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Celtics own 1st pick in draft and let's not overthink it -- they should keep it

by: John Tomase on Wed, 05/17/2017 - 1:19am

High-flying Markelle Fultz (20) can now become a member of the Celtics, since they won the lottery. (Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports)Because we live in an age of instant everything -- information, opinion, gratification -- the status quo holds no allure. It's yesterday's news. The next idea is always bigger, bolder, better. The obvious solution to a problem must be wrong. That's why it's obvious.

The Celtics won the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night and will pick first in next month's draft. This is amazing on many levels, not least of which because it puts them in a position to sign a free agent like Utah swingman Gordon Hayward and then also add the best college player in the country, pretty much universally recognized as Washington point guard Markelle Fultz.

Easy-peasy, right? Not so fast. Over the next six weeks, Celtics fans and media are going to contort themselves like a bonsai forest to concoct alternative paths for basketball boss Danny Ainge to follow.

"Trader Danny is itching to pull the trigger on a deal," they'll say, even though he has proven remarkably patient with the Brooklyn picks.

"If Ainge doesn't strike now, he'll miss the Al and Isaiah window," others will intone knowingly, as if the No. 1 overall pick wouldn't be ready to contribute almost immediately.

"The Celtics are so close in the East, someone like Jimmy Butler or Paul George could put them over the top," will suggest others, who ignore that acquiring such a player by a trade alongside someone like Hayward in free agency basically signs Thomas's eviction notice next summer.

"The proven commodity is better than the unknown draft pick," will insist others still, conveniently overlooking the fact that we're talking about the FIRST OVERALL PICK.

So let's make this as simple as possible: The Celtics aren't trading the pick. The costs far outweigh the benefits. This isn't really even up for debate, barring the shocking availability of a true superstar. If you're not convinced, consider the following.

* The only windows that matter to Ainge belong to Cleveland and Golden State. As long as LeBron James owns the East and Steph Curry the West, there's little point in challenging either one via a frontal assault. Doesn't it make much more sense to build the team that will be ready to supplant them when their cores age out of invincibility in the next 3-to-5 years? 

The best way to do that is to draft Jaylen Brown in 2016, Fultz in 2017, and hopefully another blue-chipper in 2018, when the Nets again project to stink (my God those picks are the gifts that keep on giving, though next year's will be it). If you do it right, you're not only viable now, you've laid the groundwork to eventually assume the Iron Throne. And by the way, Thomas and Hayward will be 31 and 30, respectively, in three years. There's your window.

* Ainge has told anyone who'll listen that the only path to a title is via "transcendent" players. There aren't too many of those right now: LeBron, Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Russell Westbrook might be it, with Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Wall, and the Greek Freak knocking on the door.

Not on that list? Butler and George, two players the Celtics could conceivably acquire. They're both really good -- though George seems intent on bolting for Los Angeles next summer -- but neither is transcendent. Who knows what Fultz is? If he has a chance to crack the club, you don't pass on the opportunity to select him.

* Keeping the pick allows the Celtics to add two impact players this summer. Trading it for an established veteran probably means they only get one, unless they're prepared to move on from Thomas next year, because how many max-contract players can one team have? If you want to build beyond 2018 with Hayward, Horford and Thomas, you'll need impactful cost-controlled talent. And pretty much no one is cheaper than a draft pick.

* Fultz is really good! With all due respect to Lonzo Ball, who's a tremendous passer, Fultz does virtually everything better. Thomas has played pickup games with him, and over the winter he told MassLive that Fultz already plays beyond his years.

Also, recent No. 1 overall picks didn't need as much time to shine as you might think. Wall, Irving, and Towns each averaged at least 16 points a game as rookies. Blake Griffin was an All-Star. Davis started posting annual 20-10s in Year 2. The only two whiffs of the last decade are Greg Oden and Anthony Bennett, and who knows how good Oden could've been had he stayed healthy. Their teams almost always stink because how do you think they ended up with the first pick to begin with? The Celtics represent an entirely different situation.

* The only trade scenario that makes marginal sense involves convincing the Lakers you intend to select Ball and then swapping 1 for 2 to land Fultz anyway. But even then I'm not sure it's worth the risk. Ainge is in the driver's seat; there's no reason to hand the keys to Magic Johnson.

So let's not overthink this. Keep the pick. The Celtics are already in the Eastern Conference Finals. There's no desperation for a quick fix. Trust that Ainge, given his track record, won't screw up the first pick.

I know, I know. The obvious path is boring. But in this case, it also happens to be right.