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How do draft night trades actually work?


Free agency starts at noon E.T. today, so you better have Shams, and Woj Twitter notifications turned on. This is a rare occasion trades are possible before the draft starts, but a lot of movement via trade is expected on draft night when Minnesota and Golden State will try to move their no.1 and no.2 picks. Did you ever wonder what those 5 minutes when teams are on the clock actually looks like?

We covered one of the greatest draft-night trades ever last week but didn't talk about one of the most interesting things about the process - how does it actually work? As an intro, we turn to "Anatomy of a Deal: Kawhi Leonard for George Hill" by Zach Lowe from 2013. This is an NBA writing classic (R.I.P Grantland), as Lowe revisits one of the rare trades considered a win-win after it had happened. 

In the article, Lowe describes the tension in both draft rooms as the night was developing. Here's the gist of it. San Antonio and Indiana agreed to a trade - George Hill for Indiana's no.15, but only if a certain player falls to no.15 that the Spurs like. The key here - the Pacers didn't know which player (or players) the Spurs wanted. The teams had a George Hill deal the previous year, but when Paul George fell to no.10, Indiana didn't pull the trigger and picked Playoff P.

The Pacers key decision-makers, Morway and Lindsey, knew the Spurs had similar deals in place with teams above them in the draft. But all those teams had someone they liked more than Hill and didn't agree on the trade. The Jazz selected Burks at 12, and the Morris twins went 13 and 14. They were in business. 

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That's when the Spurs dropped an additional ask - alongside no.15, they wanted the rights to Erazem Lorbek, and the no. 42 pick. Indiana thought they could get away with only one but caved and agreed to add both. A deal was made. David Stern walked on stage to say that with the 15th pick, the Indiana Pacers were selecting Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State University.

On the clock

When the Rockets took Marcus Morris at 14, David Stern said: "The Pacers are on the clock." In the next 5 minutes, the teams had a tentative deal in place, but only then all cards were put on the table. The Spurs wanted Kawhi Leonard, rights to Lorbek, and 42. In the next 300 seconds, the Pacers had to decide if they want to keep Leonard, and if not, would they add both Lorbek and no.42 as well.

What happens next is something like a scene from Moneyball - Morway and Lindsey put the Spurs on hold and look at a group of Jonah Hills to tell them if they pull the trigger or not. That's how teams do it: they have dozens of half-made deals in place that are not fully defined - Hill for no.15 if a player is there, but we won't tell you which player. Your scouting and analytics department needs to be ready to answer questions in an instant and live with the consequences. You need to know what other teams are probably thinking and make a decision in an instant. If everyone's not on the same page, then you are a Sacramento Kings fan.

Now imagine you do all that work, and then your owner walks in and says something like, “I just talked to Steve Ballmer, make a deal with the Clippers.” John Hollinger, the creator of PER and former Grizzlies VP of Basketball Operations, said if a teams' GM was refusing a trade, and they knew his owner was a weak link that's exactly what they would do.

That's why on November 18th at 7 PM ET, we will all be glued to the TV and refresh our Twitter feed every 15 seconds. We have never seen a year like this, where the no.1 and no.2 are up for sale, and so many combinations are possible. This will be fun!

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