Part I of this three part series looked at the notion that the Celtics couldn't beat Cleveland or Golden State this year.
Fallacy number two of three is that the Celtics couldn’t/shouldn’t possibly give up this year’s first round pick swap rights with the Brooklyn Nets in a trade for a superstar. That pick is seen as virtually untouchable in a draft that is loaded with talent, especially at the top where Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson loom large. But is that pick nearly the lock to be destined for greatness that is seems to be?
First, the Celtics need to get the first overall pick to make sure they get the guy they want. That is far from a predetermined outcome. Unlike the NFL, where the worst record gets the top pick, the NBA uses a lottery system. Let’s assume the Nets finish with the worst record, as they are well on their way at eight games behind (or ahead of if you’re an optimist!) the second worst team in the NBA. While that gives Boston the catbird’s seat for the top spot, it is still only a 25% chance the right combination will come up to give the Celtics the number one overall selection. From there the odds drop to 21.5% for the second pick, 17.8% for the third pick, before settling at 35.7% odds that the Celtics swapped pick with Brooklyn will land at fourth overall.
That’s right. There is a better chance that the Celtics will pick fourth overall than anywhere else. Now, this draft is deep, as before mentioned, but that would be a crushing development and significantly lessen the value of that draft pick. For all of us who have watched the Nets season spiral down the toilet only slightly less intently than the Celtics’ own season, it would harken back to the 1997 NBA Draft. Not to make anyone reading retch and gag, but Boston went in to that lottery dreaming of Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn and came out of it with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer, neither of whom lasted two full years with the Celtics.
A similar scenario played out in 2007. The Celtics dreamed of Kevin Durant or Greg Oden (dodged a bullet there! More on that later.), but dropped instead to fifth overall, despite the second worst record in the league. The absolute worst scenario possible played out as Portland, Seattle and Atlanta all jumped up in the lottery to snag picks one through three. Everything worked out just fine, as Boston traded the pick along with some players to pick up Ray Allen. That trade directly led the way to a later trade for Kevin Garnett, but had those deals not happened it would have been a disaster of a development for the Celtics.
Fallacy number two is driven by the unrealistic expectation that the Nets pick absolutely will deliver the number one overall selection. It certainly could, but it is nowhere near the lock that some believe it to be. And that means it certainly could, and probably should, have been on the table in trade talks.
But let’s stay positive here and assume that lottery luck shines on the Celtics for the first time and they do get a top pick. The second half of fallacy number two is assuming that even if the pick lands at the top, or even in the top three, that it will deliver a franchise changing superstar. The chart below shows each of the top three picks since 1995. Players highlighted in yellow have made at least one NBA All-Star appearance. The two most recent drafts were left out to give those players time to make an All-Star appearance.
Well, so much for staying positive! As you can see, only in 1999 has a draft seen all three of the picks appear in even one All-Star game. That is 20 years’ worth of drafts and just one time that has occurred. Three times none of the top three have appeared (although 2014 has a good chance to get at least one player in the All-Star Game), seven times two of three have appeared and a whopping nine times, almost half of the dataset, only one player has made even one All-Star appearance.
Let’s go a little deeper. The 1999 class, the only one who saw all three top picks make an All-Star appearance, managed just seven total All-Star berths. And it isn’t like Elton Brand, Steve Francis or Baron Davis had remarkably short careers either. Those three combined to play 39 seasons, which gives them a rate of one All-Star appearance for every 5.6 seasons played. On average, the top three picks over the 20 year sample have played for 9.6 seasons for every All-Star appearance. This is obviously skewed by the more recent players not having had the opportunity to play for more than a handful of years in some cases. Let’s then look at only a sample from the 1995-2007 NBA Drafts, where the players there would have had an opportunity to have played at least 10 seasons. You are still looking at an average of one All-Star nod for every 4.2 years played. Not exactly an inspiring rate.
During that same time period of 1995-2007, the average career length of a top three pick is 11.7 years. That leaves us with an average of just under three All-Star appearances for a career out of the players drafted in the top three picks between 1995 and 2007. Again, not really an inspiring rate. And this is significantly skewed by Tim Duncan (15 All-Star Games), LeBron James (13), Allen Iverson (11) and Carmelo Anthony (10).
So, where does this leave us? First, we can’t be certain that Boston will come up with one of the top three picks. Remember: there are 35.7% odds that they don’t. If they do, there is certainly no guarantee that pick will develop into a multiple time All-Star, if he makes even one game. And forget about becoming an MVP. Of the 60 players drafted in the top three in our dataset, only five have won an MVP award. That is a 1 in 12 shot you’ll draft an MVP. Before you argue “But James and Duncan won multiple MVPs!” there is always someone in every era who wins multiple MVPs. But if you really want to go there, those players who won at least one MVP (James, Duncan, Iverson, Durant and Derrick Rose) combined to win nine MVP awards. That gives you slightly better odds at 3 in 20 that you can draft an MVP. Still not something you are betting the farm on.
And none of this touches on the fact that the Celtics haven’t exactly had the best luck in the NBA Draft in their history. The last player drafted by Boston to play in an All-Star game as a Celtic was Paul Pierce, who coincidentally was drafted 10th overall. Before that was Antoine Walker, who was the 6th overall pick. Before Antoine wiggled his way to the All-Star game, it was Reggie Lewis, drafted 22nd overall. And before Reggie, you have to go all the way back to Danny Ainge, drafted 31st in 1981. Four players in 36 years. Or one player every nine years.
To summarize: no lock the pick ends up in the top three. No lock that if it does, that the player drafted will be a multiple time All-Star, as we see one All-Star appearance every nine years. And every nine years happens to be the rate at which Boston has drafted a player to appear in the All-Star game as a Celtic over the last 36 years. And the last of that bunch is Danny Ainge, who gets to make the pick this year for Boston as the GM of the Celtics. Way to bring it full circle huh?
Part III will examine whether or not the often stated claim that “Boston can sign a max free agent in 2017” is true or not. You might be surprised just how tricky that might be.