While many, including the league itself, focus on tanking broadly as a problem that needs fixing, pick protection also helps explain certain teams’ behavior towards the end of the season. NBA franchises have become much more judicious about sending out first-round picks, so this list is much shorter than usual. That said, there are still some important obligations to watch, and the Lakers’ return to center stage for a very different reason than the past few seasons.
RealGM’s excellent pick protection page is both a critical resource and an excellent foundation for going though the existing protection that could shape the 2017-18 season, listed in order of importance.
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Lakers — First-round pick goes to Celtics if 2-5 (otherwise to the Sixers): Strangely, the most important protected pick in the NBA contains exactly zero stakes for the team owing the selection. After shockingly retaining their pick through top-three protection for three seasons, the Lakers do not have any rights to their 2018 first-rounder.
However, the massive Philadelphia-Boston pre-draft trade means both of those franchises will be watching closely this season. This choice went to Phoenix for Steve Nash, then to Philadelphia in 2015 before being part of the Fultz-Tatum deal on June 19. If the Sixers ends up with this choice, Boston will receive the better of Sacramento and Philadelphia’s first-round selections in 2019.
Heat — Retain their first-rounder if 1-7 (otherwise it goes to the Suns): The biggest “traditional” pick protection is the start of Miami’s obligations to Phoenix from the 2015 Goran Dragic trade. If the Heat have a disappointing season, they can try to fall harder to maximize their chances of retaining this pick and adding another high-level contributor. If Miami retains this choice, the Heat send their unprotected 2018 first-rounder to the Suns, who also have their 2021 first from the same trade.
Timberwolves — Retain their first-rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Hawks): The Timberwolves look like a playoff team this season, making it much more likely this selection ends up with the Hawks. Minnesota sent this pick to Atlanta back in February 2015 for rookie Adreian Payne, who did not even complete his rookie scale contract before getting cut. This pick is lottery protected through 2020, then converts to two second-rounders.
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Raptors — Retain their first-rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Nets): Toronto worked its way under the luxury tax this offseason, and one of the big moves was sending forward DeMarre Carroll to the Nets, with this lottery protected pick making the deal palatable for Brooklyn. This pick is lottery protected through 2023, then converts to two second-rounders.
Thunder — Retain their first-rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Timberwolves via the Jazz): Straight forward lottery protection. The Thunder look like a playoff team after a massively successful summer, so this pick should convey. It was originally sent to Utah as a part of the Enes Kanter deal in 2015, then the Jazz sent it to Minnesota for Ricky Rubio this offseason. This pick is lottery protected until 2020, when it would convert to two second-rounders.
Rockets — Retain their first-rounder if 1-3 (otherwise it goes to the Hawks): This pick is exceedingly likely to convey but actually changed hands twice this offseason. It started as a part of the massive Chris Paul trade and was then the sweetener for the Hawks to take on the remaining money on Jamal Crawford’s contract to facilitate the three-way trade that brought Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers. The pick has top-three protection through 2023, then would be unprotected in 2024.
This season’s swaps and unprotected picks:
Nets — Cleveland has Brooklyn’s first-rounder, originally traded to Boston and then included in the blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade this August.