Sunday Shootaround

Time will tell for the Sixers and Celtics

by Paul Flannery

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.

The List Consumable NBA Thoughts

Here are five takeaways from a relatively uneventful amateur draft.

The Lakers matter again

Their 2018 pick is gone and so is the supposed centerpiece from their tanking years. That four-year stretch yielded Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, and now Lonzo Ball. It also produced D’Angelo Russell, who was dumped rather rudely on the Nets. (More on Russell in Numbers.)

That young core is still largely unformed in terms of roles and frankly, rather uninspiring in term of production. While they develop, the Lakers are taking steps to be the league’s glamour franchise again by clearing cap space and making bold plans to land Paul George and maybe even LeBron James. No one is laughing at their audaciousness anymore. It could still all go horribly wrong, of course, but Laker exceptionalism is peeking out from the grave.

Jimmy! Thibs!

We’ll hold off on the Bulls takes for a minute here. Maybe Zach LaVine recovers from his knee injury and becomes a force. Perhaps Kris Dunn shakes off a discouraging rookie season and turns into a quality lead guard. Lauri Markkanen? Sure, let’s give him a shot, too. The thing about trades is you really can’t know who got the better of a transaction until later — even one that looks as lopsided and ill-considered as this one. Leave all that aside and revel in the reality that Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau are together again, and they need each other. Butler is a top-15 player who checks nearly every box on the Wolves offseason to-do list. Thibs is a no-nonsense coach who won’t get run over by Butler’s forceful personality. It may not make the Wolves legit contenders yet — remember how far the Pups have to go — but it sure makes them competitive again.

Whither Paul George

And here’s the flip side to Butler’s emancipation. There are maybe a dozen players in the NBA who are better than Paul George and only a tiny handful you’d rather have on your side in a playoff match-up with LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Maybe. With one year left on his contract and his heart set on Los Angeles, PG is one of the most peculiar rental possibilities to come along in years. The Pacers have no real leverage here, but still … this is Paul Freaking George. I’d take my chances were I a contender.

The Kings are drafting well

Everyone’s favorite draft punchline had a nice night on Thursday. The Kings scooped up De’Aaron Fox in the lottery, who fills a huge hole on their roster and continues their run of drafting Kentucky blue bloods. They then traded down from the 10th pick and wound up with Carolina wing Justin Jackson, who also fills a huge hole. With the 20th pick, they took Duke big man Harry Giles, who represents exactly the kind of gamble a team like the Kings should make that late in the draft. None of them are sure things. Fox can’t shoot, Jackson has one year of acceptable three-point marksmanship on his resume, and Giles has a history of injury problems that derailed his one year of college. The draft is all about maximizing opportunity and taking calculated risks, which the Kings did. It’s a good omen for Scott Perry, the new executive VP of basketball ops, in what should be a long-term rebuilding project.

The draft is becoming predictable

Outside of the Butler trade and a handful of mid- first-round reaches, there were few surprises on Thursday. Every mock draft had the top six in roughly the order they were chosen, and the venerable crew of DraftExpress noted that they had forecasted 56 of the 60 players chosen. What this shows is a combination of solid information gathering from the true draft experts and a shared consensus among scouts, both amateur and professional. We’d all like to think that basketball is becoming smarter, from the front offices to the people who cover and consume it year-round, and maybe it is. One wonders if a hive mind is also developing that discourages risk-taking. That may not be a bad thing, but it’s not nearly as interesting.

By The Numbers The stats that explain the week

5.9

Last year, the Golden State Warriors spent $2.4 million to buy into the second round of the draft where they selected Patrick McCaw, a rail-thin wing from UNLV. Draftheads applauded the move and McCaw proved them right, carving out a niche backing up Klay Thompson through the postseason and even the NBA Finals. Not bad for the 38th pick, and a bargain at any price for a capped-out team reliant on veteran ring chasers and minimum-salaried players to fill out its roster. On Thursday, the Warriors bought the 38th pick again, this time from the Bulls for a cool $3.5 million. They selected Oregon’s Jordan Bell, an undersized but highly athletic big man who was lurking around the bottom of the first round on many mock drafts. Draftheads everywhere smote their collective heads. That’s money extremely well spent, as the $5.9 million outlay doesn’t count against their cap. Maybe they really are light years ahead of everyone.

