NBA Protected And Unprotected Draft Pick Explained

An interesting issue has often come about when it comes to the NBA. Many people have sadly been confused by what an NBA protected pick and unprotected draft pick really mean. The difference between the NBA protected and unprotected pick is not quite as simple as some might assume. However, we’re going to take a deep dive into it all and help you perfectly understand. On top of this, we’ll be giving you information on these types of picks in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft.

To keep it simple, the difference is that an NBA protected pick tends to have stipulations added upon it once a team trades it away. These stipulations could come in numerous forms too. Meanwhile, unprotected picks do not have such stipulations.


For starters, teams are allowed to exercise a “seven-year rule”. This allows the trade of a draft pick up to 7 years into the future. Protecting this pick, based on its draft position is a common practice.

Let’s say the Atlanta Hawks traded their 2020 NBA Draft pick back in 2018 for a player they needed, perhaps even for other draft picks. They knew this player(or picks) could potentially help them become playoff-bound, so they decided to make this deal to even have a chance. Well now, the Hawks have to trade a first-round pick that’ll possibly be good or bad in a few years.

Atlanta’s front office assigns a mental “draft position basketball value” to the player to be received in trade. After doing so, they feel it might be best to add a stipulation to their draft pick in order to get it back later if that pick turns out to be more valuable than the “draft position basketball value” assigned to the player received. It’s basically an insurance policy. So, they decide that they’ll trade this 2020 first-rounder, with the stipulation that the team they trade it to will only keep it if it lands outside the top 5 picks.

This means, if the Hawks finish the 2020 season with a good record, they’ll likely be outside the top 5 picks. That ensures their pick is gone, without question. However, if they end up as one of the teams that don’t make the playoffs…they have a shot to hold on to their draft pick. That is due to the fact that they added the protection stipulation to it when trading it away. 

Now, It all hinges on their regular-season record. The NBA Draft Lottery could likely get them a high draft pick or they could finish outside the Top 10 even. You never know.

The same thing that occurs with the Top 5 pick also happens with a Top 3 pick and so on. There are even teams that will add in a stipulation that if it’s a lottery pick at all, they’ll get the draft pick back. But there is a limit to how many picks a team can protect in a given draft. That number tops out at 55.


An unprotected draft pick is not like the NBA protected picks at all. In fact, they do not have any stipulation to them whatsoever.

Let’s say the OKC Thunder traded away their 2020 NBA Draft pick back in 2017 but did not protect it. Even if that pick turns out to be the number one overall pick…the team that received the unprotected draft pick will keep it. 

Once an NBA protected pick is traded away, no stipulation can be added. But, It’s the exact opposite with an unprotected pick. 

Teams can even freely trade away this draft pick to another team if they feel like it (unless a situation in which The Stepien Rule applies). Plus stipulations can be added. A front office can parlay an unconditional unprotected draft pick into a protected pick if they trade it to a third team.


There are a few teams in the 2020 NBA Draft that have some protected draft picks. Some very well could go back to the original team while others likely will not. Truly, this might all come down to where the trading team lands in the NBA Draft Lottery in August. Some of these are still up in the air while others are clearly going back.

There are a few games set to finish out the NBA season. Already there are 12 teams that have clinched their playoff spots and 8 teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention as of this writing.

The Hawks have a Top-14 protected pick from the Nets. They will also retain a 56-60 protected second-round pick traded to Philadelphia if it lands within protected range.

The Celtics future picks for the upcoming draft include a protected Top-6 pick from Memphis, a Top-7 protected from Phoenix, the Hawks second-round 31-55 protected pick and the lesser of the Knicks or Nets second round pick.

Meanwhile, the Nets have the 76ers’ Top-14 protected pick, the Golden State Warriors’ Top-20 protected pick, the Pacers’ 45-60 protected second round pick and Portland’s 31-55 protected second round pick.

