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The 2024 NBA offseason will always be remembered as the summer of the second apron. This one rule change scared the Los Angeles Clippers enough to let Paul George walk away for free. It played a significant role in the breakup of Golden State's legendary trio of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. It even compelled LeBron James to take his first sub-max salary since 2014. No one is safe. The entire NBA is reorienting itself around this single rule.

Or, more accurately, the league is reorienting itself around the dozen or so rules that flow out of it. Second-apron teams face restrictions on the trade market (can't aggregate salary, can't take back more money than they send out) and in free agency (no mid-level exceptions, no buyout players whose former salary was above the non-taxpayer mid-level exception). 

They even face restrictions if their own, internally developed players, get too expensive. Once you finish a season as a second-apron team, your first-round pick seven years into the future is "frozen." It can no longer be traded. If you finish above the second apron in more than one of the next four seasons afterward, that pick drops to No. 30 overall. Even if you stay below the second apron long enough, you still lock that pick out of trades for four years. These rules apply no matter how you get to the second apron. Even if it's just by re-signing your own players, you face all of these roster-building limitations.

The common refrain has been that these rules will enforce parity with an iron fist. Even if you can build a championship-caliber team, you won't be able to keep it together for more than a few years before the second apron breaks it up. This is going to be true of some of the teams built largely before the apron rules changed and are contending right now. Minnesota and Boston, for instance, are currently primed for two-year all-in runs before they have to duck the line again or else see their draft picks drop. Both teams have taken steps to set themselves up for the future, but, inevitably, they will both also endure significant losses. Teams paying multiple in-their-prime stars right now have mostly sealed their fates. They are all on the clock.

But some of the NBA's better younger teams, who are watching all of this unfold before their cap sheets bloat, have been able to plan ahead a bit more effectively, and two of those teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, have attempted to do so in the same way. While we are still years, perhaps even a decade, from seeing this plan unfold, they are currently laying the first attempted blueprint for sustaining success in the era of the second apron.

The Thunder are a bit further ahead on their winning timeline, but the basic principles apply to both teams. They both have a player they expect to compete for MVPs for a long time (Victor Wembanyama for the Spurs, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the Thunder). Oklahoma City has two other young stars in Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams. The Spurs are still looking for the core pieces who will support Wembanyama, but have plenty of options in players like Devin Vassell, Stephon Castle, Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson. Both have added veterans this offseason, but on short-term deals: Alex Caruso and Chris Paul have one year remaining on their contracts, Isaiah Hartenstein signed for only two guaranteed years and Harrison Barnes has two years left on a deal he originally signed in Sacramento. Both teams have deep stocks of future draft picks from other teams, but that was true well before the new CBA was signed. What has changed since the CBA changed, though, are the kinds of picks the Thunder and Spurs are targeting.

Since the beginning of the 2023 offseason, which was the first transaction cycle to follow the ratification of the CBA, the Thunder and Spurs have traded for five combined first-round pick swaps from other teams. In total, there are 20 first-round picks in the next seven drafts that currently are currently owed out via swap rights (with some being swapped more than once, but that's not especially relevant here). Of those 20, the Spurs and Thunder and control nine. In other words, 45% of all picks owed through swap rights right now belong to those two teams. The majority of Oklahoma City's picks are on the board soon. Their swaps come in 2025, 2026 and 2028. The majority of San Antonio's swaps come later, starting in 2026, jumping to 2028 from there and ending with two in 2030 and one more in 2031. These timelines make sense considering their slightly different windows. The Thunder are going for titles here and now. The Spurs are still a few years away. The Thunder, twice in the past year, have traded picks owed to them outright from other teams in exchange for swaps from other teams. One last note to keep in mind here: Oklahoma City's front office is essentially a northern offshoot of San Antonio's. Sam Presti grew up in the Spurs organization and has taken plenty of San Antonio alums with him. It's not surprising that they have drawn similar conclusions addressing a shared problem.

