Yesterday, the Celtics won the lottery.
Tonight, they play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s really been a magical season,” said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, who watched the ping-pong balls drawn live.
An unprecedented season, in fact.
Boston is the first playoff team to win the lottery. A few other playoff teams have landed the No. 1 pick, but those all came in the pre-lottery era. Most top-picking teams were coming off dismal seasons.
Here’s every team that entered the draft with the No. 1 pick and its record in the prior season, playoff teams with filled green bars. The Celtics tower above everyone else in the last 25 years.:
How did those playoff teams get their No. 1 picks?
2017 Boston Celtics (playing conference finals)
In 2013, the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for three first-round picks and a pick swap. Those aging stars promptly declined, leaving Brooklyn in disarray. Boston executed its pick swap with league-worst Brooklyn this year and reaped the No. 1 pick.
1982 Los Angeles Lakers (won NBA finals): James Worthy
During the 1979-80 season, the Cavaliers traded their 1982 first-rounder to the Lakers for Don Ford and a 1980 first-rounder, which became Chad Kinch. This trade actually predates Ted Stepien, the horrible owner who led to the NBA to enact rules limiting trades. But Stepien bought the team a short while later and sunk it to an NBA-worst 15-67 in 1981-82 – earning the No. 1 pick and conveying it to Los Angeles, which happily picked Worthy.
1979 Los Angeles Lakers (lost conference semifinals): Magic Johnson
After struggling to make their mark in their first couple seasons of existence, the New Orleans Jazz thought they were onto something in 1976. They paired Pete Maravich in the backcourt with Gail Goodrich, who was only one season removed from being an All-Star with the Lakers. A problem: Signing Goodrich meant sending the Lakers compensation, a requirement in the formative days of free agency. The Jazz’s compensation included their 1979 first-round pick. The bigger problem: Goodrich was 33 by the time the Jazz signed him and far less effective in 1978-79. Maravich, also on the wrong side of 30 by then, couldn’t stay healthy. In their final season in New Orleans before moving to Utah, the Jazz finished an NBA-worst 26-56 and sent their pick to the Lakers, who drafted Johnson.
1978 Portland Trail Blazers (lost conference semifinals): Mychal Thompson
While most of these other No. 1 picks were results of trades years before gone bad, Portland acquired the No. 1 pick in 1978 just a day before the draft. The Trail Blazers traded the No. 3 pick (which became Rick Robey) and Johnny Davis (a solid guard who’d just finished the second of what’d be a 10-year career) to the Pacers for the top pick. Thompson played well for Portland but is better remembered for winning a couple championships with the Lakers.
1953 Baltimore Bullets (lost division semifinals): Ray Felix
In the NBA’s early days, teams had the option to execute territorial picks. By forfeiting its first-rounder, a team could claim a draft-eligible player who played at a nearby college. The league-worst Philadelphia Warriors went this route in 1953, grabbing Ernie Beck from Penn. This was also a time four of five teams in each division made the playoffs. So, the Bullets – with the NBA’s second-worst record but fourth-best record in its conference – both made the playoffs and landed the top pick without a trade.
If any of these situations is similar to Boston, it’s the Lakers getting Magic Johnson and James Worthy. The Celtics have already drafted Jaylen Brown (and James Young) with Brooklyn picks – and get the Nets’ first-rounder next year – to join Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, et al. The Lakers, who already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in place, won titles in 1980 and 1982 and another three once Worthy arrived.
There’s no guarantee Boston achieves such success, but the potential clearly exists.