The Memphis Grizzlies, improbably in playoff position at the midpoint of the 2019-20 season, make their lone visit to Boston on Wednesday night. Every flashy Ja Morant crossover or loud Jaren Jackson slam will be a painful reminder of how Memphis’ unexpected rise has diminished the value of the future first-round pick they still owe the Celtics.
The Grizzlies' pick, obtained by Boston in January 2015, once seemed destined to become a glitzy unprotected 2021 selection. At various times, it’s seemed untouchable or, at very worst, the prize gem in any big-splash move the Celtics might make to enhance their roster.
Instead, the Grizzlies jumped on the rebuilding accelerator and, suddenly, the value of that Memphis pick is very much in flux. Winners of seven of their past eight, the Grizzlies currently sit eighth in the West and are more likely to convey a pick in the teens this season, barring a lottery-night vault.
The Memphis pick is top-six protected this year, meaning it conveys to Boston if it lands at No. 7 or worse in this year’s draft. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the pick currently has only an 11.3 percent chance of slotting in spots 1-6. If the Grizzlies make the postseason, the pick would be no better than 15th overall but even a second-half slide might not push it below double digits. A pick can vault into the top four spots under the new lottery format and teams are slotted by order of finish after that.
This is less than ideal for the Celtics, if only because of the value the pick would have otherwise held this summer if it had rolled over to 2021 and become unprotected. Even if the Grizzlies projected as a legitimate playoff contender, the unpredictability of an NBA season would have kept the value high.
What’s more, the tepid outlook on the 2020 draft class could further diminish the overall value of a conveyed pick. Don’t misconstrue, it’s still a luxury for the Celtics to have another potential lottery selection in their possession and the opportunity to add more cost-controlled talent to a top-heavy cap sheet could aid the team’s quest to be a long-term contender.
Still, these Celtics are already trying to figure out where 2019 first-round picks Romeo Langford (14th) and Grant Williams (22nd) fit with this team. And what will become of 2018 first-rounder Robert Williams once healthy? All of this year’s rookies have had encouraging moments but, as the lopsided win over the Lakers on Monday night showed, the rookies probably don’t project for big roles in Boston’s playoff rotation.
So, the lingering question with the Grizzlies pick is whether Boston would be better served to use it as a trade asset — whether that’s in-season this year to pursue additional veteran help, or over the summer when they might have more glaring needs to fill. Remember, too, the Celtics already have two other first-round picks in the 2020 draft — their own, currently projected at No. 23, and the Bucks’ pick, currently projected at No. 30.
The Celtics learned the hard way how fast draft picks can shift in value. In between all the Nets picks — which Boston hit home runs by drafting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but whiffed on mid-round pick James Young — and Griz pick there was the much-ballyhooed Kings pick. Much like the Grizzlies this year, Sacramento made an unexpected charge at the playoffs last season and Boston settled for the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft that they used to select Langford.
Could the Celtics have sold higher? Maybe. It certainly had more value in the summer before it conveyed when the Kings tied for the sixth-worst NBA record at 27-55. Adding insult to injury, the Kings have reverted to a pumpkin this year, and now sit tied for the second-worst record in the West.
If nothing else, the Kings pick should encourage Boston to at least consider the idea of moving the Grizzlies pick should an intriguing deal emerge — or at least one in which Boston's two late first-round picks wouldn’t be enough to make it happen. Ultimately, the Celtics played the long game with the Grizzlies pick and will be rewarded one way or another — maybe just not as handsomely as they once hoped.
A roster-churning Celtics squad originally landed the pick in 2015 after dealing Jeff Green to Memphis as part of a three-team swap that also brought back Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers. The pick, dealt when the Grizzlies were in the midst of a 55-win season, had enough protections to make it a very low-risk maneuver for Memphis. But then the team’s Grit-and-Grind era ended sooner than anticipated and an uncertain rebuild arrived. It looked like the pick could very well convey as unprotected in 2021.
Instead, Morant has muscled his way into being the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award and morphed Memphis from a 20-win projection to a team pushing the Spurs for the final spot in the West.
This is the first of two matchups between the Celtics and Grizzlies this season. Boston can help its own draft cause with a win. That Memphis pick might never be as sexy as it once was but it’s still a key asset for the Celtics in shaping their roster moving forward.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.