No one knows exactly why the Boston Celtics chose to trade away the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Rumors are circulating that there is another shoe to drop, that the Celtics are stockpiling draft picks to make a trade for an established superstar. That’s a real possibility.
Boston’s President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge, has a history of pursuing those kinds of moves, but he also has a history of doing so without actually executing them. It’s possible that Boston lands Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or some such similar name in the next few days, but, given Ainge’s track record, it’s just as likely that Boston winds up keeping and making the picks, too.
If the Celtics decided that Markelle Fultz isn’t actually the best prospect available, then trading out of the top spot makes a lot of sense. If Boston thinks they can still get the player they want with the third overall pick, then why wouldn’t they add another high first-round selection to their treasure chest of assets?
The question then becomes: if not Fultz, who do they want to draft? Conventional wisdom would suggest Josh Jackson is the target. ESPN reported that an anonymous NBA executive believed Boston would take Jackson #1.
"I've picked Danny's brain for years," he said. "Jackson is an Ainge player all the way. Tough, athletic, long, versatile, elite motor. If he's keeping the pick, Jackson just to me, far and away, is the most Celtics-type player for them to draft. From all my conversations with them, I'm convinced they'll take Jackson No. 1."
That quote is far from certain assurance, but if it’s true, then Boston’s trade with Philadelphia is a highly logical move. The Lakers have been long expected to take Lonzo Ball at number two, which would leave the Celtics with their man at three AND yet another first-round pick next year. Ainge gets to have his cake and eat it too, unless L.A. decides not to play along.
Sources: Lakers front office and Lonzo Ball's agent, Harrison Gaines, remain in discussions, but no guarantees made yet for No. 2 pick.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 19, 2017
The Lakers have made no guarantees to Ball and have taken several hard looks at Jackson as well. They may just be posturing publicly, in hopes of getting something out of the Celtics with the threat of taking Jackson one spot before Boston, but maybe that’s exactly what Ainge wants.
Let’s set some expectations. What follows is a conspiracy theory, not a rumor, and not even necessarily what I believe is going on, but let’s all put on our tinfoil hats and get into things:
The Celtics had been in talks with the Sixers for a considerable time before reaching terms on their trade, presumably around the time that speculation about Boston’s desire to take Jackson popped up. Coincidence? Perhaps, but possibly not. What if the Celtics leaked their interest in Jackson strategically? What if it’s all a bit of misdirection to drive up Jackson’s market, fool L.A. into taking him at two, and leaving Boston with the player they really want, Lonzo Ball?
Ball has a few notable red flags. His shooting mechanics are a mess, and he hasn’t shown enough of an off-the-dribble game to consistently break down defenders. Those could become major issues if they manifest themselves in the worst way at the pro level. A point guard that struggles to shoot and/or get past his man is a major liability, and that says nothing of his overly irritating father.
LaVar Ball will be an unavoidable nuisance for any team that drafts his son, and that may be particularly true for Boston. He’s been very vocal about wanting his son to play for the hometown Lakers and how Lonzo isn’t a great fit for the Celtics. That doesn’t alter Lonzo’s game on the court, however, and there are some reasons to think he (Lonzo) could fit nicely with the Celtics.
Ball is long enough to defend wings, though he will likely need to add some significant bulk to match up with the league’s bigger players. Still, if the Celtics wanted to run two-point-guard sets, he is big enough to make things work defensively next to Isaiah Thomas, and he’s particularly interesting as an offensive match. Ball’s difficulty in blowing past his man is reduced if he’s attacking closeouts, an opportunity he would have in spades playing off the ball next to a player like Thomas, and his passing would be deadly in such situations.
Ball’s vision may be the single greatest skill that any incoming prospect in the draft possesses (apologies to Fultz’s pick-and-roll game), and his potential as a facilitator is extremely enticing. He’s an unselfish player capable of executing every type of pass, from simply swinging the ball to an open shooter without slowing down an offense, to the highlight needle-threader in transition, where he thrives.
The possibility of Ball and Jaylen Brown flying down the court on the break for the next decade is a pleasant one, and potentially devastating if both players reach their ceilings. The trouble here is that Ball, much like Brown, has a long way to go before being the most impressive version of himself as a basketball player.
His transcendent skill is his passing, and if he can find a way to improve or even just hide some of his flaws (a Brad Stevens’ specialty), Ball could be a star-level player. Seeing that reality requires a good deal of dreaming, and so too does just believing in the possibility that the Celtics want him on their roster. Boston hasn’t made much noise about Ball though, and with Ainge, the fire is often far from the smoke.
That was the case last year, when most of the basketball universe thought the Celtics would be drafting Kris Dunn and/or flipping that pick for Jimmy Butler. Instead, they selected Brown five spots ahead of where some prognosticators projected. Brown has shown as many flashes of greatness as anyone in that draft class to date, and Danny Ainge looks all the smarter for bucking convention, trusting his scouts, and may more importantly, his gut.
He’s utterly unpredictable in his decision-making, but Ainge has generally come out on top in all his previous transactions. He deserves the benefit of the doubt until the rest of this move plays out. That doesn’t mean we should stop guessing at what he may have up his sleeve though. We’ve got a few more days for wild speculation. The Ball-to-Boston theory is for those who dare to engage in it in its most outlandish form. Enjoy it while you can.