Trades are a massive part of professional sports, and the NBA is no exception. It’s common to see a team get involved in at least one trade every season, and a handful may make multiple trades for different reasons. Teams may make a trade to improve their current standings, prepare for the future, or shed salary and avoid luxury tax penalties. However, a series of questions may be asked: “Can NBA teams trade on draft day, or should they wait until the Free Agent moratorium period?”
How NBA Draft Trade Works?
Trade in the NBA means one player changes teams through a swap of assets or other players. Teams can only trade future draft selections for up to seven years. Similarly, the Stepien rule states that NBA teams cannot trade away first-round picks in two consecutive drafts. For instance, an NBA team won’t be allowed to sell their 2024 and 2025 first-round draft selections.
That said, there are always exceptions to this rule, and NBA front offices can circumvent the Stepien rule. A straightforward way is to pre-arrange a deal that would technically be considered a draft pick by a particular team and then trade whoever they pick to another ball club.
For example, the Los Angeles Clippers essentially traded their No. 25 pick to the Knicks, even though they are technically required to have that pick. After all, they didn’t have a first-round selection in 2020. Now, the Clippers have a pre-arranged deal with New York to trade their pick, but they are doing so without stepping over the Stepien rule. They officially picked No. 26 first (which was Quentin Grimes) and traded him to New York.
What are the NBA Draft Trade Rules?
NBA Draft trade also has a 2 PM Eastern Time deadline on the day of the draft itself. Therefore, if teams planning to make a draft trade could not cut a deal beforehand, they draft the pre-agreed players and trade their rights. In the same line of thought, if a club is trading for a veteran player, it must first select a player from the draft and then switch the rights instead of swapping the player outright.
When a draft trade has been agreed upon by all parties, this has to be reported to the NBA. Otherwise, it’s the team’s responsibility to announce their deal if it’s completed after the draft day.
Another NBA Draft trade rule is pick protection, allowing teams to trade their draft picks with strings attached, so to speak. What are pick protections in the NBA? It means a team can keep their traded future draft selection if it falls high enough in the draft.
Hypothetically, let’s say the Lakers traded their future 2025 draft pick with a top 10 protection. Therefore, they would keep the selection if they became a lottery team and somehow ended with a top-10 pick. But if they fall outside the top 10, the pick conveys to the other party.
A recent example of a deal that involved pick protection is the Brooklyn-Philadelphia trade revolving around James Harden and Ben Simmons. The Nets will receive a top-8 protected 2027 pick, which means, the Sixers get to retain the pick if it falls into the agreed range. Anything beyond that, from ninth to 30th, and the selection conveys to Brooklyn.
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Protected picks unsurprisingly have less value than unprotected picks. This is because unprotected selections are guaranteed to be used by the receiving club regardless of where it lands. But ultimately, it all comes down to the talks conducted by both parties. Teams can think outside the box in their negotiations if they abide by the rules.
Can Players be Traded on Draft Day?
The answer to the question is yes. It is actually pretty standard for players– veterans and draft picks– to move around and get traded on Draft Day. After all, NBA Draft Day trades are the quickest way to get in a better position, given the influx of assets. Teams don’t have to wait for the NBA trade deadline in February to make these moves. Future draft selections can be traded much like current players, but the basic rule is that NBA teams are prohibited from dealing away future first-round draft picks in consecutive years.
Why Would a Team Trade Players on Draft Day?
In June 2022, the Philadelphia 76ers made a draft day trade which saved cap space and improved their team, hitting two birds with one stone. They sent Danny Green, who’s making $10 million, along with the draft rights to David Roddy to Memphis for DeAnthony Melton. Roddy was just making over $2 million as a late first-round pick while Melton’s salary is only at $8.6 million. Therefore, Philly cleared around $4 million in cap space, while getting younger and better defensively.
Teams seldom trade away draft picks just to clear roster space, but it could theoretically happen. More often than not, NBA clubs sign their projects to an Exhibit 10 or two-way contracts or waive players on non-guaranteed deals.
Top 10 Biggest NBA Draft Day Trades in History
NBA Draft Day trades are some of the craziest you’ll ever come across, primarily because they change the team’s course, for better or worse. Some of these trades take NBA franchises back several years in development, while some give a needed jolt to rebuilding efforts. Either way, it pays to look at the biggest NBA draft day trades in history.
