By: Brian Kane
The first monumental tremor of the 2017 NBA Draft came three days before draft night. The Celtics completely disregarded public opinion on Markelle Fultz, de facto best player in the draft, by trading the #1 pick to Philly for #3 and a future first round pick. The future pick will come from either the Lakers in 2018, were that pick to fall between 2 and 5, or the better of the Sixers and Kings pick in 2019 unless one of them is the #1 overall pick. This move’s been harped on enough, and the Celtics likely made the right move considering value gained, even if the timing of the deal was unfortunate for the C’s fanbase.
Danny Ainge stated in a press conference a day before the draft that he’d be taking the player at three that he would’ve taken at one anyway, in a characteristic attempt to justify a very controversial move. Whatever Ainge didn’t see in Fultz, most still believe him to be a generational talent. In the absence of Veritaserum, we won’t know why Ainge felt the need to squander this opportunity. But we can guess.
The Celtics, like they have been for the past three years, are extremely well positioned to build a high-powered contending team for years to come. They won 53 games last year, added a go-to scorer in Tatum on draft night (a component of a great team that they sorely lacked last year), have seven first round draft picks in the next two years, and are very dangerous players in free agency.
There’s no way to use all seven of those draft picks, utilize all the talent they harbour, sign players in free agency, and keep any semblance of continuity in a transition from this roster to whatever the next generation may look like. Put more simply, there aren’t enough roster spots available to accommodate all of the Celtics current assets. Pieces need to move, and collective value must be exchanged for something resembling a championship team. Otherwise, Ainge’s plan fails.
For the last few years, the Celtics’ roster and treasure trove of assets has been described as a “good problem to have.” One aspect of this good problem to have has always been that the Celtics have had too many guards. Ainge’s love for undersized, scrappy, big-hearted ball-handlers on draft night has been well-documented. From Avery Bradley, to Marcus Smart, to Terry Rozier, to Demetrius Jackson, the roster is full of backcourt guys who work hard enough to get more minutes than they necessarily deserve. We (the fanbase) love them, probably more than we should, but they don’t make up the necessary components of a championship team in the modern NBA. In trading the #1 pick, Ainge has elected to move on to a different “good problem”: a forward problem.
Gordon Hayward is the big name continually linked to the Celtics these days. They’ve also thrown their name in the hat for the Paul George sweepstakes. Players and contracts will need to change hands if the Celtics are going to land George and Hayward, their reported priority at the moment. Even so, the Celtics currently have Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jae Crowder, and Guerschon Yabusele on the depth chart next season. Consider the possibility that they sign Hayward and can’t manage a trade for Paul George. That leaves five very good players to find playing time for next year. How will that work?
Let’s assume a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Gordon Hayward, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford. That team will score, but doesn’t address the Celtics’ most glaring flaw of the past year: rebounding. For most of last year, Avery Bradley paced the Celtics in rebounds per game at around 6.5. Al Horford is a below average rebounder for his size, and if the Celtics trade out Amir Johnson for Gordon Hayward in the starting lineup, their rebounding problem only gets worse. So there’s that.
And then there’s the matter of Tatum and Brown on the bench. I’ll start with a quick aside regarding Tatum: Yesterday my brother texted me insisting that Tatum can guard 1 through 4, which, if that were true, there would have been no discussion about the best player in the draft. He’d have owned that designation all year. I consider my brother a very smart basketball fan and Celtics fan, and I considered that an extremely silly thing to say or believe. So I can only imagine the mental hoops the rest of the Celtics fanbase has probably jumped through to believe Tatum is the best thing since sliced bread. Okay, now back to Tatum and Brown on the bench.
Brown showed huge strides as a defender and complementary scorer as last year progressed, and was entrusted with almost 18 minutes a game and the torturous duty of guarding Lebron James in the Eastern Conference Finals. Fans will want to see more of him than they did last year after a summer of further development, but with forwards battling for minutes, it’s hard to imagine him breaking 25 minutes per game.
Ainge’s alleged preference for Tatum over Fultz signified a move for the present. Tatum is the most NBA-ready prospect the draft had to offer, with an already polished offensive game and size that should translate directly to production on an NBA roster. If he has a stellar summer league, and continues to impress, does he start over Crowder and Brown? That move might irk Brown, and would definitely infuriate Crowder, who has already proven to be as outspoken as they come. If Ainge insists Brad play it safe and give Crowder the 30-32 minutes per game he deserves to keep him happy, that decision will reverberate throughout the fanbase, and make justifying the Tatum pick an even more difficult task. The Celtics have historically never been a franchise known for bending to the will of an unruly fan base or media, and filling seats will likely never be a problem, but it’s still worth consideration.
The writing on the wall is pretty clear here: Ainge wants the flexibility to move Crowder, and probably another frontcourt piece, without sacrificing depth. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley had career years. Marcus Smart is three years younger than Crowder, is already a better defender, and had a similar impact on offense, albeit in a different way. Because of this, it looks like Ainge made the right move by adding depth and diversifying the skillsets in the Celtics frontcourt. None of Crowder, Brown, or Kelly Olynyk are go-to scorers (The Olynyk Game notwithstanding). Tatum gives the Celtics the flexibility to comfortably shop Crowder, drop Olynyk’s contract in free agency to open space for Hayward, and come out the otherside with a player that can play second fiddle to Isaiah Thomas even if Hayward skirts on Beantown.
By not selecting Markelle Fultz, Ainge made his blueprint clear. The guards he has are the guards he wants. Now it’s time to get working on the frontcourt. If it works, it’s absolutely genius. The NBA is moving toward length, spacing and shooting, and all of Hayward/George/Tatum fit seamlessly into a game plan that emphasizes those things. Beyond that, no one seems to have mentioned yet that in getting another high draft pick out of the Fultz deal, Ainge has potentially positioned himself to draft two players in the top five of a draft that could feature four generational talents: Michael Porter Jr. (aka Baby KD), Mohammed Bamba, DeAndre Ayton, and Luka Doncic. If Fultz turns into a superstar, Ainge will have to contend with that. But for now, he’s still managing to make plays for now and later. Even if his frontcourt is a little too deep for a year or two, as we’ve heard before, “It’s a good problem to have.”