How long a game is Danny Ainge playing, anyway?
That’s the question coming out of the potential deal between the Sixers, who hold the third overall pick in this year’s draft, and the Celtics, who have the top pick. Dealing away the top pick will likely mean Boston will pass on the draft’s consensus best player, Washington guard Markelle Fultz. But it would set up the Celtics to choose Kansas small forward Josh Jackson, should they wind up with the No. 3 pick.
That’s a big gamble. Scouts have raved about Fultz, and he has been better than advertised ahead of the draft to this point. The Lakers, picking second, were salivating at the prospect of the Celtics passing on Fultz.
As much as the Celtics have seemed to zero in on Fultz in recent weeks, the prospect of having Jackson and last year’s top pick, Jaylen Brown, on the wings is enticing. It would also indicate a few other things.
For one, moving away from Fultz and toward Jackson would signal that the Celtics are intending to keep Isaiah Thomas, a free agent next summer, for the long term. Maybe even shooting guard Avery Bradley, too.
But more interesting is how the potential acquisition of a future first-rounder from the Sixers would affect the Celtics’ offseason. The Sixers have their own pick and the Lakers’ pick next year, and both figure to have a good chance of winding up in the lottery. The Celtics have Brooklyn’s pick, plus their own, in next year’s draft. The Nets were the league’s worst team last season and should not be much better next season.
If Ainge comes out of the 2017 draft with, potentially, two lottery picks in 2018, plus Jackson and an acre of cap space, the feeling around the league is that he will be looking to sign a top-tier free agent this summer and leverage those picks in a trade for another major piece.
Gordon Hayward is the Celtics’ top free-agent target. Boston has been connected in trade rumors for stars like Jimmy Butler and Andre Drummond as well. A deal down from No. 1 for a future pick would seem to add to the Celtics’ arsenal of young assets as they prepare to vault into contention.
It’s possible that Ainge, who has preached the value of patience as he has gone through the process of rebuilding the Celtics, will simply hold onto his future picks and continue to build assets. That’s how one league executive summed up the Celtics’ approach earlier in the week, before the Sixers-Celtics swap talks heated up.
“I don’t know that, other than Golden State, there is a team you’d rather be running than Boston,” the exec told Sporting News. “Look at the young guys they have and all the potential they have to find ways to get better, by the draft, by signing someone, by a trade. I don’t think anyone likes taking Danny’s calls because he has been on a roll, and you feel like he is going to fleece you.
“But they are just in great position to jump on anything that pops up. They can sit back and let their picks develop. Or they can go for it now, if the right deal comes up. And you have to commend them for that.”