Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is more likely to quote the verses of New York Knicks great Walt “Clyde” Frazier than Walt Whitman, but it appears he has heeded Whitman’s words in pursuit of Banner No. 18: “Henceforth I ask not good fortune. I myself am good fortune.”
Ainge and the Celtics were fortunate enough to finally have the Ping-Pong balls bounce their way in the NBA Draft Lottery, landing the top overall selection and the right to draft putative top pick Markelle Fultz. But Ainge feels he can make his own luck in advancing the Celtics to true NBA title contenders. That’s why he has agreed to send the top pick in Thursday’s draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 3 pick and a future first-rounder in a deal expected to be formalized Monday. (The Celtics will receive from Philly, which has an even larger passel of picks than the Celtics, either the rights to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick or the rights to the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-rounder.)
The deal has generated both agita and disappointment among the Parishioners of the Parquet who were readying the rafters for Fultz’s jersey number and eager to see him play alongside fellow University of Washington product Isaiah Thomas. Whether you disapprove of the trade or consider it a shrewd move by Danny the Dealer, here’s the unavoidable takeaway — Ainge had more faith betting on himself than he did on Fultz.
The Celtics rejected Fultz, Dikembe Mutombo-style, as the foolproof, franchise fortune-changing star he has been billed as in NBA circles for months. They’re not even sure he’s the best player in this draft. So, they’re trading down and adding to their hoops hope chest.
While Celtics fans were talking up Fultz, Ainge and his brain trust were talking themselves out of him. There’s no way that Ainge makes this deal if he believes that Fultz is going to blossom into a transformative player or is a slam-dunk No. 1 pick like Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James. You simply don’t give up that type of player. You definitely don’t do it while sending him directly to a division rival.
The fact that Ainge was willing to forego Fultz and hand-deliver him to an up-and-coming Philadelphia team, where he could face Boston for a decade, is the most compelling evidence that he simply wasn’t sold on Fultz. This deal is akin to Patriots coach Bill Belichick trading Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills.
The lack of fear about sending Fultz to the 76ers is a clear signal that the Celtics have their doubts about just how much of a difference-maker Fultz will be, despite his gaudy numbers and NBA-suited game.
There is no other sport where one great player can make as much of an impact on winning as basketball. That’s why there is incongruity in projecting Fultz to be a transcendent NBA player when he couldn’t will a college team that was finished to pick sixth in the Pac-12 in the preseason to better than a 9-22 record and an 11th place finish in the conference.
You have to go back to 1972 No. 1 pick and immortal bust LaRue Martin to find a top pick whose college team had such a poor record. Martin’s Loyola University of Chicago club went 8-14. Martin is like the Pablo Sandoval of modern NBA No. 1 picks. He lasted four seasons and never averaged more than 7 points per game. Fultz will be eminently better than that, but it’s fair to have serious reservations — as some of us have all along — about him becoming an NBA alpha male who alters the fate of an organization. That’s what Ainge is searching for and wants to acquire, either through the draft or via trade.
The case can be made that Ainge shied away from Fultz because the Celtics have an abundance of guards. But that’s never stopped Ainge in the past. He’s always been a guy who takes the best talent and worries about how the roster puzzle fits together later.
If the Celtics select Kansas forward Josh Jackson or Duke forward Jayson Tatum they’re going to encounter the same issue with Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown already in the fold, the team pursuing Gordon Hayward, and reigning NBA D-League Rookie of the Year Abdel Nader waiting for his shot as well. The roster-fit rationale becomes complete sophistry if the Celtics end up drafting Lonzo Ball and his loudmouth father.
This move is more about Fultz than roster fit.
No one has ever accused Ainge of being risk averse, but trading out of the No. 1 pick is a bold gamble even by his standards. There’s no guarantee that Magic Johnson and the Lakers won’t take the player that Ainge covets with the No. 2 pick. It’s going to be as ugly as Acie Earl’s running gait if Ainge is wrong about Fultz. He’ll earn a place in NBA GM ignominy along with Kevin Pritchard and Stu Inman, a pair of former Portland Trail Blazers decision makers. In 2007, Pritchard passed on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden. Inman infamously took Sam Bowie at No. 2 over some guy named Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft.
Even with a 53-win team that faced the LeBrons in the conference finals and the cap space to bring in a high-profile free agent like Hayward, it’s getting harder for Celtics fans to maintain their patience with the pay-off from the Brooklyn Nets deal. Getting the No. 1 pick this year via one of those hallowed Brooklyn picks was supposed to be it.
The Celtics still have Brooklyn’s 2018 first-rounder, and that pick coupled with the pick from the 76ers allows them the flexibility to pounce if a star player becomes disgruntled in his current surroundings (hello, Anthony Davis). But the Celtics have been whispering sweet nothings into the ears of their fans for a few seasons. Celtics fans want to know when Ainge is going to put a ring on it, as in a championship ring.
The mantra of former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, who acquired the draft picks Philadelphia is using in this deal, has become famous — Trust the Process.
Now, it’s the turn of Celtics fans to Trust the Process and trust that Ainge didn’t turn good fortune into a bad deal.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at