We’re over a third away into the NBA’s 2020/21 regular season, and while the standings will surely fluctuate significantly between now and the end of the season in May, we’re starting to get a sense of which teams will be competitive and which teams probably won’t be.
As a picture begins to form of which teams will be vying for top seeds in each conference and which might be battling for lottery odds, it’s worth checking in on the traded first-round picks for 2021. Of next year’s 30 first-round selections, as many as 13 could technically change hands, via trades or swaps. This year’s standings will dictate where those picks land and whether or not some of them change hands at all.
With the help of our reverse standings tool, here’s an early look at which of those traded picks are most and least likely to change hands, and which ones are still very much up in the air:
Unprotected picks that will definitely change hands:
- Knicks acquiring Mavericks‘ pick.
- Pelicans acquiring Lakers‘ pick.
There’s no mystery here about whether or not these picks will be conveyed in 2021, since both are unprotected. It looks like the Knicks will make out much better than the Pelicans, given how well the Lakers have played and how much the Mavericks has struggled. As of today, Dallas’ pick projects to fall in the lottery, at No. 13 (depending on play-in results), while L.A.’s first-rounder would be No. 29.
Protected picks that almost certainly won’t change hands:
- Grizzlies acquiring Jazz‘s pick (1-7 and 15-30 protection).
- Rockets acquiring Pistons‘ pick (top-16 protected).
The Jazz currently have the NBA’s best record, while the Pistons hold the league’s second-worst record. That means Utah’s pick will be at the end of the first round (currently No. 30) and comfortably fall within its 15-30 protection, while Detroit’s pick will absolutely be in the lottery (currently No. 2) and won’t be sent to Houston. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which this outlook changes in the coming months.
The Grizzlies can at least count on getting Utah’s first-rounder in 2022, when it will become top-six protected. It may be a while before the Rockets get a pick from Detroit though — that first-rounder remains heavily protected in 2022 (top-16), 2023 (top-18), and 2024 (top-18) before those protections start to loosen a little.
It’s also worth mentioning here that the Knicks have the ability to swap first-round picks with the Clippers this season, but are very unlikely to pass L.A. in the standings and be in position to exercise that option. New York’s first-rounder currently projects to be No. 17, while the Clippers’ would be No. 28.
Still up in the air:
- Warriors acquiring Timberwolves‘ pick (top-three protected).
- Thunder acquiring Warriors‘ pick (top-20 protected).
The Timberwolves have the NBA’s worst record, which theoretically puts them in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 overall pick in 2021. However, the league’s lottery format means that even if Minnesota finishes at the bottom of the NBA standings, there’s still only about a 40% chance they’ll end up in the top three and keep that first-rounder, with a 60% chance of it going to the Warriors. The fate of that pick figures to remain up in the air right up until lottery night.
We have a better chance at getting clarity on the fate of Golden State’s first-rounder before the end of the season, but at the moment, it could still easily go either way. The Warriors’ 15-13 record would give the team the No. 20 overall pick if the season ended today, allowing them to keep their pick rather than sending it to the Thunder. But that could change quickly — there are currently 11 teams within two games of Golden State on either side of the NBA standings.
Analyzing the Rockets/Thunder/Heat/Blazers/Nets situation:
Six teams’ draft picks are tied up in a series of convoluted trades and swaps that are nearly impossible to explain clearly and concisely. Fortunately, one of those teams would have been the Pistons, whose pick will be protected this year, removing them from the equation.
That still leaves five teams in this complex arrangement, however. We did our best in an earlier story to explain how this situation will work. It essentially breaks down like this:
- The Thunder will have the right to swap either their first-round pick or the Heat’s first-round pick for the Rockets‘ first-round pick, but only if Houston’s pick doesn’t fall in the top four. In other words, if Houston gets a top-four pick, the Rockets will keep their own first-rounder; if not, the Thunder will get the two most favorable picks of their own, the Heat’s, and the Rockets’, and Houston will get the least favorable.
- Once the first step is complete, the Rockets will be left with at least one first-round pick, and likely two, since they’re also owed the Trail Blazers‘ first-rounder (top-14 protected). They would then have the right to swap either of those picks with the Nets‘ first-rounder (unprotected).
If the season ended today, the Heat, Thunder, and Rockets would – believe it or not – all be tied in the standings with matching 11-16 records. A tiebreaker would determine where those first-rounders land in the 6-to-9 range (since Atlanta is also at 11-16), then the Thunder would claim the two most favorable picks (no worse than No. 7 and No. 8), while the Rockets would get the least favorable pick (either No. 8 or No. 9).
The Rockets would also receive the Trail Blazers’ first-rounder (either No. 25 or No. 26), and would subsequently swap it with the Nets’ pick (No. 24), leaving Brooklyn with that Portland pick.
I’d expect this situation to continue to evolve significantly over the course of the season, but for now it looks pretty favorable for both the Thunder and the Rockets.