So, why are the Spurs and Thunder so intentionally targeting pick swaps? There are three good reasons for it:

  • The simplest reason is that the Spurs and Thunder both expect to be very good for a long time. Therefore, their own picks shouldn't be too high, so even if the other team is reasonably competitive as well, there's still potential value in, say, jumping from No. 28 to No. 24. As you do not have to exercise swap rights, there is also no downside to trading for them. They're there if you want them but can be avoided if you don't.
  • The second reason is that teams tend to be a bit more open to trading unprotected or lightly protected swap rights than they are with outright picks. Of those nine swaps owed to the Thunder and Spurs, five are unprotected, and two more are top-10 protected. None of them are protected beyond top 10.
  • The third and most important reason is that swap rights are not inhibited by the Stepien Rule, which prevents teams from being without first-round picks in consecutive seasons. This is why you almost always see trades in which a team gives up several first-round picks structured in such a way that all of those picks convey in either even-numbered or odd-numbered years. Say, for example, you wanted to trade four first-round picks for a player this season. Your only path to doing so without using picks that originally belonged to other teams would be trading picks in 2025, 2027, 2029 and 2031, because you'd need picks in 2026, 2028 and 2030 to abide by the Stepien Rule. Therefore, most teams are far more flexible in trading away swaps. Those swaps can also come from teams that have already traded away a lot of picks, and will therefore have less room to improve between now and when those swaps arise. The Thunder, for instance, have two more swaps coming from the Clippers, who do not control their own first-round pick again until 2030. The Spurs have a 2030 swap with Minnesota that does not convey until all of their obligations from the Rudy Gobert trade have been met. Basically, swaps allow you to strategically target vulnerable teams.

So this is why swaps, in particular, are valuable in trades. But what does all of this have to do with the second apron? 

Well, think about where the Thunder will be in 2028, when the last of their swaps they currently own will come their way. At that point, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be entering his age-30 season and will presumably be on a super-max contract. Williams and Holmgren will be in their mid-20s on what we can only assume will be max rookie extensions, if not Rose Rule max extensions. All of their current, cheap rookie deals, including those belonging to key prospects like Cason Wallace and Nikola Topic, will have expired. The entire current team will be earning market-rate.

The final swap coming to the Spurs, at present, is in 2031. At that point, Wembanyama will be going into his age-28 season and presumably on a much more expensive contract. All of the rookie deals his current teammates are playing under will also have been replaced by market-rate deals. In other words? The Spurs and Thunder both have swaps coming right in the heart of their primes of their respective cores. At that point, keeping all of their talent together will not be financially feasible under the rules dictated by the second apron. These are the moments in which the Thunder and Spurs will need young, cheap talent the most. That's where these picks come in.

Think about where the Mavericks might be in 2028. Kyrie Irving will be 36, and Luka Doncic's current contract will have expired. Could he be on a new one? Absolutely. That's probably the likeliest outcome. But there is real downside risk for Dallas at that point that Oklahoma City can capitalize on. The same is true for San Antonio in 2031. Maybe the Kings are a good team seven years from now. However, they've missed the playoffs in 17 of the past 18 seasons, so they're a historically safe team to bet against. De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis will both be in their mid-30s. DeMar DeRozan will likely be retired.

And if both of those teams are good when the swaps come up? They can live with that because they've accumulated so many of them. They might not all hit. But if one does? It can change everything. In 1997, the Grizzlies traded a 2003 first-round pick to the Pistons for Otis Thorpe. When that pick came on the clock six years later, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were available. All it takes to extend a window for another decade is one such outcome. 

The Spurs know this well. In 2011, their 61-win No. 1 seed got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were both in their mid-30s. The dynasty looked like it might be over. And then they traded George Hill for the pick that became Kawhi Leonard and they managed to squeeze another six years of contention out of that core. San Antonio might still be contending with Leonard today if he hadn't forced a trade. The right pick can turn a loser into a winner... but it can also turn a winner into a champion and a dynasty into something approaching an eternity.