10

In a curious move, the Hawks dumped Dwight Howard after only one season for a backup center on a long-term contract (Miles Plumlee) and a veteran wing shooter (Marco Belinelli). Atlanta also moved down 10 spots in the second round for its troubles. The deal doesn’t upgrade the Hawks’ talent or help their long-term cap situation, as Plumlee has three years left on his deal to Howard’s two (there are short-term savings, however). Despite his reputation for causing locker room distress and the league-wide shift in big man strategy, Howard is still an excellent rebounder and interior defender. He’ll have a chance to do both in Charlotte under the well-regarded Steve Clifford, who is something of a big man whisperer. New Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk, who earlier hinted that free agent Paul Millsap may receive better offers elsewhere, stopped short of calling this a rebuild. We’ll see.

13

Here’s a completely arbitrary player comp using the invaluable Basketball-Reference.com Player Finder tool. There have been 13 players in league history who averaged at least 15 points and 4.8 assists at age 20. The list includes huge names like LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Chris Paul. It also includes Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, and D’Angelo Russell. To be sure, Russell’s campaign ranks at the absolute low end of B-Ref’s Win Shares and doesn’t fare all that favorably in any other metrics. As he heads into his third season, Russell is clearly something, but what he’ll be ain’t exactly clear. The Nets are one of the few franchises that could take on Timofey Mozgov’s absurdly large contract to find out. It’s a smart play by Brooklyn GM Sean Marks, and for Russell, it’s a chance at a fresh start.

16

From Markelle Fultz to Tony Bradley, there were 16 one-and-done players selected in the first round. That beat the previous high of 13 set back in 2015 and comes at a time when the entire concept is being debated and reconsidered. No one likes one-and-done. College purists bemoan its existence, while NBA enthusiasts think it’s a sham. Adam Silver doesn’t like it either, and he noted during his state-of-the-game address prior to the Finals that he was open to finding a creative solution to the problem. One hopes a solution would go beyond strict age guidelines and rigid years of indentured college servitude. That will have to be worked out with the players’ union, but there finally appears to be a real opening for reform. There are so many plans and so many ideas floating around that an ideal solution may be out of reach to appease every faction. A more thoughtful and enlightened approach that provides a degree of protection and flexibility for teenagers is a good place to start.

29

Over the past seven drafts, the Spurs have taken three point guards with the 29th pick. The first was Cory Joseph, who proved to be one of the best backup point guards in the league following a suitable apprenticeship. Last year, they selected Dejounte Murray, who flashed enough potential in 322 minutes to think they’ve done it again. We have no reason to doubt R.C. Buford and his staff, who have a knack for mining the late first round for gems. The list is endless: Kyle Anderson, George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, Tony Parker, etc. So there is no doubt that Derrick White, a fast-rising prospect who began his college career in Division II, will one day become a fine NBA point guard. These are the Spurs, and this is what they do.

Say What? Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“De’Aaron’s our future and I just can’t say how much excitement (there is) in Sacramento and our office that he was available at five.”

Kings GM Vlade Divac, on his first round pick, De’Aaron Fox.

Reaction: Strong.

“This was the guy that we were after. If we would have drafted a lot higher, he was the guy that we had circled.”

Dallas GM Donnie Nelson on his first round pick, Dennis Smith.

Reaction: Nods.

“It’s rare to find a player with this type of makeup, but also skill set.”

OKC GM Sam Presti on his first round pick, Terrance Ferguson.

Reaction: Indeed.

“He’s a big-time talent and if it wasn’t for his injury he would have gone a lot higher. He’s a guy that our scouts targeted and luckily he fell to us. There were a lot of teams right behind us that were salivating to get him.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey on his first round pick, OG Anunoby.

Reaction: Salivating!

“Just a transcendent talent. There’s something very, very special about his basketball abilities. If you use a sports analogy in another sport, you look at passers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers that just have an ability to do something that is so special with where they put the ball and where they deliver it. I think the vision and the abilities that Lonzo has puts him in a class of being a transcendent talent.”

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on his first round pick, Lonzo Ball.

Reaction: Winner.

Vid of the Week Further explanation unnessecary