By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Celtics were not blessed with dumb luck early Tuesday evening in the 2018 NBA draft lottery. They had a roughly 3 percent chance of landing either the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in this year’s draft, but ultimately the winner of the day was the 97 percent chance that they would not be so fortunate.
Still, the day overall was a win for Danny Ainge — and that was well before the Celtics beat the Cavaliers to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
The settling of the ping-pong balls essentially closed the book on the Kyrie Irving trade. (It also closed the book on the Celtics-Nets trade, which will go down as one of the most lopsided deals in sports history.) And with everything now squared away, we can say this with full confidence: Ainge and the Celtics overwhelmingly won this deal.
That may seem like an obvious statement now, but at the time of the trade, it was considered a reasonable risk. For one, Ainge was trading away a player who had just finished fifth in league MVP voting. Arguably more risky, Ainge traded away the hyper-valued first-round pick of the Brooklyn Nets.
Certainly, if Isaiah Thomas went out to Cleveland and repeated his 2017 success, and if the Nets finished in the toilet again, then you can bet Koby Altman would be the recipient of endless praise for pulling one over on Ainge. Those odes only would have been amplified when Irving’s season ended prematurely due to a known knee issue.
But, well, that was not the case. The Nets won 28 games, which was good enough to only be the eighth-worst record in the NBA. That finish gave the Cavaliers just a 2.8 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick, and a 9.9 percent chance of getting a top-three pick. But the ping-pong balls bounced, and the Cavs didn’t win the lottery. They’ll pick eighth in the 2018 NBA draft.
With that result, the only remaining loose end in the trade is the 2020 second-round pick which the Celtics had to throw in after the Cavaliers didn’t like what they saw in Thomas’ hip. But second-round picks in the NBA are essentially crapshoots, and a second-round pick in 2020 means that the Cavs will be drafting someone who’s currently wrapping up his high school studies somewhere.
So with the deal essentially done, here’s how it looks for both teams.
No. 8 overall pick in 2018 draft
2020 second-round pick
As you know, Irving was an MVP-type of player for the Celtics this season, before a knee injury shelved him for the end of the regular season and the postseason. He’ll return to the Celtics next year though, and should be the key contributor on what looks to be the best team in the Eastern Conference, one capable of making a run at a title.
The return for the Cavs did not quite work out as well. Thomas played just 15 games for the Cavaliers, never really fit in with LeBron James’ team, and was dumped to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Crowder averaged 8.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in his 53 games (47 starts) for the Cavs, before he too was dumped at the trade deadline.
Zizic was a non-factor in his age 21 season, averaging under seven minutes in his 34 games played in the NBA. He averaged 16.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in his 18 games in the G-League.
And then there’s the No. 8 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Certainly, the Cavaliers could end up getting a good or great player at No. 8. But a brief scan of the history of No. 8 picks shows that history isn’t necessarily on Cleveland’s side.
So, yes, with the power of hindsight and retrospect, it would be difficult to argue anything other than this: Ainge won this trade. Convincingly. Acquiring two guaranteed years of Irving for a championship-caliber team in exchange for, essentially, the No. 8 overall pick? That’s a deal that any GM would make 10 times out of 10.
The draft lottery came on the heels of the Celtics besting the 76ers in the conference semifinals, which itself was a display of Ainge’s master stroke from last spring. Not many executives in any sport would have had the fortitude and security to trade away the No. 1 overall pick, when the consensus “best player” available was a can’t-miss prospect like Markelle Fultz. But Ainge swung a trade, allowing the 76ers to draft Fultz and giving the Celtics the No. 3 overall pick in 2017 and what was almost certain to be another lottery pick, either in 2018 (from the Lakers) or 2019 (from the Kings).
Ainge, of course, drafted Jayson Tatum, who averaged 23.6 points in the Celtics’ five-game series win over the Sixers. Fultz, who scored just 100 total points in his rookie season, watched that series from the bench.
And the future pick Ainge acquired when trading away last year’s No. 1 pick will almost assuredly be the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (unless it’s No. 1 overall, and unless the Sixers somehow finish with a worse record than the Kings). It would be an upset to end all upsets if that pick falls anywhere outside of the top six or seven picks. Even if the pick doesn’t pan out, a look at Fultz and Tatum at this juncture paints a picture of another decisive victory for Ainge in what was arguably his boldest move.
The Celtics are up 2-0 on the Cavs and are poised to lay claim to being the Eastern Conference’s best team — a position they may be able to hold for several years. That alone would have been enough for Ainge to be feeling pretty good. But the results of the draft lottery had to have felt like icing on the cake.
The man traded away the No. 1 overall pick, and he traded away his best player … to the best team in the conference final. And he’s emerged smelling like roses. That does require a certain level of luck, but fortune tends to favor those who put to use their great vision, focused determination and a whole lot of chutzpah.