I can't imagine that readers outside of Oklahoma City have spared too many thoughts on rookie guard Tre Mann. He's had a fairly standard rookie season, as No. 18 overall picks go. For every flash of potential, there are several of the 3-for-11 nights and rookie defensive mistakes that tend to populate debut seasons. Mann has played impressive basketball since Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went down with an injury. He may end up becoming a consistently valuable NBA player and he may not. His legacy doesn't have to hinge on it. Mann was selected with a first-round pick that is going to inform trades for years to come.
That pick, No. 18 overall, originally belonged to the Miami Heat. That it landed outside of the lottery was somewhat disappointing. The Heat, after all, originally traded it all the way back in 2015 to the Suns. The idea was to pair Goran Dragic with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both of whom have now long since retired, for an immediate championship push. In theory, an unprotected pick owned by the post-Wade and Bosh Heat should have come in the middle of a rebuild and wound up in the top 10. We all know how the story actually played out. The Heat reloaded on the fly. The pick Phoenix originally traded for grew significantly less valuable when the time actually came for it to convey.
This fear scares teams away from trading for first-round picks several years in the future, yet because of the Stepien Rule and years of all-in trading, they represent an inordinately high percentage of available draft picks at the 2022 deadline. The Los Angeles Lakers have dangled a 2027 pick to just about every seller in the league. Nobody's biting. Brooklyn has a 2028 pick at its disposal and a supporting cast that could really use an overhaul regardless of what happens with James Harden. The Jazz have two conditional first-round picks to offer, one in 2026 and another in 2028, yet the overwhelming consensus as the deadline approaches is that they lack the ammunition to seriously upgrade their perimeter defense. What exactly these picks are being offered for, we can't say, but if the league was as interested in them as it probably should be, they'd likely be featured far more prominently in the rumor mill.
There are a number of possible explanations for that, some more satisfying than others. General managers with limited job security are afraid to trade for assets they won't be around to use. The sort of teams that trade those picks also tend to be the sort of teams that can rely on either incumbent star power or the size and appeal of their markets to prevent those picks from ever becoming especially valuable. Heavy enough protections can ruin those picks altogether. Remember, teams are free to trade picks only up to seven years in the future. Well, if a team trades a pick six years out with lottery protections, it only takes two bad seasons to turn a once tantalizing asset into a second-round consolation prize. The overall theme here is a limited tolerance for risk. Orlando once lost a valuable future first-rounder from the Lakers because of protection issues stemming from that seven-year restriction. Miami's 2021 pick wasn't as impactful as the NBA believed it would be. Nothing scares the NBA more than uncertainty.
But with uncertainty comes opportunity. The obvious form that opportunity takes is in trades like the infamous 2013 blockbuster between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. Yes, sometimes, uncertainty leads to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. But the truth is that the uncertainty inherent to the value of these deep future picks actually creates a different kind of certainty, one rooted in perception. To understand how, you need only trace the journey of that 2021 Heat pick.
After all, the Suns didn't actually make it. The pick was traded three more times after Phoenix landed it. The Suns gave it to Philadelphia on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft in a move that netted them Mikal Bridges. At this point, the Heat were coming off of a first-round playoff exit and saddled with a number of bad contracts. Everything was proceeding according to plan. Less than a year later, the 76ers sent the pick to the Clippers. By then, the Heat were below .500 with the same decaying roster. The pick retained its originally enormous value. Less than a year after that, it was dealt for the last time, this time to Oklahoma City, but by trade No. 3, Jimmy Butler had signed with the Heat. Their prospects looked significantly brighter, and the pick settled into the late first-round territory where it ultimately fell.
The 2021 Heat pick didn't end up being as valuable as it looked in 2015… but it was owed for over six years. For a significant chunk of that time, other teams thought it would be valuable, and when it comes to draft picks in the trade market, perception is reality. Philadelphia was able to pry Tobias Harris away from the Clippers because the Clippers believed they were getting a premium pick back from the 76ers in the process. Now let's apply this principle to other teams.
Only two teams have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons: Portland and Boston. Everyone else has been in the lottery at least once, and as such, the perception of their future wasn't always especially bright. The Heat are one of the NBA's model organizations and even they weren't immune. Pessimism doesn't even have to stem from losing. The New Orleans Pelicans bet Jrue Holiday on the idea that the Bucks would either lose Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency or decline due to some other unforeseen force when they acquired three of their first-round picks in the 2020 offseason. Few NBA teams can actually sustain winning for six or seven uninterrupted years, but even fewer can sustain the perception of winning for that long.
Take the Lakers as an example. Teams might, somewhat justifiably, worry that merely being the Lakers will ensure the arrival of another superstar. History would support that notion. But it certainly didn't look like that was the case before LeBron James arrived. The Lakers struck out on Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015. In 2016 their cap space held so little value that they had to use it on Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. At that moment, their future didn't look especially bright.
Their immediate future doesn't look all that bright from today either. James will be 42 and presumably out of basketball when that 2027 first-round pick conveys. Anthony Davis will be at least two years removed from the expiration of his current contract. The Lakers are already out at least two first-round picks, and in such a deal they'd be giving up a third. Oh, and it's unclear who exactly is running the team. Teams should probably be pretty eager to bet against shadow GM Kurt Rambis.
Brooklyn's future is similarly precarious. The Nets don't control any of their first-round picks until 2028. It's unclear who exactly will be on their team after the trade deadline, but those who remain don't seem all that happy to be there. Kevin Durant will be nearing his 40th birthday when that 2028 pick arrives. Utah has Donovan Mitchell, but he's been a rumored flight risk for years. The five other highest-paid players on that roster will be in their 30's by opening night of next season.
Any of these teams could theoretically be good by the time their picks convey. Utah has Mitchell for now and could keep him. Brooklyn has built without picks before. LeBron's arrival suggests that no degree of organizational dysfunction can keep stars away from the Lakers. But at some point between now and when those picks arrive, there will be an opportunity to trade them again for significant value. Of course, if the acquiring teams are so inclined, they can play the same Powerball that Boston did and hope to come away with Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum.
Therein lies the true benefit of these picks. Your worst case scenario is Tre Mann, and if you're afraid to draft Tre Mann, then why is a later pick in an early draft preferable? The further away a pick is, the greater its upside… but unless the protections are rigged in such a way that it might never convey, the only true downside is the wait. Trades can cut those waits short. There's no telling how available these picks truly are at the deadline, at least in unprotected form, but any team that has a chance to get one should think long and hard about the journey that 2021 Heat pick took. No matter where it ended up, its value was undeniable along the way.