In an attempt to get Baron Davis off their payroll, the Clippers threw in an unprotected draft pick in a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Clippers took the risk because they thought they would be in the late lottery at worst, a more understandable price for getting Davis out of L.A. Instead, the Clippers' pick rose all the way to the top of the lottery, giving Cleveland Kyrie Irving.
Pick protections were popular before then, but they have become even more common and complex since. It's much more palatable for a team to include a pick in a deal if they can ensure that pick will never be near the top of the draft. The Pacers knew they were taking a risk dealing a future selection for Luis Scola, but at least they could rest easy knowing that pick would never be in the lottery. The same was true of the Blazers and Bobcats (now Hornets) for deals they made several years ago and the Wizards for the Marcin Gortat trade made last fall.
And because teams can customize pick protections however they want, there can be some very specific parameters. The pick the Pistons traded in a salary dump with Charlotte was lottery-protected in 2013, top-eight protected in 2014 and top-one protected in 2015. In theory, this gave Detroit time to build a playoff-caliber team and some insurance in case the effort fell short. (In practice, they were just good enough to surrender the ninth pick in this year's draft). Other selections, such as Oklahoma City's from Dallas, are even more heavily insured (top 20).
This is one reason why the trade market is so robust. If picks could not be protected or there were only limited options, fewer deals would be made.
Zagging when everyone else zigs
The 2014 draft was long seen as a very strong one and remained so even as the top prospects experienced growing pains. By contrast, the 2013 draft was considered extremely weak, and the 2012 and 2011 drafts had so-so reputations except for can't-miss prospects like Anthony Davis. That means that 2014 draft picks had a lot of value. But that also means that teams are more willing to accept them in return in exchange for their established players. It takes two to tango, after all. If a pick has value, it also has trade value.
There were also a number of teams who tried to take advantage of the perceived value of the 2014 draft to acquire useful players. This was the Pelicans' goal when sending away their 2014 draft pick to get a young All-Star point guard in Jrue Holiday. To a lesser extent, the Warriors used the allure of a 2014 first-round pick (and other selections) to convince the Jazz to take on $24 million of dead salary weight, clearing the space to sign an immediate impact player in Andre Iguodala.
Pressure to win immediately
While the 2014 draft had a lot of value, it wasn't good enough to override the frustration of constant losing. Several teams, pushed in part by antsy owners, were under pressure to return to the postseason in 2013-14 and needed to make moves to immediately improve their clubs.
The Washington Wizards are a prime example. An injury-plagued 2012-13 season saw them finish 29-53, their fifth straight in the high lottery. Entering this year, owner Ted Leonsis publicly stated that the expectation was to return to the postseason. Thus, when starting center Emeka Okafor went down with a neck injury in preseason, general manager Ernie Grunfeld needed to improve the team right away. Grunfeld was motivated to give up a 2014 draft pick to acquire Marcin Gortat, a move that allowed him to meet his owner's goals.
The Pelicans and Pacers were in similar spots. Indiana desperately was seeking a player to upgrade its bench to make one final run at the Heat, so surrendering a first-round pick for Scola was no big deal to them. The Pelicans' blockbuster deal for Holiday was merely step one in a busy summer that included a big free-agent contract for Tyreke Evans. And because many other teams were taking the exact opposite approach and valuing the 2014 draft, they were able to find trade partners that gave up the immediate pieces they were seeking.
Big markets were involved
Of course, the extreme version of the above reason was also taking place with both of New York's teams. The Knicks sold their future to acquire Carmelo Anthony in 2011, while the Nets happily dealt several future picks to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. These two New York teams have never been shy about mortgaging the future to bolster the present, and both did so in dramatic fashion in this year's draft.
Blockbuster trades are made often, but a higher percentage than normal were made over the past few years. Because so many of those trades involved future considerations, it's only now that many of those ramifications are rolling over. The Knicks surrendered this first-round pick and the right to swap 2016 first-round picks as part of their massive package for Anthony. The Magic received their 2014 first-round pick (the least favorable of the Nuggets and Knicks selections), a future 76ers selection and the Lakers' 2017 first-round pick (top-five protected) in the blockbuster four-team Howard deal. The Thunder received Toronto's 2013 first-round pick and a 2014 heavily-protected selection that once belonged to Dallas in the James Harden deal. The Celtics got multiple picks, starting this year, from the Nets for Garnett and Pierce.
When players of this caliber are dealt, multiple draft picks are needed to help improve offers. Teams are willing to give up these kind of assets for top talent, and it makes sense why they would. A collection of first-round picks are almost never going to yield a player as good as Anthony, Dwight Howard or even James Harden. On the other hand, teams forced to trade a superstar are almost always beginning a rebuilding process. In that case, having multiple picks gives them more chances to replenish their talent pool.
Plain ol' bad planning
Of course, the draft wouldn't be the draft without a few teams making poor decisions that are only now costing them. There are a lot of those this year.
Sacramento foolishly dealt then-promising forward Omri Casspi and a draft pick to acquire J.J. Hickson, who didn't even last a full season before being released. The only thing saving them is that they've never been good enough to circumvent the lottery pick protection. Philadelphia sent Miami a protected first-round pick in Doug Collins' last year because they had to have Arnett Moultrie, who has barely gotten off the bench. Luckily, the 76ers have immediately become so bad that they will keep their pick.
Charlotte felt they needed reinforcements for a chase at a low playoff seed in 2010, so it traded a future pick for the enigmatic Tyrus Thomas, then compounded the problem by giving him a five-year extension. Minnesota needed to attach a future pick to convince Phoenix to take a former top-five draft bust in Wesley Johnson. Detroit used the cap space it gained in the deal that attached a draft pick to Ben Gordon's contract on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.
As long as the draft exists, there will be bad decisions. This year is no exception.