Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren knew his team was facing long odds at Tuesday night’s NBA Draft lottery in Chicago, but, as he sat sequestered in the drawing room, he had some hope.
The Celtics were in position to get the Kings’ pick as long as it did not end up No. 1 overall, in which case the 76ers would keep it. Zarren watched as the first four lottery balls numbered 1-14 popped out of a machine, resulting in the four-number combination that gave the Pelicans the first choice and the chance to draft Duke star Zion Williamson.
Boston had dodged the 1 percent chance of losing the No. 1 overall pick to the 76ers, and now there was a 3.7 percent chance the pick would vault to the 2-4 range, which would obviously be ideal.
Zarren watched as the Grizzlies, who entered the night in the No. 8 spot, were awarded the No. 2 pick. That was good news on its own. The Celtics would receive the Memphis pick if it fell outside the top eight, and Boston’s preference was for it to roll over to next season, when it would be top-six protected before becoming unprotected in 2021.
After the Knicks received the third pick, Boston had one last chance to get the Kings’ pick into the top of the lottery. And it almost came through.
“There was a chance for us to come in,” Zarren said by phone from Chicago.
When the four-number combination was drawn, Zarren realized that three of the four numbers drawn matched some of Boston’s combinations for the Kings pick. If the remaining ball had been a 10, 12, or 14, Boston would have received the pick. But the cigar Zarren had brought into the room as a good-luck charm as an ode to Red Auerbach didn’t quite have enough juice. The other ball was a 7, and it resulted in a combination that sent the fourth pick to the Lakers.
The Celtics now possess four total picks in the draft. In addition to the 14th choice, they have the Clippers’ first-round pick, which is 20th overall, as well as their own, the 22nd overall selection. The Celtics also own their second-round pick, which is 51st overall.
“My general thoughts are this is an unsurprising outcome for us,” Zarren said. “It’s a lottery and we knew what the odds were going in. The most likely outcome was 14, but you look at that trade and we got the guy we wanted, and now get the 14th pick. I think we all would have signed up for that then.”
In 2017, the Celtics traded the No. 1 pick to the 76ers in exchange for the No. 3 pick and a future first-round choice that turned into this year’s Kings pick. The Celtics ultimately selected Jayson Tatum and the 76ers took Markelle Fultz, who has since been traded to the Magic as he struggles to find his way in the NBA.
Tuesday’s lottery was something of a roller coaster for the Celtics, who had an eye on the Kings and Grizzlies picks, as well as those of teams whose climb to the top of the draft could affect their own pursuit of Anthony Davis this summer.
There has been plenty of speculation about whether the team that secured the top pick would use it as trade bait to acquire Davis. But in the end, the Pelicans, Davis’s current team, landed the top choice.
Zarren said that when the drawing revealed the Pelicans had won the lottery, New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry excitedly went around the room slapping five with everyone there, including him.
“And it was pretty hard,” Zarren said with a chuckle.
First-year Pelicans general manager David Griffin has made it clear he will try to get Davis to ease off of his trade demand, and the likely presence of Williamson might make his push more intriguing. Still, multiple reports Tuesday indicated that the stance of Davis’s camp had not softened.
When the Lakers jumped past Memphis in the televised reveal Tuesday night, it appeared likely that the Grizzlies would fall to the No. 9 spot, thus sending their pick to the Celtics this year. But Zarren was among the small group of people sequestered in the drawing room who knew that was not a concern, because Memphis had already secured the No. 2 pick.
Now the Celtics will be watching the Grizzlies’ moves closely to see how they could affect the value of the future pick that is headed Boston’s way.
Murray State point guard Ja Morant is widely viewed as the most likely option for the No. 2 choice, and last winter the Grizzlies nearly traded veteran point guard Mike Conley as they began a rebuild. That could be a more likely option now.
“There’s a lot of good guys in this draft and future drafts,” Zarren said, “and we’re going to try to get the best picks we can. We got three first-round picks. Most teams don’t.”