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Does trading up in the NBA Draft pay off?

No one would argue about the idea that the Celtics handily won the trade that landed Ray Allen on draft night in 2007. Jim Davis/Globe Staff file

The secret is out: The Celtics would like to trade up in tonight’s NBA draft. Or, at least, that’s what Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said while talking to reporters on Wednesday.

But is trading up actually a strategy that tends to pay off, or does it blow up in the face of teams trying to roll the dice with a higher pick? In a world where it’s difficult to predict where the long-term impact and value will come from in a draft, are the Celtics more likely to find a franchise-changing player by holding onto their current first-round selections at Nos. 16 and 28, or by trying to build a deal that would vault them into the top 10 picks of the draft?


Put another way: Given that once every blue moon, the draft can turn up a John Stockton (No. 16 pick in 1984) or Tony Parker (No. 28 in 2001), does it make more sense to keep as many picks as possible and hope that quantity yields quality? Or, given that Stockton and Parker stand virtually alone as transformative talents at those spots in the draft, is it worth going for a player who, at least in theory, should represent either greater ceiling or certainty by virtue of his desirability at an earlier stage of the draft?

The NBA has had 30 drafts under the lottery system, which took effect in 1985. In that time, there have been 18 trades that resembled roughly what the Celtics seem to want to do, meaning building a trade package around a pick outside of the top 11 for a year’s draft in exchange for one inside of it.

(Why top 11? Simply to broaden the sample — as there have been three trades involving a team moving up to No. 11, albeit none of enormous impact.)


The mechanisms for constructing those packages have been different — in some instances, teams used multiple picks to get an earlier pick, and in some cases, a combination of picks and players were used to move up.

To measure the impact of the trades,’s Win Shares are used. The stat has its critics, but as a mechanism for gaining a general sense of what kind of overall contribution players made to the teams that acquired them, it has merit.

For instance, when the Celtics traded down by dealing the No. 5 pick (Jeff Green), Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West to Seattle for Ray Allen and the No. 35 pick (Glen Davis), Boston clearly won the trade, receiving 56.1 Win Shares from Allen and Davis, while Green, Szczerbiak, and West combined to deliver 16.2 Win Shares of performance to the Sonics (and, after their move to Oklahoma City, the Thunder). One can quibble with the precise measurement of the impact, but in broad terms, no one would argue about the idea that the Celtics handily won the trade.

So what has happened in such deals? Of the 18 trades involving a move up to the top 11 in the draft, 12 have favored the team that ultimately gave up the earlier pick and moved down in the draft either for multiple picks or for a pick (or picks) and a player (or players). Overall, the teams that moved down received a far greater total yield (442 Win Shares) than the teams that moved up into the top 10 (269 Win Shares).


The most notable instances where a team benefited by sacrificing a top-11 pick:

■ The aforementioned Celtics/Sonics deal involving Ray Allen.

■ In 2001, the Nets sent the No. 7 pick to the Rockets for three later first-round picks. New Jersey used its picks to add Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, and Brandon Armstrong. The Rockets selected Eddie Griffin. Jefferson ended up being one of the keys to a pair of New Jersey runs to the NBA finals, while Griffin, who struggled with alcoholism, was released in his third year with Houston. The Nets received 69.1 Win Shares from the players whom they drafted, while Griffin’s impact with Houston was limited to 6.3 Win Shares.

■ In 1998, in one of the most impactful draft day trades ever, the Bucks packaged their No. 9 and No. 19 picks to move up to No. 6. Milwaukee selected Robert Traylor at No. 6; the Mavericks took Pat Garrity at No. 19, and a decent forward named Dirk Nowitzki at No. 9. The Win Shares tipped slightly in Dallas’ favor, as Nowitzki has been worth 195 Win Shares and counting for Dallas. Traylor delivered 3.5 Win Shares for the Bucks. As for Garrity? He never played a game for Dallas. The Mavs did, however, package him to Phoenix to land Steve Nash (though Nash’s numbers with Dallas aren’t counted in the calculation of the Win Shares imbalance of this trade).


Those deals proved franchise-altering. That said, there have been deals of considerable magnitude where the advantage went in the opposite direction:

■ In 2002, the Nuggets traded into the top 10, sending Antonio McDyess, the No. 25 pick (Frank Williams), and a 2003 second-rounder to the Knicks for the No. 7 pick, Marcus Camby, and Mark Jackson. The No. 7 pick ended up being longtime Nuggets stalwart Nene, who allowed Denver to realize 87 Win Shares from the deal; the Knicks received just 0.8 Win Shares, as McDyess’ career was done virtually from the start due to injuries.

■ In 2001, the Grizzlies packaged Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the No. 27 pick (Jamaal Tinsley) to move up to the No. 3 pick, while also adding Brevin Knight and Lorenzen Wright. The No. 3 pick was used on Pau Gasol, giving the Grizzlies a 71.3 to 23.6 advantage in Win Shares.

