Under the currently constituted NBA Draft lottery rules, the Celtics are in as interesting a position as they could be ahead of the ping-pong ball results dropping on May 17. With rights to the Nets' 1st-round pick, they find themselves in the third lottery slot behind the 76ers and Lakers thanks to BKN's late-season tailspin and a couple of clutch wins by the Suns. But uncertainty is rampant. Apart from whether or not the Cs will keep the pick, the team could end up with anywhere from the first overall selection to the sixth. The difference between those two positions means the world, particularly on the trade market.
In a system once based on selecting envelopes, Boston's odds run from a 15.6% chance of receiving the first pick, 15.7% chance of grabbing the second, 15.6% chance of being third, 22.6% fourth, 26.5% fifth, and a 4% likelihood of sadly sliding to sixth. Unfortunately that puts the Cs at even probability of scoring a top-three selection or Isaiah Thomas getting a crying Jordan face photoshopped on him as the team slides out of the mix. That possibility is nerve-racking to think about, but that's how rebuilding in this league has always been, a game largely predicated on chance.
With that in mind, even though it weighs little on their current situation, I decided to go back and look at past teams in the Celtics' position. Disregarding old percentages and the days when teams were basically picked out of a hat, that gives us 11 years of turnouts since the lottery field expanded to fourteen teams in 2005. Let's see how the ping-pong balls have bounced for those teams in the third slot.
2005 Charlotte Bobcats (18-64). Result: Fell to 5th overall pick. Decision: Drafted UNC guard Raymond Felton.
In their first appearance in the lottery the Bobcats entered tied with the Hornets (whose name they now use) for the second-best odds, which splits the percentages between the two teams. It didn't initially work out for either as 30-52 Milwaukee won the lottery and selected Andrew Bogut while the Blazers jumped from the fifth slot to the third pick, knocking both of them out of the top three. The Hornets, a pick ahead of them, ended up with a guy named Chris Paul who ended up being pretty good for them. In five seasons with the Cats, Felton averaged 13.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game while shooting an effective 45% from the field. He would only miss 11 games in five years with the team before departing for the Knicks on a two-year, $15.8 million deal after helping Charlotte reach the playoffs for the first time in 2010.
2006 Charlotte Bobcats (26-56). Result: remained at 3rd overall pick. Decision: Drafted Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison.
A year after the Felton selection, Charlotte entered the draft with eight more wins and their odds once again split, this time with the Hawks for the 3rd/4th slots. The Raptors, in the fifth slot, won the lottery and selected Andrea Bargnani, while the Bulls, who owned New York's second selection, picked up Lamarcus Aldridge and shipped him to Portland. The Bobcats, this year claiming their own third pick, drafted Morrison, whose career ended up being a flop. Michael Jordan's first draft pick as owner posted 11.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game on 42% eFG his rookie season before tearing his ACL in the 2007 preseason. After returning in 2009 he was traded to the Lakers with Shannon Brown for Vladamir Radmonovic.
2007 Milwaukee Bucks (28-54). Result: fell to 6th overall pick. Decision: Drafted Chinese forward Yi Jianlian.
Celtics fans, we all remember this year well. The Cs slid to the fifth pick with the second-worst record before using it to acquire Ray Allen. Well, it could've been worse. Milwaukee, who owned the third slot, remains the only team to ever take the maximum possible descent from third to sixth, and it played out as you'd imagine. While China's Jianlian entered the league behind massive fanfare and praise from the likes of Yao Ming, his impact, like Yao's, was ultimately hindered by injuries. After a contract dispute before his rookie season, the talented seven-footer appeared in 66 games averaging 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds. A knee injury ended his season in early April, and he would later be shipped out for New Jersey's Richard Jefferson in an offseason trade. By 2012, Yi would be returning to China. It could've been worse though: Portland ended up with Greg Oden.
After Milwaukee's slide, the Wolves were able to hold on to the third position in '08, and it led to one of the biggest moves in the franchise's history. That night the team shipped Mayo, Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker, and Greg Buckner to Memphis for rookie Kevin Love, Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, and Jason Collins. While Love and future All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, who was taken fourth by Seattle, were available while Minnesota was drafting, the trade ended up being a long-term win for the Wolves. Love carved out one of the most successful tenures in team history, averaging 19.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on 50% effective shooting in six seasons. While he never led the team to the playoffs and injuries heavily limited his larger impact (he missed 128 games), he was ultimately dealt in 2014 for Andrew Wiggins, who projects to be the future of the franchise along with Karl-Anthony Towns. Mayo, meanwhile, went on to become a solid contributing scorer for Memphis, Dallas, and now Milwaukee.
2009 Los Angeles Clippers (19-63). Result: jumped to the 1st overall pick. Decision: Drafted Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin.
Here's a result you love to see. Going in at the third slot, lottery night 2009 ended up being the most important event in Clippers history, as the team slid into position to draft their cornerstone. It didn't look bright at first. After landing awkwardly on a preseason dunk days before the season, Griffin would injure his kneecap and miss the entire 2009-10 season. The wait would be worth it though, as Griffin returned as the '10-'11 rookie of the year, averaging 22.5 points. He has since done it all for the franchise, from flashy dunks to excellent passes, and he has turned the Clips from the league's laughing-stock to a destination. In six seasons he has averaged 21.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.0 steal per game on 52% shooting. Griffin finished the 2014 season third in MVP voting and paired with fellow All-Star Chris Paul via trade, as well as Doc Rivers in a deal that left the Cs with RJ Hunter (thanks, we still have Stevens, it's cool). Griffin's tenure with the team has yielded five trips to the playoffs, and while injuries have snuck in here and there, as well as an off-court fight with a trainer this year, he still remains a fixture in L.A. Griffin is an example of how a lottery win can change a franchise overnight.
