Thursday, May 19, 2016

Too Much Future Can Make a Front Office Tense

Gratuitous cruelty isn't very nice, so it would be wrong to tell Celtics fans to cheer up and remember that Michael Jordan was a third pick in the NBA draft.

Nor can we tell Danny Ainge that the trouble with trades is that it takes more than one team to execute them.  Beating all contrarians to the punch, the Celtics' front office boss said so himself last week with visible regret.

There's no denying that last Tuesday's draft lottery took a lot of the wind out of green sails in this burg. The question is, why? In terms of possibilities for improving their more than decent but less than imposing roster for next year, the Celtics are no worse off with the third pick than they would've been with the first or second, whether Ainge chooses to use the pick for immediate improvement or trade it for same. The risks are the same, the likely rewards haven't changed, all that's lost is a little glamor.

Fans fall for glamor all the time. An NBA lifer like Ainge seldom does. So why did he seem so glum at the lottery's conclusion? My guess is that he was glum after because he was glum before. After assessing trade possibilities and draft possibilities, Ainge had already concluded that the coup of acquiring the Nets' 2016 first round pick is going to be less coup and more like the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture.

It would be foolish to say that a GM as daring and resourceful of Ainge has no chance at all of filling his hand this summer. But it's more likely he'd fill it with two pair than a full house. Trade or draft, the Celts ought to improve themselves for next season. They might even wind up better than the Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat. A peer of the Cavs, Warriors, Thunder and Spurs? Wait  'till year after next.

It's possible the Kings would part with DeMarcus Cousins -- for a price that'd be more than another lottery pick. They acquire those on their own. It'd take a valuable piece or two from the current Celtics, including Isaiah Thomas to grab Cousins, who let's just say represents a high-reward, high-risk investment. He would be a better best player on the team than Thomas is. He would also cause Brad Stevens more sleepless nights. And leaving personality out of it, it would come down to swapping a backcourt scorer for a frontcourt one. Backcourt points are easier to replace. Easier does not mean "it'd be a cinch."

The price would be lower for Jimmy Butler (a 30th pick in the draft, BTW). So would be the ROI. He's a marginal All-Star shooting guard. As the Hawks series showed, the Celts could use some extra shooting from just about every position on the floor. As I understand the carom shot theory of franchise building popular among the Celtic faithful, the acquisition of Butler would help convince a real top-shelf free agent, namely Kevin Durant, that Boston represents his best chance to win a title.
I find this less than convincing. For one thing, Durant might win said title THIS season. For another, he already plays with Russell Westbrook, a far better player than Butler.

Deceit is a vital part of sports personnel management. Ainge might be playing a most effective con. But after the lottery, it sure seemed he was becoming resigned to the line of least resistance, using the third pick on whomever he deems is the newbie best able to garner the Celts a few more regular season and especiallyplayoff wins in 2016-2017.

And there's nothing wrong with that at all. In a peculiar quirk of fate, the 2016 draft actually features some seniors as well as the usual crop of one and dones and teenage Europeans. To get immediately better, and let's hope that's his goal, all Ainge has to do is avoid the primal NBA draft error -- reaching for height.

Falling in love with big people is to the basketball draft what trading up to get a quarterback is to the NFL. For every time it works (Ed Macauley is in the Hall of Fame, and Red Auerbach traded him to get Bill Russell), there's about 10 times where it fails spectacularly. This was true in 1985 when Joe Kleine and Jon Koncak went 10 picks higher than Karl Malone, and it was true in 2009 when Hasheem Thabeet was picked second, ahead of third pick James Harden and seventh pick Steph Curry.  It'll be true in the 2029 draft, too.

Picking Buddy Hield or Kris Dunn is not the stuff banner dreams are made of. It is, however, the type of solid but incremental improvement teams in the Celtics' overall good but not great situation are lucky to get to make. If that's how Ainge's maneuvering (I'm sure it's far from finished) ends up, he might not be overjoyed, but he shouldn't be glum.

Two pair isn't the strongest hard in the deck. But sometimes it's enough to win a pot.


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