Celtics Draft Far From a Failure
Peter Jennings, Chicagoland Sports
Front offices in every sport spend countless hours, year after year, assessing the talents of kids playing against unequal levels of skill from all over the globe. They fly to remote locations, pore over game tape, interview coaches, friends and families and measure every part of the body that is measurable aside from the one that is taboo.
And yet, every year, sure as the draft itself, the work of these tireless individuals is reduced down to a letter grade from media members everywhere. Don’t worry, I will spare you the argument saying how unjust this practice is - that people like Chad Ford or Mel Kiper have no right to judge the work of GM’s who’ve worked their whole life to attain the enviable positions they have - many media pundits have worked just as hard, watched just as much film and have just as discerning of an eye, I’m sure. Saying Adrian Wojnarowski’s opinion is less valid than a Gar Forman’s is like the athlete who backs up their shallow argument with “I played and you didn’t.”
These draft grades make for great water cooler talk. I fall victim to them just as much, err, probably more than anyone else. People want validation for their team. We, as a society, desire to be graded, though I would argue that our system of grading is rather outdated. Why is a person that gets 10 percent of their answers right awarded the same letter as someone who nails 50 percent? If 15 of 20 people get a perfect score, why is the person who can only recall 17/20 correctly still awarded a B? And why the hell is there no grade E?! But I digress.
I do believe there is a large amount of groupthink going on in these circles that pronounce winners and losers and the general consensus asserting the Boston Celtics as a loser of the 2016 NBA Draft couldn’t be further from correct. If they want to say that third overall pick Jaylen Brown was not the most transformational player on the board, that’s fine - I didn’t watch much Cal Bears last year, so far be it for me to peacock about his athleticism. If Guerschon Yabusele or Ante Zizic were the wrong Europeans to take at the wrong time, then in Chad Ford I will trust. Lawd knows General Manager Danny Ainge’s track record with drafting Europeans is about as good as mine when choosing a ripe peach.
With that said, the only way to assess the Celtics success in last Thursday’s draft is with a big fat A - or, if you’ve a Montessori background, with a great big hug. Three years ago the Celtics were carrying three well-past-prime stars, a malcontent point guard who couldn’t shoot and a young small forward in Jeff Green whose best asset was looking good in his uniform. Fans and media alike were crying that Ainge missed his window to rebuild.
Instead, he found a rich Russian in win-now mode willing to part with three valuable draft picks, the first of which became the aforementioned Brown. He spotted a team in Dallas with a desperate need for a point guard willing to part with another first rounder, as well as a wing in Jae Crowder who is already a better player than the jettisoned Rajon Rondo, whom the modern NBA has passed by. Later, another first was acquired for the services of Green, a player that has made every team he enters worse, and every team he exits better. Heck, the Celtics even got an extra first in last year’s draft for shipping out Doc Rivers and then immediately replaced him with a better coach!
What many have argued is that, beyond the picks, this draft was a failure because Ainge was not able to turn his treasure trove of assets into a star - someone like Jimmy Butler who could then be used to lure more free agents. But after all of the maneuvering that he’s done to get this Celtics team back into the playoff picture far ahead of schedule, does anyone truly believe it was due to a lack of effort? If the trades aren’t there, the trades aren’t there.
As a native of the greater Boston area, I grew up in an era when the Celtics were trading away a young Joe Johnson for Milt Palacio and Tony Delk, or Kenny Anderson for Vitaly Potapenko and an alcoholic Vin Baker. Since Danny Ainge has been at the helm, the ghosts of such trades have nearly been forgotten. After delivering a title and a rapid rebuild, I’ve developed the same faith in him that I have for Bill Belichick. I also know that Boston is not the most sought after destination for NBA free agents. It’s cold, has a racist past, a ravenous media, an impossible road system and can claim no more than 100 attractive women. If the Celtics strikeout in free agency as well, blaming Ainge or owner Wyc Grousbeck would also be misguided.
Teams whiff in the draft every year - even the Spurs. It’s the most inexact science there is in sport. All you can ask of your GM is to put your team in the best chance to get as many cracks at greatness as possible. Not everyone can be Cleveland - a city that cries of a sordid sports history, yet has fallen ass-backwards into four number one overall picks this century. Front offices are smarter than at any other time in sports history and most are reading from the same playbook, which only makes the asset gathering Ainge has done over the past few years more impressive.
If the pundits do turn out to be right and the Celtics did miss on this year’s picks, who cares? At least they got to make them. Besides, the same hope fans had for this year’s draft will exist next year and the year after that, thanks to the Gordon Gekko residing in the TD Garden.
It’s easy to place a grade-A on drafts for the 76ers and Lakers, who lucked their way into the consensus best players in the draft. However, the future for those players is not assured and the futures of those teams is certainly less bright than that of the 17-time NBA Champions who haven’t had the first overall pick since 1950. In today’s sports landscape, I will take a top-tier front office over a top-tier draft pick any day.
In Ainge We Trust.