2023 NBA trade deadline: How the Stepien Rule dictates what first-round picks teams can and can’t move

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If you feel like the NBA has gone a bit overboard when it comes to trading draft picks recently, well, you probably have a point. last offseason, I ranked every first-round pick that belonged to a team besides its original owner. At the time, there were 47 of them. The Donovan Mitchell trade pushed the total past 50, and with the 2023 NBA trade deadline coming up, that number is probably only going to get bigger.

Over a given seven-year period (the maximum allowable period for trading draft picks), there are a total of 210 first-round picks available. You might see the number 50 and assume that means there are at least 160 up for grabs, but it’s not quite that simple. Most of those Picks have multi-year protections, meaning one deal pick could prevent a team from trading a first-rounder for several years.

This is further complicated by the Stepien Rule, which states that a team must have at least one first-round pick in every other draft moving forward. That pick doesn’t have to be their own, but they have to be guaranteed a pick from somewhere in every other draft. Combine those two factors and trading first-rounders suddenly gets pretty difficult for certain teams. So with the trade deadline coming, let’s go through all 30 teams and break down who can trade which picks.

Not at all encumbered

The following nine teams do not owe a single first-round pick. They are free to trade their draft picks however they see fit.

Minimally encumbered

The following seven teams each owe one first-round pick, and can therefore trade other picks fairly comfortably.

  • Boston Celtics: The Celtics sent the Pacers their 2023 first-round pick for Malcolm Brogdon that is protected 1-12, but the Celtics have the best record in the NBA, so that pick will almost certainly convey, and even if it doesn’t , it converts into second-round picks, so no future first-rounders are encumbered.
  • Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks owe the Knicks their 2023 first-round pick as the final piece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and while it is protected 1-10 for the next three drafts, Dallas is currently in position to make the playoffs, so that pick will likely convey this season. That should give Dallas flexibility to trade multiple Picks using next allowable language, but in all likelihood, the Mavericks are going to wait until this offseason to make a move. Assuming they send the Knicks their pick in 2023, they’ll be able to offer their entire complement of first-round picks, four selections and three swaps, to another team for a star to pair with Luka Doncic.
  • Golden State Warriors: The Warriors owe the Grizzlies their 2024 first-round pick protected 1-4 thanks to the Andre Iguodala trade. It becomes unprotected in 2025, so technically the Warriors can’t move a pick until 2027, but even that scenario gives them two tradable first-rounders.
  • Houston Rockets: The Rockets technically have first-round picks in every season, but it needs to be pointed out that those picks aren’t always their own. Their 2024 and 2026 Picks are bound for Oklahoma City as part of the Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook trade, but they have Picks coming from Brooklyn in those drafts because of the James Harden blockbuster. Their 2025 pick is going to Oklahoma City as well thanks to swap rights, but they’ll wind up with Brooklyn’s pick in that draft as well. So technically, the Rockets are not at all encumbered by the Stepien Rule, but it’s just worth pointing out that they needed Picks from other teams to get there.
  • Miami Heat: The Heat owe their lottery-protected 2025 first-round pick to the Thunder thanks to a cap dump made in the 2019 offseason. That pick becomes unprotected in 2026, meaning the Heat technically can’t trade a pick until 2028 (aside from their 2023 selection), but it should be noted that the Heat and Thunder have already negotiated new Protections on this pick once. If the Heat needed to get access to their 2027 first-rounder for a trade, they’d likely be able to convince the Thunder to make the pick they still owe unprotected in 2025.
  • Sacramento Kings: The Kings owed their top-12 protected 2024 pick to Atlanta as part of the Kevin Huerter trade. That pick currently has Protections that last through 2026, but if the Kings need access to their 2027 pick, Atlanta would likely be happy to remove the Protections on Sacramento’s choice in 2025. Who doesn’t want an unprotected Kings pick?
  • Utah Jazz: Utah’s situation is fairly similar to Houston’s. The Jazz owe a top-10 protected pick in 2024 to the Thunder thanks to a 2021 cap dump, and the Protections are that pick could last until 2026. That prevents them from trading their own pick in any of those seasons, but otherwise, the typical Stepien restrictions don’t apply because Utah has Picks from other teams. Utah has three 2023 picks to trade along with extra picks in 2025 and 2027, so only 2024 through 2026 are affected by the pick they owe the Thunder.

Meaningfully encumbered

The following six teams either owe multiple Picks or owe a single pick with Complicated enough Protections to make dealing Picks elsewhere fairly difficult.

  • Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks traded three picks to San Antonio for Dejounte Murray, but one of them originally belonged to Charlotte. That makes their Outlook fairly simple: the Hawks can trade their unprotected Picks in 2023 and 2029. Their 2025 and 2027 Picks are earmarked for San Antonio, as is their 2026 selection thanks to swap rights.
  • Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets only owe a single first-round pick, their lottery-protected choice this season. It’s going to San Antonio through multiple trades that date back to their move up for Kai Jones in 2021. However, that pick is Lottery protected from now until 2025. Do you expect the Hornets to make the Playoffs before then? The Hornets are locked out of trading Picks until 2027 unless they remove Protections on that outgoing pick, which they’d be foolish to do.
  • Detroit Pistons: The Pistons owe only a single pick, but it’s one of the most complicated outgoing selections in the NBA. Their 2023 pick belongs to New York, but is protected 1-18. That same protection lasts into 2024 before Lightening to 1-13 in 2025, 1-11 in 2026 and 1-9 in 2027. Predicting when that pick ultimately conveys is almost impossible, but for now, it means the Pistons can trade only their 2029 choice. If they wanted to chop off the last few years of protections, though, they could do so pretty easily. The Pistons probably aren’t picking in the Lottery in 2026 or 2027.
  • Los Angeles Lakers: Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the Lakers, they’re actually only down a single first-round pick at the moment (aside from the swap rights they owe New Orleans in 2023 thanks to the Anthony Davis trade). The problem is that draft pick’s unique language. The Lakers owe the Pelicans their 2024 pick, but the Pelicans have the right to defer that pick until 2025. That means that the Lakers can’t trade a pick until 2027, which is where the commonly discussed trade package built around Picks in 2027 and 2029 comes from.
  • Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers owe just one pick, their lottery-protected 2023 selection to the Bulls, but that Lottery protection lasts until 2027. Their 2029 choice is their only tradable first-rounder, and considering their recent struggles, it probably isn’ t worth removing those Protections for a win-now move.
  • Washington Wizards: The Wizards only owe a single pick, but it’s a doozy. Dating all the way back to the John Wall for Russell Westbrook swap, Washington owes its 2023 pick to the Knicks. That pick is protected 1-14 this season, 1-12 in 2024, 1-10 in 2025 and 1-8 in 2026. The Wizards can’t risk removing the Protections on that pick for flexibility considering how poorly they’ve played over the past few seasons, so for the time being, all Picks prior to 2028 are off limits.

Significantly encumbered

The following eight teams owe several Picks and would therefore have a very difficult time trading first-rounders at the deadline.

  • Brooklyn Nets: Houston owns Brooklyn’s first-round picks through 2027 thanks to the James Harden trade. That means that their only tradable picks are their own 2029 selection and the top-eight-protected pick Philadelphia owes them from the second Harden deal, which will convey two years after Philadelphia’s obligation to Oklahoma City is met.
  • Chicago Bulls: There may have been Whispers about Chicago going in the tank this season, but with its recent resurgence, its top-four protected 2023 pick is now almost certainly going to Orlando to complete the Nikola Vucevic trade. That would allow them to send their 2025 pick to San Antonio for DeMar DeRozan, but there’s a catch. That pick is protected 1-10 in the first year that it is owed and 1-8 in the next two. That means the only pick Chicago can definitely trade is in 2029. Given the aging Bulls roster, it’s hard to envision them removing Protections on that pick for the sake of a win-now trade.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers cannot trade a single first-round pick. They owe Indiana their pick this season thanks to the Caris LeVert deal at last year’s deadline, and 2025, 2027 and 2029 (along with a few swaps along the way) are headed to Utah for Donovan Mitchell.
  • Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets owe their Picks in 2023 (Charlotte), 2025 (Orlando) and 2027 (Oklahoma City), but they still can’t trade their 2029 pick because Protections are that Charlotte pick last two years, which could, in turn , move the Picks owed to Orlando and Oklahoma City back as far as 2029. If any team should feel comfortable removing protections, though, it should be the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic never gets injured, so their immediate future is secure.
  • Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers owe all of their picks to the Thunder through 2026 thanks to the Paul George trade, so the earliest pick they could move would be 2028.
  • Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee’s unprotected 2023 pick is headed to Houston as the final piece of the PJ Tucker trade, and their 2025 (New York) and 2027 (New Orleans) picks are gone thanks to the Jrue Holiday deal. The Bucks can trade their 2029 first-rounder.
  • Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves can’t trade a single first-round pick. Their picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029 are all going to Utah thanks to the Rudy Gobert trade.
  • Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers owe their Picks in 2023 (to either Brooklyn or Utah) and 2027 (to Brooklyn) thanks to last February’s Harden deal, and their 2025 pick goes to Oklahoma City thanks to their Al Horford for Danny Green swap in 2020. Protections on those picks could last until 2029, so the 76ers can’t move a single first-round pick.

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