The rise of second-round picks: How once-undervalued draft assets are now shaping a new market landscape

New Orleans traded four second-rounders and Devonte’ Graham to San Antonio for Josh Richardson. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

As the minutes ticked away before the NBA’s annual trade deadline last Thursday, team after team landed player after player for second-round pick after second-round pick.

A handful of transactions turned into three-team and four-team deals, but the Los Angeles Clippers did indeed get Bones Hyland from the Denver Nuggets for two second-round picks. The Memphis Grizzlies traded three second-rounders for Clippers guard Luke Kennard. New Orleans traded four second-rounders and Devonte’ Graham to San Antonio for Josh Richardson. And the Hawks essentially sent five second-round picks to Golden State for Saddiq Bey, only for the Warriors to divert that many picks to Portland and meet with Gary Payton II. The list goes on, if you want to search the RealGM transaction log.

In all, 71 second-round picks switched teams from Jan. 1 until the buzzer sounded at 3 p.m. ET on deadline day. Only 29 seconds were dealt during that window in 2022, 32 in 2021, 17 in 2020 and 32 in 2019, which includes conditional picks, plus picks that allow teams to pick between two or three more favorable picks.

Not all second-round picks are the same. Not all first-round picks are the same. But this bona fide arms race to challenge for the championship, all without a clear title favorite, has left the contenders with little capital to trade in the first round, despite greater motivation than ever to improve. The contenders are selling everything but their houses and all their furniture that isn’t bolted to the floor. “You can’t trade first-round picks if you don’t have first-round picks to trade,” said an Eastern Conference research staffer. The Lakers and Bucks emptied the closets to New Orleans to sign Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, respectively. The Thunder control the Rockets’ picks, Houston controls the Nets’ picks and Brooklyn now controls the Suns’ picks after trading Kevin Durant for four unprotected first-round picks from 2023-29. “Any time there is an imbalance in the market, there are going to be some wild trades,” a team capitalization strategist told Yahoo Sports.

There were also few players available before this year’s deadline that executives rated worthy of their prized remaining firsts. And for those who were available, their starting teams expected more. The Pistons wanted an unprotected first-rounder and then some, sources told Yahoo Sports, to get rid of 34-year-old sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic. The Mavericks, and then the Nets, sources said, turned down offers from multiple second-round picks for Dorian Finney-Smith. The Chicago Bulls told several interested teams that they could also get more than two first-round picks for Alex Caruso.

But when the current rate for superstars like Durant, perennial All-Stars like Donovan Mitchell and fringe All-Stars like Dejounte Murray has been a minimum of three unprotected first-rounders, you can understand why certain front offices would be shy about send out a first-round pick for a fifth starter in February. “A lot of teams have those picks to bet on stars,” the capitalization strategist told Yahoo Sports.

Milwaukee already did that for Holiday and still felt the need to improve for another championship shot this June. The Bucks coveted Jae Crowder so much that Milwaukee sent two seconds to Brooklyn for his services and then attached a second round to George Hill, Serge Ibaka and Jordan Nwora to dump their salaries on the Indiana Pacers. That’s a total of five second-round picks to add to Crowder’s quest for a second title behind Giannis Antetokounmpo.

There doesn’t seem to be any direct assessment of how many second-rounders equal one first-rounder, absent a team that has a first-rounder willing to trade. Again, not all second rounders are the same. Picks between the numbers 31 and 45 often give teams the opportunity to land players rated by their front office as first-round talent, especially when that range now produces players who are willing to sign two-way deals, which don’t count. against a cap bill from the tax-conscious contender. The term “false second” caught on when teams traded top-55 protected second-round picks, which only broadcast if that team has a top-five record in the league and the chance of landing an NBA player. in the last picks. it’s pretty minimal.

But we have two clear examples of second-round pick inflation. Over the past decade, when teams traded a protected first-round pick, it was standard practice for that pick to revert to a pair of second-round picks if it never aired. At this deadline, New York traded their 2023 first-round protected top-14 finisher to Portland in their deal that scored Josh Hart. That pick will almost certainly fall out of the lottery, as the Knicks are vying for a playoff spot and are currently slated for the No. 22 pick in June. And if it doesn’t air, the draft principal owed to the Trail Blazers will become a staggering four second-round picks instead of just two.

In 2021, as Orlando went on a rebuild and sold its veterans, the Magic couldn’t find a first-rounder in trade for Evan Fournier and settled for two second-rounders from Boston. That current conversion rate has clearly increased, seemingly doubling on certain offers. The Wizards got the second-round ball rolling this year in mid-January by taking back three seconds from Los Angeles for Rui Hachimura after originally seeking a first-rounder for his former No. 9 overall pick. that will determine the market, but this is a copycat league,” said an Eastern Conference executive. Several rival teams saw the cost of absorbing Graham’s contract from New Orleans, with two more years at more than $12 million remaining, as a first-round pick, but the Pelicans were able to get Richardson for the price of four second-round picks. round. instead. The Lakers reclaimed three second-round picks for reserve center Thomas Bryant, then sent one of those picks along with Patrick Beverley to Orlando for Mo Bamba.

These are actually the quarters of the NBA asset fund. “Second-round picks are the currency,” an assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports. This deadline, four and sometimes five equaled a dollar, and the deal was done. Additional second rounds can also be used on draft night to advance to that valuable 31-45 number range, and two or three seconds can often be doled out for a late first-round pick once teams are on the clock. But some franchise owners also look at their selection in the 1940s and decide they’d rather sell it for cash.

We’ll learn more about this trend on draft night. Last June, the Knicks sent a 2023 first-round pick, plus four second-round picks to Charlotte, to help bring Jalen Duren to Detroit and allow the Pistons to absorb unwanted Knicks salary and help the free agency efforts from New York. Tinkers in the league seem to keep getting more creative. And second-round picks have helped lubricate more and more deals amid this NBA-wide postseason chase.

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