In the middle of the 2014-15 NBA season, during a hectic stretch in which the Celtics accelerated their rebuild by making six trades over a two-month span, they were close to finalizing a three-team deal with the Pelicans and Grizzlies. But there was one holdup.
As part of the trade, Boston would acquire a future first-round pick from the Grizzlies. It’s just that it was more complicated than that.
“That trade involved the most haggling we’ve ever done with another team over protections on a trade,” Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren said Tuesday.
At the time, Memphis was in the midst of its “Grit and Grind” glory days, led by Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies were on the verge of their third consecutive 50-win season.
But Memphis, which had already traded away an upcoming first-round pick to the Cavaliers, knew that its core was aging, and it was concerned about potentially giving up an extremely high pick down the road. The Celtics, meanwhile, were not going to agree to excessive pick protections.
Finally, the sides agreed on an unusual approach that had never been used before.
“We thought it was new and clever, and then the league decided it was illegal,” said Zarren, who declined to identify the details of those terms.
So they tweaked the deal a bit and thought they could proceed.
Then on Jan. 10, Zarren was attending a “Hot Stove Cool Music” benefit concert at the Paradise Rock Club, when a league lawyer called again. The music was thumping and the bar area in the small venue was crowded, and there were people from the sports industry all around. So Zarren headed out into the below-freezing night to take the call. The league lawyer told him that this new solution for the pick protections was not acceptable.
“I remember standing outside the Paradise, so, so cold, and calling the Grizzlies back,” Zarren said. “I told them, ‘OK, they won’t let us do this, either. We just have to do something simpler. This is what we’ll agree to. I don’t think we’re going to move off of it. See if we can get it done tomorrow.’ They called back the next day, and we agreed to it.”
Under the terms of the final deal, the Celtics would receive the Grizzlies’ pick in 2019 as long as it fell outside the top eight. If it did not, it would carry over to 2020, when it would be top-six protected, before becoming fully unprotected in 2021.
The Celtics also sent forward Jeff Green to Memphis and received guard Austin Rivers from New Orleans and forward Tayshaun Prince from Memphis. Rivers was subsequently traded to the Clippers for a second-round choice, but the Celtics believed the crown jewel of the deal would be the Memphis pick, even if they would have to wait for it.
The Grizzlies’ downturn arrived, and the Celtics were hopeful that it would continue as the protections eased. Memphis won 33 games last year, giving it the eighth-worst record in the NBA and putting it right on the edge of the top-eight protection heading into the draft lottery.
There was a 57.4 percent chance that the Grizzlies would land a pick in the top eight, either by jumping into the top four via ping-pong ball luck, or by avoiding being leapfrogged by one of the seven teams behind them.
Given the Grizzlies’ seemingly lukewarm immediate future, Celtics executives were hoping that the pick would roll over for at least another season.
They got their wish, in a sense. But it was hardly the perfect scenario. The Grizzlies received some favorable lottery bounces and vaulted into the No. 2 position. They used their selection on Murray State point guard Ja Morant, who has instantly turned into one of the most exciting players in the NBA this season.
The rookie is averaging 17.9 points, 7.0 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game while making 49 percent of his shots overall and 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers. He has helped Memphis vault somewhat improbably into the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies come to TD Garden Wednesday night with a 20-23 record.
Of course, there is still nearly half a season remaining. And while the Grizzlies currently hold that playoff spot, they are just 3½ games ahead of the 12th-place Pelicans.
Even if the Grizzlies miss the playoffs, it seems quite unlikely that they will end up with a top-six pick. But given the ascensions of Morant and 2018 No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson, they could become even more dangerous next year by adding another top choice with some lottery luck.
Before this season, the Celtics’ preference was that the top-six protected pick would roll over to next year, when it would become unprotected. That line of thinking is slightly cloudy now, but the Celtics are not losing sleep over it.
“We’re certainly paying attention to other things more than that,” Zarren said. “We don’t have any control over it.
“When you’re thinking about doing a trade involving that pick, you might check. But otherwise, what are you going to do? You can run yourself in circles doing the analysis, but since you can’t control it at all, it doesn’t matter what we want.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com.