clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The growing importance of the Memphis Grizzlies pick to the Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics are running out of chances to find a championship centerpiece.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics are going to be good this year. They’ve got plenty of talent, a smart coach, and an opportunity to reset their chemistry after a decidedly tumultuous season. Boston’s opportunity to establish a healthier culture comes thanks in large part to the departure of Kyrie Irving.

The mercurial star is replaced by Kemba Walker, a smilier albeit slightly less talented substitute at the point guard position. The Celtics are hoping that the boost they get in morale from swapping Irving out for Walker will be enough to make up for any difference in talent, and there is some reason for hope in that regard. If the former allowed for a higher ceiling in Boston, it’s only incremental from what the latter can provide.

The Celtics’ greater concern should come with regard to the series of events that followed Irving’s decision to leave town. Al Horford - a defensive stalwart and offensive hub - opted not to sign on for another year in green, joining the Philadelphia 76ers instead. Boston did not find a replacement, or anything close to one for that matter, to what Horford provided over the course of the past three seasons. Nor did it do itself any favors in attracting elite-level talent.

Irving and Horford are championship-caliber sidekicks, enticing enough to lure the kind of player teams need to build around should they want to win a title. As recently as eight months ago, Anthony Davis was meant to be their man. The versatile, impossibly long pogo stick of a forward is good enough to be in the conversation as the game’s very best, a prerequisite on most championship teams.

The NBA’s biggest stars dominate the postseason. Since 2010, just two teams have won a championship without LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, or Steph Curry featuring as their best player (twice that team included both Durant and Curry). That’s four players that have had their hand in a combined 80% of the NBA’s championships in the past decade in a league that includes 450 roster spots each year.

The two outlier champions include a Lakers squad led by end-of-his-prime Kobe Bryant and the 2010-11 Mavericks team that featured Dirk Nowitzki playing at the absolute peak of his powers, both of whom rated out as near the top of the league in individual talent.

Obviously titles aren’t won exclusively by stars, but they’re almost never claimed by teams filled with players that top out as good, or even very good. Transcendent talent is required nearly as a rule. Davis was meant to fill that role in Boston, but the Celtics lost any hope of adding him once Irving opted not to re-sign with the team. Now they’re stuck in something of a strange limbo.

Boston has lots of young talent. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are particularly intriguing. They function as mirror opposites on the wing. Brown is a terrifying athlete with a developing polish to his game. Tatum possesses a level of skill that far exceeds most players his age, and is growing into his body. Both could blossom into All-Stars over the course of the next few years. However, neither projects to be the kind of world beater you could build a true contender around.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be good. The Celtics should be excited to have players like Brown and Tatum to build around, but they also shouldn’t expect that that duo will be enough to take them to the promised land.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for the Celtics, the team who hoarded draft picks for years, in the hopes of eventually drafting a blue chip, franchise-altering prospect or swapping in their treasure trove of selections for a megastar. Neither opportunity materialized, and now Boston has just a single remaining draft pick from their asset accumulation days - owed to them by the Memphis Grizzlies, top-6 protected this year and unprotected in 2021.

That Memphis could be quite bad across the next two seasons is a fact not lost on the Celtics. A universe exists in which the Grizzlies wind up forfeiting the first overall pick to Boston in two years time. Such an outcome is exceedingly unlikely, particularly given the new flattened lottery odds, but it’s not entirely out of the question.

A world in which Boston can add a high-end talent to Brown and Tatum as they enter their primes is tantalizing for Celtics fans. It’s a long-term dream, but one that would be well worth the wait.

Whether or not the Grizzlies cooperate with such aspirations is another matter entirely. Memphis will most assuredly be bad this year, but in the 2020-21 campaign, with Jaren Jackson Jr. entering his third year in the league and a full year of development under Ja Morant’s belt, it’s possible the Grizzlies could at least claw to semi-respectability.

Boston could make its own luck and simply trade the pick. Disgruntled superstars seem to become available nearly every year, and the Celtics have plenty of present-day talent on their roster to add to. This is where the calculus gets particularly complex.

Davis was meant to be the player Boston cashed all its chips in to get, the reason that passing on opportunities to trade for Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard all made sense. The Celtics bided their time and carefully collected talent that would have empowered him to be the centerpiece of a meaningful contender from the moment he walked in the door. When they failed to acquire Davis all of the team’s previous moves lost meaning, not in their entirety, but certainly to a degree.

Now Boston is stuck with an incredible array of players either currently capable of serving as the second or third best player on a championship team or ready to develop into such a role, all desperately in need of an organizing force.

The Grizzlies pick represents a long-shot opportunity for the Celtics to find the superstar they’re lacking, either via trade or through the draft. Playing the waiting game with it is likely the best option. Waiting and hoping for it to turn into a crack at the best player in an upcoming draft is a risky bet - Memphis could make the playoffs two years from now for all we know (highly unlikely, but you see the point) - but the variance in potential outcomes is what makes the strategy worthwhile.

Boston doesn’t need a bird in the hand. It needs the next MVP candidate in the bush. It isn’t likely the Celtics acquire that player with the Grizzlies’ pick, but exists in the universe of possible outcomes. Maybe it’s better that way. Well-laid plans have proven to be of little use to Boston in the past few years.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog