On an afternoon where we were counting down the days until Markelle Fultz put on a Celtics cap, devoid of typical draft week chaos, knowledge Boston’s intentions next Thursday has gotten murkier. It wouldn’t be Danny Ainge’s team any other way.
The Celtics are reportedly in talks to send the number-one pick to the 76ers in exchange for a package of Philadelphia-owned picks. Boston would be balking at the chance to acquire Fultz in that scenario, especially given that Fultz is reported to be diverting his final Celtics meeting to one with the 76ers.
This idea the C’s are pondering likely has many layers and motives, it’s within Ainge’s nature to look several moves ahead. These are some potential ramifications and motives behind Boston’s interest in this deal.
Clearing cap space without harming the core of the team
The rumored NBA cap hike only lifting the ceiling of team salary to $101 million has been a highly-discussed thorn in the Celtics’ hope to sign a max-level free agent this summer. Retaining the team under contract as an appeal to said free agent, renouncing Kelly Olynyk and cutting ties with Tyler Zeller would have brought the team short of cap space for a max contract of $30.9 million with a roughly $7 million number-one overall pick salary factored in.
By moving to three, the Celtics reduce the amount they’ll have to pay their rookie to $5.6 million in 2017-18. That’s a significant drop that gets the team within $1 million of max contract space with all the other required moves and departures.
Move down #1 to #3 and Boston at $29.96 mil in space (if they cut all non-g) - a hair under the max by about $338k— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) June 16, 2017
Ainge has stated the possibility of keeping Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley in the fold as their backcourt this spring, and by moving down they can theoretically keep their current guard tandem and sign a max free agent by trading Terry Rozier or the number-three pick. They can also simply cut ties with one or both of Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson.
The Celtics may not be as thrilled with Markelle Fultz as we are
When Ainge drafted Rozier, he justified it amongst a crowded backcourt by saying he was the best player available. If that logic holds true in this situation, which it may not (given cap implications), drafting Fultz would seem like the right move even with many other guards on the roster.
The team may see another prospect (Josh Jackson being the rumored candidate by Chad Ford in his latest mock draft) as being a match or not too big of a drop-off from Fultz. It’s hard to imagine that, given the refined skill set of Fultz, but the Cs got a good look at him, and they could have some reservations even as most evaluators are loving Fultz.
There’s also the positional factor. To get the most out of Fultz the Celts would likely have to part ways with one of the three or four guards in front of him to make sense of the roster from a developmental standpoint. There’s less of a competing crowd on the wing.
The big risk here is that the Lakers pick second overall and are a candidate to draft Jackson, despite their constant connection to Los Angeles native Lonzo Ball. The Celts would have to rush in another direction or maybe even trade back again if the Lakes swipe Jackson from them. It would be hard to see the Celts select Ball, other than using him as trade bait, given that they’re passing up on Fultz in this deal.
The Celtics could have an idea that a free agent is coming
There are no assurances when it comes to advanced knowledge of free agency. Look at what happened a couple of years ago with DeAndre Jordan and the Mavericks.
Despite that, if the Celts feel confident in whispers that they can absolutely acquire Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin, or another marquee free agent they’re interested in, the cap implications of trading number-one makes even more sense.
This leaves much to chance, given that the draft happens before free agency and things can change, but to rise to the top of the NBA it takes some level of risk. To maintain the strongest possible team to pitch to a free agent now, this could be a feasible way to a max signing.
The LeBron James report from Kevin O’Connor that the King may leave the Cavaliers for the Lakers or Clippers in 2018 is a big factor here. If the Clips have any chance at James, it’s worth letting Griffin go to buy into that chance. That leaves Griffin free to explore his options elsewhere, and Adrian Wojnarowski said on the Vertical Podcast that the Cs are players on Griffin.
Jimmy Butler could be on the way
The Celtics could also be acquiring more first-round picks to deal for Jimmy Butler, per league source.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) June 16, 2017
The scenario that would most justify Boston passing up on the promise of Fultz is the possibility of getting a top free agent and swinging a deal for Jimmy Butler, who they have coveted for some time.
To sign a free agent and trade for Butler, the Celts need to have both cap space lined up to add the former, then have the assets in line to make the trade happen. The 76ers have a vast array of picks to give the Celtics that could help further facilitate a deal where the Bulls add future picks to start a rebuild. It would also help that the Celts would not have to trade Jae Crowder, Bradley, or Smart to facilitate the Hayward/Griffin/whoever signing. Those are players who could be crucial to a Butler trade.
This factor in the equation is crucial and could precede Boston’s free agent aspirations. The addition of Butler before July 1 could be the final nail in a player’s decision to come to Boston. If they trade the number-one pick before draft night, that gives this theory more momentum.
The Sixers currently hold their own pick next year, the Lakers’ first-round pick in next year’s draft, as well as the Kings’ first-rounder in 2019. Boston is likely to receive one of those picks in the deal, all of which are unprotected and could be another gold mine in addition to their unprotected 2018 Nets pick.
This can be a motive without being a primary one. The Celtics are in an era of LeBron James and Warriors dominance. They may be looking at this as a timeframe they can’t win in, and thus adding more future draft picks is a way to push contention further into the future.
That would be a damaging forecast for their free-agent ambitions, Thomas, and Al Horford. The Celts don’t have to dive all the way into this line of thinking though—they can line themselves up to get a great prospect in the future while still competing with what they have now.
In a way, this scenario is insurance for the many “what-ifs” of this trade. If a free agent doesn’t come, if they can’t get Butler, if they don’t get Jackson, then they will still have future picks to build around in the future. If they do get Griffin and Butler, or Hayward, and they can’t win a championship with that core, then they’ll still likely have picks left over.
With a massive bag of future picks, they could get the best of both worlds by trading some for Butler and keeping others to themselves. That puts a team in place to win now and maintain selections to build a future core down the line.
With the aforementioned risk of the Lakers selecting Jackson, there’s also the inherent other side to this trade. The Sixers will be building a core around Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid if this deal occurs. If that trio can grow to their potential, they will be scary competitors to the Celts within the East soon or in the future.
Even if James escapes West, Philadelphia, Miami and even Milwaukee lurk as potential competitors with the Celts down the line. The notion of helping one of them by providing Fultz to the Sixers could be the biggest risk the Cs are swallowing in this proposed trade. If Fultz blossoms into a star and is part of a core that beats out Boston, it’s a knock on Ainge forever.
He’s earned the right to take this monumental risk though; few other executives can.