At Knicks Central, we like to focus our attention on the New York Knicks. We want our content to be thoughtful and unique to give people a better understanding of the team and the game in general. As part of this, we thought it would be a good idea to also discuss some of the key terms and concepts behind the game. Today, we are discussing the difference between unprotected and protected NBA draft picks.
Typically, it is assumed that everyone NBA fan understands these terms. On the surface they are simple, but there are some subtleties that you may not know about. That is the purpose of this article.
We are documenting the key considerations you need to know about NBA draft picks and the implications they have on trades, free agency and team strategy.
With all that said, let’s look at the terms and discuss the difference between unprotected and protected NBA draft picks.
Difference between unprotected and protected picks
To get started, let’s quickly talk about some of the key terms you might hear frequently when reading about NBA draft picks.
If you would like to learn more about the Knicks draft pick situation, you can read about it here.
What is an unprotected draft pick?
In the NBA, an unprotected draft pick is a pick without restrictions. It means that wherever the pick falls during the NBA lottery process, the team can pick a player at that position. The team owns that pick.
Unprotected draft picks are typically the NBA teams own pick, but they can be acquired via trade. Acquiring an unprotected draft pick is more meaningful, because it means, regardless of where that pick falls, the acquiring team will receive that pick.
In the recent trade for Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded three unprotected draft picks to the Utah Jazz. Now, why are unprotected picks seen as more valuable? Simply, it’s because, it doesn’t matter where the Cavaliers pick falls in the draft, the Jazz own that pick.
If the pick becomes the number #1 pick in the draft, the Jazz will own that pick, and will therefore draft the player of their choosing. Essentially, the Jazz are hoping that in year 2025, 2027 or 2029, the Cavaliers will be bad enough that they will own a top pick. Hence why unprotected picks are more valuable.
What is a protected draft pick?
A protected NBA draft pick, on the other hand, is a draft pick with restrictions and can only be acquired via trade. Commonly referred to as a lottery protected pick, this means, you can only pick players within some draft range that is agreed upon between the two trading teams.
The New York Knicks recently traded Kemba Walker and draft rights to Jalen Duren, in exchange for a Milwaukee Bucks future first round top 4 protected pick in 2025. For the 2025 NBA draft, if the Bucks pick falls between pick 5 and 30, it is owed to the Knicks. However, if this pick falls between pick 1 and 4, the Bucks keep their pick.
As you can see, unprotected picks are less risky than protected picks. This is an important consideration when picks are included in trades.
Now, in most cases, protected picks come with contingencies. The team acquiring the protected pick will have an opportunity to settle it in the following year, if it falls outside the bounds of the agreed draft range. This means from pick 1 to 4 in our Bucks previous example.
The Knicks also own the Detroit Pistons protected first round pick in 2023. It is top 18 protected. All expectations around the league suggest this pick will fall below #19, based on the state of the Pistons roster. Therefore they will likely keep this pick in 2023. Although, should this happen, the Knicks will get another opportunity in 2024 to secure the top 18 protected selection.
This is where is gets interesting. In 2025, if the pick is still yet to be settled, the Detroit pick will become top 13 protected. In 2026, top 11 protected.
These are contingencies that the acquiring team can build into the trade for the protected draft pick to reduce their risk.
What is a lottery protected pick?
A lottery protected pick is simply a protected pick, but if the team that traded the pick falls into the NBA lottery, then that team will keep their pick. The lottery pick has the same restrictions as a protected NBA draft pick. It means you can only pick players within some draft range and can only be acquired via trade.
Ultimately, if the team trading the pick falls into the lottery, or in other words, into the bottom 14 teams in the NBA season, then they will keep their pick.
What is the difference between unprotected and protected picks?
To summarize, unprotected draft picks have no restrictions for the team that owns it. Wherever that pick falls in the draft, the owning team can select the player of their choosing.
Protected picks are a little more complicated. They are only acquired by trade and include restrictions. These restrictions include draft selection ranges, typically protected top 4, 10, 15 etc.
The art of trading picks
Now that you understand the difference between unprotected and protected NBA draft picks, you can start to see why some are more valuable than others.
In short, not all first round picks are equal.
Now to consider how trading picks works. Learning how picks works is valuable, but also understanding the complexities around trades is also important.
How does trading picks work?
Firstly, teams can only trade their own picks 7 years in advance. This means you cannot trade a first round unprotected pick in 2057. A restriction imposed for obvious reasons, including managing complexity, protecting teams and avoiding overall anarchy.
Second, teams cannot trade their own first round picks in back to back years. This is a restriction, imposed by the NBA, primarily to protect the team from themselves. This is an important one to remember, because it is why you will see teams trade two years apart.
Using the Knicks as an example (as we tend to do here), the Knicks technically have 11 first round picks from 2023 to 2029. Of these 11 picks, only 9 are tradable. This is because you cannot trade picks in back to back years. For trade, the most the Knicks could include are picks 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029.
This is where the pick swap comes in…
What is an NBA draft pick swap?
Coming from right field is the term draft pick swap. Although, it is a relatively simple concept to grasp.
Simply put, a pick swap gives the owning team the right to swap picks with the opposite team, if that teams pick is higher in the draft order than their own. Team A will receive Team B’s pick, while Team B will receive Team A’s pick.
In the trade for Donovan Mitchell, the Utah Jazz acquired 2026 and 2028 pick swaps from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since the Cavaliers cannot trade picks in back to back years, they used pick swaps to fill in the gaps. For Utah, it means, if the Cavaliers picks in 2026 or 2028 are higher than their own, then they can swap that pick for Clevelands pick.
You now understand the terms and intricacies of NBA draft picks and how they are included in trades.
We covered the difference between unprotected and protected NBA draft picks, what lottery protected picks are, pick swaps, how trading picks works and everything in between.
They are not all easy concepts to understand, but taking the time to read this will go along way to understanding the strategy behind some of the moves teams make in the NBA and why.