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The Celtics’ most important race? It’s all about the Grizzlies’ pick

How the Memphis Grizzlies finish the regular season could greatly affect where the Celtics pick in the first round of the NBA Draft.KAREN PULFER FOCHT/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FR171263 AP via AP

MIAMI — The Celtics have so many draft picks coming their way that even the players have a tough time keeping up with all of them.

“Honestly, I’m not very familiar with it,” forward Al Horford said. “Do you know what’s kind of going on with it?”

Well, in a nutshell, the Celtics are in line to receive the first-round picks of the Clippers and Kings this year, and then there’s the Grizzlies’ first-round pick, which is more complicated.

The Celtics will receive the Grizzlies’ first-round choice this season if it falls outside of the top eight. If it does not, the selection will roll over to next season, when it is top-six protected. And if it does not convey then, it would become unprotected in the summer of 2021. And with less than a week left in the regular season, there is still much to be sorted out before the ping-pong balls begin bouncing in May.

Within the Celtics’ front office, the preference is for the pick to roll over for at least another year, partly because the protections lighten, and partly because it gives them another shiny trade asset to dangle for a superstar such as Anthony Davis. There is something tantalizing about the possibilities of a future choice that is not yet defined.


It may seem logical that the Grizzlies would rather keep their pick this year to accelerate their rebuild. But according to a league source, Memphis would like to ship the pick to Boston this season because of the uncertainty as pick protections lighten, and to have some clarity as it moves forward with its own plans.

The bottom five records in the NBA are all but locked in, although the Hawks, who sit 2½ games behind the Grizzlies and Mavericks, could theoretically move up. It is most likely, though, that the 6-9 spots will be occupied in some order by the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Wizards, and Pelicans. Dallas and Memphis are tied for the sixth-worst record at 31-47, and the Pelicans and Wizards are just a half-game ahead at 32-47.


The Grizzlies have a key home-and-home against the Mavericks on Friday and Sunday before closing out the season against the Pistons and Warriors. Golden State is the NBA’s most fearsome team, although it could rest most of its players in its regular-season finale to get ready for the playoffs.

Memphis had been playing well recently, but a season-ending ankle injury to center Jonas Valanciunas, who had thrived since being acquired from Toronto, could be too much to overcome.

In addition to their two games against the Grizzlies, the Mavericks will face the Suns (18-61) and Spurs (45-34). The Mavericks have a slightly easier path than the Grizzlies, especially with Suns star Devin Booker shut down for the season. But the two games against Memphis will be most important.

It would seem to be in Dallas’s best interest to lose and get a better draft choice, but the Mavericks have their own pick-protected puzzle to navigate.

If Dallas’s choice falls in the top five, it will keep it. But if it lands sixth or later, it will go to the Hawks as part of last season’s Trae Young trade. The same pick protection will be in place next season before the pick becomes just top-three protected the following two years. Dallas could be viewing its position like the Grizzlies, preferring to shed its obligation now so it can focus on the future, while also being aware that the 2019 draft is generally viewed as weak.


The Pelicans have games against the Suns, Kings (38-40), and Warriors, and the Wizards will face the Spurs and the lowly Knicks (15-63) before closing the regular season against the Celtics.

That final game could offer a unique opportunity for Boston. If home-court advantage for the likely first-round playoff series against the Pacers already has been decided, and the bottom of the lottery remains in flux, Boston might be best served by losing to Washington to help the Wizards stay ahead of the Grizzlies.

No matter where these four teams fall in the 6-9 range, lottery luck will be in play. This year, for the first time, the top four selections will be determined by the lottery. So the Grizzlies could jump into the top four from the ninth spot, or fall out of the eighth spot because some team jumped in from behind them.

If the Grizzlies finish in the No. 6 draft position, they would have just a 3.8 percent chance of falling outside the top eight in the lottery, because they would need three teams with better records to leapfrog them and slide into the top four, pushing Memphis to No. 9. If the Grizzlies are seventh, there would be a 13.2 percent chance that two teams hop them. The odds shift dramatically after that.


If Memphis finishes in the eighth draft spot, it would have a 39.3 percent chance of being passed by one team and falling to ninth. If the Grizzlies end up ninth — which seems unlikely given their current standing and the remaining schedules of the four teams — they would still have a 20.2 chance of hitting the lottery and landing in the top four.

If any of these teams finish tied, they would divide up the number of lottery combinations for their two positions equally. For example, if the Grizzlies and Pelicans end up tied for seventh, they would add the lottery odds of the seventh and eighth draft spots and divide them by two. If neither team moves up in the lottery, the tiebreaker between the two to determine seventh and eighth would be decided by a random drawing.

Although the Celtics would rather have the Grizzlies’ pick roll over for at least one more year, it’s also true that past performance does not guarantee future results. Two years ago, the Kings were expected to be pretty bad this season, and then their young pieces came together, they made a few savvy moves, and now they are in position to finish just below .500, having devalued the first-round pick they will send to the Celtics at season’s end.

For the Celtics, getting the No. 9 pick from Memphis this year might end up being the best result.

The Grizzlies are expected to eventually move on from veteran point guard Mike Conley as they begin their rebuild, but it’s also true that they’ve won 40 percent of their games this season despite having a roster that has been decimated by injuries.


Major contributors Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson, Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, and C.J. Miles are out for the season. Avery Bradley has not played since March 16, and is probably done for the season, and Conley and Joakim Noah have been sidelined recently with nagging injuries.

Conley, Jackson, Anderson, and Chandler Parsons are under contract for next season. Bradley and Brooks have team options, and Valanciunas and Miles have player options, while Delon Wright is a restricted free agent. This is not a core that, even when healthy, is likely to challenge for a playoff berth in the mighty West. But if most of these players return, a high first-round pick is added this summer, and an impact free agent or two is signed, the roster would be solid.

Regardless of the standing of the Grizzlies’ pick, the Celtics will hardly enter this draft empty-handed. The Clippers (47-32) have qualified for the playoffs and will convey a pick in the low 20s to Boston. The Kings have fallen short of the playoffs but are locked into the 13th or 14th lottery position.

The Celtics will receive the Sacramento pick as long as it is not No. 1 overall, in which case they would get Philadelphia’s choice instead. At best, there will be just a 1 percent chance of Sacramento winning the lottery. If Sacramento finishes in the No. 13 lottery spot, it would have a 3.7 percent chance of vaulting into the 2-4 range.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.