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Celtics No. 1 Pick: Keep It or Swap It?

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

As the Celtics plan for next season, they must decide whether to draft or trade their first overall pick.

As the offseason begins for all but two NBA teams, the Boston Celtics are faced with a choice that could alter the landscape of the league for years to come. Of course, that decision is whether GM Danny Ainge keeps and develops the player selected with the first overall pick in the 2017 Draft (via the Brooklyn Nets) or package the pick in a trade. There are advantages to both options, but let’s first consider how Boston should proceed if they keep the pick, and choose Washington’s Markelle Fultz.  

Fultz, Washington’s star guard, is projected to be the best player in this draft, which looks to be one of the deepest in recent memory. In his one-and-done season with the Washington Huskies, Fultz averaged 23.2 points per game, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.6 steals in 35.7 minutes per game. Despite his outstanding individual play, the Huskies finished with a 9-22 record for the year.  

If they use their pick and add the Washington standout to their top-seeded roster, Boston will create a logjam at the guard position. The rookie would have to compete for minutes with emergent star Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart, who was Boston’s lottery pick just three years ago. Smart was a good backup in 2016-17, averaging over 10 PPG and nearly five assists per contest off the bench. Fultz would most likely supplant Terry Rozier, another high pick of the Celtics’ in 2015, so Boston would have to deal some of their young bench players to accommodate him.  

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Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 19-year old Fultz will be a solid player in the NBA with a lot of upside, as will most of the prospects taken in the lottery this year…but he should not be in the Celtics’ plans moving forward. Fultz could lead his NBA team to a championship several years down the line, but that shouldn’t concern Danny Ainge when he trades their pick to Indiana, Chicago or Utah. They are built to compete now — to take on LeBron James’ Cavaliers, not outlast him. It would be better for both the Celtics and Fultz if the franchise swings a trade.  

The Boston Celtics’ thinking can be traced back to July 8th of last offseason when they signed four-time All-Star Al Horford to a multi-year contract. The front office is in ‘missing piece’ mode; Boston is adding to what it thinks can be a championship core of players including Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. The roster is built around a certain window for championship contention, one that may not line up with Fultz’s prime.  

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Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One trade that Boston will heavily consider involves sending the pick (and some combination of young rotation players like Jaylen Brown) to the Pacers for Paul George. This trade was teased at the deadline this year, and will almost certainly be revisited over the next few weeks. If Boston hopes to meet and compete with the Cavaliers in the 2018 playoffs, Markelle Fultz would not help them much, but Paul George would.  

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Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

George is one of the best two-way players in the league today, and certainly has ‘missing piece’ potential. He averaged 23.7 PPG and tallied over three defensive win shares (DWS) last season, which are more DWS than any player on the Celtics’ roster. Although reports say that Indiana is not looking to move George, they would be wise to do so, for a number of reasons.

After the All-NBA teams were announced in mid-May, George’s chances to stay with the Pacers long-term dropped dramatically. Due to a new provision in the collective bargaining agreement, the league is using All-NBA team selections to determine eligibility for a Designated Player Exception (DPE). If George were named to an All-NBA team, he would be eligible for a super max deal, worth about $212 million over six years while other teams could only offer $123 million over four years. However, George was not named to any of the teams (therefore not eligible for the DPE), so it will be an even playing field for his services in free agency.  

The DPE was conceived as a way for teams to retain their extremely talented players in free agency, but it may have backfired for Indiana. With the Pacers far from serious contention and unable to offer George more money than other teams, he is almost surely a lock to walk away in 2018 free agency. It may be painful for the front office and fan base, but they should deal George in exchange for Fultz and some young rotation players and build for the future.   

This seems like a win-win for both teams; Boston is an immediate Eastern Conference Finals contender, and George’s two-way play could pester LeBron in the inevitable series with the Cavs. Indiana can develop Fultz and build to become a post-LeBron (and post-Warriors) powerhouse a few years down the line. Everyone who watches the NBA knows that the Celtics are still one piece away from being a serious Finals contender, and this is the most feasible way to do that.

Even if Danny Ainge is unable to pry George away from Indiana’s grasp, this same framework could work with star forwards Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler. Like George, Hayward also missed out on the DPE by failing to make an all-NBA team. Butler is another great two-way star that has had some friction with the Chicago front office, and was also linked to Boston at the deadline. Any of these three players could elevate the C’s from a second-tier team to a legitimate challenger to LeBron’s East hegemony. While Fultz only worked out for Boston, it would probably be best for both parties if he did not make his home at TD Garden in 2017.    

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

When was the Boston Celtics' last number one overall pick, and who was selected with it?
Created 6/6/17
  1. 1950, Charlie Share
  2. 1970, Dave Cowens
  3. 1978, Larry Bird
  4. 1986, Len Bias

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