By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON — The Celtics lit some fireworks a little early this offseason by trading the No. 1 overall pick to the Sixers for the No. 3 pick and a future first-round pick (likely lottery selection) from either the Lakers (in 2018), Kings or Sixers (in 2019).
While the No. 1 pick in the draft has been rarely traded in NBA history, and it’s been even more rare to be dealt before draft night, the Celtics wasted no time on locking down the deal despite being days away from actually going on the clock on Thursday night. The question that is up for debate now is whether the Celtics were smart to pull the trigger on a deal so soon and what it actually tells us about their thinking as we wait for another shoe to drop in the coming days.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind to properly evaluate that question:
1. The Celtics likely saw little separation from the No. 1 and No. 3 players on their 2017 draft board
Not all No. 1 picks are created equal. Nearly 25 years ago, the Golden State Warriors forked over three additional future first round picks for the right to move up from No. 3 to No. 1 and take Chris Webber. This time around, the Celtics just got one future first round pick for a similar shift in the draft.
Boston wisely put favorable protections on the future pick (a 2018 Lakers pick if it lands 2-5 slot) or a top 1 protected 2019 Kings or 76ers first-round pick. However, the compensation speaks more to the fact that the Celtics and Sixers didn’t see a serious dropoff between Fultz and whoever was No. 3 on their draft board. The Celtics could have even had a Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum higher in their overall rankings than Fultz for all we know, but the team knew they’d be overreaching for either at No. 1. It wasn’t necessary to do that, so the move was made proactively to move down and secure an additional asset, instead of wasting a top pick on a guy you could have got a No. 3 or later.
2. The Celtics think the top of the 2018 draft class has lots of value
The Celtics already had one shot at the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft class with one final unprotected first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets, but now they’ve set themselves up for two top-5 selections. There are unique protections on the 2018 Lakers pick, as mentioned above, but it sets up a nice controlled risk for them.
The 2018 draft class right now looks very top-heavy with a couple of athletic big men (DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba) and terrific wings (Michael Porter Jr., Luka Doncic). Whether the Celtics keep those picks or not, they clearly will have some meaningful value around the league for the next 12 months. Boston is betting on the Lakers and Kings being at the bottom of the league for the next couple of years, and that’s a wise bet in my estimation.
3. Ainge has kicked the can on his tough decisions a little longer
If the Celtics kept the No. 1 overall pick, that’s putting a lot of your eggs in the basket of a 19-year-old in Fultz. Beyond a fairly high rookie starting salary ($7 million), you are going to have to wait a couple of years for him to develop behind a pretty loaded backcourt already. By dividing that one asset into two slightly less major ones, Ainge still has the ability to pursue multiple big trades to try to win now, or stand pat to focus on constructing a core full of elite young talent.
By trading out of the No. 1 pick now, the Celtics won’t be forced to make a decision one way or another on draft night and cash that entire asset in. That kind of flexibility bodes well for the C’s front office to evaluate all potential building paths as they develop this summer. Building with All-Star talent while maintaining young cheap pieces remains in play more than ever, it’s just up to Ainge to decide what direction he wants to skew more towards.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.