Chicago Bulls fans frothing at the potential for the organization to trade up into the top tier of the NBA Draft lottery got some grim news Tuesday night when the Boston Celtics cemented their place at the top of the 2017 draft board. The results at a glance lent credit to Celtics GM Danny Ainge for standing his ground at the trade deadline by refusing to move any of Boston’s assets. This was reinforced by the fact that the Celtics pulled out a Game 7 win the night prior against the Washington Wizards to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But 24 hours later, the cup-runneth-over period of success for the Celtics abruptly dried up.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers rolled into Boston for Game 1 of the ECF and absolutely obliterated the nominal top seed in the East. The game ended with a final score of 117-104, but the Cavs took a 22 point lead into halftime and LeBron finished with 38 points on 14-24 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists. The Celtics couldn’t do anything to stop LeBron from doing whatever he wanted on the court, whether he sought relentless drives to the hoop or seemingly-effortless dishes to his teammates for easy baskets. It was hard to watch last night’s contest and conclude that the Celtics have any chance whatsoever of representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals (but Bulls fans already knew this given what happened in the first round).
That then begs the question: what’s going give the Celtics the best chance going forward of topping the Cavaliers? If the Celtics hang on to both of the Brooklyn Nets’ draft picks, do the players they would ultimately select really line up with the title window they’d have established with a 27 year-old Hayward, a 28 year-old Isaiah Thomas, and a nearly 31 year-old Al Horford? And even if Boston drafts Markelle Fultz and lands Gordon Hayward in free agency are those two really going to be the solutions to the problem that is LeBron James?
The Celtics have only one trade option if they want to compete NOW: Jimmy Butler. Another solution is Paul George, but less-desirable for a few reasons. Contrary to what Gatorade would have you believe, not only is PG13 one of the worst crunch-time scorers in the NBA by a pretty alarming margin, but he’s under contract for only one more guaranteed season. That’s not very comforting given George’s lack of subtlety about his intentions to bolt for the Los Angeles Lakers when his free agency finally arrives.
Having Butler immediately gives Boston the most formidable backcourt in the East between himself and Isaiah Thomas, while also giving the Celtics another primary option for running the offense when IT is out of the game (one of their most glaring issues right now). Butler also gives the Celtics an exceptional amount of defensive versatility in their lineup construction and directly compensate for Thomas’ defensive shortcomings. But most importantly, Butler is one of the only players in the NBA equipped to guard LeBron James, and as Game 1 clearly indicated, that’s what the Celtics need more than anything else if they desire to compete in the near future while Thomas is in his prime and Horford is still in his early 30s.
There are two other notes I want to make about the Celtics having the first overall pick that leads me to believe that trading it for Jimmy Butler is in their best interest.
- Since the implementation of the draft lottery in 1985, only two teams have won NBA titles with first overall players on their teams that they originally drafted: San Antonio (David Robinson, Tim Duncan) and Cleveland (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving). Robinson had to wait a full decade for the Spurs to luck into Tim Duncan, and LeBron had to leave Cleveland and come back before the Cavs had a shot at
having two drafts rigged in their favorfielding a competitive team to put around him. That would tell you that it’s extremely unlikely that a first overall pick is going to put Boston over the top in conjunction with the players/title window they have right now.
- Danny Ainge found himself in a similar position a year ago with the third overall pick and ended up with egg on his face on draft night after taking a stubborn stance with respect to dealing it. It was no secret that Ainge wanted to deal the pick to acquire more ready-now talent for his roster, but after not finding a deal he liked all the way up to the Celtics being on-the-clock, Ainge had to panic-draft Jaylen Brown to a team already bursting at the seams with wing options. That’s not to say Brown is a bad player, but it certainly was a reach given the other talent available and where Brown ultimately found himself in the Celtics’ rotation this season. I have a hard time believing Ainge will be comfortable remaining that stubborn with his assets again, especially if the Celtics get steam-rolled by the Cavaliers over the next week or so.
That leads us to the final piece of this puzzle: what kind of deal will these two sides have to strike? Now that the Celtics for sure have the top pick in the draft, the equation has changed a bit from what it once was at the trade deadline. Common sense would tell you that Ainge has gained leverage in this negotiation given a once cloudy asset now has very valuable clarity, but GarPax could certainly have some sort of bizzaro-sense of superiority in the negotiations if they believe Boston is desperate to trade for Butler. It also certainly doesn’t help matters that GarPax refuse to commit to any clear direction, and that desire to remain “flexible” doesn’t bode well in terms of the Bulls’ front office asking for the right things in return for their star player.
In an ideal world, I think the trade looks something like this:
- Celtics get Jimmy Butler
- Bulls get ‘17 #1 overall Pick, ‘18 Nets Pick, Avery Bradley, Tyler Zeller
Asking for both Nets picks is a steep asking price but it’s also one that allows Boston to keep Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, two players the Celtics desperately want to keep in the event that they trade for Butler. Bradley is someone the Celtics will have to let walk anyway they resign Isaiah Thomas after next offseason. Tyler Zeller played five minutes last night, and has a non-guaranteed contract for next year.
For the Bulls, if they managed to pull this off, they would have an enormous amount of flexibility heading into the 2018 offseason regardless of what happens with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo this summer. The Bulls would have a chance to build around Markelle Fultz with likely two high lottery picks in the 2018 draft (the Nets selection and their own) and an unfathomable amount of cap space amid a solid free agency class. If flexibility and a lack of financial constraints is truly what GarPax wants for the Bulls, it really doesn’t get any better than that. And the cost would be one lost season that’s not going to be spent in title contention anyway.
But again, none of this can happen unless the Cavaliers obliterate the Celtics completely and continue to embarrass them. There can be no doubt left in the minds of the Celtic collective that anything less than an elite-now talent like Jimmy Butler will give them any chance of eclipsing the team with a player that—by then—will have been to seven straight NBA Finals. Remember, give the C’s and their communal pigheadedness any sliver of hope to cling to, and even Terry Rozier becomes untouchable.
Fortunately for Chicago, LeBron seems intent on leveling Boston as quickly as possible.