Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 22, 2017

Celtics Squander Their Draft Lottery Winnings

No team in the National Basketball Association can match the championship history of the Boston Celtics. No matter that much of the team’s story was written generations ago, when the pugnacious head coach Red Auerbach and the consummate center Bill Russell combined to win multiple championships in the old Boston Garden; Celtics fans of any age are imbued with an expectation that their team will once again ascend to the heights of playoff glory.

Given that expectation, it’s no surprise that the team’s fans reacted badly to the news that general manager Danny Ainge had traded away the first pick in this week’s NBA Draft to Philadelphia, in exchange for the number three pick this year and another first round choice in either 2018 or 2019. The Boston faithful thought their team had hit the jackpot when the Celtics won the Draft Lottery with the first round choice that came their way as part of the lopsided 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics worked out consensus number one pick Markelle Fultz, the one-and-done 19-year old point guard from the University of Washington. Some fans were already lining up to buy number twenty green and white jerseys in anticipation of Fultz joining the team.

Of course Boston already has a point guard in Isaiah Thomas, who is a two-time All-Star and a fan favorite. So many Celtics supporters, especially those who set aside the hype of the draft and expressed quite reasonable doubts about how quickly a teenager could become a leading man in the NBA, hoped that general manager Danny Ainge would use the number one overall pick as trade bait and bring an established star to Boston. There was discussion of a deal for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and talk of a trade for Indiana’s Paul George. While the Celtics have been an entertaining and steadily improving team under head coach Brad Stevens, Boston was manhandled by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last month, losing in five games. The Cavaliers’ average margin of victory was just shy of 26 points in their four wins, a harsh reminder to the Boston fan base that as presently constituted their team’s roster is not ready to compete with the league’s elite.

Instead Ainge announced that the best deal available was to trade down two spots and add one more future first round selection to Boston’s seemingly endless stockpile of draft picks. Celtics fans, both those looking forward to their team being the first franchise on the clock Thursday evening and those anticipating a blockbuster trade for a proven star, were left feeling understandably deflated.

As first the days then the hours wound down from news of the deal between the Celtics and 76ers last Friday to the start of the Draft, Ainge’s plan remained a mystery. Some analysts had Boston picking Kansas forward Josh Jackson, while others pointed to Jayson Tatum from Duke as Boston’s likely choice. On Wednesday, the Boston Herald reported that the player Ainge liked the most was North Carolina State freshman Dennis Smith, a 6-foot-3 point guard who analysts not named Ainge ranked in the lower half of the top ten players available.

Meanwhile the trade rumors were all renewed, this time involving the third pick and some additional players from the existing Boston roster for someone on the same list of stars discussed days earlier. Then a new wrinkle was added when Phil Jackson, president of the dysfunctional mess of a franchise known as the New York Knicks, made it known that center Kristaps Porzingis might be available. Jackson made Porzingis the fourth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, for which he was derided at the time. But the 7-foot-3 Latvian, who is still just 21, is now seen as one of the few good moves of Jackson’s time at Madison Square Garden. As a young rising star with great potential, Porzingis also seemed like the kind of player for whom Ainge might be willing to unload several of his precious future draft picks.

But as the final moments before the start of the draft ticked away, word spread that the ransom Jackson was demanding from Ainge to ship New York’s budding star up I-95 to Boston was too high. Sure enough, after the 76ers took Fultz and the Los Angeles Lakers as expected selected Lonzo Ball, there was no last second announcement of a trade. Instead NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the microphone at the Barclay’s Center and told the world via ESPN that Boston had made Jayson Tatum the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The 19-year old, who entered this year’s Draft after a single season at Duke, is regarded as a top offensive player who can man several different positions. His defensive skills are suspect, so Celtics fans can only hope that they will improve as he matures.

When the trade with Philadelphia was announced, Boston fans were reminded that they were seeing a reprise of 1980. That year the Celtics lost in the Conference Finals, had the number one pick in the Draft, and traded it to Golden State for the number three pick and a player. Substitute that player for a future pick, and 1980 mirrors 2017. But in 1980 that player was center Robert Parish, and the Celtics selected Kevin McHale with that third pick. Along with Larry Bird they formed the foundation of a team that won three titles.

Maybe Tatum will turn out to be as good as McHale. But what he almost certainly isn’t is a franchise-changing talent; what he definitely isn’t is an established star who can take the Celtics to the elite level needed to contend for a championship. And there was no Robert Parish in Ainge’s deal with Philadelphia. Given the number one overall pick, Boston parlayed that good fortune into the third selection in the Draft and yet another high draft choice down the line.

As he has stockpiled draft picks, Celtics fans have long assumed that Ainge had some master plan for utilizing them. The question has always been when that plan would be revealed. Now it’s fair to ask whether there really is a plan at all. Perhaps it’s just to wait until LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry get old and retire. As plans go, that one’s not very fan-friendly.

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