BOSTON — The Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans clash for the second time in two weeks on Monday night at TD Garden. The first meeting afforded an opportunity to remind everyone that Boston cannot trade for Anthony Davis this season and, after many Celtics fans circled July 1 on their calendars, the rematch is a good excuse to take a peek inside a Celtics’ treasure chest of future assets that may not be quite as glitzy as it once appeared.
If the Celtics desired to make a run at Davis — or any potential elite-level talent that might land on the market in the summer of 2019 — then they’re going to need some serious capital to get a team’s attention. And one of the quiet subplots to this wild NBA season is that Boston’s future draft stash isn’t quite as valuable as it used to be.
Ever since Danny Ainge fleeced the Brooklyn Nets on draft night in 2013, the Celtics have been swimming in a sea of future selections. Those Nets picks helped construct much of the core of the current roster in Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, all while Ainge and his staff kept making additional moves to stockpile even more future picks.
Coming into the 2018-19 season, Boston had the potential to collect as many as three other first-round picks but only the one owed from the Sacramento Kings — acquired when the Celtics traded down from No. 1 to select Tatum in 2017 — seemed likely to convey.
Instead, the Celtics are currently in line to receive all three picks in next year’s draft, opening the possibility of four first-round picks for a team that doesn’t have the roster space or consistent playing time to fully develop young talent (though, it should be noted, cheap young talent isn’t the worst thing for a team that will soon be paying big money for its top-end talent).
The worst news for Boston is that the Kings pick, once viewed as a possible gem with potential to land in the high lottery this year, is currently positioned at the back end of the lottery as Sacramento improbably sits above .500 and just outside the playoff picture in the West.
Here’s the good news for Boston: Sacramento has been rife with turmoil despite its hot start. A potential implosion could send that pick rocketing to towards the top of the draft.
A quick status check on all the picks Boston could collect this year:
* Kings Pick (Top 1 protected): The big fear for some Celtics fans entering the year was that, if the Kings continued their losing ways, they might put themselves in position to secure the No. 1 pick (forcing Boston to settle for Philadelphia’s first-round pick). Just the opposite, the Kings have quietly been a fun young team despite some front-office/coaching staff turmoil. With nearly a third of the season in the rearview, the Kings currently project around 38 wins, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. The good news: Only about a 3.6 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. The bad news: Long odds (12.3 percent) of a selection in spots 2-5.
* Grizzlies Pick (Top 8 protected): Another West overachiever, the Grizzlies are 15-10 and a mere 2 games back of the conference-leading Warriors. Like the Kings, it seems like Memphis might eventually fall back to Earth a bit and the Grizzlies are a mere 4 games from being the second-worst team in the West. Plenty could change but, should Memphis maintain its playoff position, Boston would likely be looking at a pick north of 15. Not ideal when you consider that protections on the pick start to wither (top-6 protected in 2020; unprotected in 2021).
* Clippers Pick (Lottery protected): When Doc Rivers was in Boston for the annual ABCD fundraiser he hosts with Celtics coach Brad Stevens every offseason, Rivers gushed about his new-look Clippers and the possibility they could surprise people. It seemed farfetched but, if the playoff started today, the Clippers would be hosting a first-round series (against LeBron James and the Lakers, no less, which would actually spoil any such advantage because they are joint tenants, but that’s beyond the point). The Celtics probably wouldn’t mind if this pick conveyed, if only because it morphs into a 2022 second-round pick if not delivered this year or next (when it’s also lottery protected).
So, if you include Boston's own likely late first-round pick, the Celtics could have four selections in Round 1 of the draft this year. And that wouldn’t help in any quest for Davis, considering the draft occurs before Irving can opt out of his current deal and re-sign, thereby loosing the CBA restrictions on Boston trading for Davis.
What seems likely is that Boston will make deals to push some of these picks into the future with hopes they might land in more valuable slots, too. The Celtics could also use the picks in any deals to reshape the end of the roster before the deadline this year (lingering over the luxury tax, Boston has motivation to trim salary, and picks could motivate teams to eat some).
Here’s the bigger takeaway: If all three picks convey, the Celtics are left with no other future first-round picks beyond their own picks in 2020 and beyond. That means the team would likely have to barter with their own young talent rather than future picks, and that adds a layer of difficulty to the trade equation.
The Celtics have known commodities in their young talent. In players like Tatum and Brown, they see potential future All-Stars and core pieces of title-contending teams. Boston is also bullish on Terry Rozier’s future, though his status as a restricted free agent this summer complicates matters as well.
If the Celtics desire to add an elite player next summer based on the assets they are likely to have at that point, then any package likely starts with Tatum. That’s a stomach-churning possibility considering the tantalizing glimpses the 20-year-old wing has displayed in the first 14 months of his NBA career. It’s a lot easier to make draft picks the centerpiece of a deal because what they become is unknown.
Having to part with known talent can make deals tougher to swallow and, yet, Ainge has repeatedly shown that he’ll make difficult decisions in order to raise his team’s ceiling.
What would help Boston is if recent first-round picks like Guerschon Yabusele and Robert Williams continue to develop and show high-ceiling potential.
Still, the question remains, will the Celtics have enough to pounce should an opportunity to chase another star arrive after July 1? It adds a little intrigue to how the Celtics utilize all their potential selections. Having four first-round picks this season would be nothing to sneeze at and, yet, four first-round picks wasn’t enough to get you Justise Winslow a few years back, let alone make the sort of move that would land you a legitimate superstar.
Keep in mind, the West is so jumbled that plenty could happen with the Kings, Grizzlies, and Clippers picks moving forward. But Boston’s treasure chest simply isn’t glowing quite as bright as it once did. Ainge has some work to do to make it shine again, though that task is always considerably easier when your team might already be a legitimate contender.
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