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Look ahead to the NBA Draft: what do the Celtics want?

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A confusing season and the shadow of possible off-season trades make gauging the Celtics’ needs difficult.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

With the All-Star Game fading into the distance and March looming large on the calendar, we are heading toward a new phase of the NBA season. The doldrums of the mid-season are rapidly fading and the final twenty games will be the final chance for teams to coalesce before the playoffs.

On top of this, it signals the start of championship season in college basketball, as many conferences are winding down their regular season schedules and preparing for postseason play. This is the golden time for draftniks, as there has been enough regular season basketball to get a feel for the prospects, but the biggest games are yet to come. We’ve started to see the first editions of big boards surface across the blogosphere, and with them comes the unofficial start of draft season.

In this series, I’m going to be taking stock of which prospects might be in the Celtics plans, what their strategies might be, and what a Luguentz Dort is. First, however, I’d like to touch upon the truly unique situation that the Celtics will find themselves in come Draft Night.

What’s The Challenge?

The Boston Celtics find themselves in a truly unique position in recent NBA history. Penciled in as an early season championship contender, the Celtics stand in real danger of not having home court in the first round of the playoffs. It has been a disappointing season to many fans, and the looming free agency of Kyrie Irving (and quietly, Al Horford) serve only to amplify the panic around the team.

NBA: All Star-Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

However, unlike most disappointing NBA Finals hopefuls, the Celtics still have a multitude of improvement options available to them. Trading for distant picks, skillful navigation of the draft, and two big free agent signings have left the Celtics asset chest relatively stocked while building their squad. The Celtics have all their own picks (besides a top-55 protected second this year), in addition to three possible additional firsts, something nearly unheard of for a team with the Celtics current talent.

On top of this, the Celtics are also a very young team, and still have plenty of players who have not reached their ceiling yet. This goes without saying for higher visibility top draft picks like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but a less lauded pick like Semi Ojeleye or Robert Williams will also be available to develop from year to year. A good example of this can be found in Toronto, as the Raptors were able to continue improving over the past few years despite having a “topped out roster.” Keeping their draft picks and getting players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Delon Wright in the later part of the first round have given the Raptors improvement options that would not otherwise be there.

I bring this up because trading first round picks to augment a competitive roster has become fait accompli around the NBA. The reasoning behind this is solid on paper. You trade a low draft pick that’s unlikely to help you in the near future for something that can help your currently competitive team. However, a steady stream of first round picks is the lifeblood of any team, and giving up on that has been the secret downfall of small and mid-market teams such as the Mavericks, Grizzlies, and (gulp) Pelicans.

At first blush, no team in the league needs a first round pick less than the Boston Celtics right now. The Celtics are too talented as currently constructed, and more likely to thin their positional log jams to improve versus adding additional talent. In fact, using those draft picks to add to a package of players for a singular upgrade would seem to make the most sense. That seems to be Danny Ainge’s plan come this off-season.

However, as this season is proving, things change fast in the NBA, and just because the Celtics are loaded with rotation talent now, doesn’t mean they will be forever. The Celtics will need to navigate the draft without any assurances of what the team may look like after free agency. For most teams in most years, that’s challenging enough. With a possible Anthony Davis trade and multiple free agent decisions on the horizon, there’s an even narrower window for opportunity.

The consensus among the thinking types is that the time for the Celtics to move for Anthony Davis, should they do so, would be to agree to a deal on or before Draft Night. There’s a strong chance the Pelicans demand many of, if not all of the Celtics’ upcoming picks in the 2019 NBA Draft. In that case, Ainge and Co. simply make their picks for the Pelicans and trade the prospects or their rights when the deal is finalized.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If there is a blockbuster trade agreed to on Draft Night, but the Celtics still have picks on the board, they will have to have contingencies in place. One might be picking the players who will plug the new holes in the team, whether that’s next season or two to three more years down the line. The other is to take players that might need development time and hope that those minutes can be found on a roster that will once again have a championship as its goal.

If there is no “big trade” on draft night, the Celtics may be looking at an evening similar to 2016 when the Celtics also had a lot of selections to make. Whispers will abound about if the Celtics are drafting players to purposely sweeten trade talks, while we might also hear the C’s name as a top destination for “stashing” overseas players. If the Celtics draft a point guard it will be seen as confirmation that Irving (instead of say....Terry Rozier) will be leaving in free agency.

No matter which of these scenarios come to pass, it’s going to be a very important draft for the Celtics. It’s very likely that any selections made in this draft are going to be contributors on a championship-caliber team (should Ainge get his way) or reinforcements going forward for what suddenly looks like a shaky ship. It’s going to be a brutal test of the Celtics’ ability to project prospects, steer their development, and compare them against their own current players. It’s going to be crunch time in the Celtics front office, and draft is going define what the Celtics look like for the next half decade.

Check back in later this week as I’ll take a look at some of the players who might be fits for the Celtics in their current draft spots and take a look at ideas for trading positions within the draft.