Celtics' search for star continues after an underwhelming NBA Draft
Boston didn't make the big splash it wanted to on Thursday.
For a little while on Thursday, it looked like the Boston Celtics might own the 2016 NBA Draft. In a literal sense, they had sort of owned the draft for a while, as they entered the night with eight of the 60 picks. General manager Danny Ainge was as open as can be about his desire to trade some of them and land a star player. It was widely known that even the No. 3 pick -- the crown jewel of Ainge's franchise-altering 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets -- was available for the right price.
While the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers went through the formalities of selecting Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, the whole league waited to see what the Celtics would do. The Sixers and the Chicago Bulls both reportedly had their eyes on the third pick, and their offers sounded enticing.
ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Philadelphia offered Boston shot-blocking center Nerlens Noel, 3-and-D forward Robert Covington and the Nos. 24 and 26 picks. That's a huge return, and a prospect like Noel would easily be a top-five pick in this draft, but he is not Ainge's star.
The Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson reported that the Bulls and Celtics had "advanced discussions" about Jimmy Butler. Now that is a star.
Boston reportedly discussed sending guard Avery Bradley to Chicago. The Bulls, like the Sixers, wanted Providence guard Kris Dunn. A general manager texted the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett to say that Ainge had been playing hardball all day, and he better do something. As time ticked down toward the Celtics' selection, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that they were "talking seriously" to both teams and they are "controlling the top of the draft now." If Ainge found a way to get Butler, then Boston would be the story of the night.
Ainge did not get Butler. With the third pick, the Celtics selected Jaylen Brown.
In fairness to Brown (and Ainge), this could be a fantastic pick. He might be the most athletic player in the entire draft, and he has the quickness, strength and length to develop into one of he most versatile defenders in the league. Brown has the upside of someone like Butler if he improves as a shooter and playmaker, but even if he doesn't, Boston fans should love him.
"There was a lot of discussion over the last couple months over the [No.] 3 pick," Ainge told reporters. "We grew fond of Jaylen Brown. He's a versatile wing."
The problem is not Brown. The problem is that, three years after the trade with the Nets, the Celtics are still trying to make a big splash. It was March of 2014 when owner Wyc Grousbeck predicted there would be "fireworks" in the offseason, and if they don't manage to sign someone like Kevin Durant or Al Horford this summer, all the moves they made will appear underwhelming.
Boston used the No. 16 pick in the draft to select Guerschon Yabusele, a stretch big man from France who was projected to go in the second round and told reporters he was "really surprised" to hear his name called so early. It used the No. 23 pick on Ante Zizic, a traditional center from Croatia. It sent the Nos. 31 and 35 picks to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for a lottery-protected 2019 Los Angeles Clippers first-round pick.
Demetrius Jackson, picked 45th overall, could turn out to be a steal, but he plays point guard, which is not a position of need for the Celtics. The same goes for Ben Bentil, the stretch forward they selected No. 51 overall. With the No. 58 pick, they selected Abdel Nader, who has agreed to spend next season in the D-League, per DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony.
Aside from the shocking Yabusele selection, Boston's front office didn't make any weird, out-of-the-box decisions here. It just failed to take the huge step forward that seemed possible. No one will know how close the Celtics came to acquiring Butler, but their fans are probably tired of hearing about deals that almost got done.
Ainge has made some brilliant moves in the past few years -- Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder are on contracts that are laughably team-friendly. Boston's moderate success, though, has brought with it an expectation that it is on the verge of something great. Once again, the fireworks will have to wait.
"We have free agency coming up, so time will tell," Ainge said. "You need another team that's going to agree to do a deal with you."
In the big picture, the Celtics are doing just fine. They won 48 games this past season, they have loads of cap space and, thanks to Brooklyn, they have more high draft picks in their future. At a certain point, though, it will be time to convert these assets into proven talent that can help them take the next step. For a fleeting few minutes, it felt like that time was now.
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