The Celtics have a chance to use the third overall pick to trade for a star and accelerate their rebuild. Although this would be great and is definitely possible, Danny Ainge should seriously consider keeping the pick and using it.
When the NBA Draft Lottery cut to commercial after announcing picks 14-4, excitement swept Celtics country. Thoughts of LSU star Ben Simmons or Duke standout Brandon Ingram wearing white and green next season seemed like a tantalizing prospect for a team trying to get back to the top of the NBA. When the broadcast returned and Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum revealed the third overall pick going was going to Boston, a collective groan swept New England.
It wasn’t the worst case scenario, by any means, but the Celtics had lost out on a chance to get one of those two players and the trade value of the selection was diminished. However, as hope quickly sprung back, the Celtics could package this pick for an elite NBA player and immediately take a big step closer to title contention.
Before making this move, the Celtics need to take a look at the NBA landscape and figure out if a move like this could propel them to The Finals. Acquiring Jimmy Butler or DeMarcus Cousins would be a major leap forward for Boston. Cousins will be 26 to start next season and Butler will be 27 and both are stars with bright futures. Neither one of these players alone will allow the Celtics to have a parade next June, but paired with another star they could help bring a championship to Boston. That is where the trouble comes in.
No, this isn’t an article about how free agents hate Boston. On the contrary, free agents would have several reasons to come to Boston: a premier young coach in Brad Stevens, cap space, stability and playing alongside an (hypothetically) acquired superstar.
The problem is the only free agents over the next two years that could have the Celtics overtake the current NBA powerhouses are Kevin Durant (2016), LeBron James (2016), Steph Curry (2017), Russell Westbrook (2017) and Blake Griffin (2017). Out of this group, the only players that could realistically come to Boston would be Westbrook, Durant or Griffin. It would be a hard sell for the Celtics to lure Griffin across the country and have him leave L.A. and having either Durant or Westbrook leave a team currently in the Western Conference Finals will be difficult. There are also rumors that San Antonio and Golden state will pursue Durant, which would both be more attractive options over the next three years than Boston. Westbrook’s love of Los Angeles and an opportunity to play for the Lakers would also likely put him out of Boston’s reach.
Although players such as Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Demar Derozen, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert will be available over the next two summers, pairing one of them with Butler or Cousins would not be quite enough to defeat the likes of Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio or Oklahoma City in a seven game series. To win a title, Boston would likely have to beat Cleveland plus one of those western teams.
This brings us to what the Celtics now have, the third pick. Any player taken at third overall in 2016 would likely not have a major impact for a couple seasons. Whether it’s Dragan Bender, Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield or another player, the Celtics will be landing a promising young player, but they will need to show patience.
In addition to this year’s pick, the Celtics have the right to swap with Brooklyn next year and own Brooklyn’s pick outright in 2018. Given the trajectory of the Nets, each of these picks could be in the top five as well. If you add top three picks in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to Marcus Smart, the Celtics would have four top-six draft picks on their roster to start the 2018 season. Even if only two of them pan out, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens could have a roster that is set up to contended for years.
Another important note on this vein is that when that 2018 season begins, or even 2017, the NBA will look different. LeBron James will be 32 at the start of 2017 and Kevin Love will be 29. Even though they will still be great players, they will entering the end of their primes just as the Celtics are starting their upswing toward serious contention. Regardless of where he plays, Al Horford will be 31 entering 2017 and Paul Millsap will be 32.
In the west, Durant would be 29, Curry would be 29, and LaMarcus Aldridge would be 32. Obviously, these players would still be in their primes and playing well, but Boston would have a strong core all under 25 years old as the dominant teams of today being to age. Also, only having to beat one of these west teams plays into the Celtics favor, rather than being one of them that has to run the gauntlet in order to play in June.
This model of drafting patiently and waiting on development has proven successful for the Warriors and Thunder while the Cavaliers also likely would have stuck to this model had James not returned after playing in Miami. Having patience will not be easy for the Celtics or their fans, but long term it could set them up the best. The best part of this approach would be the fact that the Celtics would not have to play poorly (read: tank) to get high picks. They would be able to gain valuable playoff experience and potentially even battle Cleveland in an Eastern Conference Finals while still picking in the high lottery each offseason. Their players and coaching staff would be experienced enough in postseason play that they could avoid some of the growing pains of ascending teams.
Boston has a unique opportunity with the third overall pick. They can package the pick for a star while also trying to acquire another star, much like they did in 2008. They can also keep the pick and build a strong and potentially championship core that will help them contend for a decade, but that will require more patience. Even though both trading the pick could yield more immediate results, in this writer’s humble opinion patience is the way to go.