BOSTON — It’s entirely fitting that the 2017 NBA Draft turned on a deal between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. For the last four years, the franchises have mirrored one another in funhouse fashion, reflecting back an inverted image of the other’s rebuilding project.
They both chased the same goal of securing the key player (or players) who would lead them to a run of sustained success, and each accumulated an admirable amount of assets to make it happen. What’s made all of this fascinating to observe from afar was how wildly different they were in methodology. While the Sixers piled up losses and lottery odds, the Celtics built a solid roster on top of their bundle of draft picks.
Even in the zero-sum game of roster management, there could not have been two more different approaches, or more different NBA personas than their respective architects: Sam Hinkie and Danny Ainge.
While delightfully amiable in off the record chats, Hinkie played his public image close to the vest, rarely revealing anything at all about what he was planning. There was no edge he didn’t seek and no clue he’d be willing to provide. Ainge seems to enjoy sparring with writers and debating key points of contention. He’s not above letting a detail or two slip, even as he remains unapologetic about his decisions.
Both Ainge and Hinkie have been highly successful in their way. Both played the long game past the point most franchises would dare, and both have provided enviable, if uncertain, futures. Not surprisingly, they each have their share of devoted followers and strident critics.
That Hinkie wasn’t around to see this through is a shame because their team’s roles were suddenly reversed by their draft-week trade. Under the guidance of general manager Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers made a move for the present by dipping into Hinkie’s treasured vault of assets. Ainge, meanwhile, made the decidedly Hinkiean call to use his pick to enrich the future.
The cost of obtaining Boston’s top pick was Philly’s own selection just two spots later and one of their remaining premium future draft choices. With that top pick, Philly chose Markelle Fultz, who was ordained by general consensus as the closest thing to a surefire star in this draft.
Ainge disagreed with the consensus and willingly slid down to take Jayson Tatum. Ever the contrarian, Ainge later stated that Tatum was the top player on his board regardless, and he didn’t see all that much separation between the top six choices.
How you view the trade depends on how you feel about Fultz’ potential to be a star. If Fultz is an All-NBA guard in four or five years then the trade will have been a resounding success for the Sixers. It will also represent one more log to throw on the burning debate over Ainge’s draft record. If Fultz is merely good, or even a fringe All-Star, then this starts to look like a reach. Especially if Tatum is the goods or if that future draft pick yields an even better return.
Both Colangelo and Ainge may ultimately be right. There’s a reason that most day-after analysis focused on the trade being the right play for both teams in the moment. After four years of drafts, the Sixers need to start showing progress. After a 53-win season culminating in a one-sided conference final loss to LeBron James that revealed just how much farther they have to go, the Celtics settled on patience.
How they both arrived at this line of demarcation has produced an endlessly fascinating maze of transactions. So many draft picks, swap rights, and trade exceptions have been passed around that it would take hours of careful backtracking to put it all back together. Where they were similar was in their desire to win every trade and maximize every advantage.
Both Hinkie and Ainge proved quite capable in that regard with the genesis of each team’s project beginning on a different draft night back in 2013. It was then that Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday for two lottery picks, while Ainge dealt Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for a bounty of Brooklyn draft choices. From there, both were off on a crisscrossing journey of asset accumulation.
Occasionally their interests and opportunities would overlap, such as the time when a little-used backup big man named Joel Anthony became available. The real prize was Philly’s very own first round pick, which had been bartered away under the previous administration. Re-obtaining that pick became something of a personal quest for Hinkie until he was thwarted by Ainge.
As he wrote in his resignation letter:
Many of us remember exactly where we were when tragedy strikes and we think of what could have been. For me — and this is sad for my own mental well being — that list includes the January day in 2014 when Miami traded Joel Anthony and two second round picks to our formidable competitors the Celtics. I can still picture the child’s play table I paced around at Lankenau Medical Center on my cell phone while negotiating with Miami’s front office. This was in between feedings for our newborn twins, when my wife and I were still sleeping in the hospital. Danny Ainge finalized that deal (and several other better ones) and received one first-place vote for Executive of the Year that season: mine.
