An arena’s out-of-town scoreboard is part of the fabric of a live sporting event, as results blink and update and you can stay informed about the teams your favorite team is chasing, all while munching on a hamburger.
For Celtics fans this season, though, one team’s fortunes generated far more interest than any others. Bostonians just wanted to know what was transpiring — or, often, falling apart — in Brooklyn.
The allure of the Nets had nothing to do with them threatening Boston in the Atlantic Division; Brooklyn was harmless. Instead, the fervent interest that swelled with each loss was about one enchanting possibility. It was about the first-round draft pick the Celtics would receive from the Nets.
“I’ll admit,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said, “I was tracking Nets games.”
As the Celtics charged toward another playoff berth, the drowning of the Nets became a fascinating subplot. Usually, to secure a high draft pick, your team must lose. But in an unusual turn, another team was taking care of that part, putting Boston in position to cash in without the suffering.
The Nets pick was something for Celtics fans to feel good about, and it became an odd symbol of hope, because every misstep Brooklyn took — and there were plenty — made Boston’s future rosier.
The phenomenon blossomed and became the perfect we’ll-be-fine antidote. Three-game Celtics losing streak? Thank goodness there’s the Nets pick. Another injury? Don’t forget the Nets pick. Car battery dead? Well, at least the Celtics have that darn Nets pick.
That sinking feeling
To understand the hysteria surrounding this draft pick, it is worth looking back at how it landed in the lap of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
Nets principal owner Mikhail Prokhorov was determined to make a run at a championship, and on the draft night of June 27, 2013, the Celtics and Nets agreed to a blockbuster deal that would send veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn.
“Today,” Prokhorov said that night, “the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.”
The acquisitions came at a steep cost. Boston received Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and Keith Bogans, but they were mostly collateral assets. The greatest value came from the 2014, 2016, and 2018 first-round picks the Celtics received, as well as the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in 2017.
From that moment, Boston’s success would be inextricably tied to Brooklyn’s missteps, and the effects of the deal would reverberate for years.
To be fair, Brooklyn was not expected to implode so suddenly. Grousbeck remembers sitting in Boston’s draft-night war room while approving the trade and discussing the benefits of the future picks. No one in the room viewed the 2016 choice as a potential gem, he said.
“We thought the Nets were putting together a good team,” Grousbeck said. “I suspect neither we nor the Nets thought it would be this high this year, otherwise there might have been some protection on the pick.”
“I thought Brooklyn was going to be good,” Ainge said. “I thought that maybe the 2018 pick might have a chance to be a decent pick, but I really didn’t believe that 2016 pick would be where it is. I thought they had a chance to be a good team — like, a really good team.”
The 2014 pick was No. 17 overall, and Boston used it to select James Young. Now, barring a swift and striking turnaround, it is realistic to imagine Boston receiving top-10 picks from Brooklyn over the next three seasons, an almost embarrassing bounty.
Tim Bontemps, a national NBA writer for the Washington Post, covered the Nets for the New York Post at the time of the trade. He wrote then that it was a good deal for Brooklyn.
“I certainly thought it was risky, but I was under the impression they were going to keep spending money at a high level,” said Bontemps this past week. “I mean, they were projected by some people to win 60 games that season.”
In 2013-14, the Nets went 44-38 and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then the foundation began to crumble. Coach Jason Kidd joined the Milwaukee Bucks, Pierce signed with the Wizards, and guard Shaun Livingston signed with the Warriors.
In 2014-15, one season before the Celtics’ three-year stranglehold would kick in, the Nets went 38-44. It was ominous.
“I think some people started to look at what the next couple of years looked like, and they started to panic,” Bontemps said. “Last year, once people started seeing the writing on the wall, they said, ‘Oh, no, this could get really bad.’ ”
Many Celtics fans thought last season would end with a thud for them. When the struggling team traded Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green near midseason, there was a sense that Boston was content to stumble through the year and grab a high draft pick. And many supported this potential approach, believing it was the most efficient route to a swift rebuild.
But then forward Jae Crowder turned into much more than a throw-in in the Rondo deal, and then the Celtics acquired future All-Star Isaiah Thomas, and then they made the playoffs and ended up with the 16th pick in the 2015 draft, leaving many conflicted about the lasting effects of their potentially temporary success.
“There was some consternation on the long-term level about that being the wrong move, that they messed up by making a run,” said Jeff Clark, publisher of the fan site Celticsblog.com. “We knew the Nets pick was coming but thought it was going to be a middle-of-the-road pick, until they started their descent.”
Brooklyn lost its first seven games this season, and the narrative was set. It was time to cheer for the Celtics, and for whoever was playing against the Nets. And when the two teams actually faced each other, the games felt even more important, because Boston could dent Brooklyn on its own.
“I think it just hit everybody that, ‘Wow, we could make the playoffs and get the top pick,’ ” said Clark. “And that Holy Grail of seasons we were anticipating just made the fever for watching the Nets pick grow.”
Clark found a Twitter account that simply posted whether or not Brooklyn had won its game that day, and most often, the answer was no. So Clark would retweet that fact to his 38,000 followers and stoke the coals a bit more.
“It all became a sensation,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily mean-natured. It was, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a lottery pick out of this, and this is awesome.’ ”
On to the lottery
The Nets actually recovered from their messy start and began to cobble together a somewhat respectable season. They even went 6-6 during one 12-game stretch in February. It wasn’t enough to dream of the playoffs, but it was enough to make Celtics fans fret that the draft pick would not be so prized after all.
But the season’s final two months brought a perfect storm for the Celtics. Veteran forward Joe Johnson’s contract was bought out, freeing him to sign with the Heat, and then the team’s top two scorers — Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young — sat out seven of the final eight games.
This would be a common move for a team that has abandoned hope and is looking to move up in the draft, but in this case, the Celtics were the beneficiaries. The Nets ended the season much as they started it, losing 10 games in a row and finishing with the third-worst record in the NBA, 21-61.
At Tuesday night’s draft lottery, Ping-Pong balls will determine the true value of the pick, which has a 46.9 percent chance of landing in the top three. Celtics executives understand it is important, but with seven other draft choices, salary cap room, and a core of good young players, they hardly view it as an end-all.
Also, lottery success does not always translate elsewhere; just two of the last 10 No. 1 overall draft picks reached the playoffs this season.
Still, for Celtics fans, the Nets pick offers a comforting sense of opportunity. Tufts psychology professor Sam Sommers, co-author of “This is Your Brain on Sports,” said that dreams about what could be are a true essence of being a sports fan.
“It’s almost like making a wish list for your birthday,” Sommers said. “Or when you get married, it’s fun to put the registry together. What are people going to get you? ‘I want a shooting guard who can hit the three.’ You hold out hope that your team is going to find that scrawny shooting guard from Davidson to turn the franchise around.”
Sommers was referring to Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who just became the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. And the good news for Celtics fans is that even if the team does not uncover the next Curry with this Nets pick, there will be two more waiting. Two more years of keeping tabs on those Nets scores, two more years of dreaming about what Brooklyn’s failures could mean for Boston.