Larry Riley, then a top assistant in the Golden State front office, had just stepped out the back door of the gymnasium at Salt Lake Community College. He ran into Rod Thorn, the sharp-featured New Jersey Nets president.
Both men were in Utah on July 23, 2008, for the Rocky Mountain Revue, the Jazz’s since-abandoned summer league.
“Well, Riles,” Thorn said, looking at his colleague, “I think we’ve got a trade that will be completed today.”
Riley was puzzled.
“I hadn’t heard anything about it,” Riley recalled last week.
The Nets and Warriors, though, had agreed to a minor trade that would swap New Jersey point guard Marcus Williams for a protected future first-round draft pick. The deal set in motion a peculiar series of events that will culminate with Thursday’s NBA Draft.
The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the biggest trade in franchise history.
“What it really does is it closes the books on the Deron Williams trade,” Jazz executive vice president Kevin O’Connor said.
But the story of 21 is far more complicated. Over the course of a lifespan longer than the average NBA career, 21 has been nomadic. Teams have fought over it. It has teased.
Twenty-one helped resurrect two franchises. The Jazz on Thursday will begin to learn how it impacts their own future.
The birth of No. 21 • It all began with Marcus Williams.
The 22nd pick in 2006 had two moderately productive seasons in New Jersey as a backup to Jason Kidd. But in the summer of 2008, Williams was deemed expendable after the Nets acquired Keyon Dooling. Nearly 3,000 miles away in Oakland, Calif., Warriors GM Chris Mullin was trying to find a replacement for All-Star point guard Baron Davis, who signed with the Clippers.
Williams was not the right choice. He was an unmitigated disaster in the Bay Area and played in only nine games. He never started and was released five months into the season.
Riley, who replaced Mullin that summer, realized his team had not only traded for a bust, but had also sacrificed a highly valuable draft pick. The Warriors were bad, and rebuilding would be slow. The 2011 draft would be a good one, and teams may not trade first-round picks in consecutive years, costing the Warriors 2010 flexibility.
So on Sept. 15, 2009, Riley reached out to the Nets once again. He offered a second-round pick and less restrictive protections — top seven in 2012 and 2013 — if the Nets would push the pick back a year.
That’s when the Warriors’ fortunes really began to change. In 2009, Golden State selected Stephen Curry, their first good lottery decision in years. The 2011 and 2012 drafts, both years they might have lost the pick, yielded players who carried the Warriors in 2013 to one of the best seasons in franchise history — a season that knocked their draft pick out of the lottery, clear down to 21.
Trading and waiting • The New Jersey Nets of 2011 needed to make a splash. A move to Brooklyn was 18 months away and the franchise was floundering. But it had assets, including the draft pick from the Warriors.
“We knew it had strong value in either the lottery or the mid-first,” Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks said.
There were no major trade talks involving the Nets in which the pick wasn’t included.
“It was a key component when we came close to getting Carmelo [Anthony] from Denver,” Marks told The Tribune in an email.
The Jazz were closely monitoring what was happening in the New York area. The Nets and Knicks were both chasing Anthony, and the Jazz were confident they could get a deal done with whichever team came up short in that chase. It was accepted throughout the organization that star point guard Deron Williams would depart a year later in free agency.
When the Knicks completed a deal for Anthony, the Jazz struck a deal with New Jersey two days later. The Jazz received Favors, point guard Devin Harris (who a year later was traded to Atlanta for Marvin Williams), New Jersey’s first-round pick (which turned into Enes Kanter) and the Warriors’ pick.
“I think both teams got a good deal,” O’Connor said. “They got a franchise player, and we got a core group of a couple young bigs and a draft pick.”
O’Connor had previous success waiting on draft picks. In a 2004 deal with Phoenix, the Jazz acquired Tom Gugliotta and the draft pick that in 2010 turned into Gordon Hayward.
“Kevin has been very good at acquiring future assets and being very patient,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said.
Throughout the 2011-12 season, the Jazz appeared certain to receive the pick. The Warriors were playing poorly, but not so bad that they were on track for a top-seven pick. The Warriors started the year 19-25, and according to SaltCityHoops.com editor Andy Larsen, the Jazz had about a 95 percent chance of receiving the pick.
But Golden State closed the season just 4-25 — one of the most impressive implosions in league history — and tied with the Toronto Raptors for the seventh-worst record. A coin flip determined that the Warriors would be seventh in the lottery. Still, a 27.34 percent chance remained that a team lower than the Warriors would jump into the top three.
But fortune favored Golden State again. They picked Harrison Barnes at No. 7.
“We did some calculations on it,” Riley said. “We knew that we wanted that pick the year we got Klay Thompson, and then we had some good fortune in the way things played out in getting Harrison Barnes the next year.”
Last season, led by Curry, Barnes and Thompson, the Warriors finished 47-35 and in sixth place in the Western Conference. Their pick fell to 21.
If ever there was a year for the Warriors to give up their pick, that was it.
“I wish we had gotten it realized last year,” O’Connor said. “We came awful close.”
Now, the Jazz have 21, a well-traveled source of discussion, hope and disappointment. It may yield them a point guard or a reserve big man. Or the pick may not have yet found a home at all.
Lindsey said last week that the Jazz will be aggressive in the draft. That could mean one more trade, one more move, one more twist.
The life of No. 21
July 23, 2008 • Golden State trades protected first-round pick to New Jersey for point guard Marcus Williams.
Sept. 15, 2009 • The Warriors trade second-round pick to Nets to push back pick, reduce restrictions.
Feb. 24, 2011 • The Utah Jazz receive the pick as part of the trade that sends Deron Williams to New Jersey. It is top-7 protected in 2012 and 2013.
April 26, 2012 • The Warriors lose to San Antonio to end the season as losers in 25 of their last 29 games, after a 19-25 start.
May 31, 2012 • At the NBA Draft lottery, no team jumps the Warriors, and Golden State ends up with the seventh pick.
June 28, 2012 • The Warriors select North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes with the No. 7 pick.
April 17, 2013 • On the last day of the regular season, Golden State wins in Portland, securing the ninth-best record in the NBA and the 21st pick.
June 27, 2013 • The Utah Jazz will pick No. 21 in the NBA Draft, held in Brooklyn, N.Y.
P Thursday, 5 p.m.
TV • ESPN