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How the Pelicans’ draft rights impact the Lakers’ future picks

The Lakers' ability to make a move this season may be limited by a quirk of the Anthony Davis trade.

Los Angeles Lakers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When making the Anthony Davis trade that brought them title No. 17, the Lakers sent out what was at the time described by ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski as “one of the most substantial returns on a single star player in modern league history.” In addition to three promising young players, the Lakers sent out the rights to three first round draft picks, the last of which has yet to convey.

But a unique quirk of the deal gives the Pelicans a bit more say over when one such pick will convey than most teams do in their own trade hauls; although the Pelicans can choose to take the Lakers’ pick in the upcoming 2024 NBA draft, they can also opt to defer that selection to the following year, leaving the Lakers with their own pick this season, and snagging their selection in 2025. L.A. also owes its 2027 first-rounder to Utah due to the Russell Westbrook salary dump. Otherwise, the Lakers own all of their own future first round picks.

But while the mechanics of this year's optional deferral are not too tricky, their potential impact on the Lakers’ ability to trade their future picks makes this situation more complicated. Let’s run through the biggest questions.

When do the Pelicans have to decide which Lakers draft pick they’re taking?

The exact terms of the Davis trade are not public, but per a league source familiar with the salary cap, it is safe to assume that the Pelicans will have until some point around June 1, 2024, at the latest, to make their decision on which Lakers pick they prefer, based on prior league precedent. This would give the Lakers a couple of weeks before the Draft to finalize their plans heading into it.

Swooping in by surprise and taking the player the Lakers expected to keep, or yielding a pick the Lakers didn’t anticipate being able to use would make for great drama. However, doing so at the last minute before the pick is almost certainly prohibited by an explicit term of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, or one implied by the general principles of contract law. Basically, any contractual option without an explicit deadline typically requires the party with the option to give any affected party “reasonable notice” of their decision, a standard that pervades contract law and is determined on a case-by-case basis. Here, it makes sense to think that reasonable notice would require the Pelicans to give the Lakers at least a heads-up a few weeks early, if not something more like 30 days.

But regardless of when the exact deadline is, from a big-picture perspective the Pelicans’ optionality severely limits the Lakers’ ability to make use of their future assets in the present. Especially when combined with the so-called “Ted Stepien Rule.” The Stepien Rule, unofficially named after the Cleveland Cavaliers' inept ex-owner, requires NBA teams to possess the rights to a first round draft pick in at least every other year.

Therefore, when the Pelicans do officially make a choice on whether they want to exercise their deferral on the 2024 pick, the Lakers will end up in one of two places. If the Pelicans take the Lakers' 2024 pick, the team could move its 2025 pick once the 2024 draft passes. Alternatively, if the Pelicans defer and take the Lakers’ 2025 pick, the Lakers would not be able to trade their 2024 pick until draft night.

Also, since the team traded its 2027 first-rounder to Utah in the run-up to last year’s trade deadline, the Stepien Rule prevents them from moving their 2026 or 2028 first-rounders in either scenario. If the 2027 pick lands in the top four, it turns into a 2027 second-rounder, which would enable the Lakers to trade their 2028 pick after the conclusion of the 2027 NBA Draft Lottery.

So which draft picks can the Lakers trade this season?

Altogether, the Lakers are currently unable to trade a first round pick in any earlier draft than 2029, despite owning all but two (2024 or 2025, and 2027, unless their pick lands in the top-four) of their future first round picks. As of now, limited by the “Seven Year Rule,” which prevents teams from trading future first-rounders more than seven years in the future, the Lakers can trade only their 2029 or 2030 first-rounders, but not both (Stepien).

Of course, a trade bringing an extra first-rounder to the Lakers would change that equation, but a draft asset-positive move seems unlikely for a LeBron-led team that is undoubtedly in win-now mode.

Which pick will the Pelicans select?

Although undetermined circumstances may dictate the Pelicans’ choice between the Lakers’ next two picks, it’s worth being aware of the factors that may influence their decision. Of course, the Pelicans will consider the Lakers’ place in the 2024 draft order and where they expect L.A. to land in 2025, but that can’t be their only consideration. Additional determining factors may include the flexibility and expense of the Pelicans’ roster, the depth of the draft in the range the Lakers would be projected to pick, and New Orleans’s urgency for trade assets in the event they want to swing a draft day deal in 2024.

For example, if the Pelicans lack interest in any 2024 prospect projected to go after the end of the lottery, it might make sense for them to defer their selection to 2025. Alternatively, if the Pelicans are eager to fill out the end of their already hard-capped roster for the next handful of years with a relatively low-cost player they can start grooming now instead of later, maybe opting into the 2024 pick makes more sense.

It’s also possible that a different team will end up making the call in anticipation of the 2024 draft if the Pelicans decide to head towards the trade deadline with the feeling that their championship window is the present and decide to include the Lakers’ pick in a win-now trade.

So now that you know how New Orleans’s right to swap affects L.A.’s future, as a Laker fan, would you prefer the Pelicans to take the team’s 2024 pick or defer their selection to 2025? Answer the poll below, and let us know why in the comments.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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