- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
WHEN THE ATLANTA HAWKS traded three future first-round picks — including two unprotected — and an unprotected pick swap to the San Antonio Spurs for Dejounte Murray, a lot of observers compared the deal to the Milwaukee Bucks forking over three first-round picks for Jrue Holiday in 2020.
Murray, the thinking went, was the missing piece around Trae Young, just as Holiday had been Milwaukee’s final building block.
But the better comparison was probably the first big Holiday trade — a landmark 2013 deal that kickstarted what became known as “The Process” in Philadelphia. Holiday was then a 23-year-old one-time All-Star on a middling Sixers team; Murray is a 25-year-old one-time All-Star coming from a middling team.
Philadelphia traded Holiday in 2013 to a New Orleans Pelicans team desperate to win, and with the goal of tanking to the top of the draft. San Antonio traded Murray to an Atlanta team under enormous pressure from ownership to win — and with the goal of increasing its chances at Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson.
In 2013, the Sixers received two first-round picks for Holiday: the No. 6 pick in that draft (Nerlens Noel), and a top-five-protected pick in the next draft. Atlanta flung away much more for Murray, with fewer protections.
That first Holiday deal was overshadowed by another watershed trade the same night: the Brooklyn Nets trading three future first-round picks — including unprotected picks three and five years away — and one unprotected swap to the Boston Celtics for (among others) Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Age and injury undid the Nets. Two of the unprotected picks became Jaylen Brown (No. 3 in 2016) and Markelle Fultz (No. 1 in 2017, a pick the Celtics flipped for the third pick — Jayson Tatum.)
The damage was so severe, several front-office executives said they never expected to see another trade featuring three or more future unprotected or lightly protected picks going from one team to another. The league in 2017 even considered a rule that would have banned a team from trading swap rights in between seasons in which it owed its first-round picks outright, sources say. It never got far off the ground.
FOR THE NEXT few seasons, teams operated with some caution. When the salary cap stagnated, rookie-scale salaries became more coveted. When new television revenue flooded the league in 2016, those salaries did not rise as quickly as the cap — making first-round picks even more valuable. Cheap rookie-scale contracts offered some buffer against a harshened luxury tax.
The caution has long since dissipated, leaving executives wondering whether teams are now undervaluing first-round picks or finally valuing them correctly relative to proven talent — and leaving the Nets potentially facing their second deep rebuild in 10 years.
“Future planning is passe, apparently,” one high-level front-office executive quipped.
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