Once upon a time, two and three years ago, the NBA’s wealthiest coastal powers doubled as the league’s boldest teams—the franchises that would likely go all in with a flush draw.
The Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round picks and a trade option for Anthony Davis. The Clippers traded Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five firsts and two swaps for Paul George. And the Nets traded Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, three firsts, four swaps, and a partridge in a pear tree for James Harden.
The similarities between those blockbusters were clear, their overarching message was clear: All three teams were rich in veteran stars signed in free agency, so who needed the concept to slowly build from within? The Lakers were able to win a title in their first season with LeBron James, Davis and their role players.
The 2022-23 outdoor season has reversed that dynamic, with small teams taking the initiative. On Thursday, the Cavaliers completed a stealth trade for Donovan Mitchell, trading three first-round picks and two swaps for the disgruntled Jazz star. That followed in July the Timberwolves all-in move for Mitchell’s former teammate Rudy Gobert, who followed the Hawks all-in move for Dejounte Murray in June.
Not so long ago, Los Angeles and New York were operating as the NBA’s boldest, no-cost star fighters. Now Cleveland and Minnesota fill that role. Who needs an oceanfront beach when the Great Lakes are nearby?
This new development represents just the latest step in the evolution of superstar transactions in the NBA. Until recently, trading returns for an All-Star were usually built around another prominent player plus a few picks, rather than half a decade of draft picks. In 2004, Houston traded for Tracy McGrady and gave up Steve Francis and two other players, but no choice. That same year, the Heat took Shaquille O’Neal in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and just one first-rounder. In 2007, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett while surrendering Al Jefferson, other young players, and two firsts (including one they returned to Minnesota).
Even during most of the 2010s, this was the norm for blockbuster deals. On his way to the Clippers Chris Paul – after some interference from Commissioner David Stern – got several players, but only one first. Ditto Kyrie Irving to Boston. Toronto’s package for Kawhi Leonard included multiple players, but only one protected pick.
But then Leonard helped his new team win the title in his only season in Toronto, and a combination of LeBron, Davis, Rich Paul and Klutch Sports pushed Davis to LA at all costs. After the summer of 2019, the league had a new standard for building a star return. Sure, young players like Ingram or Gilgeous-Alexander were important to make a deal, but the bigger draw was the amount of often unprotected choices that stretched far into the future, giving a non-glamorous team like the Pelicans and Thunder countless opportunities. got to count on lottery luck to find another star.
With this setup, the gap between attractive free agent destinations and perceived second-tier markets seemed to widen. The Lakers could afford to sacrifice any opportunity to bolster their roster with youth. But the Thunder would never sign a free agency star, it was thought (let alone extend George after trading for him), so they had to rely on the design to build another contender.
“What you see OKC doing is how most teams are supposed to do business these days if they are realistic about how to build a team,” a GM told ESPN in 2020, shortly after the Lakers won a title with Davis. A team vice president added, “There’s an inequality in access to elite players — and it’s growing.”
But less than two full years later, that prediction no longer appears to be true. While All-NBA mainstays can still force their way into glamor markets towards the end of their contracts, small-market teams also have access to elite players in trades –if they are willing to accept an uncertain future like their big-market counterparts, but without the same geographic advantages to accelerate a possible rebuild.
The key link connecting the Lakers, Clippers and Nets deals to the more recent Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Hawks moves is another transaction by a small-market franchise. In 2020, the Bucks sent three first-round picks (two their own and one from the Pacers) plus two swaps to New Orleans in exchange for Jrue Holiday.
Unlike the Lakers, Clippers and Nets, the Bucks had developed their core internally: Giannis Antetokounmpo, in the draft, and Khris Middleton, through an early career. But just as the Lakers — who most notably missed the playoffs in LeBron’s first injury-ridden season in LA — needed Davis to take the next step toward the title fight, the Bucks also needed another star, and Holiday gave them the secondary creator and top defender they were looking for. In the pivotal game of the NBA Finals the following summer, with a 2-2 draw and the Bucks one point ahead, Holiday stripped Devin Booker and lobbed a triumphant alleyway to Giannis on the other side. Milwaukee won the title, and the prospect of losing future design ability was irrevocably and emphatically worth it.
