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How Valuable is the 2021 Miami Pick?

The Sixers have Miami’s unprotected first in 2021. How valuable is that?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I asked Twitter for some fake Sixers trades for an article that I planned to work on, but ultimately scrapped. But one thing that exercise taught me is that people have a lot of different ways of thinking about the 2021 Miami first round pick that the Sixers have. I’ve seen people think that the pick plus Markelle Fultz can be the basis of a Kemba Walker deal, and I’ve seen some of the deals that Eric Sidewater mentioned a few weeks ago in his Liberty Ballers piece having that pick as worth guys like Otto Porter (in a package with Fultz and Wilson Chandler) all the way down to Kelly Olynyk. That’s a wide range of guys, and it got me wondering about how valuable this pick really is.

So, let’s talk about that.

A lot of factors go into determining how valuable a future unprotected first round pick really is. One key one is how good/bad the team the pick belongs to is. Those Nets picks from the Celtics/Nets deal turned out so good because Brooklyn’s plan to build a team of old guys and win a title with them went up in flames quickly and completely, but Miami isn’t a bad team right now.

You’ve also got to look at how valuable unprotected firsts, or even barely-protected firsts, have been in trades historically (and by historically, I mean in very recent history, because talking about the wild days where you could get a first round pick for some random center who’d wind up playing 25 games before getting benched are over), and at what the trade market even looks like right now.

Are the Miami Heat going to be bad in 2020-2021?

A really tough thing to predict, though I think I’m lower on the Heat than a lot of people.

Here’s the cap sheet for the Heat, per Basketball-Reference:

That wouldn’t look so bad, except the green represents player options. James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk are opting into those player options because they’re unlikely to get as much on the open market. So that puts the Heat’s currently committed salary for that season at $64,695,343, with another $5,115,492 in a player option for Bam Adebayo that would very likely be on the books too, because with Hassan Whiteside expiring before that season, Adebayo provides a good, low-cost option at center.

The salary cap is likely to be at $118 million for that season, and that gives the Heat a lot of cap space, which is bad for wanting that pick to be valuable.

It’s not quite so easy, though, to say the Heat pick is in danger of not being great, because Miami, a desirable free agency destination, will have cap space, and because you also have to look at the cap hell they’ll be in the year before, where they’re already committed to $133 million. Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson picking up their player options would be a smart financial decision for them, while Goran Dragic’s player option is an interesting conundrum, because he’ll be in his mid-30s and it’s hard to know what his value on the open market is. It would be a good time to opt out and go after one last long-term deal, but there’s still a lot of time between now and then for Dragic to decline some as a player and end up in a situation where he takes the player option because it’s the best thing for him.

That leaves Miami needing to go all-in on free agency during the Summer of 2020, and with about $48 million in cap space they can make a splash signing that gets them back into contention in the East and makes that draft pick far less valuable than it could be. That would mean the pick right now would be far more valuable than it would be heading into the 2021 NBA Draft if it’s going to be a non-lottery pick.

But Miami could also strike out on signing a big name player in a free agency class that’s extremely top-heavy, and then they’re in a bad position, a probable lottery team. In that case, the pick becomes more valuable in the future than it is right now.

So, where’s this leave us? I...don’t really know. Miami has too many possible outcomes at this point for us to use their future as the deciding factor in how valuable this pick could be, so let’s move on to looking at the recent history of unprotected firsts.

A brief history of trading unprotected first-round picks

This is the boring part unless you are a fan of very nerdy NBA transaction things. I’ve listed the unprotected firsts traded since 2011. Picks are only included if they were unprotected in the original deal or the first year of protection was such that it would be likely to convey as unprotected the second year (so a pick traded with lottery or top-10 protection counts, but a pick with top-three protection doesn’t because of the increased likelihood that pick conveys in the first year. Yes, I chose this all arbitrarily.)

