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The cost of NBA tampering and lottery reform for Celtics

Three trades for All-Stars this summer cost what the Celtics got in the Brooklyn haul and then some. Was this a flash in the pan or a worry for the Celtics toward their next star pursuit?

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Every summer features winners and losers. Some teams manage to become both. The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving after the ugly dismantlement of a team poised for greatness. His departure, along with Al Horford’s, could have smeared Boston’s perception as a free agency destination — until Kemba Walker filled the void.

Walker represented a saving grace for Boston’s perceived spiraling culture, but larger trends followed his 6 p.m. signing on June 30, ones with troubling implications for all front offices. The cost of acquiring a star skyrocketed, in part due to player power grabs and NBA Draft reform. The Celtics’ restrained stance in trade negotiations will make it difficult to complement Walker if tampering and pick devaluing continue.

The Pelicans and Grizzlies’ ascent to the top of the lottery sparked the summer of mad packages. New York’s tanking went unrewarded. Picks appeared disposable, as more randomness was implemented in the lottery. Draft talent has flatlined, at least until the much anticipated “double draft” in a few years. Rebuilders need more shots, especially if small markets continue to send their home grown stars to the coasts.

Anthony Davis cost the Lakers the No. 4 overall pick, a 2021 first-rounder (top-eight protected, defers to 2022), a 2023 pick swap and the choice between LA’s 2024 and 2025 selections. With former lottery picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram included, LA stripped itself of past and future prospects.

The NBA tried to limit those hauls by banning teams from dealing consecutive first-rounders — the Ted Stepian rule. Brooklyn famously skirted that by sending four first-rounders to Boston using pick swaps in alternating seasons. Then a rush of trades as big, if not larger, followed.

Kawhi Leonard coerced the Clippers to acquire Paul George. That leverage netted the Thunder unprotected Heat (2021) and Clippers (2022) picks. Two pick swaps and unprotected LAC selections 2023-2026 rendered it the largest pick heist ever.

It only took a few weeks for OKC to stockpile more from the Rockets. To dump Chris Paul and acquire Russell Westbrook, Daryl Morey agreed to 2021 and 2025 (1-20 protected) swaps and sent 1-4 protected picks in 2024 and 2026.

Oklahoma flexed control over the draft board in 2021, 2024 and 2026. The power moves would make Danny Ainge blush if they didn’t diminish the value of the treasure chest of draft assets he commands. The value of Memphis’ pick reflected yesterday’s market.

The Celtics aren’t rebuilding, nor are they in a market as small as OKC. They face the same issue if this summer becomes the norm — every team not in NYC or LA does. Players can push their way out of contracts several seasons before their expiration.

That means even if a rebuilder defies the odds and drafts well, those players can bounce during their rookie deal. If George could escape OKC with two years remaining, why couldn’t Zion Williamson in two years?

Maybe this isn’t a trend. The Thunder losing George allowed them to leap headfirst into a difficult parting with Westbrook and his max contract which seemed impossible otherwise. If it is a sign of things to come, Boston’s in trouble on their road to regaining contention.

Teams establish control through restricted free agency and a rule barring free agency for players who sit out. The Pelicans’ short-lived attempt to reverse Davis’ trade request and the pain of watching him play after he signed with Klutch showed the limitation of team control.

It’s also becoming harder than ever to determine if young talent is worth investing in if their rookie deal does not yield max results. That’s where the Celtics stand with Jaylen Brown. He’s extension-eligible, ready for max money and the C’s haven’t bit.

Boston’s palatable summer constructed a good team that doesn’t appear capable of reaching the NBA Finals. A second star needs to emerge next to Walker for that to change. The Celtics could wait for Brown and Tatum to reach that point, possibly paying max money ahead of time anticipating the leap.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

If it’s not them, Ainge has to look outside. The league realized with few superstars available — and two needed to win — a few depreciating draft picks won’t suffice. Boston would need to part with both Tatum and Brown or their entire draft stash in any future negotiation.

It’s unclear if that wave continues or even if the Celtics would ride it. Reports of hangups on trade calls paint the image of a team inseparably attached to its assets. Tatum apparently never hit the table in Davis talks, so the Celtics never had a chance of competing with LA’s final offer.

That Walker acquisition, even Gordon Hayward’s several seasons ago, were smash hits. They cost nothing more than money the team has to spend anyway. The franchises able to sign the NBA’s best players remain winners. Boston still has that — with an outside chance Hayward recovers to become a solid #2.

The NBA’s investigation into salary cap violations showed that it could cost more than cap space to sign a star now. Leonard cost a max contract, plus the George haul. With that in mind, I wonder what Ainge does if Irving wanted to return, and demanded Kevin Durant join him with a year of recovery from a torn Achilles tendon. Would Ainge have shed other pieces to sign KD and keep Irving? That’s the era of possibilities we’re entering.

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