It was hard to imagine things getting any sweeter for Celtics fans after Monday’s game-seven victory over the Wizards, but they have. The NBA Draft Lottery is in the books, and Boston officially has the first overall selection in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Picking first is the ideal scenario for any team, and it is particularly exciting for the Celtics given their current level of competence. The number-one pick rarely goes to a team with any sort of near-term prospects, let alone one that reaches the Conference Finals.
Securing the top spot puts Boston in the best possible position, regardless of what they choose to do with the pick. Should they keep it, the Celtics have assurance they can draft whatever player they please—no negotiating, posturing, or compromising required.
There are no guarantees here. The scouting and selection process is notoriously difficult. Still, the historical record suggests that the player drafted first overall tends to outperform peers.
Take a look at the averages for players selected with the first four picks over the last ten years (per Basketball Reference):
#1 Picks: 17.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.5 APG, .92 SPG, .84 BPG, 19.7 PER, .54 TS%
#2 Picks: 12.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, .85 SPG, .59 BPG, 14.5 PER, .53 TS%
#3 Picks: 14.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, .82 SPG, .81 BPG, 17.4 PER, .56 TS%
#4 Picks: 12.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, .89 SPG, .66 BPG, 14.9 PER, .52 TS%
There is real reason to believe that the first overall pick will provide more production than someone selected in the two through four slot, particularly because any sort of clear generational talent is likely to be taken number one.
There are caveats to be had. A ten-year window isn’t a perfect data set, and looking longitudinally doesn’t account for the fact that some players are easier to project than others. Holding the first pick in a draft with LeBron James in it, for example, is an advantage that defies historical trends- a reality working in Boston’s favor in this instance.
The Celtics have a lot more work to do before they can make a determination on whether or not a player like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball fits the bill as a franchise-altering prospect. But if they do, he’s theirs for the taking,
Of course, the Celtics could also opt to trade the pick. Holding the pole position means that Boston has maximized its leverage in any such scenario. Old trade targets like Jimmy Butler and Paul George remain in play, and the pick itself is valuable enough that Boston may even be able to dangle it for stars that have yet to be mentioned in rumors.
Boston would be wise to conduct its due diligence in what the top selection may yield via trade. They may be wiser still just to hold on to it, and add a blue chip prospect to the current roster. What’s most important is that landing the first overall pick gives them optimal flexibility, and its come without limiting the team’s competitiveness in the present.
That’s an enviable situation, and it’s a credit to Danny Ainge and the front office. If ever there were a reason for Celtics fans to rejoice, other than winning a championship, surely this is it.