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The Celtics and the new NBA economy of first round picks

It was a quiet deadline for the Celtics as Danny Ainge saves his assets and prioritizes long term planning over a short term fix.

Boston Celtics Practice Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

During the Big 3’s run from 2007-2013, the Celtics brought in vets like Eddie House, James Posey, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, Stephon Marbury, Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson, Michael Finley, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte West, Keyon Dooling, and Jason Terry to complement their stars. Part of that was the economics of the salary cap. Strapped with star salaries, Danny Ainge couldn’t afford much at the bottom of the spreadsheet and on the floor, Doc Rivers was loath to playing and developing young players.

That’s all changed with Ainge and his hiring of Brad Stevens. Stevens has uncovered gems at the NBA’s Antique Roadshow. He turned the careers of Jordan Crawford, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, and most notably Isaiah Thomas. For years, he was the league’s bust whisperer. But the Celtics turned a page last summer. Gone are those days of finding diamonds in the rough—or rough in the rough and turning them into diamonds—as Boston ushers in a new era spearheaded by Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Stars still move the needle in the NBA and in two off-seasons, Ainge has assembled a new Big 3. The question now, as it was a decade ago and will be a decade from now, is how best to build around them. By virtue of the Brooklyn trade and some recent savvy drafting, he’s already started building on the bedrock with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart as part of the foundation of the franchise.

On the days leading up to the trade deadline, many of the rumors speculated that Ainge was looking to acquire Tyreke Evans. The Grizzlies ended up not budging on their first round pick price tag with several suitors in the hunt and Evans will instead stay in Memphis. The inability to strike a deal isn’t a knock on Evans’ game; he’s in the middle of the best year of his career. It does, however, speak to the value of first round picks.

Many changed hands during this trading season. The Lakers fetched Cleveland’s 2018 pick for taking on the salary dump of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. New Orleans surrendered theirs to replace DeMarcus Cousins with Nikola Mirotic. Getting Blake Griffin cost the Pistons a chance to make a pick this summer. Right now, they’re empty jerseys, but in today’s CBA, they’re gold. It’s not so much that you have a chance to pick the next NBA star. The odds are against it. Instead, it’s an opportunity to to get a cost controlled player that you’ve scouted and identified as a piece you need and then mold into your system (see: Rozier, Terry).

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s talk dollar and sense first. The #1 pick’s salary starts around $5M+ as the baseline and teams can pay as little as 80% or as much as 120%, but it’s a steep sliding scale from there. Outside of the lottery, the baseline ranges between $1M to $1.6M. For what it’s worth, that’s around the vet minimum. What makes them even more team friendly is that it’s only guaranteed for the first two years followed by two team option years and then restricted free agency going into Year #5. And if they’ve blossomed by their third year, a player’s first NBA contract can be extended for a total of nine years.

There are developmental motivations in targeting players on rookie deals vs. rent-a-vets that aren’t related to the bottom line, too. Sure, a 6-10 year NBA veteran has already gone through the growing pains. They’ve gained confidence and found their niche. However, that’s not always a good thing. You know, more or less, what you’re going to get out of a Marcus Morris or Aron Baynes, but experience can stagnate into bad habits and not all old dogs are open to new tricks (see: Lee, David).

Consider how the Spurs and the Warriors have identified players in the draft that fit their specific style and need and integrated them seamlessly into their system. Late first round draft picks tend to be more polished upperclassmen with NBA-ready bodies and fewer holes in their game. Boston doesn’t necessarily draft the best player available, but the best player available for this team.

This might be the new normal in the NBA or at least for the Celtics. With the game ramping up its pace and teams more conscientious of the wear and tear of an 82-game season, Boston has gone 10-11 deep with the fourth youngest roster in the NBA. Twelve players average 10 minutes or more a game and no starter eclipses 33 mpg.

Stevens has trusted young players in the past. Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart averaged 20 and 27 minutes a game as rookies respectively. Jaylen Brown carved out a role in the second half of last year. This season, Terry Rozier has blossomed in his NBA junior year and Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis have both found their way into the rotation.

Portland Trail Blazers Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

And of course, there’s Jayson Tatum. The nineteen year old is flourishing, playing nearly 31 minutes a game as a starter and averaging 14 points a game on 48% shooting. On Tatum’s early impact, Stevens remarked, “He’s a good player. We need him. And I’m kind of over how young he is because we need him.” What did Brad Stevens think of Jayson Tatum winning Rookie of the Month in December? “Sweet.” That may seem like Stevens’ Midwestern modesty talking. It’s not. That’s a coach with tempered expectations and a cool confidence because he knows what his players are capable of, regardless of what’s on their driver’s license.

That doesn’t mean the Celtics won’t pursue one-and-done veterans to round out the roster or utilize exceptions to make an immediate impact signing. Specifically, moving forward, I think you’ll see Ainge make similar moves like signing Baynes last summer or picking up Greg Monroe with the DPE to fill out the 5. Bigs have never been a priority for Stevens and Ainge. They’ll focus on finding two-way players in college and abroad who are ready to contribute Day #1. Youth will not be wasted on the youth in Boston.

Boston has their own first round pick this summer, but the mother lode is in 2019 with what will likely be the Kings pick and potentially the Grizzlies and Clippers picks conveying plus their own. Nobody knows where those teams or the Celtics will be in a year, those picks will no doubt have value and maybe great value if they’re packaged together into a gift basket for another team. Whether Ainge or rival GM’s sees them as low-cost, high reward opportunities or lottery tickets for future stars, those picks are valuable team-building tools.

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