Ira Winderman: Should Heat, NBA be wary of pick packaging? And how much is too much? (Blame it on Herschel Walker)

·4 min read

The notion of “trading a draft” dates back to a moment either of infamy or genius on Oct. 12, 1989, depending on where the focus of the deal rests.

And, no, for all the NBA’s wheeling and dealing, including Danny Ainge’s fleecing of the Brooklyn Nets for four first-round picks with the Boston Celtics’ trade of aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on June 28, 2013, that hardly stands as sports’ “trading the draft” moment.

Instead, flash back to the NFL almost 33 years ago.

That’s when Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones maneuvered the Dallas Cowboys to arguably the most prolific package of draft picks in U.S. sports history.

So off went Herschel Walker (pre-politics) to the Minnesota Vikings.

In return? Eight Vikings draft picks, including three first-round picks and three second-round picks.

The ultimate haul from those picks (through selections and trades) is one even the most neophyte of football fans can appreciate: Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Alonzo Highsmith, Kevin Smith, Darren Woodson.

In the wake of the trade? Three Super Bowl championships for the Cowboys; zero Super Bowl appearances for the Vikings.

So why reference a football trade in an NBA space?

Because while no sports deal might ever match what ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary called “The Great Trade Robbery,” pooling picks has become the rage in the NBA, particularly during this latest round of NBA free agency.

Just ahead of the start of free agency, the Atlanta Hawks dealt three first-rounders and a first-round pick swap in the deal with the San Antonio Spurs for Dejounte Murray.

Then, Friday, came the blockbuster that had the Minnesota Timberwolves sending four first-round picks and a first-round pick swap in their package to the Utah Jazz for Rudy Gobert.

And before all of that – though still relevant today in light of James Harden’s current free agency with the Philadelphia 76ers – there was the Brooklyn Nets’ January 2021 acquisition of Harden from the Houston Rockets at the cost of three first-round picks and four first-round swaps (basically involving every Nets first-round pick from 2021 to 2027).

It is why, as Kevin Durant attempts to work his way out of Brooklyn via trade, the Nets have set the bar of at least three first-round picks, plus the requisite first-round swaps. (The Miami Heat currently are positioned to offer two, plus pick swaps.)

Whether any of those trades yield anything close to the Cowboys’ payoff from the Walker trade is highly unlikely, although only time will tell.

But it is a sign of more teams willing to live in the moment, an approach the Heat and Pat Riley have taken for years with first-round picks, including when they were doled out en masse (and perhaps over-exuberance) back in 2010 simply to get LeBron James and Chris Bosh under longer-term contracts.

The NBA had attempted to limit such largesse with the adoption of the Stepien Rule, named after Ted Stepien, the then-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who at one point in the ‘80s traded away five consecutive first-round picks, picks that, for other teams, turned into James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Detlef Schrempf, among others.

Under the Stepien Rule’s provisions, teams no longer are allowed to trade successive future first-round picks.

The rule: “No Member may sell its rights to select a player in the first round of any NBA Draft for cash or its equivalent, or trade or exchange its right to select a player in the first round of any NBA Draft if the result of such trade or exchange may be to leave the Member without first-round picks in any two consecutive future NBA Drafts.”

But just as coaches find loopholes in game rules, executives have done the same with the ever-popular pick swaps. The maneuver guarantees the acquiring team of the pick swap the better draft position between the teams in the designated year. So trade away a pick one year, engineer a pick swap the next, and keep alternating, as the Rockets did with the Nets in the 2021 Harden trade.

Based on the trend, NBA drafts soon could wind up with half the league’s teams as spectators, another case of have and have nots.

With the Stepien Rule, the NBA tried to protect teams’ futures.

With the latest round of trades, teams are telling the NBA there remains plenty to be said about living in the moment.

If only Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones and Herschel Walker knew what they had started.