CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Julia Jacobson/Associated Press
The Celtics had a dance with favorable fortune during the NBA Draft Lottery only to be left dancing with themselves and the No. 3 pick in a draft with two coveted players. It was another Lottery Letdown for the Green.
The path to Banner No. 18 briefly looked like it might have a convenient shortcut on Thursday night. As the teams and picks ticked down the Celtics, who entered with the third-best odds for the No. 1 pick by virtue of owning Brooklyn’s 2016 first-rounder, were among the final three teams with a chance at the top pick.
But the bubble burst at approximately 8:25 p.m. The lottery turned out to be an affirmation of the preliminary draft order by record with the Philadelphia 76ers taking the top spot and the hated Los Angeles Lakers picking second. It would have been more entertaining if NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced it “Hunger Games”-style and said, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Now that the impossible dream has evaporated into the reality of the Celtics not having an opportunity to draft LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram or peddle the right to do so, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has to play auctioneer and deal away the third pick for proven help.
Put this pick on the NBA equivalent of eBay and take the best offer Danny. Package it with one of the other overrated picks from your hoops hope chest and a young player to bring in an experienced NBA player that can get the Celtics out of the first round of the playoffs and NBA purgatory.
Or dangle it to try to duplicate what Daryl Morey did in Houston in acquiring James Harden, identifying a player who can use your franchise as a chrysalis to blossom into a franchise player.
The path forward for the Progeny of the Parquet is through free agency and trades, at least until next year, when they’ll have another shot at a transformative player with Brooklyn’s slot in a deeper draft. The Celtics have the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017.
No offense to the players that could be there at No. 3, but I’m not interested in throwing a penny into the proverbial fountain of wishes.
It’s likely to come up empty, like so many of those Celtics 3-pointers in their first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Among the options for the third pick are 18-year-old Croatian power forward Dragan Bender, Kentucky one-and-done (is there any other kind of Kentucky player?) Jamal Murray, Wooden Award winner and college basketball darling Buddy Hield of Oklahoma, and Marquette power forward Henry Ellenson.
With Bender, who plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, you’ll hear a lot of comparisons to Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks. But Bender could just as easily be the next Nikoloz Tskitshvili or Darko Milicic. Murray averaged 20 points per game at John Calipari’s NBA Internship program and sports NBA range. But there were times he seemed bothered getting his shots against more athletic players, a red flag.
Hield is an endangered species, a college senior who will be a lottery pick. He became a college hoops cult figure with his Bahamian backstory and dead-eye shooting, but Adam Morrison, Jimmer Fredette, and Tyler Hansbrough were all college basketball idols who saw their games lost in transition to the NBA.
Ellenson has drawn some Kevin Love Lite comparisons. But Marquette couldn’t even muster an NIT Tournament berth with him. Providence’s Kris Dunn is a Rondo-esque talent, but the Celtics collect point guards like coffee mugs.
Maybe, there is a Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George in this draft, a player not projected as a franchise cornerstone who becomes one. But those odds are less favorable for Ainge than the Draft Lottery ones.
Danny the Dealer should be burning up the phone lines trying to flip this pick. The dream is to package it with someone like Marcus Smart for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, who represented the Bulls at the Draft Lottery, or Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins.
The Bulls see the same post-lottery landscape Ainge does — the Celtics have the third pick in a two-player draft. The Kings have a new DeMarcus Cousins whisperer/coach, Dave Joerger, and they’re opening a brand new arena. Trading Cousins without the chance to get Simmons or Ingram makes no sense.
If Ainge is smart he’ll try to rekindle the trade talks with Philadelphia for puerile center Jahlil Okafor, a center with a man’s game and a rebellious teenager’s off-court demeanor.
The Milwaukee Bucks desperately need a point guard and would love a shot at Dunn.
Ainge could shop the No. 3 pick and some other assets to the Bucks in an attempt to obtain Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton, who would provide the Celtics with much-needed shooting.
These deals don’t kindle memories of trading for Kevin Garnett.
The Celtics have accumulated a ton of draft picks. They have eight in all this year, three in the first round (No. 3, No. 16, and No. 23).
Unfortunately, this isn’t the NFL, where first-round draft picks are always of paramount value. In the NBA, teams focus on players, not hoarding picks.
The Celtics can’t use their raft of draft picks to trade up for the first or second spot, like the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles did in the NFL Draft.
Celtics fans have Ping-Pong ball post-traumatic stress disorder from the empty promise of past lotteries lost 1997 and 2007. Both years left the Parishioners of the Parquet crestfallen.
This wasn’t quite as bad as those years, but fortune once again failed to favor the NBA’s most fabled franchise.
“It could have been worse. It could have been better. But it is what it is,” said Ainge. “We’ll do the best we can to build a great team.”
Getting to great didn’t get any easier on Thursday night.
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