Analyzing the KZ Okpala Trade

The Miami Heat traded KZ Okpala to the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday in exchange for a 2026 second-round draft pick and an amendment to the protections on the 2023 first-round pick the Heat already owe the Thunder. The amended pick was originally lottery protected in 2023, 2024 and 2025 and unprotected in 2026; now it’s lottery protected in 2025 and unprotected in 2026.

The trade has been widely celebrated in Miami as a shrewd move by the Heat organization. Should it be? Was it even a good trade?

I understand it. I disagree with it. Here’s why.

What It Did

The trade did a few things for the Heat:

  1. It gave them a low quality 2026 second-round pick – it’ll be the least valuable of the picks from the Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers.
  2. It gave them a low quality $1.7M trade exception – it’s tiny, not all that valuable, and probably won’t even be used.
  3. It dropped them from $166K to $1.95M below the tax line, and increased the number of available roster spots from 1 to 2 – which effectively allows the Heat to convert Caleb Martin’s two-way contract to a standard contract right now instead of at the end of the season, and gives them the flexibility to sign another player for the stretch run. But who cares when Martin is converted, and what better player than Okpala are they going to sign?
  4. It freed up the Heat to trade its 2023 first-round pick.

No. 4 is the big one. But it’s also wildly misunderstood. The Heat were doing the Thunder a favor with this trade, not the reverse (which is why Miami also got a second round pick and the chance to dump Okpala’s salary as part of it). And that favor could prove very costly.

Teams are not allowed to trade their future first-round picks in consecutive years – this restriction is called the “Stepien Rule,” and is interpreted to mean that a team can’t trade a pick if there is any chance at all that it will leave the team without a first round pick in consecutive future drafts. Teams are also only allowed to trade picks up to 7 years into the future. So, before the Okpala trade, the Heat would’ve only been able to trade TWO first-round picks this summer: 2022 (this will be a past pick after the draft; the Heat could’ve just made the selection on behalf of the trade partner), and 2028 or 2029. Now, as a result of the Okpala trade, they will be able to trade THREE: 2022, 2023, and either 2028 or 2029.

That’s it. That’s the only good thing – they get access to trade one extra not all that valuable pick which will surely end up at the bottom of the round in the 2023 draft. So let’s hope it proves valuable next summer. Because if it doesn’t, this trade was an absolute disaster.

Without the trade, the pick was all but guaranteed to be at the very bottom of the round in 2023 – that’s a very small price for the Heat to pay, which would’ve been cleared off the books forever in just over a year. Now they’ll owe it in 2025 or 2026 – it’ll be clogging up potential trades for the next 3 to 4 years, and it could end up being #1 overall.

An Alternative Approach

The entire world knows that the Heat’s pick obligation was 99.999% certain to be fulfilled in 2023 — all the Heat had to do was make the playoffs next season. So why not just amend the pick to make it 100% certain? Boom! This questionable trade would instantly have become awesome. The Heat would’ve been guaranteed to get its pick obligation to the Thunder off the books with a low-level pick in 2023, and would’ve gotten FOUR picks freed up for trade this summer: 2022, 2025, 2027, and 2029.

Get that? Making something that was already 99.999% certain 100% certain would’ve cleared the OKC obigation off the books quickly and painlessly AND given the Heat access to an extra first-round pick to trade this summer. That’s as good as it could possibly get.

Another Alternative Approach

The above approach was so good, and so much better than what they did, that maybe they actually tried it and got rejected.

But even if they did, there’s yet another approach that would’ve been better than what they ended up with. Rather than making the OKC pick obligation top-15 protected in 2025 and unprotected in 2026, they could’ve just made it unprotected in 2025. This approach would have also freed up FOUR picks for trade, versus the three they’re stuck with now. Apply the Stepien Rule to see why. If the pick they owe OKC was guaranteed to be conveyed in 2025, they wouldn’t been able to trade both their 2027 AND 2029 picks (in addition to their 2022 and 2023 picks). Now, because there’s a chance it rolls over to 2026, no matter how remote that chance is, they can only trade either the 2028 pick or the 2029 pick (in addition to their 2022 and 2023 picks).

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The fact that there were so many better approaches to amending the Heat’s 2023 first-round pick obligation than the path they ultimately chose already makes it sting. But the question now is: was what they did actually better than doing nothing at all? I think not. There are only two options: either they need the 2023 first-round pick they freed up for a trade this summer, or they don’t. If they end up needing it, remember again that the Heat did the Thunder a favor in this trade, not the reverse – instead of OKC being stuck with a low-level 2023 first-round pick (when they already have piles of others), now they get a potentially valuable pick in 2025 or 2026 that could possibly even rise to #1 overall; so if the Heat actually needs the flexibility this trade provides, they could’ve just made the trade with the Thunder this summer. And if they ended up not needed it, the pick obligation would’ve been cleared off in the next draft and, for the first time in a long time, the Heat would’ve had a full complement of future first round picks starting next summer. Now, no matter what the Heat do (or don’t do) this summer, they’re stuck with this pick obligation for the next 3-4 years. That’s how I see it anyway.

Note: This post ingnores the concept of trading picks conditionally. The Heat can technically trade more than three picks this summer, but at least one of them would need to be conditional. Teams obviously want guaranteed picks more than conditional picks though. In fact, making something guaranteed that was already likely is the entire reason the Heat made this trade. 

1 Response

  1. Dev says:

    Albert, Heat Nation misses you and could use your expertise to navigate this hectic offseason

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