WALTHAM, Mass. – As the roars coming from Danny Ainge’s office dissipated, a new reality had set in.
For all of the shrewd decisions, monk-like patience, and detailed planning, Danny Ainge finally got the ultimate bit of luck when the Boston Celtics won 1st pick in the NBA Draft at the Lottery on Tuesday. Markelle Fultz is the consensus pick at this point, although Fultz being drafted by the Celtics is far from a foregone conclusion.
Success in this league will always require a big break of chance and the Celtics have always fallen just short. Then their luck flooded the lottery. The Celtics not only won the top pick but also won the draw twice more before the Lakers finally came up with the second pick. The fact that they are where they are is more a testament to management than credit to chance.
But Ainge, who has fleeced more teams than Vineyard Vines, just had the biggest break of them all. The top pick in a draft with at least one MVP-caliber prospect, on the eve of hosting Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals—it is unprecedented.
“It’s a good time to be a Celtic,” said several Celtics front office leaders repeatedly throughout the night. They can finally set off those fireworks piling up in Wyc Grousbeck’s garage.
They got to this moment with incredible discipline. They almost let it slip when offering a reported four draft picks to the Charlotte Hornets during the 2014 NBA Draft for Justice Winslow. Even Ainge cryptically admitted that he nearly let himself get the best of him. He is a man of action after all.
“I think that being patient, sometimes you need to be patient,” Ainge said when CelticsBlog asked if the lottery results reaffirmed his faith in patient development after standing pat at the deadline. “It’s hard for me to be patient. I like action.”
He’s seen plenty of action before, but now the momentum is reaching a bullet’s pace. They are no longer an upstart franchise with potential assets. They are now the second-best team in their conference with the chance to add Markelle Fultz. Ainge clarified Tuesday that they have not narrowed down their pick, of course, but Fultz is the clear front-runner.
He took the gamble that the certainty of his pick in June would bring much more leverage than the uncertainty at the previous trade deadline could afford. Now he has his best-case scenario. His team is showing they are on the precipice of the Finals, and he has the greatest asset in the game at his disposal.
“We got a lot offers in February [before the trade deadline], and I’m glad we didn’t trade the pick,” Grousbeck told the Boston Globe at the lottery drawing. “You can write that!”
Grousbeck has always been the Flava Flav to Danny Ainge’s Chuck D, hyping up his fanbase to allow Ainge to promote a pensive and careful demeanor. It’s allowed them to build the template for a dynasty, with all of the pieces no falling into place.
This is the kind of promise the Warriors used to lure Kevin Durant and the Cavs used to pull off the Kevin Love trade. It allows the Celtics to somehow catch up to these franchises both in the near future and the long run.
Ainge is now presented with a quandary: Draft Fultz and continue to believe in luck and their development staff, or go for Paul George and try to take down the Cavs and Warriors now.
“We are engaged and intense on a daily basis on talking deals and finding a way to get us to the top,” Ainge said. “We’re sitting here right now as Eastern Conference finalists and the number one pick and there’s a lot of fortune that’s come our way.”
Grousbeck expects to take the pick at this point, but obviously plenty can change.
“I’d imagine we take the pick,” Grousbeck said. “In today’s NBA, picks are very, very valuable. You’ve got a young person you can really help mold and grow with – bring him in before the max salaries kick in years later.”
There are two major issues with the trade route based on the current market. Paul George is an elite player, but it’s hard to be convinced that adding him to this team at the expense of the pick and likely Jae Crowder among others makes them as good as the Warriors. Jimmy Butler is even slightly less appetizing.
Ainge has a chance to pull off a two-phase era reminiscent of the Spurs dynasty, with Fultz leading the second wave.
In Fultz they are presented with a composite of everything a modern guard should be. He is born in the essence of John Wall and James Harden, with subtle body control and limitless possibility.
Assuming they take Fultz, which is not a foregone conclusion and will require intense due diligence, they will have to get him into the player-development phase. He has gotten by in the college game with a casual demeanor, leading to lackadaisical mechanics that will need to be strengthened and intensified according to a team source.
But this is an area of strength for the organization, which has seen improvement in deep shooting out of nearly everyone on their roster and has successfully pushed their rotation players to round out their games.
Fultz is excited, even retweeting San Antonio Stars WNBA player Kelsey Plum’s tweet that the Celtics should draft him. He would walk onto a team close to the title that is simultaneously ushering in a generation of high quality talent in Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele, and Ante Zizic. He would fit perfectly next to Isaiah Thomas, able to defend any wing and play as much off the ball as on the ball.
“Me and Isaiah Thomas would be a great backcourt,” said Fultz on CSNNE before the lottery Tuesday. “I think the opportunity that would be there would be amazing, just for him to play off the ball, where I think he’s better at it, or him to play on the ball and I can play off the ball. I think the chemistry would be amazing.”
When asked if this would be an issue, Ainge refuted it immediately.
“Not at all,” Ainge said. “Isaiah can play with anybody.”
Thomas spoke back in March about this possibility, welcoming the opportunity to play with the prize of his alma mater at University of Washington.
"He has all the tools," Thomas said. "He can shoot, pass, he's athletic. He's got nice size. He plays at his own pace. That's something you can't teach. Like, he's so poised in any type of situation."
"I can play with anybody," Thomas said. "I can play off the ball, I can come off screens, I can catch and shoot. So I think that's, even going back to college, my first couple of years I was off the ball. And then I can play on the ball as well. So a lot of guys can't do both, but I'm fine with doing both."
He’s done it even more in the playoffs, showing a template for the future where he can work off the ball as a classic shooting guard, fed by Horford and now Fultz. Brad Stevens has always valued flexibility over all else, and this would be taking flexibility to the next level.
Thomas is just entering his prime now, as is Avery Bradley. Horford has a game that should age well, as he already works the court like a 45-year-old at the Y. By the time Fultz hits his stride in year three or four, the core of this franchise should still be good enough to compete for the title. They won’t be looking for him to win a title next year, even though they will probably be good enough to be in that race anyway.
"We certainly don't have expectations for a number one pick to come in and turn our franchise around and make us a better team than where we are right now in the Final Four,” Ainge said. “I think that they can add to our team and help us in some capacity, but I think it's dangerous to think that a 19-year-old's going to come in and transform our franchise."
Something big will go down on draft night, whether it’s a trade out of left field, or just simply adding one of the best prospects of this generation. But once the draft is over, they still will have some major maneuvering in order.
The first step is the big free-agent acquisition, with Gordon Hayward being the obvious target. In fact, he may be the only available target that makes sense. If the Celtics were to pick Fultz, his $7.0 million salary would make squeezing in a max offer tricky. They would have to renounce all free agents, including Kelly Olynyk, and likely trade Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart.
The Celtics are already at a critical mass of guards, so this outcome is plausible. With Blake Griffin’s injury history becoming a serious red flag and the only other potential blue-chip free agents being point guards in their 30s in Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, there may not be any great player outside of Hayward for the Celtics to bring into their cap space. This would mean potentially matching Kelly Olynyk’s Brooklyn Nets offer sheet and retaining one of Bradley and Smart for the season would be a good move.
Ainge’s track record shows he will always be able to find an opportunity that enhances the team for the long run. He ends up with the top pick as a result of his historic Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade to the Brooklyn Nets.
The gift that keeps on giving.
And look what I leave behind for the Celts on my way out #1 pick— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) May 17, 2017