It now seems that other small market teams are mimicking the Bucks model, using the concept to build a core and then a risky trade to add the final piece. The Hawks fielded Trae Young and paired him with Murray, who should be a perfect addition to the backcourt. The Timberwolves thought not. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards could score with anyone, so they bolstered their defense with Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. And the Cavaliers fielded Darius Garland and Evan Mobley plus traded for Allen, giving them a solid defensive core (fifth in defensive rating last season), but a weak offense (20th). Enter Mitchell, whose dynamic offensive abilities but porous perimeter defenses make him ideal for that roster.
None of the three was cheap: Atlanta, Minnesota and Cleveland have been left with no choice for years now. That means they can no longer build through the draft; it also makes any additional upgrades more challenging as they run out of choices to share. (They can always try to swap the new star if the situation falls apart, like the Nets did with Harden, but that’s not an easy pivot.)
So, all three deals are huge gambles, especially since this summer’s buyers aren’t even close to the real Finals battle yet. Giannis was already an MVP and the Bucks were already the best regular-season team in the East before they traded for Holiday. In contrast, Towns has only made two third teams for Minnesota, Young has only made a third team for Atlanta, and no one in the Cleveland core has even one roster. And instead of winning a no. 1 seed last season, all three teams established themselves in the mid-league play-in range.
Cleveland’s hopes are clear for Mitchell, who is celebrating his 26th birthday next week and has three years left on his contract, to grow alongside Allen (24), Garland (22) and Mobley (21). If Mobley turns into Cleveland’s version of Giannis, it will certainly be nice to have Mitchell already on the list when he does. Not the Cavaliers need to win a title right after their trade, as the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Celtics did with Holiday, Davis, Leonard and Garnett respectively. They can grow round by round and still be happy with their progress, especially in an Eastern Conference that looks absolutely loaded at the top.
Moreover, if the Cavaliers’ core grows and sticks together for years to come, the unprotected guitar picks they sent to Utah wouldn’t be as valuable; the pelicans probably won’t get any valuable harvests from their vacation as long as Giannis stays healthy. That’s an unknown either way – historically, picks traded many years in advance have been randomly scattered throughout the first round.
But the resulting competitive landscape looks mighty odd, considering where the alleged haves and have-nots sat just a summer or two ago. This chart shows the teams with the most and least future value in terms of first-round draft assets, based on analysis of Pro Sports Transactions data. For convenience, we’ve made unprotected picks worth two points, and protected picks and swap options, each worth one. (Any team not shown is within two points of neutral.)
Future Draft Pick Value Winners and Losers
Even the top of this list shows how the trade has evolved over the past two years: The Jazz take the top spot because most of the Thunder’s future stock is protected, while nearly every pick Utah has acquired in the trade from Gobert and Mitchell isn’t. . And that figure doesn’t even include Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji, two 2022 first-rounders who were traded as part of the deals for Gobert and Mitchell, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Lakers and Clippers have already lost many of the picks they agreed to in the Davis and George trades, so they no longer have the bare-bones design boards. Now the teams are at the bottom of the small market buyers, with the Cavaliers at the back.
In perhaps the most symbolically resonating comparison of all, Cleveland takes the bottom spot, while the Knicks actually have a . to have positive design balance going forward, thanks in large part to their design night deals in June. For months, Mitchell seemed headed for New York, where he grew up; the Knicks seemed like the ideal example of a franchise that, like the Lakers, could comfortably sacrifice design prowess for a star.
Mitchell is a Cavalier though, as a wider variety of teams have decided that taking more win-now risk is the right way to build a championship contender. The gamble won’t be worth it for most of them; it cannot, by definition, be in a zero-sum competition. But the market is set and the path is paved for the teams that want to try it.