In theory, protected draft picks are a smart idea.
Protecting a draft pick permits a team to hold on to the pick under certain circumstances -- for instance, a top-five protected pick stays with the team if the pick is one of the top five in the draft lottery. This allows a team to trade a draft pick and narrowly define the value of that asset.
A hypothetical example: The Washington Wizards would probably be willing to trade an unprotected No. 1 pick (or several unprotected picks) for Kevin Durant. But to get Durant's teammate Serge Ibaka, they might be willing to trade only a top-10 protected pick.
That's the original concept. But in practice, protected picks can lead to some pretty nasty side effects.
The Golden State Warriors are the latest example of what happens when pick protection goes bad. To try to hold onto their top-seven protected pick, the Warriors have thoroughly tanked the second half of their season -- on Saturday night, rookie Charles Jenkins played 48 minutes and Mikki Moore got 24 minutes.
HoopIdea on tanking
Ethan Sherwood Strauss explains the Warriors’ motive and pinpoints the problem:
As the seventh-worst team, the Warriors have a 75 percent chance of keeping their pick. As the eighth-worst team, they have a 90 percent chance of losing it.
When picks are protected, especially in the late lottery, the impetus begs certain squads to tank.
Consider the risk-reward equation in this scenario: a seventh pick that could end up being a franchise cornerstone, or nothing.
Accordingly, since March 14 the Warriors have gone 5-19 in a desperate attempt to hang on to that protected pick. John Hollinger (Insider) has seen quite enough, and has a suggestion for how the league could prevent this kind of flagrant tanking:
Here's a memo to the league: Stop including conditional protections on draft choices like this. What the Warriors have done this past month is an abomination and needs to be stopped. The only protection that should be allowed are outside the top 14 or inside the top three.
We've seen too many teams make a mockery of the game in the final month of the season because they were trying to keep their draft pick (most notably in the infamous Mark Madsen 3-pointer game a few years back), and it's one of the big reasons that so many of the games in March and April stink.
But the Warriors aren't done. Having come this far, Golden State still must lose their last two games to give itself its best opportunity to keep its pick.
How perverse is it that the Warriors’ big end-of-season test is whether they can lose to the lowly Hornets at home?
The question of how to motivate bad teams to play their hardest at the end of the regular season, when playoff seeding is decided, is a difficult one. But it’s not hard to notice that certain elements, like protected picks, directly cause some of the bad basketball we see each year.
This one’s not as comprehensive as some tanking fixes, but it's an easy one. Just do away with protected picks and instantly remove one of the most obvious reasons for teams to tank away huge portions of the season.