  • 2021 Miami Pick - originally traded to Phoenix along with Danny Granger and a 2017 first for Goran Dragic and Zoran Dragic, then traded to Philadelphia along with Zhaire Smith for Mikal Bridges.
  • 2019 Kings Pick - originally protected top-10 in 2018 and then unprotected this year, this pick was traded to the Sixers along with a 2017 pick swap, Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, and Jason Thompson. The Kings got Arturas Gudaitis, Luke Mitrovic, and the worse of the 2017 picks. This pick was later traded again, with top-one protection, by the Sixers along with a 2017 first (Jayson Tatum) for a 2017 first (Markelle Fultz).
  • 2014/2016/2018 Nets Picks - traded, along with a pick swap in 2017, to the Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, D.J. White, and a 2017 second round pick.
  • 2018 Nets Pick - this one was traded by the Celtics a few years down the line to Cleveland, with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a future second going for Kyrie Irving.
  • 2017 76ers Pick - alright, let’s parse this one. This pick was originally sent during the Dwight Howard deal, with protections, to Orlando, but in 2014, the 76ers got it back, as an unprotected first, along with Dario Saric for Elfrid Payton. So, Saric and an unprotected pick was essentially worth Payton.
  • 2014 Knicks Pick - Part of that Nuggets/Knicks trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, this pick was sent to Denver along with Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Kostas Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, Eddy Curry, two seconds, and a first round pick swap for Melo, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams, and Corey Brewer. (I’m tired from typing that all.)
  • 2012 Minnesota pick - The Clippers pick, with top-10 protection in 2011 and no protection in 2012, along with Sam Cassell, were traded for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers. This happened back in 2005, so it doesn’t count for our analysis, but that pick was then included in a 2011 trade, after the protection expired. The deal was either this pick or the Clippers pick (whichever was better) along with Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and Al-Farouq Aminu to New Orleans for Chris Paul and a pair of second-round picks.
  • 2011 Clippers pick - Clippers trade this pick and Baron Davis for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. The pick became Kyrie Irving.
  • 2011 Nets pick - Nets acquired Deron Williams for the unprotected 2011 pick, a protected first rounder, Devin Harris, and Derrick Favors.
  • 2011 Raptors pick - Raptors traded this with protection to the Heat, who later traded it back without protections along with a lottery protected first for Chris Bosh.

The Types of Pick Trades

That’s a lot of raw data to sort through, but we can break it down in a different way — how many times did a “star” player end up in a deal that involved an unprotected first round pick, and what were the circumstances. Here are those players: Pierce, Garnett, Irving, Anthony, Paul, Williams, and Bosh. It’s worth noting, though, that these guys were players who, for various reasons, were going to be traded. The unprotected first round pick helped to push along the deal, but none of these teams said wow, that unprotected first round pick is going to make us send you a star in his prime who we weren’t thinking about trading.

So, that’s one kind of deal — stars who are either past their prime or were already expected to be dealt, with the pick being a good chip to help make the deal. So, the Sixers could be looking for disgruntled stars or guys near the end of their contracts who weren’t expected to re-sign with their current teams, but I’m not really sure that’s a great market right now. Guys who could be considered star players and are free agents this summer include Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and Kemba Walker, but all of those are guys whose current teams will want to retain them. Khris Middleton is an upcoming free agent, but the Bucks are making a push this year and aren’t trading him. Maybe the Clippers deal Tobias Harris, but at that point we’re looking less at a “star player” and more at a “very good player.”

Another version is using an unprotected first during the draft to trade up. This is how the Sixers got their current pick in the first place, trading Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and the pick. They traded down from 10 to 16 in this case.

The Kings pick, with top-one protection, was sent, along with the third pick in the 2017 draft, for the first overall pick. And then another Sixers related deal in the same vein was when the Sixers got Saric and an unprotected first for Elfrid Payton. In this case, the 10th pick was worth the 12th pick and a future first.

All three of those deals involved the Sixers, who’ve shown themselves to be a team willing to trade both up and down. They’ve done it through multiple regimes. They could definitely use the pick to trade up, but one big issue with that is that the Sixers are good, and won’t have a great pick to package with it. If Philadelphia has the 25th pick, how far can they trade up?

There are the salary dump deals, like when the Clippers traded an unprotected pick to get rid of Baron Davis. The Sixers don’t have any players who they really need to get rid of in that way, though...unless you count Markelle Fultz, who is owed $9,745,200 next season.

Through all of this, it seems that using the pick to move on from Fultz and acquire a decent piece in return might be the best option. But you also don’t want to take on salary in this situation and jeopardize cap space heading into this upcoming summer.

OK, so what is the value of this pick?

At this point? Not too much. It’s a good sweetener if something unexpected comes up on the trade market, or if a team expresses interest in Fultz, but it might actually be a good idea to hold onto it and see what the trade market looks like next year. If the Sixers strike out in the free agency market this year, having the pick in their back pocket to use if next year’s “upcoming free agents who want to be moved” market looks better is a good option.

There’s one other situation that I haven’t addressed, but might be worth discussing here at the end of this: the Jimmy Butler trade market. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the Sixers should trade Butler. This complicates a lot of things, because Butler is too good to be dealt with that pick, so the Sixers would likely want to wait and see how things work out with a Butler deal before even worrying about dealing the Miami pick.

;tldr of this whole thing: The value of an unprotected future first isn’t nearly as good as a lot of people would like it to be. How those picks have been dealt in the recent past, and the situation that the Sixers are currently in, makes it tough to find a workable deal for the pick at this point based on the current market.

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