So, what’s the takeaway from the history of these deals? Generally, teams seem to do better when maximizing the number of players with a chance to make an impact — meaning that the odds favor the impact of moving down.

This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. After all, a team with a top-11 pick is aware of the players whom it has an opportunity to take when it trades down; their survey of the landscape is enough to convince them that the right move is to part with the pick.

Still, there clearly has been opportunity to make an enormous impact by trading up into a top pick. As such, it’s a strategy that invariably will be employed by teams that are convinced by their decision-makers about the potentially franchise-changing opportunities to move up. Despite the fact that the odds favor trading out of the top 11, the fact that payoff exists in both directions means that teams won’t shy from an attempt to land the next Nene or Gasol.


There is one interesting footnote to these deals: The general managers who make them have to be prepared for the possibility of losing the trade badly. There haven’t really been instances of franchise-altering win-win deals involving moves up into the top 11; there have been trades of negligible impact in both directions, and there have been lopsided deals in which one team received enormous impact and the other team realized something of far less significance.

In making these deals, a team has to be willing to live with the possibility of hearing for years about blowing a trade — with the potential payoff of hearing for years about how one-sided a win they scored in these sorts of draft day transactions.
Should the Celtics trade up?
Here's a look at 18 trades involving a move up to the top 11 in the draft since 1985
Year Pick Acquiring team Acquired from Player drafted Gave up Win Shares (Team that traded up) Win Shares (Team that traded down) Trade "Winner"
2014 10 Orlando Philadelphia Elfrid Payton No. 12 pick (Dario Saric), future first-rounder (2017) 2.3 0.0 Trade Up
2014 11 Chicago Denver Doug McDermott No. 16 pick (Jusuf Nurkic) and No. 19 pick (Gary Harris) 0.0 0.9 Trade Down
2013 9 Utah Minnesota Trey Burke No. 14 pick (Shabazz Muhammad) and No. 21 pick (Gorgui Dieng) 3.3 9.4 Trade Down
2010 11 OKC New Orleans Cole Aldrich No. 18 pick (Eric Bledsoe) and No. 21 pick (Craig Brackins) for No. 11 and Mo Peterson 0.8 3.3 Trade Down
2008 11 Portland Indiana Jerryd Bayless No. 13 pick (Brandon Rush), Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts for No. 11 pick and Ike Diogu 3.0 16.8 Trade Down
2007 5 Seattle Boston Jeff Green Ray Allen and No. 35 pick (Glen Davis) for No. 5 pick (Green), Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West 16.2 56.1 Trade Down
2002 7 Denver New York Nene No. 25 pick (Frank Williams), 2003 2nd-rd pick, and Antonio McDyess for No. 7 pick (Nene), Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson 87.0 0.8 Trade Up
2001 3 Grizzlies Atlanta Pau Gasol Shareef Abdur-Rahim and No. 27 pick (Jamaal Tinsley) for No. 3 pick (Gasol), Brevin Knight, Lorenzen Wright 71.3 23.6 Trade Up
2001 7 Houston New Jersey Eddie Griffin No. 13 pick (Richard Jefferson), No. 18 pick (Jason Collins), No. 23 pick (Brandon Armstrong) 6.3 69.1 Trade Down
2000 9 Rockets Bucks Joel Pryzbilla No. 15 pick (Jason Collier) and future 1st-round pick 0.7 2.5 Trade Down
1998 6 Bucks Mavericks Robert Traylor No. 9 pick (Dirk Nowitzki) and No. 19 pick (Pat Garrity*) 3.5 195.0 Trade Down
1996 10 Pacers Nuggets Erick Dampier No. 23 pick (Efthimios Rentzias), Mark Jackson, Ricky Pierce for No. 10 pick (Dampier), Jalen Rose, Reggie Williams 26.2 4.9 Trade Up
1995 2 Nuggets Clippers Antonio McDyess No. 15 pick (Brent Barry) and Rodney Rogers for No. 2 pick (McDyess) and Randy Woods 24.4 18.8 Trade Up
1995 8 Bucks Blazers Shawn Respert No. 11 pick (Gary Trent) and future 1st-rounder (1997, Paul Grant) 0.4 10.0 Trade Down
1991 8 Nuggets Bullets Mark Macon No. 19 pick (LaBradford Smith), future 2nd rounder (John Best), Michael Adams -0.6 13.9 Trade Down
1990 3 Nuggets Heat Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) No. 9 pick (Willie Burton), No. 15 pick (Dave Jamerson) 22.1 5.9 Trade Up
1990 10 Hawks Warriors Rumeal Robinson No. 11 pick (Tyrone Hill), No. 28 pick (Les Jepsen) for No. 10 pick (Robinson), No. 36 pick (Trevor Wilson), No. 41 pick (Steve Bardo) 1.9 11.4 Trade Down
TOTAL WIN SHARES 268.8 442.4 Trade won by trading down 12 times, by trading up six times
SOURCE: Sources:, Basketball-Reference.comSources


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