1. Luka Doncic and Trae Young
The jury is still out in this trade, but Doncic appears to have the upper hand in terms of individual accolades. On the 2018 Draft Day, the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks essentially traded spots, with the Mavs moving up to third while the Hawks going down fifth. The Mavs also gave the Hawks a protected draft 2019 first-round pick, which became Cam Reddish.
2. Kobe Bryant and Vlade Divac
You probably heard the backstory by now. The great Jerry West, the Lakers GM at the time, was so enamored by Kobe Bryant that he had to get him by any means. Since Los Angeles didn’t have a draft pick, they traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte in a pre-arranged deal so the Hornets could pick Kobe for them. Bryant supposedly helped by telling teams he would only play for the Purple and Gold. These draft day machinations eventually led to five championships for the Lakers and a legendary 20-year career for Kobe Bryant.
3. Dirk Nowitzki and Robert Traylor
Definitely one of the most lopsided NBA draft day trades in history, the Mavs got a Hall of Famer for a solid but overweight center in 1998. Dallas even absorbed another player, Pat Garrity, for letting go of “The Tractor.” Nowitzki was drafted by Milwaukee as the ninth overall selection and was immediately shipped to Dallas, along with Garrity, for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. Traylor played six years and died of a heart attack in 2011, while Nowitzki won a championship and an MVP for the city.
4. Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to the Celtics in one Swoop
Red Auerbach was a genius, and the 1980 Draft Day trade was one of his masterpieces. He had the first and 13th picks, but he solved one roster issue by trading both to acquire Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick. He then used it to select Kevin McHale, completing the nucleus of three championship teams in the 80s. A little history lesson here: Red drafted Larry Bird in 1978, although Bird returned to Indiana State in 1979 before playing for Boston.
5. Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway
Shaq and Penny may have been so good while the partnership lasted, but what if the Magic did not trade C-Webb in 1993? In hindsight, it’s easy to speculate, but the three future first-rounds the Warriors attached to it were too much to pass up. Those three picks became Todd Fuller, Mike Miller, and this guy at No. 6.
6. Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison
The Warriors selected Vince Carter as the No. 5 overall pick in the 1998 Draft and traded him to the Raptors for Antawn Jamison. And as a side note, the two were teammates at UNC. Jamison was a terrific player and one of the early successful stretch 4s, but Carter and his high-flying artistry put Toronto on the basketball map. On top of that, VC led Raptors to their first playoff campaign in 2000.
7. Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz
Following the footsteps of Red Auerbach, Danny Ainge pulled off one of the biggest draft day heists in 2017 by trading down to No. 3 and acquiring another first-round pick in the process. That future pick turned out to be Romeo Langford, which isn’t much, but their 2017 acquisition Jayson Tatum is already All-NBA caliber. Fultz was good in his own right, but an odd injury set him back years of development.
8. Kawhi Leonard and George Hill
The Spurs are one of those franchises with a natural eye for talent, and they did it again with the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard on Draft Day. They had to give up George Hill, a guy they really liked to get the Klaw on board, but I’m pretty sure the two championship runs were worth it.
9. Scottie Pippen and Olden Polynice
Speaking of championships, the 1987 Draft Day trade between the Sonics and the Bulls netted Chicago six titles and basketball immortality. Scottie Pippen was the perfect sidekick Michael Jordan needed, while Olden Polynice carved out a solid but unspectacular 17-season career. I guess championships win every time, huh?
10. Bill Russell to the Celtics
There was no known reason why the St. Louis Hawks traded Bill Russell to the Celtics. One rumor was the racial climate in St. Louis, which was also everywhere in the U.S. at the time, especially in Boston. Again, Red Auerbach took the risk, and it paid handsomely for the Celtics. Russell got them 11 titles in 13 seasons and became the NBA’s greatest winner.
Wrapping Things Up: Can NBA Teams Trade on Draft Day?
The NBA Draft happens every year in June to help teams load up on talent or help them achieve their goals, whether fortification, re-tooling, or rebuilding. However, despite such high hopes, draft selection is often a hit or miss.
Another question also surfaces: Since the NBA Draft happens before the free agency moratorium in July, can NBA teams trade on Draft Day? Yes, they absolutely can. The only rule is that teams are not allowed to trade two consecutive first-round picks, according to the Stepien rule. However, there are always exceptions or loopholes that NBA clubs exploit. Whatever the case, NBA teams may swap players between Draft Day and the deadline sometime in February.
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