How Do Pick Swaps Work In The NBA? Explained

The NBA Draft Picks is a valuable commodity during the NBA free agency, especially if a team is trying to get superstars. There are various ways NBA general managers capitalize on future drafts to strengthen their team now, including the use of pick swaps during trades.

So, what is a pick swap in NBA, and how does it work?

A pick swap is a mechanism used by NBA Teams to get around the Stepien Rule that prohibits teams from trading away consecutive first-round draft picks. Recipient teams of a pick swap can switch their pick position to get a higher number with the team that traded away the pick swap.

Now let us dive a little deeper into how pick swaps work and why they have increased in popularity in recent years.

What is a Pick Swap?

NBA transactions can be technical and confusing, so before we can fully explain what a pick swap is, we must first understand the Stepien Rule.

Stepien Rule was named after the chaotic ex-Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien in the early 80s, who traded away multiple first-round pics for consecutive years, resulting in a difficult period in the franchise.

The Stepien Rule is a league policy that prohibits teams from trading away first-round picks on consecutive years to bolster their chances of landing valuable players and even stars.

So the pick swap became a way for teams to get around the Stepien Rule since pick swaps can be used in consecutive years. The pick swap can switch positions to get a higher number with the team who offered the swap. These swaps can be used for the first or second round of the draft.

I know this is confusing, and many people get confused with this policy, but if you continue reading, you will learn more about it.

Pick swaps are more used nowadays and are more commonly just thrown in the trade mix to make it more enticing.

How do Pick Swaps Work in the NBA?

During a trade, teams usually include future draft picks and picks swaps in the package deal to increase the value offered.

After the lottery has been decided and the teams know their draft position, the recipient of the pick swap has the option to change places with the originator of the pick swap if they get a higher place in the draft.

Let’s say that Team A included a pick swap in the trade package to Team B. Then, in the lottery, Pick B (recipient of the pick swap) has the 20th pick, while Team A (the team who offered the pick swap) got the 2nd pick. In that case, Team B can swap positions with Team A to get the 2nd pick.

In cases where multiple teams are involved in a pick swap, they can decide who will get the most favorable, less favorable, or least favorable, which can be confusing.

So, technically, the teams who used the pick swaps never violated the Stepien Rule. Since the teams still have their draft picks, they just traded the draft position.

Example of Pick Swaps

1. Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets Pick Swap 2013 Trade

In the 2013 trade that involved sending the aging remnants of the 2008 Championship of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with Jason Terry and DJ White, to the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics received several role players.

But the stroke of genius of that trade which heavily favored the Celtics today, was because it included three first-round draft picks and a pick swap option.

An article by SB Nation in 2013 explained that if the Nets get a higher pick than the Celtics in the 2017 Draft, Boston will get their pick and vice versa.

The pick swap would later be the number 1 pick in the 2017 Draft, traded it for the 3rd pick and a future first-round pick from the Philadelphia 76ers, and was used to select Jayson Tatum.

It may not have been imaginable during 2013 that the pick swap the Nets gave up would be the player who will eliminate them in the playoff contention and even reach the NBA Finals before them.

2. 2026 NBA Draft between Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs

In a trade between the Atlanta Hawks and the San Antonio Spurs, the Hawks received All-Star Dejounte Murray and Jock Landale. In return, the Spurs received Danilo Gallinari, three first-round picks (2023, 2025, 2027), and a 2026 pick swap.

If you remember, a team can’t trade their first-round picks for consecutive years due to the Stepien Rule. However, they included a 2026 pick swap as a bonus if ever the Hawks get a more favorable draft position.

So, the Spurs can have three first-round picks and another pick that can be drafted at a higher position because of the pick swap.

Can NBA Players Refuse to be Traded?

The short answer is yes. Some NBA players can refuse to get traded under some conditions, and that condition is if they have Bird rights.

According to the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, players under one-year contracts will have Bird rights with their present team once they become free agents. However, that is not the same as the no-trade clause; wherein teams are prohibited from trading some players.

Players with Bird rights can still be traded, but the condition is they must give their consent to the trade. This is why some players may appear untradeable since they must agree to be traded before the team can initiate.


The pick swap may not be popular with casual NBA fans, but it is one tool NBA teams use to add more value in a trade. Sometimes, it can even be something that will change the trajectory of a franchise, like what happened to Boston.

The technicalities of these pick swaps can even complicate trades, especially if it involves multiple teams, while also throwing in swaps for first and second-round picks.

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