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NBA Draft Preview Series – The Celtics Don’t Rebuild, They Reload

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As discussed ad nauseam, the 2017 NBA playoffs didn’t live up to the hype and mercifully the Warriors ended the season on a remarkable 16-1 run to take home the title.  And while it seems no one will interfere with Golden State’s death grip on the NBA, that won’t stop teams from trying to crawl out from the bottom of the barrel to challenge the Warriors.

First on that list is the ever-contending Boston Celtics.  Only a few short years ago it seemed the Celtics were finally going to see some lean years after their longer than expected stretch of contention with the original big 3.  But we should’ve known better, Danny Ainge and the Celtics would never let that happen.  An absolute joke of a trade with Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets put the C’s on the fast track back to the top of the East. King gave away the Nets 2014, 2016 & 2018 1st round picks (unprotected) as well as the right to swap 1st rounders in 2017.

The Celtics have continued to add interesting, flexible, young pieces to their core including Jaylen Brown with the second of their 4 Brooklyn picks last year.  This year the Celtics patience has truly paid off as they capitalized on the horror show that is the Nets to obtain the number one overall pick in the draft the same year they were the number one seed in the East.  Having all of these pieces is all well and good, but when does a team stop accumulating assets and start moving those pawns for queens?

Danny Ainge has 3 clear avenues he can take on June 22, but each one takes the Celtics down a path where additional tough decisions need to be made.

1) Keep The Pick

This is the most likely scenario that Ainge will take. Most reports have the Celtics zeroing in on Markelle Fultz, the Point Guard from the University of Washington who has been atop the prospect leaderboards since the beginning of the college basketball season.  Fultz is a dynamic playmaker who will give the Celtics another phenomenal backcourt scorer to pair with Isaiah.  Unlike Thomas, Fultz has prototypical size for a Point Guard and has an elite wingspan (7’0″) to pair with his first class athleticism.  The key to building a contender is to obtain elite players on cost effective contracts, and the best way to do that is to hit on stars in the draft.  Golden State’s ability to hit on Steph Curry and then sign him to an extremely cap friendly deal (4 years $44 million) was one of the main reasons they were able to sign Kevin Durant. If Fultz can turn into a star in the next 3-4 years while still on his rookie contract, that could give the Celtics the flexibility they need to get another superstar (or superstars) and break through to the Finals and potentially win it all.

Sound too good to be true?  It just might be.  Drafting Fultz leads to an extremely overcrowded backcourt.  Isaiah Thomas is currently one of the best contracts in the league, but he’s a free agent next offseason (2018). Does Boston really want to marry themselves to the diminutive guard especially after spending such significant draft capital on Fultz?  If they do keep Thomas, does that mean they trade one of Bradley or Smart?  It seems impossible that Boston will be able to resign all 4 when their contracts are up and thus makes sense to obtain something in return rather than lose one of them for nothing in free agency.

Ultimately I think the Celtics will keep the pick, draft Fultz, resign Thomas next offseason, and trade Smart either midseason or next offseason. Boston may also heavily consider other top prospects with the first overall pick such as Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum. Jackson and Tatum are especially interesting as the Celtics could use a front court playmaker (hence the Gordon Hayward/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony rumors) which might also make Jaylen Brown and/or Jae Crowder expendable.  In that scenario the Celtics add a potential star at the 3/4 position, still boast their existing backcourt depth, and improve their front court ammunition with Crowder and Brown coming off the bench.

2) Trade The Pick

The second route Ainge can go is to trade the pick directly for another player (and not receive a pick back). This is a constant possibility on the rumor mill as many fans want to see the Celtics go all in now while Thomas and Horford are still in their primes.  Trading this pick could land the C’s a franchise changer such as the obvious rumor mill candidates of Jimmy Butler or Paul George, but also could get them in discussions for players that aren’t even on the trade radar right now such as DeMar Derozan, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, or even Marc Gasol/Mike Conley.

The dilemma here pits one contending timeline vs. the other.  On one hand the Celtics have PLENTY of young talent in Bradley, Smart, Crowder, Brown, and Rozier not to mention the 2017 & 2018 1st round Nets picks.  On the other hand they spent big on Al Horford last offseason, will try to spend big on Gordon Hayward this offseason, and may choose to pay Isaiah Thomas north of $200 million next offseason.  That type of commitment to players who are ready to win now suggests that the young talent won’t have the necessary space to grow and Boston might be stuck between 2 differing ideologies.

If the Celtics sign Hayward this offseason I think they’ll be much more inclined to trade this pick for another playmaker and be ready to dethrone the Eastern Conference dominant Cavs as soon as next season.

3) Trade Down, Accumulate Assets, & Still Draft A Stud

This is the most interesting scenario.  While this draft class has a TON of talent at the top, there isn’t really a clear cut #1 guy.  Most scouts have Fultz in that spot, and I do too, but I don’t see much separation between picks 1 and 5.  This could lead Ainge to do what he does best; Maximize the value of whatever he is selling.

While the Celtics have a gluttony of assets, gathering more can only help them remain more flexible moving forward and give them additional leverage in both trade and contract talks.  Moving down a few slots in the draft would ultimately lead to Boston likely making another deal down the road, but it would land another asset for Boston’s burgeoning war chest.  The more they gather the more likely it is that Ainge will be able to put together trade packages for superstars like he’s done so famously like putting together Garnett and Allen to complement Pierce.

If the Lakers aren’t sold on Lonzo Ball as much as LaVar thinks they are,

the Celtics could swap just one slot with Los Angeles and pick up an interesting piece such as Jordan Clarkson or Larry Nance Jr.  While Jahlil Okafor has not looked like a fit in today’s NBA in his 2 seasons in the league, he still has a top 3 draft and elite college pedigree and Boston might trade down to #3 and pick up Okafor in the process.  Phoenix might part ways with a Eric Bledsoe or Alex Len, Orlando has Mario Hezonja and the Timberwolves might be willing to part ways with Kris Dunn already.

If I’m Ainge I choose to go this route even if it might make his life a little more complicated down the road.  If the Celtics can trade down to #3 and still pick up De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson, or Jayson Tatum they will be adding an elite prospect and a reclamation project for coaching savant Brad Stevens.  More ammunition for Ainge means more avenues for the Celtics to figure out how to challenge the Cavaliers and ultimately the Warriors.

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