The New Orleans Pelicans won Friday's Western Conference play-in game, but the Los Angeles Clippers weren't the only loser. In the grand scheme of things, another team had far more on the line. After all, a No. 8 seed probably wasn't going to launch the Clippers into a championship run with Kawhi Leonard injured and Paul George in the NBA's health and safety protocols. The stakes were much higher for the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Feb. 8, they traded C.J. McCollum and Larry Nance to the Pelicans for a package headlined by New Orleans' 2022 first-round pick. The Pelicans had already traded that pick to the Hornets for Devonte' Graham, but it was protected 1-14. That meant the Blazers would get it if it landed between No. 5 and No. 14. At 22-32, that range seemed like a lock for the Pelicans. Either they would miss the play-in round entirely or they would sneak into the top 10 only to be shellacked by a superior opponent (which, at the time, looked like it would be the suddenly healthy Lakers, who we'll get to a bit later).
McCollum eventually wound up turning their season around in a move that was emblematic of the ingenuity executive David Griffin employed to not only save his team's season, but perhaps his job. By protecting the pick in the manner that he did, Griffin effectively managed to trade it twice: once for Graham, and then again for McCollum. One of the two teams he was trading with, therefore, was going to get a fictional pick.
Had the pick landed between No. 5 and No. 14, the Hornets wouldn't have gotten a first-round pick at all. The Pelicans would have conveyed two second-rounders for Graham and called it a day. Portland will be slightly more fortunate by landing a first-rounder, but instead of the lottery selection they were hoping for, they will instead receive Milwaukee's 2025 selection. With Giannis Antetokounmpo in tow, that pick is probably going to be far lower.
The Memphis Grizzlies won't even be that lucky. They sent the Pelicans Jonas Valanciunas and meaningful cap relief in exchange for a trade-up in last year's NBA draft and the Lakers' first-round pick in this one. Whereas the Blazers lost a first-rounder because the Pelicans were too good, the Grizzlies lost theirs because the Lakers were too bad. New Orleans insisted on a top-10 protection for the pick they sent Memphis. The Grizzlies shrugged. There was no way the Lakers could fall into the lottery, right?
Wrong. Right now, the Lakers are positioned to earn the eighth pick in June's draft. Unless three of the six teams behind them in the lottery manage to jump them, that pick will be conveyed to New Orleans. The Grizzlies will get two second-round picks.
Add all of this up and you get one of the more fortunate scenarios in the history of NBA trading. The Pelicans entered the 2021 offseason with two 2022 first-round picks. They traded those two first-round picks a total of three times. In return, they acquired two of the five starters that eventually got them into the playoffs as well as two key reserves. Without those players, the Pelicans have no chance of reaching the playoffs. Given the rumors surrounding his job security, Griffin easily could have been out of a job as well, and with so much dysfunction within the organization, Zion Williamson's future in New Orleans may have been in doubt as well.
Yet in the end, they only ended up giving up one of those two 2022 picks. The one they're keeping is the one with substantially more value. We should note that Griffin doesn't deserve all of the credit for this. He didn't force the Lakers to torpedo their championship hopes by trading for Russell Westbrook. But he did manage to creatively maximize every asset at his disposal to turn a roster that looked doomed without Zion Williamson into a playoff team, and in the process. All he had to do was hoodwink the Grizzlies and Blazers with fake picks.