That first round pick ultimately turned into a pair of second rounders including a benchwarmer named Jordan Mickey and a roster casualty in Ben Bentil. In the high-stakes world of roster management it doesn’t get much more endearingly nerdy than that.
A critic would claim they both pursued this level of maximization to their detriment. Despite their cache of goodies, the Sixers were never involved in any high-leverage pursuits of star players. There was constant grumbling over Hinkie’s desire to extract even more incentives on every deal. Even with their bundle of draft prizes, the Celtics have been unwilling to pull the trigger on a mega-deal that would instantly put them back in contention. There has been similar discontent about Ainge overvaluing his own resources.
Neither seemed particularly bothered by the criticisms and both operated with the full confidence of men who knew exactly what they were doing. Hinkie may have been mysterious by choice, while Ainge was characteristically blunt, but neither displayed an ounce of regret over deals that could have been or choices not made.
From there, the respective approaches differed considerably. Where Hinkie used free agent space to take on dead-weight contracts for the price of future assets, Ainge used his to land Evan Turner (himself a Hinkie castoff), Amir Johnson, and ultimately Al Horford.
The same held true in the trade market. Where Hinkie ran up the score in lopsided deals that netted premium first rounders, Ainge targeted undervalued players like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Jonas Jerebko to go along with the stash of first rounders.
With hindsight it’s easy to pinpoint where their two paths fully diverged. It was the 2015 trade deadline when Hinkie swapped out reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams for a future Laker first rounder. (That pick, of course, may ultimately land in Ainge’s lap following the Fultz trade.)
As part of the same deal, Ainge picked up a budding star in Thomas for essentially nothing. Both deadline moves were coups, and both set in motion their franchises’ trajectories, albeit in completely opposite directions. That divergence was fundamental to their respective approaches.
From the beginning, Hinkie’s plan was designed to be as open-ended as possible. He took draft-day chances on injured high-level prospects and selected an international star who took years to come over. Losing games was baked into the equation, even as they dusted off the occasional second-round gem.
Time was not a problem. Why introduce a variable as fixed as time when dealing with something as volatile and unpredictable as luck? To that end, Hinkie and the Sixers would redefine the age-old strategy of tanking, stretching the idea as far as it could go before it ultimately snapped under the age-old pressures of media ridicule and upper management interference. Losing ultimately did have an expiration date.
Ainge was never comfortable with that idea. As he told me back in the summer of 2013 when I profiled him for Boston magazine, “It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to live that. There’s nothing good about losing except the possibility of a good draft pick.”
Thanks to the Brooklyn bounty, the Celtics didn’t have to worry about their place in the lottery. They could continue to both rebuild and retool around what was becoming a solid core of players. But solid only takes you so far in the NBA and the Celtics seem to have reached the limit of their potential.
This is where their worlds took them on draft night, and this is where they ultimately part ways. Neither path has been perfect and both are littered with landmines and cautionary tales. Both, however, are as clear as they are different.
What the Sixers have is the belief that they now employ three of the top talents from the last four drafts. With Fultz joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with Dario Saric and a handful of other promising young talents like Richaun Holmes, Philly is the embodiment of the draft-and-build dream with only a long litany of injuries holding them back. To that end, missing out on Kristaps Porzingis to take Jahlil Okafor may have been Hinkie’s fatal mistake.
What the Celtics have is the genuine belief that they can swim in the ocean with the free agent sharks. They’ve had their eye on Gordon Hayward for a while, and maybe even Blake Griffin. They have positioned themselves to be in on anything and everything. Those pursuits may have stalled trade activity on draft night including their on-again, off-again pursuits of Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Failing to land either one of them, for now anyway, may ultimately be Ainge’s gravest oversight.
Each have blessed their teams with the rarest of NBA commodities: hope. The Sixers may still be years away and the Celtics may be just as far from the truly elite, but both Philly and Boston can see their respective endgames in sight.
Whose future would you rather have, whose vision do you trust more? We can debate this one forever, and thanks to their trade we’ll have even more information to absorb before we finally reach a consensus over the next decade.
The process is endless. Long live the process.