The Celtics’ philosophy under Danny Ainge has become clear, and if you’ve been paying attention, you shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve reportedly agreed to trade the No. 1 overall pick (likely point guard Markelle Fultz) in this week's draft to the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s lovely that the trade was with the 76ers, because in making the deal, Ainge is using the very same principles that the 76ers made famous over the last decade. With their much hyped/ballyhooed/mocked “Process,” the 76ers under former president Sam Hinkie built a philosophy that was meant to game the current NBA system. Lose, stockpile assets, be patient, make the big deal, win everything.
With this trade, 76ers fans may argue that they’re now onto the “make the big deal” phase of the plan, acquiring a franchise point guard and launching the team into relevancy. Others may argue this is abandoning Hinkie’s plan and making a gambit to get better now.
Time will tell on that. What is clear is that the Celtics are taking part in their own process, one that Ainge has been running the team with for years.
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Danny Ainge has a process, but unlike Hinkie, he hasn’t had to be ruthlessly mocked while executing it. His process was one that was launched by the outrageous deal he made with the Nets years ago. That trade, one of the most lopsided in recent NBA history, has allowed him to engage in his own process without the painful lows the 76ers were forced to go through.
The principles of Ainge’s plan are basically the same as Hinkie used in Philadelphia: Acquire assets, be patient, wait for the absolute sure thing, and if a player isn’t the absolute sure thing, don’t remain tied to him. Ainge, however, had cover that Hinkie never had: that Nets trade. Ainge, in effect, was able to do everything that Hinkie was doing in Philadelphia, but he didn’t have to have the Celtics lose, because the Nets were losing for him.
Thus, to the casual observer, the Celtics have spent the last few years “going for it,” or at least remaining relevant enough in the Eastern Conference. No one would accuse them of tanking over the last three seasons. They’ve signed good players, put together a deep roster, invested in a young coach, Brad Stevens, who’s quickly proving himself one of the most adept in the league.
But all the while, they were engaging in Ainge’s process. They weren’t giving up assets, ever, and more often than not were acquiring them. They’d go and get players who could help them win, but never at the expense of the future. (The perfect example is the Isaiah Thomas trade. Ainge used Marcus Thornton and the Cavaliers’ first-round pick they’d acquired to get the deal done, but you know they were never giving up their pick, or the Nets’, for Thomas.)
But Ainge had the assets and the Nets’ cover to go and get better. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Hinkie and the 76ers brass were signing guys on short-stint contracts and doing their best to bottom out, not gifted the Nets’ picks and general incompetence.
The Celtics engaged in all sorts of Hinkie-esque maneuvers as well – stashing guys in Europe, taking D-League projects in the Draft, you name it.
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Looking at it this way, the Celtics trading the No. 1 pick to the 76ers for this year’s No. 3 and a future first-rounder (either the Lakers’ next year if it falls between 2-5, or the Kings’ first-rounder in 2019, both of which the 76ers hold the rights to) makes all the sense in the world.
For Ainge, Fultz isn’t an absolute sure thing. He’s not LeBron James. He’s a fantastic point guard and should be a great pro, but Ainge doesn’t know yet if he’s a franchise-defining pro. So in the meantime, if Ainge can get an asset out of it and still have the No. 3 pick, of course he’s going to do that trade.
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If Fultz turns into the next Chris Paul, then sure, Ainge could have some egg on his face. But if he and his team have evaluated Josh Jackson and Lonzo Ball (one of whom will be available at No. 3) at 85% as good as Fultz, or 90% as good, and Ainge is not absolutely, completely certain that Fultz will be a franchise-type player, then what’s the debate here? Sure, some Celtics fans will argue that Ainge could have and should have gotten more. Maybe he could have. It’ll be some time before we know whether this deal was “good” or not, but it’s not surprising. This is how he's operated for years.