It’s time for the NBA to push into a new era by ditching the Stepien Rule

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports) /

As we all know, the infamous Stepien Rule was implemented because Ted Stepien, who owned the Cleveland Cavaliers for about three years in the early 80s, traded all of his future NBA Draft picks. In reality, it wasn’t so much that Stepien traded so many picks, but he got so little back in return. He traded the pick that became Sam Perkins to Dallas for Mike Bratz. The picks that became Derek Harper and Roy Tarpley were traded for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead (Whitehead was waived three weeks later, so this trade was basically for Washington). The pick that became Detlef Schrempf was traded for Geoff Huston.

Most infamously, the pick that became James Worthy was traded for Don Ford, although that deal happened before Stepien officially took the reigns and was a pick swap, not a straight pick trade. Stepien also fired Chuck Daly and replaced him with Bill Musselman, so trading draft picks wasn’t his only bad move.

As you can see from the trades listed above, it wasn’t so much that Stepien didn’t like draft picks. It was more that he traded them for players who weren’t very good. This was exacerbated by the fact that his mismanagement made those draft picks immensely valuable, giving other teams top-five picks, especially the Mavs.

That motivated the creation of the Stepien Rule — to save teams from their worst impulses. In reality, though, undervaluing draft picks was not uncommon at the time. George Allen used the mantra “the future is now!” to justify trading most of his picks for veterans when he coached the Washington Redskins. That strategy led to a Super Bowl berth.

Less successful was the New Orleans Jazz, who, a couple of years before Stepien became famous, traded three first-round picks for 33-year-old Gail Goodrich. Considering that the Jazz were an expansion team at the time, Kevin Pelton would have blown a gasket over this trade (if he had been born at the time) even if he hadn’t known that one of the picks would become Magic Johnson.

Stepien Rule is outdated as NBA Draft capital is the key to making blockbusters.

For several decades, the Stepien rule was an afterthought, because trades involving multiple NBA Draft picks were relatively rare. In recent years, though, more teams have been willing to deplete their draft resources to acquire the player or players who they feel can put them over the top. Sometimes it has worked, as when Jrue Holliday was traded from New Orleans and helped the Bucks win a title in his first season. Other times, not so much, as when the Nets traded multiple picks for past-their-prime Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, and helped the Celtics build the core of their current contender.

At the present time, it seems that half the NBA is tanking and hoarding draft picks, while the other half is dealing away as many picks as the rules allow in order to win in the short term. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the Stepien Rule should not get in the way of that process. If a team is in a market that can attract free agents, or it has built a core around one or two superstars, it stands to reason that a late-first-round pick down the road would not have as much value as a veteran who fills a specific and immediate need. If a GM makes that judgment, they should be allowed to act on it.

It is much more concerning to me that teams can trade picks seven years in the future. This is longer than the average NBA career, and, more importantly, much longer than the average contract of a coach or GM. Go back and count how many GMs have been in their job more than seven years, then ask yourself whether any GM cares whether his team has draft picks in 2029. It would be much more sensible to prohibit trading any picks more than four years in the future.

As for the sanctity of NBA Draft picks, remember that in the past 25 years, the first pick in the draft has been used on Anthony Bennett, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Markelle Fultz and Michael Olowokandi. The lesson is that you can’t fix stupid, to echo Jeff Foxworthy. If a GM is going to make bad moves, you can’t stop him from doing it by making rules.

In fact, you probably shouldn’t stop him. If a team has a lousy GM and the rules protect him from making bad moves, that GM will stick around longer and delay the rebuild that must inevitably come when he gets fired.

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If I’m a fan of that GM’s team, it’s better to let him wreck the franchise as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next guy.