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Harper | Danny Ainge spices up draft with trade of top pick

Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, left, talks with Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens before an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge loves to make trades. That is abundantly clear.

When it comes to acquiring assets and swapping out potential draft picks, Ainge has turned the Celtics into a dynasty. Nobody controls the NBA draft over the next three years quite like Ainge and his franchise. After the infamous trade with the Brooklyn Nets landed Boston the top pick in this year’s draft, he’s moved it to the Philadelphia 76ers less than a week before draft night.

The haul? Philly sends Boston the third pick in this draft and a valuable future first-round pick. Ainge will either get the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick in 2018 or the Sacramento Kings’ pick in 2019 (if the Lakers pick doesn’t convey). This haul doesn’t look as impressive as initial reports when we all thought that the Celtics received all three picks. The trade relies on the Lakers being a specific level of bad, which creates a high pick, but not so high that it prevents Boston the opportunity to acquire it. If the lottery balls don’t fall Ainge’s way, then he’ll have to wait a year to cash in on this move.

Either way, the draw of bringing Markelle Fultz into the fold in Boston lost its luster. Philadelphia badly wants him, and Ainge couldn’t help himself from grabbing more assets to possibly flip in the future. A gluttony of guards in their backcourt helped sway the decision to pass on Fultz and accept the picks Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo sent out. But any members of that gluttony of guards could just as easily find themselves on the way out if Ainge feels he can bolster the future of the Celtics without them. If anything, Ainge may have painted himself into a bit of a corner with this move to make a bigger splash this summer .

The Celtics should have some big targets in both trades and free agency. Flipping picks and assets for Jimmy Butler will again end up on the hot stove around draft time. The Chicago Bulls would have to relent on the fantasy that they’re building something good in Chicago right now. Ainge and the Bulls had discussions this time a year ago involving the pick that eventually became Jaylen Brown.

Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin will get the pitches from the Celtics that Kevin Durant and Al Horford received last summer. We still don’t know if Hayward and Griffin are big enough names to get Tom Brady to come hang out with them, like he did with Durant.

Nobody knows how seriously Griffin will entertain leaving Los Angeles. Many people around the league believe Hayward will seriously consider leaving Utah for Boston or Miami. However, that comes from people outside of Hayward’s camp and could just be wishful thinking. The key tie-in for the Celtics is Brad Stevens, who coached Hayward in college. It may also be easier to pitch Hayward on coming to the East to eventually take down LeBron James (who is 32 years old), as opposed to staying in the West, where all four of the Golden State Warriors’ all-stars are still in their 20s.

Ainge finally got a big signing under his belt in this rebuild a year ago when Horford agreed to come to Boston. It had its benefits in helping the Celtics secure the top seed on the East. But once we got to a showdown with James and Cleveland in the conference finals, that signing was rendered sort of futile. If the Celtics’ plan is to knock the Cavaliers off as soon as possible, Butler and Hayward/Griffin have to be the big moves this summer. If the goal is to just be first in line when James finally stops dominating the East, then the Celtics’ goal is to keep positioning themselves in front of Philadelphia and Milwaukee as teams with the brightest future.

That second goal becomes much clearer on Thursday when the 2017 NBA Draft takes place.

What can we expect on draft night?

The problem with a lot of draft pick scenarios for the Celtics is that it’s impossible to know how they feel. Smokescreens cloud the outsider’s view of the Celtics front office, and that’s by design. Things leak before, during and after potential moves by Ainge. As of right now, most people believe the target for the Celtics with the third pick is Josh Jackson out of Kansas. As we’ve profiled earlier in the year, Jackson’s flaws don’t outweigh the potential he brings to the wing position.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) celebrates during a second-round game against Michigan State in the men's NCAA college basketball tournament in Tulsa, Okla., Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Jackson looks like the most obvious pick here. He would join a crowded perimeter with Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Brown. But their presence wouldn’t preclude the Celtics from selecting Jackson. It also wouldn’t keep Ainge from feeling confident in his pitch to Hayward this summer. If the Lakers throw a wrench into everything by taking Jackson, then Ainge has to essentially decide between Jayson Tatum out of Duke or Lonzo Ball out of UCLA. That becomes dicey, especially if Ball never works out for Ainge.

The other possibility for the Celtics is moving the pick, in which case the Butler trade becomes the best-case scenario. Some Boston fans are praying someone the likes of  Anthony Davis becomes available for a bevy of future picks. Unless Dell Demps is actively trying to get himself fired, the New Orleans Pelicans will keep their franchise guy signed through 2021.

The Celtics could try to acquire Paul George from Indiana. But they’re unlikely to give up the No. 3 pick this year or anything big in the future with the chance of George bolting for the Lakers next summer.

To answer the question in the heading, we have no idea. This is the way the Celtics like it. This is the way Ainge has designed his rumor mill machine to work. Everything is on the table, even if nothing is on the table. Ainge’s draft history doesn’t bode entirely well for this No. 3 selection. Even for an executive who has done this for a long time, he has a high percentage of bad picks. But if you’re inclined to believe he’s going to make another trade involving this selection, you have to feel he’ll find a way to add more assets to flip down the road.

You just eventually have to see those assets flipped for a veteran all-star.

What does this mean for the future Celtics roster construction?

Passing on Fultz does create a bit of a conundrum. Before, Fultz seemed like insurance against needing to pay Isaiah Thomas a huge deal next summer. Even if the Celtics did back up the Brink’s truck for Thomas, they could move him early in the deal. Now, the Celtics won’t have that insurance unless you believe Terry Rozier becomes a star point guard. Not to mention, Fultz living up to the pre-draft hype turns this into a potential disaster for the Celtics aesthetically.

This could all change if Ball falls to the Celtics and they select him. If he’s half as good as his dad says he is, then the Celtics regain that insurance. Otherwise, the commitment to Thomas in 2018 seems like a lock. And that can work out just fine. Sure, Thomas might be the worst defensive starter in the NBA, but his value on the offensive end of the ball currently balances that out in Boston’s favor. Paying him $40 million per year or more in the later stages of the contract doesn’t seem like a great idea. That’s why having essentially nine years of control on Fultz, at a much lower salary for much of it, looked so attractive.

Fultz wasn’t going to fix the interior defense of the Celtics. But he could have helped fix the defensive deficiencies of their starting point guard position. The Celtics still have to find the star power to battle the Cavaliers, and the interior defense to protect against them.

If the Celtics are locked into Thomas long-term, it means that upgrading the wings this summer becomes a huge priority. They can acquire both Hayward and Butler, as mentioned above. It would likely cost them the contracts of Bradley and Crowder in the deal. Retaining a combination of Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk becomes impossible. And you still haven’t solved the interior defense issue.

Eventually, the Celtics must get rid of that glaring weakness. You don’t need Dikembe Mutombo in the middle, but you need resistance. That resistance never comes from Horford’s presence. It won’t come from selecting Jackson or Tatum.

Ainge and the Celtics walk away after this trade the same as they were before. They have options, and they love to have options. We have no clearer view of the future of this franchise and how its roster will look. The Celtics have more assets to use, and they’ve taken themselves out of the Fultz picture. We know they’ll provide a lot of smoke on draft night. We just have to see if Ainge has any more fireworks there for us to enjoy.

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