Danny Ainge and the Celtics are in a strong spot, but they have questions to be answered.
They earned the No. 1 seed in the East, they are unquestionably a team on the rise, but they are in a conference where LeBron James dominates the postseason and has for going on seven years. Do the Celtics want to make a big move this summer to bring in one more star player and make a run at the brick wall that is whatever team LeBron plays on? Or do they continue to be patient and try to be the best team in three years when, in theory, LeBron starts to fade?
Landing the No. 1 pick in this draft gives Ainge options.
On a conference call after getting the pick, Ainge was far too smart to tip his hand. He might well keep the pick (and if you listen to the comments from Boston ownership on the night, this is the likely option).
“We’re looking for the best overall player, and that hasn’t been decided yet…” Ainge said, adding he wants to work out and take a closer look at a number of players, although almost everyone has Markelle Fultz on the top of their draft boards.
“I’ve thought about that with all our players and how (the potential top picks) fit with our core. The beauty of Isaiah (Thomas) is he can play any system.”
But what about the rumors that the Celtics will move the top for an elite player to help them win now? Someone such as Jimmy Butler from Chicago or Paul George from Indiana, two guys Boston reportedly discussed the pick with at the trade deadline.
“At the trade deadline we were trading away the possibility of the No. 1 pick, a 25 percent chance of the No. 1 pick, but that’s a 75 percent chance of not having that pick, and that’s how teams look at it, which is probably why we didn’t get a deal done,” Ainge said. “Now we have the No. 1 pick and we will explore the value of it.”
Trading the pick makes sense if Ainge feels LeBron and the Cavaliers are a little vulnerable, and if one more key player puts them into serious competition in a best-of-seven playoff series (the Eastern Conference Finals will make a good benchmark for him).
Keeping the pick and drafting either of the top guards in the draft — Fultz or Lonzo Ball — creates another question for Ainge: What to do about Isaiah Thomas in the future? He is a free agent in the summer of 2018 when he will command max money at age 29. Does Boston want to pay him that if Fultz/Ball is seen as the point guard of the future? Do they let him walk at that point? How much does Thomas being a fan favorite play into this? The Celtics could use cap space to extend him this summer to a deal they like better, but it’s unclear if Boston would do that (probably not) or if Thomas would go for that. No simple decisions there, as a four-year max may be longer than they want to go with him.
The choices aren’t simple, but by winning the lottery the Celtics have plenty of options now.
Just don’t expect Ainge to tip his hand until all the chips are on the table draft night.