Again, the Spurs and Thunder both control plenty of outright picks from other teams as well. Their draft portfolios aren't limited to swaps. But everything is built around upside here. The Spurs and Thunder, frankly, won't have the roster spots to continuously bring in several new rookies each year as they are contending, and even if they did, they wouldn't have the minutes to develop them. It means much more to them to consolidate their draft assets into a more manageable number of high-upside selections. Swaps are one path to doing so. The ultimate goal will be for the Spurs and Thunder to find high-level starters to replace core players as they have to get rid of them. If we want to go even further down the rabbit hole, they might even be able to turn those expensive core players into more future draft picks, which could then be used to continue the cycle in perpetuity. But we're getting ahead of ourselves at this point. The more attainable ideal will be ensuring that Wembanyama and Gilgeous-Alexander are always surrounded by talent that their teams can actually afford to keep in a world in which few other teams have such sustainable ways of replenishing their supporting casts.

Now, you might be wondering how relevant all of this is to the rest of the league. It's not as though everyone has a Wembanyama or a Gilgeous-Alexander. It's also not like other teams all have the cap space to extract picks from financially desperate teams or even the deep base of picks the Thunder and Spurs started with from trading veterans from their last contention cycles. But really think about how many teams have gone all-in over the last handful of seasons, and how many more teams are set to benefit.

What if the Jazz or Nets, both of whom have traded away multiple All-Stars in the last two years, draft their own versions of Wembanyama or Gilgeous-Alexander in the near future? Both have the draft capital and runway to execute similar visions if they so choose. What if a team that is currently winning decides it needs to rebuild in a year and trade away a star or two? Could they proactively work towards this sort of sustainable path?

The truth is... we don't know yet. We have to see how all of this plays out in practice for the Thunder and Spurs, and you can bet teams like the Jazz and Nets and others we aren't even thinking about yet are watching them very closely, because the summer of 2024 has shown us just how daunting the second apron can be. The Thunder and Spurs are the first teams with a real and potentially replicable plan to beat it, and if they actually do, well, that's going to be the standard moving forward.

After all, think about where all of the rule changes from the 2023 CBA came from. They were more or less a response to the Golden State Warriors dynasty. Cap smoothing was instituted to prevent teams like them from signing free agents like Kevin Durant. Repeater tax penalties increased to prevent teams from keeping expensive cores together. The second apron was added to prevent them from improving despite those expensive cores. The NBA evolves in the image of its most successful teams. Teams tried to copy the Warriors. The league changed the rules to prevent it.

That's the irony to all of this. These rules changed to inspire parity after a period in which Golden State so often felt inevitable. We've seen six champions in the past six seasons, and we may continue to see new ones as some of the other all-in teams hit their peaks. But eventually, it's entirely possible that we find ourselves back in the same place, but in reverse. Instead of the Warriors winning by going all-in on present star power and a top-heavy budget, the Thunder and Spurs may be creating such enormous advantages through sustainability that they form dynasties that began with giving away older stars to build the draft pick foundations that made all of this possible. The Paul George trade started all of this for Oklahoma City. The Dejounte Murray trade started it for San Antonio. We'd just be transitioning from "all-in" teams winning titles to the "all-out" teams from those same moves getting rewarded on the backend, and with these new parity-focused rules in place, the rest of the field may not have the flexibility to build teams that can challenge them.

If this works for the Thunder and Spurs, the 2030 CBA may be designed to curb teams like them instead of Golden State. Perhaps we'll see significant revisions to the Stepien Rule or even the outright banning of pick swaps. We're still years away from being able to predict future changes, but the Thunder and Spurs have thus far effectively prepared for the ones that are slaughtering everybody else right now. It's only logical to assume that the next set of sweeping reforms will be made to combat the teams that best handled the current ones.