The Boston Celtics hold the third selection in Thursday’s NBA draft, courtesy of a retrospectively mind-boggling 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets, which netted Boston three first-round picks and the option to swap first-rounders in 2017. For Boston, the trade purchased a rose-colored outlook; for Brooklyn it hamstrung the Nets into a perpetual state of Not Good Enough with no indication of clear skies in the foreseeable future.
One of those first-round selections is the Nets’ 2016 first-round pick, and since Mikhail Prokhorov’s outfit was utterly hapless this season, Boston, a team that qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, will pick third overall. It’s just the franchise’s 10th top-10 selection in the past 36 years.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future and everybody’s future in the NBA and what players that we draft,” president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said after the team landed the lottery pick. “But we like this draft, we’re excited about this No. 3 pick. We have our eyes set on a handful of guys.”
With eight (!) picks in this year’s draft, more than any other franchise and enough to comprise more than half an NBA roster, the Celtics face a dilemma: There are 12 players on payroll for next season — nine players on guaranteed deals and three on non-guaranteed contracts — and only 15 available roster spots.
Something’s gotta give.
Green-clad Boston fans should stop daydreaming about a future with Kris Dunn or Jamal Murray in their back court, and instead embrace this reality: The Celtics should trade the No. 3 overall pick.
That pick is worth a considerable amount
With a treasure trove of picks at its disposal, it’s worth assessing what Boston’s selections are worth.
Boston holds the No. 3, No. 16, No. 23, No. 31, No. 35, No. 45, No. 51 and No. 58 picks.. The third overall pick is clearly worth the most. As Nate Silver has previously noted, the No. 3 overall draft pick yields a net profit of about $20.5 million for a franchise over the player’s first five seasons.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton argued last season that the exact value of the pick isn’t important, but the relative value is. If the No. 1 overall pick is worth 4,000 points, Pelton said, then the No. 3 pick is valued at 2,890 points. Using Pelton’s methodology, the No. 3 pick would be worth slightly more than the No. 19 and No. 20 overall picks, and about 10.7 times the value of the No. 50 overall pick.
Add to the equation that this year’s class has the highest average draft grade for the top-50 college prospects of any draft since 2001, per ESPN. Four players — Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons, Marquese Chriss and Jamal Murray — have a 20 percent or higher likelihood of blossoming into an all-star, according to ESPN’s models.
As Saurabh Rane noted on Nylon Calculus, the No. 3 selection in the draft has nearly a 15 percent chance of being named 1st-team all-NBA at some point in their career and a 35 percent chance of cracking an all-star team. In conjunction with this class of prospects, those are titillating odds.
Rane uses a metric known as value over replacement player to make his point, noting that the No. 3 overall pick has produced players who often peak at a single-season VORP of around 3. Some players who produced a VORP between 3 and 3.5 last season were Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Gordon Hayward, players who objectively generated monster campaigns.
So, to summarize: Boston’s picks are worth a hefty sum.
The Celtics have an atrocious record in the draft
All that holding true, while the No. 3 overall pick in the draft could potentially yield a player of significant value, history is littered with players who didn’t pan out. High-level, proven free agents are worth their weight in gold. With Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons all but guaranteed to go with the top two picks, Boston ownership is staring at a number of unproven players at No. 3.
It’s worth noting how atrocious the Celtics have been for years at drafting, despite the team’s recent success. Since 2012, only Marcus Smart and Jared Sullinger have proven serviceable, while players like Terry Rozier, Jordan Mickey, James Young and Fab Melo have largely been crestfallen, if not disgorged. Peel back further and you’ll find a franchise haunted by the names Joseph Forte, Kedrick Brown, (both selected by Ainge’s predecessor, Chris Wallace) and J.R. Giddens, who, to be fair, was the final player taken in the first round in 2008, days after the Celtics won their last championship.
Every team in every sport makes mistakes in the draft; it’s illogical to assume any franchise will objectively make the soundest decision every time they’re put on a disquieting clock. However, Boston’s streak of draft miscues can’t be divorced from the equation, nor should it.
Here’s how Boston’s selections over the past 10 drafts match up against league average.
As shown, while 45 percent of players taken since 2006 have washed out of the league, 52.2 percent of the Celtics’ picks are no longer active in the NBA. Additionally, while 19.7 percent of selections over that stretch have turned into starters, Boston has had such luck on just 8.7 percent of its selections.
That Boston has been woefully unsuccessful in the draft recently only heightens the oft–reported notion that the Celtics are interested in dealing some of their assets to chase a marquee player. In just the past few weeks, the team has been linked to trade rumors for players like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Jahlil Okafor. All of these players, by the way, are worth chasing.
Should the aforementioned players — Butler, Durant, Love and Okafor — be available on the market, and should the pot be sweet enough, Boston should absolutely make a move to package picks and players to land one of them, if not two. As ESPN’s Chris Forsberg has noted, the Celtics could realistically target two max-level free agents this offseason. Either way, though, Boston needs to deal this pick.