Boston Awaits Its Lucky Bounce

The NBA Draft Lottery has been the Celtics’ enemy for years

NBA.com (modified)

On Tuesday night, the Celtics will go up against one of the toughest opponents they have faced in the franchise’s rich history. Time and time again, they have faced off with this deceptive foe, and time and time again, they have come up shy.

No — I am not getting ahead of myself. This is not a preview of the Celtics’ Eastern Conference finals showdown with LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That is for a later post. Tuesday night is the NBA’s Draft Lottery. The annual bouncing of ping pong balls to decide the fate of the NBA’s worst teams in their quest to land the next franchise player.

LA Sportsa Nostra (modified)

In 2013, the Celtics posted a record of 41–40 and suffered a first round elimination at the hands of the New York Knicks. Age was starting to become a factor with the two remaining members of the Big Three. Pierce had one year left on his contract and Garnett had two. It was decision time for Danny Ainge. Let the legends die in green, or make the tough move of trading the two most important Celtics over the past two decades. When the dust settled in the offseason, the Celtics decided it was best to rip it down and start the rebuild — a process that can be looong and aggravating, especially for fans. Ainge pulled the trigger on a franchise-shifting trade that sent the faces of the team in their fading years to a ring-hungry Nets team.

The Nets were coming off a 49-win season and a first round playoff exit. They figured in acquiring these three veteran players (including Jason Terry), they would be thrust into championship contention with their old but talented starting five (Lopez 25, Garnett 37, Pierce 36, Johnson 32, Williams 29).

This trade included three Brooklyn first round draft picks going to Boston (2014, 2016, 2018) as well as the right to swap first round picks in 2017.

2014: In the first year with the new-look starting five, the Nets finished 44–38 and were bumped in the second round of the playoffs in a quick series with the Heat. Paul Pierce left for the Wizards in free agency in the offseason.

2015: The following year, they posted a 38–44 record. They found themselves eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in a season where Garnett played a significantly decreased role before being traded to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline.

2016: With nothing left to show from the trade — no rings, no players, not even an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone the NBA finals — the Brooklyn Nets finished 21–61, holding the third-worst record in the NBA.

In 2017, the Brooklyn Nets finished dead last in the NBA, posting another dreadful record of 20–62.

In the fourth year of the new era, after a slew of other moves that saw them land key players such as Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford, the Celtics sit in a most unusual and most enviable position — fighting for Eastern Conference supremacy as the #1 seed while also holding the greatest odds for the #1 overall draft pick in the deeply talented 2017 draft.

Sporting News

This is where the tough opponent that is the lottery comes into play. The Celtics have never in their history held the #1 overall pick in the draft. Unless, of course, you date back to 1955 — which we all remember like it was yesterday, right? So, if you want to get technical, they picked #1 overall once. And I’m certain there’s no one reading this that could tell me the format of that draft . Nonetheless, this in itself shows the lack of luck (ironically) the Clovers get when the ping pong balls drop. In fact, Boston has only had the #2 overall pick one time, as well. With that pick, they selected Len Bias — and thus begins the bad luck stories that have plagued this team for ages in the draft lottery process. Below is a picture graph of the Celtics’ lottery odds and results since it was implemented in 1985.

ESPN

*2016 yielded the #3 pick, with which they selected Jaylen Brown.

As you can see, the Celtics have never fared well in the lottery. They haven’t landed inside the top two — or even landed higher than their projection — since 1986, which we’ll get to in a moment. Even many of the years that don’t seem so bad on the surface ended miserably.

1986: The Celtics jumped up three spots from their #5 projection to #2 in the 1986 draft lottery. With this pick, they selected the highly touted Len Bias out of Maryland. Bias was, and still is, considered to be one of the best college basketball players ever to take the floor. His athletic 6'8" frame is one that only LeBron James could mirror. Known for his college battles with Michael Jordan, Len projected as a potential NBA great. The Celtics acquired the pick via trade from Seattle. The addition of Bias was sure to continue the Celtics’ dominance into the 90’s. Tragically, Len Bias died two days after the draft due to a drug overdose. The Celtics went on to win the NBA title and have one of the best seasons ever, but one can only wonder what could have been if Len Bias was wearing green into the 2000’s.

Len Bias was one of the best college basketball players to ever play. (Washington Post, modified)

1997: The Celtics had two picks projected inside the top six (#2 and #6). Tim Duncan was the far-and-away best player in the draft, and with two picks this high, Boston incredibly had a near-40% chance to land #1. When the ping pong balls dropped, the Celtics received picks #3 and #6. The San Antonio Spurs won the lottery and selected Tim Duncan first overall. Five NBA Championships and a Hall of Fame career later, the Spurs still reign supreme in the NBA ranks. Tim Duncan thrust this franchise into a Patriots-like run that continues to this day — The Spurs are one win away from yet another Western Conference Finals one year after Tim Duncan’s retirement.

2007: Greg Oden, to many, was the prize of this draft; a dominant, enormous center that would be the face of a franchise. However, it was well-documented that Danny Ainge had his eyes on the “second best” player in this draft — Kevin Durant. Danny sat court-side with Kevin’s mother during Durant’s college career, and he saw him as a future Celtic. With the #2 projected pick, it was thought that either #1 or #2 would suffice — Greg Oden would have went #1 (as he did) regardless. The ping pong balls yet again did not fall for the green, sacking them with the #5 pick. Horrible. Danny turned this pick into Ray Allen and followed it up by acquiring Kevin Garnett. The Celtics won banner No. 17 and all was well. But Kevin Durant remains a top-3 player in the NBA. He has been dominant for years and continues to be. Regardless of the final result in 2007–08, this lottery was a big loss for the Celtics.

This brings us to Tuesday night. The Celtics have the highest odds at #1 pick in the draft thanks to the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Their final result can be no worse than #4, and with a draft perceived to have four or five great players without much of a drop off, it could be looked at as a no-lose lottery for the C’s. But when you factor in trade value, the ability to pick your guy (rather than settling for whoever is left at #4) and organizational fit among the draftees, the #1 pick is still extremely important.

“The annual porking of the ping pong balls,” it’s called by Felger and Mazz of 98.5 The Sports Hub. So now it’s time to sit back and wonder — will the Clovers get their lucky bounce?