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Possible Trade Down Scenarios for the Spurs

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The Spurs don’t typically make deals during the draft, but if they are looking to trade down, there might be a few takers.

2020 NBA Draft Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With just over a month to go before the 2021 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs’ front office is no doubt exploring all possible options. One of those options is to trade down with a team looking to move up in the draft. I should note that I am not advocating for the Spurs to trade down — I think the Spurs should stand pat and draft best player available — but there are certain circumstances that might warrant it.

The Spurs’ motivation for trading down

Every team in the NBA has their own personal draft board with grades on each player in the draft. The vast majority of the time, the Spurs will wait patiently for their turn to make a selection and will draft the best player remaining on their board. I expect the same thing to happen again this year.

However, it’s possible the draft goes in a few ways that tempt the Spurs to consider trading down. One scenario is that there are a few players still available at 12 who are high on their board but they feel they can grab at least one later on in the draft. The second scenario is that all the players high on their draft board are taken by 12 and the Spurs would rather take a couple swings later in the draft as opposed to a single swing at 12th. Then there’s always those “godfather” offers that pop up from time to time that the Spurs wouldn’t be able to resist regardless of how their board is shaping up.

NBA Draft pick value chart

The NFL has a draft pick value chart that is used by NFL teams. While not as widely accepted as the NFL chart, people in NBA circles have developed similar charts for the NBA draft. One such chart comes from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and is based on historical performance from players drafted in these positions. His chart has not been updated since 2018, but it should still provide a good indication as to how teams value their draft picks when being offered trades.

Recent draft day trades

Below are some recent draft day trades that might be comparable to what the Spurs would be looking to do:

  • 2020 draft: New York Knicks acquire the 23rd pick from the Utah Jazz in exchange for the 27th pick and the 38th pick.
  • 2018 draft: Phoenix Suns acquire the 10th pick from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the 16th pick and an unprotected 2021 first round pick (via Miami Heat) from the Suns.
  • 2017 draft: Portland Trail Blazers acquire the 10th pick from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for the 15th and 20th picks from the Blazers.
  • 2017 draft: Utah Jazz acquire the 13th pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for the 24th pick and Trey Lyles from the Jazz.
  • 2016 draft: Kings acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic, the 13th pick, and 28th pick from the Suns in exchange for the 8th pick from the Kings.
  • 2015 draft: Washington Wizards acquire the 15th pick from the Hawks in exchange for the 19th pick and two future second round picks from the Wizards.
  • 2014 draft: The Bulls acquire Anthony Randolph and the 11th pick from the Nuggets in exchange for the 16th and 19th picks from the Bulls.

In almost every significant draft day trade over the past several years, the team moving up has overpaid, with the one main exception being the Jazz’s robbing of the Nuggets in the 2017 draft. The Jazz were able to move up 11 spots in the draft by including a decent-but-not-great Trey Lyles and ended up drafting Donovan Mitchell 13th overall.

Based on the draft pick value chart provided above, the team moving up typically overpays by an average of roughly 35 percent. The closer to the top of the draft the team is moving up to, the more the team has to overpay. The good news for the Spurs is that it almost always takes two first round picks for a team outside the lottery to move up into the mid-to-late lottery.

Potential draft day trade partners

Even if the draft goes in a way that causes the Spurs to consider trading down, it takes two to tango. Luckily, there are a couple teams drafting later in the first who might make sense as a trading partner if the opportunity presents itself.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are in an interesting position this offseason. They are coming off a relatively surprising playoff berth, have the 19th, 21st, 32nd, and 58th pick in the 2021 NBA draft, and depending on what they decide to do with their own impending free agents, could be alongside the Spurs as one of the teams with the most available cap space.

There’s been a lot of buzz the past week or so that the Knicks aren’t looking to use all four of their draft picks next month. That said, the Knicks still have a number of options. They could simply trade one of these draft picks to a team for a player that fits within their available cap space. Doing so would not require them to send any players back in the trade. I actually think this is the most likely outcome, especially given that Tom Thibodeau is their head coach, and he’s notorious for preferring NBA veterans over younger players.

The more interesting scenario if you’re a Spurs fan is the Knicks deciding to package their 19th and 21st picks in order to move up into the lottery. Marc Berman of the New York Post mentioned that the Knicks are interested in moving up in the draft and have been focusing in on a few players who are expected to go in the lottery. This is probably just the front office doing their due diligence, but it does make a lot of sense given the team’s trajectory.

The range the Knicks are expected to be able to target with their two first rounders is 12th-13th, which sounds about right. Given the draft pick value chart above, the 19th pick and 21st pick are worth a total of 2310 points and the Spurs’ 12th pick is worth 1650 points. That’s a 40 percent overpay, which aligns pretty will with the overpay that teams usually have to spend in order to move up into this range.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have what feels like an endless stream of draft picks over the next six years or so. In this year’s draft alone they own the 6th, 16th, 18th, 34th, 36th, and 55th picks. It seems hard to believe that the Thunder would be looking to make all of these picks, so cashing them in for established players, trading them for future picks, or combining them to move up in the draft seems more likely. For the purpose of this article we will focus on the scenario where the Thunder decide to package some of these picks in order to move up in the draft.

Trading the 16th and 18th pick to the Spurs for the 12th pick seems to be a bit rich given that the Knicks’ 19th and 21st picks was right in the sweet spot based on recent trade history. Those two picks are valued at 2610 points, which is closer to a 60 percent overpay. A likelier trade would be the 16th, 34th, and 36th for the Spurs’ 12th pick since it’s less of an overpay and the Thunder would probably be more willing to move a couple second round picks instead of another first rounder.

Of course this would leave the Spurs with the 34th, 36th, and 41st overall picks. They could, in theory, make all of these picks and hope they hit on at least one of them. The other approach would be to contact a few of the teams at the very end of the first round and see if they are willing to trade down. There are actually a few teams who might be interested for various reasons. The first reason is that most of these teams are contending teams with high salaries and might be looking to shed the salary guaranteed to first round picks. The second reason is several teams - Los Angeles Lakers at 22, Los Angeles Clippers at 25, Denver Nuggets at 26, Phoenix Suns at 29, Utah Jazz at 30, and the Milwaukee Bucks at 31 - each only have a single draft pick in the upcoming draft. Any one of those teams might be willing to trade their pick for some collection of the Spurs’ early second round picks.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets have the 2nd, 23rd, and 24th picks in the upcoming draft. I don’t believe the 23rd and 24th picks alone would convince the Spurs to move out of the 12th spot, but the Rockets have a plethora of future picks they could potentially include in any such deal. They could also include a player like Danuel House Jr. instead of draft compensation. This one doesn’t seem as plausible but you never know.

Final thoughts

Trading down is not my preferred route for the Spurs, although the Thunder trade does intrigue me somewhat if the Spurs believe somebody like Kai Jones will still be available at 16 and they are able to trade back into the first round using their multiple second round picks.

In my next article, I will explore some possible trade up scenarios, given the Spurs’ assets and the needs and rumors coming from teams drafting ahead of the Spurs.