The Nets are not done in this draft frenzy either. Their pick traded to the Hawks is Top-14 protected. Therefore they will retain this pick if it lands in the lottery.

The Hornets hold a 31-53 second-round protected pick from the Celtics.

The Cleveland Cavs will retain their 2020 first round pick to New Orleans if it lands between 1-10.

Dallas will receive the less favorable of the second-round picks from Houston or Golden State.

The Nuggets will retain a 2020 first round pick to the OKC Thunder if it lands between 1-10.

The Golden State Warriors traded a first round pick to the Nets. But they will retain if the pick lands within the Top-20.

The Rockets hold a 31-55 second-round protected pick from the Grizzlies.

Indiana will hold onto a first-round pick to Milwaukee if it lands between 1-14 

The Grizzlies have an interesting first-round protected pick from the Jazz. It’s protected from 1-7 & from 15-30. That means that Memphis could only get the draft pick if it falls between 8-14.

They will also retain a Top-6 pick to Boston if it lands within the protected range.

The Bucks have a pick from the Pacers that is Top-14 protected. Also, they own a Top-7 protected pick to Boston. This first-round pick will be retained if it falls between 8-30.

New Orleans holds a first-round Top-10 protected pick from the Cavaliers.

The OKC Thunder own the Nuggets Top-10 protected pick and the Bull’s second round 31-55 protected pick. They also hold a Top-20 protected pick but will convey it to Philadelphia if it lands outside that range.

As mentioned above, Philadelphia has a Top-20 first-round protected pick from the OKC Thunder, a 56-60 protected second-round pick from Atlanta and the more favorable of the Nets or Knicks second-round pick.

They also own a Top-14 protected pick traded to the Nets. Therefore they will retain this pick if it lands in the lottery.

Sacramento will receive the most favorable of the second-round picks from Houston or Golden State.

As mentioned above, the Utah Jazz own a first-round pick that is protected from 1-7 & from 15-30. Utah will convey the pick to Memphis if it lands between 8-14.

For the last of the protected picks, the Wizards will receive the more favorable second-round pick from Memphis or Chicago.

Some of these picks will likely remain with the team that received the draft pick. This is mostly down to the fact teams such as the Pacers, Nuggets, 76ers, Jazz, and Bucks have all become playoff teams this year. That means they do not qualify for the lottery picks. Therefore several teams will keep the pick they traded for. 

Meanwhile, there are a few others that will likely go back to the original owner. First, is the Warriors pick traded to the Nets, it’s pretty much obvious Golden State will get it back. Being that they didn’t make the playoffs they qualify for the draft lottery, a Top-14 pick.

The Thunder’s Top-20 protected NBA draft pick owned by the Sixers and the Cavs’ Top-10 protected pick owned by the Pelicans are likely going back too. This is down to the fact that the Cavs have a likely Top 5 pick. Meanwhile, the Thunder might have had a relatively good year but they could potentially still end up Top-20 in picks. Of course, this all likely boils down to how OKC finishes in the playoffs.


Just as there are many NBA protected picks, there are unprotected picks too. It seems that the New York Knicks are a good example of this as they have three unprotected picks between 2020 & 2021 due to trades involving Kristaps Porzingis & Willy Hernangomez. However, this mostly comes down to a first-rounder and two second-round picks.

In this year’s draft the Nets, Hornets, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Sacramento hold unprotected second-round picks. New Orleans and Sacramento hold the most at two a piece.


The future of the NBA landscape is constantly changing on us….so it’s clear that more draft picks will change hands. Of course, as those come about we will be sure to discuss them and let you know everything you need to know. As of now, at least you are aware of how the NBA protected pick and unprotected draft pick concept works.

In the end, this should help you understand how picks ended up with certain teams. Whether it’s the luck of the draw or simply just skill when acquiring a pick guaranteed to keep, the NBA landscape can change with the right pick. This could happen in the first or second round. However in some situations, players like Ben Wallace have proven that you can go undrafted and still make a huge impact as well.