Every team in the NBA trades future draft picks and there’s a lot about those trades that can get confusing — protections, conveying rules, who the original owner of the pick is, least favorable clauses and pick swaps.

The Utah Jazz received a boatload of future draft picks in the trades of Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they also received three pick swaps (one from Minnesota and two from Cleveland). So, today we’re going over what a pick swap is, how it works and how and when Utah can use its swaps.

What is a pick swap?

The NBA prohibits teams from trading future first-round picks in consecutive years. This rule is known as the “Stepien rule.” This is why you see picks traded every other year rather than consecutively. For example, the Cavaliers sent the Jazz three unprotected future first-round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029.

In order to get around this rule, NBA teams will also trade options to swap picks. When a team agrees to a pick swap option for a given year, they are literally agreeing to swap picks with the team that they are sending the option to.

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Also included in the deal from Cleveland were pick swaps in 2026 and 2028 — the years that the Cavs were not allowed to trade because of the Stepien rule. So, when 2026 and 2028 roll around, the Jazz can look at where the Cavaliers first-round pick falls and if it’s higher than the Jazz’s pick in those years, they can swap with the Cavs.

How does it work?

Let’s say that Team A sends a pick swap to Team B in 2023.

The standings will determine whether either team will be a lottery team or will be picking outside the top 14 in the draft (the 14 teams that miss the playoffs are entered into a lottery). The team with the worst record in the league is guaranteed a top-five pick. Picks 15-30 are from teams who made the playoffs and are based on regular-season record in reverse order.

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For this example, Team A doesn’t make the playoffs and in the lottery it gets the No. 6 overall pick. Team B also didn’t make the playoffs but it got the No. 14 overall pick in the lottery. Since Team B has the option to swap picks, it can take the No. 6 pick and send the No. 14 pick to Team A.

What does this mean for the Jazz?

The Jazz received three pick swaps this summer — a 2026 swap from Minnesota and pick swaps in 2026 and 2028 from Cleveland.

You might have noticed that the Jazz have two pick swaps in 2026. That means that the Jazz will be able to choose which pick is most favorable between their own, Minnesota and Cleveland.

If either Cleveland or Minnesota fail to make the playoffs in 2026 or if Cleveland misses the playoffs in 2028, it means the Jazz could have the option of getting a higher pick. The team doesn’t have to make this decision before the lottery, so it’s not a gamble for the receiving team.

Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, and Jazz CEO Danny Ainge, answer questions during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. The Jazz front office acquired many future draft assets by virtue of trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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