As a Celtics fan, watching Game 2 was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. Even uglier than the sight of the Elephant Man, or this blobfish. It was as if the varsity scrimmaged the JV. Or maybe not even the JV. The whole debacle reminded me of my high school football days when a scout offense full of freshman and sophomores (as well as the rare senior thrown into the mix) would line up against the varsity defense. Suffice it to say, things usually didn’t go so well: a successful play meant getting back to the line of scrimmage.
And that’s what Game 2 felt like. It was surprising to see the Celtics even score a basket, or the Cavaliers miss a shot. But I suppose since we dropped our first two home games against Chicago, there’s hope that we can come back against Cleveland…
…or maybe not. But there’s still not much to be ashamed of! The Celtics have had a great season. For the fourth straight year, our record improved under Brad Stevens. Moreover, we met–and I’d say even surpassed–preseason expectations by making a deep playoff run. And even though we’re about to be bounced unceremoniously by a far superior squad, we’re on the clock for the number one pick!
Forget about the fact that the Celtics are about to get swept in embarrassing fashion: we made it to the Eastern Finals and will have the number one selection in the draft. Think about it: imagine if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost in the AFC title game to the Patriots, had the opportunity to draft Myles Garrett. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers brass would’ve been doing hula hoops. Celtics fans should be doing the same.
Here’s where it gets tricky, though. As of now, the two players who could conceivably be drafted number one overall, Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, are both guards. But we really don’t need any more guards. Isaiah Thomas just finished 7th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating and was named second-team All-NBA. Even though he is about to turn 29 and will be due for a huge contract when he hits free agency after next season, it would be foolish for the Celtics to move on from an established star like Thomas. Moreover, the Celtics also have Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Both are in their 20’s, and Smart, in particular, is only 23. It remains to be seen whether the Celtics will be hang on to both of these guys, especially considering that Bradley will also be a free agent after next season. Yet based on how Danny Ainge has refused to give up these guys in previous trade offers with teams like Philadelphia, it’s clear the Celtics highly value both Bradley and Smart.
So as far as next season is concerned, it’s hard to imagine next year’s Celtics benefitting from drafting another guard like Fultz or Ball. In all likelihood, they’d have about as much of an impact as Jaylen Brown, last year’s number three overall pick. Fultz or Ball would likely contribute, but probably not play a meaningful role. Of course, there’s no telling how good Fultz or Ball might actually be as rookies, but nonetheless, in order to stand more of a chance to potentially upset the Cavs in the short-term, the Celtics would be better off trading the number one pick in exchange for another star player, preferably a forward like Jimmy Butler or Paul George. This is certainly an appealing option because Boston could undoubtedly use another scorer in addition to Thomas.
However, would a guy like Butler or George really put Boston over the top? In other words, will trading the number one pick for another proven star make any difference considering LeBron James continues to run the East? Short answer: probably not. Plus, acquiring another star in the prime of his career wouldn’t necessarily lengthen their window of opportunity. It would strengthen the Celtics as the second best team in the East, to be sure. But it still wouldn’t put them above the Cavs in the short-term (1-3 years).
Playing the long game has allowed the Celtics to transform from a 25-win team in 2013-14 to an Eastern Conference finalist three years later, and it would serve them well to continue to be patient. That means the following: hang on to the number one pick and draft either Fultz or Ball. Though high lottery picks don’t guarantee success, they’re the surest route to finding a franchise player. Just look at seven of the previous nine number one picks:
- 2008: Derrick Rose
- 2009: Blake Griffin
- 2010: John Wall
- 2011: Kyrie Irving
- 2012: Anthony Davis
- 2013: Anthony Bennett
- 2014: Andrew Wiggins
- 2015: Karl-Anthony Towns
- 2016: Ben Simmons
The jury is still out on Simmons, of course, but only one of those players in that group has turned into a bust (Bennett). The rest have all turned in to All-Star-caliber players.
However, reaping the rewards of drafting a player number one overall usually takes time. The Timberwolves have failed to reach the playoffs the past three years even with Wiggins and Towns. The Pelicans still haven’t won a playoff game with Davis. Cleveland didn’t get good until LeBron joined Irving.
Yet this trend is no different than how the markets value companies. It took years for Amazon to finally make a profit. That didn’t stop them from becoming the world’s fourth most valuable company. Uber is currently losing records amount of money for a tech company. They’re still likely to be 2017’s most anticipated IPO if they decide to go public. So the takeaway is this: the markets value a company’s long-term prospects, not short-term profits. High lottery picks in the NBA draft essentially work the same way: results may be minimal in the short-term, but gains are usually big down the road.
Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens must also realize that the window of opportunity with their current cohort isn’t as large as they may think. Sure, a birth in this year’s Eastern Finals is great. But teams like the Raptors and Pacers probably thought they were heading for even bigger things after they made trips to the conference finals in recent years. Now both are on the verge of a total of rebuild. And with key players like Thomas and Bradley in need of contract extensions and Al Horford entering his 30’s, the Celtics can’t expect to continue competing at a reasonably high level with their roster as constituted.
The beauty of our position is that we can afford to develop a guy like Fultz and Ball, like we did with Jaylen Brown this season, and remain competitive in the East. The dilemma, though, is that drafting Fultz or Ball doesn’t necessarily improve the Celtics in the short-term. And based on what has transpired so far against Cleveland, bringing in another young player may look foolish in favor of acquiring someone like Butler, George, or Gordon Hayward.
Nonetheless, patience is the route the Celtics should take. Sure, that might not be what Celtics fans want to hear because it means there is still no hope to win the East until LeBron declines. But let’s face reality: no one is beating Cleveland any time soon. And while their current grouping of Thomas, Bradley, and Horford is enough to remain competitive in the East, Ainge and company should be thinking about how they can mold Brown and this year’s number one pick, whether it is Fultz or Ball, to be the faces of the franchise three-five years down the line.