It’s crazy that the Boston Celtics are both picking first in the 2017 NBA Draft and competing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Brooklyn’s then-general manager, Billy King, in a desperate attempt to make the Nets relevant, was fleeced by Boston’s Danny Ainge, leaving the cupboard bare for the Nets. Meanwhile, Ainge and the Celtics gained power and leverage. They possess current success and future hope at the same time. That rarely happens in the NBA. We might talk ourselves into this being the case for a lot of teams, but it rarely exists.
Maybe the most infamous example of this situation resides in the most bitter rivalry of Celtics lore. In 1980, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Don Ford and their 1980 first-round pick. Ford was a forward averaging 3.0 points per game at the time. He finished 11th in minutes per game that season for the Lakers. The pick they traded ended up being Chad Kinch, who played one season of NBA basketball.
In return, the Cleveland Cavaliers gave the Lakers Butch Lee, a point guard who wouldn’t crack 100 games played in the NBA, and a 1982 first-round pick. In 1982, the Lakers beat Philadelphia in six games to win the NBA championship. Their stacked team of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper, and Jamaal Wilkes was the toast of the league. It seemed entirely unfair that the loaded NBA champs would then get to use that Cleveland pick to keep bolstering their team. Especially since the pick was going to be first in the draft.
All they did with the top pick in the 1982 draft was select future Hall of Fame forward James Worthy. He helped the Lakers win three more championships.
These Celtics are not those Lakers. Isaiah Thomas isn’t Magic Johnson. Al Horford doesn’t qualify as Kareem. Game 7 fourth quarters against the Washington Wizards aside, Kelly Olynyk can’t be confused with Wilkes. But the Celtics, either by force or by default, have established themselves as the second-best team in LeBron James’ conference. That doesn’t mean championship but it certainly means something for them.
Wednesday’s Game 1 against Cleveland might have tempered the enthusiasm of Celtics fans riding high after Tuesday. Boston secured a spot in the East Finals on Monday before winning the lottery on Tuesday. The bounty of Billy King provided the biggest prize of the 2017 draft process. And the Celtics still have an unprotected first-round pick from Brooklyn coming in 2018 too. Now the Celtics just need to figure out what to do with this good fortune.
Immediately, some wonder if the Celtics should reopen negotiations with Chicago or Indiana for their incumbent stars. Go acquire Paul George. See if the Bulls will make Jimmy Butler available. Ainge has tempted us in recent years with having the treasure chest to make trades but rarely coming through on the big transaction. He or someone close to the organization lets it be known “potential deals” they turned down, and the headline machine is fueled.
Game 1 reminded us that the East still belongs to LeBron James, as if anybody forgot. While the strength of the conference is entirely up for debate, James’ performance in this postseason shouldn’t be. He’s putting up 34.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per playoff game. Putting up those numbers past the first round has only been done one other time in NBA history — James did it in 2008-09 when he lost to Orlando in the conference finals.
His rare production right now also comes with the fifth-highest true shooting percentage in playoff history (minimum 190 shots). He toyed with various Celtics defenders in Game 1. He removed a lot of doubt about whether Boston might steal a game as the higher seed, which is a ridiculous thought process in general anyway. Taking down LeBron James means having heavy star power to counter his greatness. The Celtics have a quality team but they’re severely lacking that star power.
Ainge not giving away an asset like the Brooklyn pick this year in exchange for an established star may have been prescient. Everything for this season in Boston is gravy right now. They unexpectedly earned the No. 1 seed. Isaiah Thomas became an All-NBA level player this year when he probably wasn’t expected to. They possess the top pick in this draft. Even a demolition at the hands of James doesn’t sour the future. The Celtics just have to attack the future correctly to eventually wrestle away ownership of the East.
While trading for a star to help them combat James in the immediate future is enticing, building long-term success resides in using the draft pick on someone like Markelle Fultz. Most pick him to be the top player from this draft. In a league full of good point guards, Fultz can be the next one we celebrate. He has size and the ability to score. The point guard out of Washington gets to the basket and finishes at a high level. He can play with Isaiah Thomas if the Celtics end up keeping him long-term. Or he can supplant him as the Celtics allocate their money to other positions and potential stars.
The Celtics want to take down James, as eventually someone will. But where their focus should reside is beating teams like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington to being the next rightful heir to the East throne. The 76ers, if healthy, have one of the best and most exciting young cores in the NBA. Plus, they’re adding more intriguing prospects soon. The Wizards have an All-NBA caliber backcourt and pushed the Celtics quite well. The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo leading a lanky charge toward the top of the conference.
Boston has acquired good young players, but nobody that jumps off the page as a future star in the NBA. At least, they haven’t shown that yet. By using this top pick on Fultz, they get a chance at creating that kind of development leverage. If they want to do it again next year on someone like Michael Porter Jr. then maybe they’ve added another. They still have plenty of picks and young guys to utilize in future trades to bring in the next Butler or George or whomever.
Ainge has been patient so far in this rebuild/retooling. While some wonder if he’s sitting on his hands too much in potential trades, he has been biding his time waiting for the big swing. He hit gold with Thomas. He signed away Al Horford last summer. Ainge might have a great chance at wooing Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin this summer.
Nobody in the East is toppling LeBron James quite yet. Be the next team that organizations are building to take down.