The 2022 NBA offseason has seen three All-Star caliber players moved through trade for hauls built around unprotected first-round picks. The cost of doing business has become established, but unprotected picks weren’t always the superstar currency.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers' acquisition of Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz for three unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps, the price to land a transformative player has become firmly established. To land a game changer, you need to send out picks, and they better be unprotected.
Earlier in the summer, Rudy Gobert netted the Jazz three unprotected first-round picks and a top-five protected first from the Timberwolves, and Dejounte Murray cost the Hawks two unprotected first-round picks and one first-round pick swap, plus another protected first-round pick.
Players accompanied the picks to their new teams, but their presence was largely to make salaries work. In the 2020s, if an All-Star is traded, the return is built around unprotected draft picks, but that wasn’t always the case, and it was the Houston Rockets trade of James Harden that has become the blueprint for the modern superstar trade.
The reaction to the James Harden trade
As Bill Watterson, the great Calvin and Hobbs cartoonist, once said, “Genius is never understood in its own time.” And in the moment, the James Harden trade was a stroke of paradigm-shifting genius that was misunderstood by pundits.
The trade, which included the Cavaliers and Pacers, saw the Rockets land three unprotected first-round picks and four pick swaps, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, and Victor Oladipo. Kurucs and Oladipo were traded before the season finished, and Exum never played a second for the Rockets.
Bill Simmons, perhaps the most famous sports podcaster in the world, said of the trade, “What they got back from the Harden trade was historically, comically, unfathomably bad.”
Change is scary, and the James Harden trade was an incredibly novel superstar trade. First-round picks have long been the trade currency of the NBA, but young up-and-coming players were the prized trade commodity. The Rockets, reportedly, had plenty of offers for Harden that featured a young All-Star or All-Star caliber player but instead opted to go for the draft jugular instead of a current NBA building block.
The negative reaction to the trade in many corners made sense. The Rockets had done something so incredibly different and alien that it seemed impossible for it to succeed. Yet, there was a method to their madness, and the rest of the league took notice.
It hasn’t even been two years since the James Harden trade, and its fingerprints are everywhere. Unprotected picks and swaps in abundance are a necessity, not a perk, and promising young players don’t have the appeal they once did.