The Boston Celtics came into the 2018 NBA season holding NBA Finals contender expectations. There was a sense of excitement throughout the city of Boston surrounding the Celtics that had not been felt since 2008 when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett ran the parquet. During the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics squared off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing in five games. Danny Ainge went into the offseason with critical decisions to be made that would set the foundation for the future of the Celtics.
The opening night roster of the 2018 Boston Celtics returned just four players from 2017, those four being Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and rookie sensation Jaylen Brown. Even so, the team held the third highest odds at hosting the trophy, behind only the Cavaliers and reigning champions Golden State Warriors. With so many key roster pieces gone, the first question to ask would be: How is that possible?
Well, folks, Trader Danny Ainge was busy turning assets, draft picks, and financial flexibility into higher level talent. The number one overall pick was dealt to Philadelphia for the 3rd pick, which resulted in Jayson Tatum, and a future first rounder. Gordon Hayward was signed to a 4 year, $127.83 maximum contract, reuniting him with his former coach from his days at Butler. The NBA playoff ratings from the year prior caused the 2018 salary cap to fall, meaning the Celtics needed to clear additional salary cap to make room for Hayward. The fan favorite and starting shooting guard Avery Bradley was dealt to Detroit for Marcus Morris, all leading to a surprising blockbuster with the Celtics has been chasing in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston sent Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2020 second-round pick, the coveted 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick, and up-until-that-point Boston poster-boy Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving. Isaiah was the heart and soul of the Celtics, earning a spot on All-NBA Second Team while averaging 28.9 PPG. While Isaiah had a historical season, he does not possess Kyrie’s superstar level talents. In conclusion to these moves, Danny has acquired the star-level talent needed to win championships.
The stage was set for the October 17th opening night matchup verse the Cavaliers. It was a preview of a possible Eastern Conference Finals rematch, including Kyrie versus LeBron. Unbelievably quickly, at the 6:49 mark of the first quarter, Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome, season-ending leg injury going up for an alley-oop from Kyrie. The team showed resiliency, and the young supporting cast stepped up throughout the rest of the season to carry the Celtics to the second seed. Injuries have amounted to the team towards the end of the season; most importantly Kyrie Irving’s absence due to knee surgery. The championship aspirations of the Celtics quickly evaporated with this news. NBA Finals championships are won by teams typically comprised of multiple star- level players.
Let’s shift focus to the Celtics first round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks. They have a transcendent talent named Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as The Greek Freak. Giannis was drafted by the Bucks with the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. This season he has really come into his own, averaging 26.9 PPG, 10 RPG, and 4.8 APG. The Celtics held the 16th pick in the 2013 draft, in which they traded up from the 16th pick to the 13th pick with the Dallas Mavericks. They went on to draft Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk.
The 18-year-old “Greek Freak” burst onto the scene and rose up draft boards, playing professionally for Filathlitikos of the Greek B League. Although the competition was weak, it was hard to ignore the size, athleticism, and skills that Giannis possessed. He is a rare blend, stands 6’10”, has a 7’3” wingspan and possesses a point guard skill set. His potential to defend positions 1-5, and ability to put the ball on the floor; whether it is to attack the basket or create for his teammates, was unlike any other. There was plenty of downsides. He had to grow into his body, was very raw, and struggled to shoot the basketball.
Prior to the 2013 NBA Draft, Danny Ainge had traveled to Greece to scout Giannis. Even so, Danny still chose to draft the player with less potential. Kelly was a polished offensive 7 footer coming out of Gonzaga and possessed shooting range coveted by today’s NBA. His downside was he had short arms, lacked athleticism, had trouble getting his shot off at times, and held no ability to rim protect.
To date, Kelly Olynyk has averaged 9.9 PPG, 4.9RPG, and shot 37% from 3 point range for his career. Over his time with the Celtics, he has some defining moments. Who could ever forget the armbar he put Kevin Love in that resulted in a dislocated shoulder? More importantly, he was a major reason why the Celtics eliminated the Washington Wizards in game seven to go to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. Olynyk scored 26 points on 10-14 shooting, with 14 of the points coming in the fourth quarter. Olynyk was deservedly subbed out of the game with just over a minute to play, to hear chants repeatedly echoing “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly” throughout the Garden. During free agency Olynyk signed a 4 year $50 million contract with the Miami Heat.
During the 2013 draft night, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were on the verge of being dealt with the Brooklyn Nets. The resulting draft would be a fresh start for Celtics basketball and the chance for this selection to be a foundational piece. The 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics were assembled by three first-ballot Hall of Famers. Danny Ainge should have taken the risk to draft the player he felt had the most upside of becoming their next star. Ainge has done a tremendous job with the rebuild; the trade for the Nets draft picks was robbery. Our own “Big 3” super team in 2008 has not only shown Celtic Nation the blueprint to win a championship but also how hard it is to land these players. On June 27, 2013, Danny Ainge should have drafted Giannis on the potential alone. Whether the Celtics win or lose this playoff series versus the Bucks, everyone will see how jaw-dropping this specimen of a basketball player is, and imagine “what if Danny had drafted him?”
Photo: Boston Herald