They say that patience is a virtue. For Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics, a patient approach of hoarding assets over the last several years is finally paying off.
The Celtics resisted the urge to cash in the coveted draft pick owed to them by the floundering Brooklyn Nets in a trade deadline deal that ultimately wouldn’t have put this team over the top in their pursuit of a championship this season, opting to bet on their future instead.
After winning the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday night, it’s a gamble that has paid off with the pick now increasing in value.
This marks the first time since the lottery format was introduced that the Celtics have won the opportunity to select the top overall pick in the draft. There have been chances to land a franchise cornerstone in the draft over the years, but they’ve been vanquished by bad luck. There’s only so many times that Lady Luck fails to shine on a team before the fan base starts to wonder if their lottery odds are cursed.
It all started 20 years ago in a draft that showcased Tim Duncan as the ultimate prize. Boston finished with the league’s second worst record at 15-67, but an expansion rule agreement prevented the Vancouver Grizzlies from being rewarded with the top pick, giving the Celtics the best odds of winning the lottery. Under the formula used at the time, Boston had a 27.51 percent chance of landing the top pick and a 39.28 percent chance at a top-two pick. Unfortunately, the San Antonio Spurs leap-frogged over them to land Duncan, Vancouver got the second pick and Boston fell to third.
This is when the concept of a lottery curse initially came into play. The Celtics had a future Hall of Fame player in their grasp, only for Duncan to slip away. He would go on to establish himself as one of the best power forwards in NBA history while leading the Spurs to a handful of championships. Missing out on Duncan still stings for Celtics fans and remains one of the greatest “what If” stories in franchise history, as well as a cautionary tale against tanking for the top pick in a draft with only one sure-fire superstar.
Boston would end up taking Chauncey Billups with the third overall pick that year, which would have been a nice consolation prize if only they hadn’t dealt him away mid-way through his rookie season. Billups would later develop into a star in his own right with an outside shot at making the Hall of Fame someday, but he wouldn’t last long enough in Boston for this franchise to reap the benefits of his success.
The Celtics also owned the 6th overall pick that year from a deal made the previous year with the Dallas Mavericks, which means their chances to land the top spot were actually north of 30 percent when factoring in the extra ping pong balls from their second lottery pick. Unfortunately, we can’t blame karma, bad luck or the lottery gods for the decision to select Ron Mercer over Tracy McGrady. Blame Rick Pitino for that train wreck era of Celtics history. At least Pitino won’t be walking through that door again.
The following year the Celtics picked 10th, which is exactly where the lottery odds pegged them to be. While they weren’t blessed with lottery luck, the Celtics were very fortunate that nine other teams passed on Paul Pierce in the draft. Had they won the lottery the previous year, Duncan would have pushed their record high enough to put Pierce out of reach. Would we have been better off with Duncan instead of Pierce? Probably, although is anyone really complaining about 15 years of the Truth?
While Boston would return to the lottery for three consecutive seasons after that, they entered with no better than the 10th best odds in any of those lotteries. You could say that Boston didn’t get lucky, although failure to jump to the top spot with such long odds can hardly be considered a curse.
The Celtics wouldn’t have realistic odds of winning the lottery again until 2007, when they finished with the second worst record and had a 19.9 percent chance at the top pick. That year’s crop of prospects was highlighted by Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, the former of whom has become one of the best players in the game, while the latter is out of the league after a short-lived career derailed by injuries. There’s some debate about whether or not the Celtics would have taken Oden if they won the lottery, but fans resorting to revisionist history will point to missing out on Durant as another sign of this dreaded lottery curse.
Fans felt robbed of yet another franchise cornerstone when the Celtics fell all the way to fifth, but that pain was quickly erased when Ainge flipped that pick to Seattle for Ray Allen. Bringing in the sharpshooting Sonics star to pair with Pierce convinced Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to Boston, forming a new Big Three that would bring home a championship in 2008. Having Durant would have been nice, although a decade later he’s still seeking his first ring, while Banner 17 will forever hang from the rafters in Boston.
Boston avoided the lottery until Ainge blew up the Big Three by shipping an aging Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn in what may one day be looked at as the biggest heist in NBA history.
The Celtics entered the 2014 lottery with the fifth best odds, only to settle for the sixth pick when Cleveland shockingly jumped from No. 9 to the top spot. Boston selected Marcus Smart, who has become a solid contributor to their current core. Smart has outperformed the two players selected immediately in front of him in what was supposed to be a loaded draft, so falling back a spot didn’t end up hurting the Celtics.
Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither has made much of a mark on this league yet due to injuries. Andrew Wiggins was the prize of that draft, only to be dealt by the Cavs to Minnesota for Kevin Love. Wiggins has developed into a strong scoring option for the Timberwolves, but has yet to reach the lofty expectations he was projected for.
A year ago, the Celtics were eyeing Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram with the unprotected pick acquired from the Nets. They would have to settle for the third overall pick in a draft that many believed only included two players with superstar upside. Once again the Celtics weren’t lucky enough to move up, although considering they entered with the third best odds it’s hardly a massive disappointment that they stayed put in that spot.
Simmons missed the entire season, while Ingram is coming off of a horrifically inefficient rookie campaign. Boston is quite content with Jaylen Brown, who is making an impact on a playoff team. It’s too soon to judge how this trio will pan out in the long run, but this may be another example of a lack of lottery luck working in Boston’s favor.
Was there ever really a curse? We have two decades worth of evidence since the gut-wrenching 1997 draft that saw the Celtics miss out on Duncan that suggests otherwise. Boston may never have won the lottery during that stretch, but it’s difficult to find an instance where they had a realistic shot at the top pick only to be bitten by bad luck. The few times they were in the lottery, the odds were either significantly stacked against them to begin with or their supposed bad luck arguably ended up working out for the best anyway.
Those that believe that outside forces conspired to keep the Celtics from winning the lottery will be relieved to know that any curse hanging over the franchise was officially vanquished Tuesday night. Boston has finally won the lottery!
The Celtics are set up for greatness for a long time. They are in the Eastern Conference Finals this year, can add the best prospect in a loaded draft and can potentially lure another max free agent this summer. Oh, plus they have Brooklyn's pick again next year! The future is bright. In Danny we trust!