May 20 has been the day that most Celtics’ fans have had circled on their calendars for the past several months. It’s the day to break out your lucky boxers (or in the case of Celtics’ co-owner Steve Pagliuca, a lucky ceramic chicken). The stakes are high tonight, as the Celtics will pick anywhere from 1-8 (not fourth) in the upcoming NBA Draft. By now, the two roads the Celtics can choose is fairly clear. Nothing has changed from when I wrote about the lottery in February:
Whether Rajon Rondo should be traded or kept is a question that won’t be answered until the lottery on May 20. For proof of this path, look no further than the 2007 draft lottery. The Celtics had a veteran All-Star (Paul Pierce) and a chance at a top pick in a loaded draft; the Seattle SuperSonics also had a veteran All-Star (Ray Allen) and a chance at a top pick in a loaded draft. In the days leading up to the lottery, Pierce was quoted as saying he wasn’t sure he would stick around if the Celtics won the rights to select Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. The Celts, however, ended up with the fifth pick, and the Sonics ended up with the second pick. For the Sonics, that meant taking Kevin Durant and trading Ray Allen to pair Durant with a player more his age. For the Celtics, it meant trading the pick (Jeff Green) in order to pair Paul Pierce with a worthy peer in Allen. The two teams both found success: the Celtics went on to trade other assets for a third veteran All-Star (Kevin Garnett) and won a title, narrowly missing out on a second title (damn you, Artest!); the Sonics begat the Thunder who have made one NBA Finals appearance and are destined for more. That’s two teams with the same assets leading up to the lottery, who made firm decisions (win now or rebuild fully) and saw the fruits of it.
This year, the Celtics will be in the same situation. They have one All-Star veteran and a chance for a top pick in a loaded draft. While there is no LeBron James (i.e., immediate impact) in this draft, the top three picks (Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins) are all consensus future All-Stars. The next level of guys includes a few point guards (Dante Exum, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Smart). If the Celtics get a Top 3 pick, they’d be wise to trade Rondo to a team picking somewhere in the 4-8 range (maybe the Lakers who would want a veteran next to Kobe), and pair two young studs (say, Parker with Exum). This would be the start of an all-in rebuilding phase, similar to what the Sonics/Thunder went through after the 2007 lottery. If the Celtics land in the 4-8 range, then the best bet is to use that as part of a package to trade for a veteran (most rumors point to Kevin Love). Celtics fans would basically be living like it’s 2007 all over again. Either way, it’s two very different outcomes for Rondo’s future with the Celtics. He will either be retained in a win-now scenario or dealt as part of a long-term rebuild.
Everything that was written in February still holds true, right down to the Kevin Love rumors. But one thing has slightly changed: The Celtics should go for Love, no matter what—even if the 10 percent chance comes through and they land the No. 1 pick tonight. If it’s the top pick, it’s likely close to enough to land Love all by itself (and matching salaries, of course). Then the Celtics would have Rondo, who will be 28 when next season starts, and Love, who will be 26 at the start of the season.
Add in a possible trade for rim-protector Omer Asik (trade exception and a draft pick), and maybe you can lure back Paul Pierce or engage the Utah Jazz in a sign-and-trade for restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. Either way, with Love and Rondo you have a far younger core than the Celtics did in 2007-08 with the New Big Three. That’s the way to go. Is it as enticing as going with a youth movement? Maybe not, but it’s more than just a quick fix. If both players agree to contract extensions, they’ll be locked in for years to come during their prime. So does tonight’s draft lottery mean less if you’re hoping to land Love no matter what? No. It’s still way more valuable to have a Top-3 pick this year, and landing a pick in that range will mean giving up less in a package for Love.
But if they get the top pick, don’t go ordering an Embiid Celtics’ jersey just yet. Either way, it’s always nice to win the lottery.