2010 Sacramento Kings (25-57). Result: slid to the 5th overall pick. Decision: Drafted Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins.
Unlike the Clippers, the Kings slid and still found their centerpiece with the fifth overall pick, but it hasn't culminated in the same success. While Cousins has averaged 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game with two All-Star appearances over six seasons, the team has failed to appear in the playoffs. He's continued to progress and is one of the 15 or 20 best players in the NBA, but a combination of his fiery attitude and a wildly unpredictable ownership group have resulted in infamous chaos, such as the owner-organized team meeting to discuss firing coach George Karl in the middle of this past season. As this case shows, you can hit a home run on draft night and still fall on your face rounding first.
2011 Toronto Raptors (22-60). Result: slid to the 5th overall pick. Decision: Drafted Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas.
The upside: while not a game-changer like the two before him, Valanciunas was a sound pick that has been a significant factor in the Raptors becoming Eastern Conference contenders. The downside: he isn't the player who's going to push them over the hump into Finals contention. Nevertheless there's still potential for growth for the 23-year-old, and he's ahead of the fellow big men in his class (Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Bismack Biyombo), averaging 11.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game on 56% shooting. But those selected behind him? Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler. Making the sound pick in solid positioning isn't always the best route.
2012 Cleveland Cavaliers (21-45). Result: slid to the 4th overall pick. Decision: Drafted Syracuse guard Dion Waiters.
Swing and miss, and a brutal one at that. Waiters has been a consistently disastrous pro between his decision-making and off-court troubles that were a constant weight on the back of the Cavaliers until they dumped him to the Thunder in a deal that brought J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland from the Knicks. While the result wasn't terrible for Cleveland (the return of LeBron James solved some of their issues, of course), the pick was. Waiters was a 42% shooter on 13.8 attempts per game in three seasons with Cleveland, and he seemed to constantly have problems coexisting with his teammates. Stud point guard Damian Lillard was likely out of the question with the team drafting Kyrie Irving the year prior, but they overlooked other great talents as well from Harrison Barnes to Andre Drummond. Continued losing gave them extra chances, and they're probably happy where they are now.
2013 Cleveland Cavaliers (21-58). Result: jumped to the 1st overall pick. Decision: Drafted UNLV forward Anthony Bennett.
Wait, did I call the last pick a swing and a miss? This one was the golden sombrero, one of the worst selections in NBA draft history, and an example of the aforementioned extra chances the Cavs had received. Bennett was a disaster from day one and is already out of the NBA in 2016. He averaged 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in his lone season in Cleveland while shooting a dreadful effective 38%. He was packaged in the team's blockbuster deal that summer (with Wiggins of course) to acquire Love and complete their big three, but that required one of the luckiest lottery wins imaginable the next year (Cleveland won with 1.7% odds). While the long-term effects of the Bennett selection won't be felt by Cleveland, it still shows how a successful lottery night doesn't always lead to a great draft night for a team.
2014 Orlando Magic (23-59). Result: slid to the 4th overall pick. Decision: Drafted Arizona forward Aaron Gordon.
A solid selection, but not one that has changed Orlando's fortunes like they hoped. It could've been worse, as Philadelphia snagged Joel Embiid a pick before them, and he has yet to play an NBA game. However, several players selected after Gordon, such as Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, and even Rodney Hood, have proven to be better pros thus far. The youth is what's promising about NBA prospects like him. Gordon is just 21 years old and has shown great promise, averaging 7.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and an effective 50% shooting over two seasons. Gordon has also put on one of the great dunk contest spectacles we've seen in the 21st century.
2015 Philadelphia 76ers (18-64). Result: remained at 3rd overall pick. Decision: Drafted Duke center Jahlil Okafor.
Following the flop of the Embiid selection, Philadelphia again entered the draft with a top-five pick looking for the star that would propel them from Sam Hinkie's everlasting tank-fest. Instead, they ended up with another young prospect full of uncertainty and are now going away from "the process," having let Hinkie go after finishing 2015-16 with the worst record in the NBA. Okafor wasn't a poor selection by any means and averaged an outstanding 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game on 51% shooting, but he also demonstrated the difficulty with hanging a team's fortunes on the impact of young prospects. Losing frustrated Okafor visibly and resulted in antics like a fight with fans in the streets of Boston that drew criticism. Whether the team commits to him going forward is yet to be seen, but his selection shows the continued challenge with depending on teenagers to immediately impact losing teams.
2016 Boston Celtics (48-34). Result: We'll see on May 17. Decision: ????
The results of past teams in the third slot have no bearing on what will happen to the Celtics later this month, but they do showcase the uncertainty present in building through the draft or utilizing it as a means to building a contender. Eight of the aforementioned teams remained at the three spot or slid lower, which the odds say will happen to Boston as well. However, some teams, like the Clippers, didn't slide, and it changed the franchise forever. Draft decisions will always be second-guessed, but looking back at the past tells us one thing for sure: it's always interesting being in the top three slots of the lottery; it's where the action is. Thank you, Billy King.