Markelle Fultz arrived on the campus of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Friday morning to find Red Auerbach’s prized silver Mercedes with its “BCELTIC” vanity plates parked out front.
Fultz, bleary-eyed after a cross-country flight following a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers the day before, was greeted by Ric MacPherson, to whom Auerbach bequeathed the eye-catching ride. The two made small talk about the possibility of Fultz landing with the Boston Celtics in Thursday’s draft and Fultz gamely posed for a few pictures in front of the vehicle.
Over the course of the next 36 hours, Fultz got another unexpected Auerbach history lesson, this time in the business of basketball.
It was Auerbach who parlayed the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft (Joe Barry Carroll) into Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick in the draft, used to select Kevin McHale. Those two players would pair with Larry Bird to ignite Boston’s original Big Three era.
Nearly four decades later, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who has often referenced Auerbach’s fearless and emotionless approach to roster construction, traded the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft — or the right to draft Fultz — to the Philadelphia 76ers for a pair of first-round picks that Ainge must believe will eventually help Boston take a step forward in its quest to return to title contender again.
After a series of draft nights and trade deadlines passed with fans lamenting Boston’s lack of big-splash activity, Ainge left much of his fan base slack-jawed on Saturday night as the Celtics and 76ers agreed to the parameters of a deal that should become official on Monday.
This is a gutsy move for Ainge. Even in a city where “In Danny We Trust” is a popular catchphrase among Celtics supporters, much of Boston’s fan base decried the mere notion of trading the No. 1 pick after word of a possible deal first spread on Friday night.
If Fultz emerges as the superstar that most suspect he will eventually be, then Celtics fans will forever wonder what might have been and wonder why Ainge was so willing to move the pick. If the Process-trusting 76ers emerge as Boston’s biggest future competition in the Eastern Conference, then Ainge will hear groans for his role in helping Philadelphia assemble an insanely intriguing young core.
With emotions still raw, Celtics fans simply yearned Saturday to know what’s next. And yet, Ainge will never tip his hand. Here’s one certainty: A Boston team that won 53 games last season and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals has a ridiculous treasure chest of draft picks and the potential for max cap space to navigate the summer.
The Celtics now own as many as seven first-round picks in the next three drafts. Boston has more than enough picks overall to draft an entire 15-man roster over the next four years.
It leaves you wondering if there’s a bigger plan here. A desire to add the sort of talent that’s a bit more established than Fultz and can more rapidly aid Boston’s quest to close the gap with the Cavaliers in the East.
The danger there is that, given how dominant the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors were this season, some will wonder if developing a young talent like Fultz might have been Boston’s best chance to compete both now and further down the road.
There’s a lot of uncertainty at this juncture. This trade might very well one day be one of the more heavily scrutinized moves that Ainge has made in his tenure. But in the immediate aftermath, we’re left recalling two things Ainge has said in recent seasons:
(1) No such thing as too many draft picks. When Boston seemingly made a deal each day during one particularly busy stretch in January 2015 (four total between January 9-15), Ainge was asked if it was possible for a team to have too many draft picks. He was emphatic that there could be no such issue.
“No, because draft picks are always tradable; players are not,” Ainge said. “Draft picks are always assets.”
(2) Staying in the game. After that same 2014-15 season, Ainge was asked about Boston’s desire to make a big-splash move and suggested the Celtics, “want to stay in the game until we can do something significant.” Ainge pointed out how Boston had put itself in position to attract Kevin Garnett during the summer of 2007 thanks to its available assets. Ainge also referenced how Houston was able to pounce when James Harden became available in October 2012.
With so many first-round picks, Celtics fans will daydream about Boston using that treasure chest to eventually pry loose a bonafide star. Oh sure, you’ve heard the usual names like Jimmy Butler and Paul George. But Boston has so many assets that the Celtics might look for an even bigger splash (while unlikely any time soon, remember that Anthony Davis will likely be entering the final year of his deal in two more seasons).
Celtics with potential for seven first-round picks in next three drafts. Updated glance at pick surplus: pic.twitter.com/Mw8Fd2Qv31
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) June 18, 2017
Maybe Ainge simply thinks there’s a prospect in this year’s draft — a Josh Jackson or a Jayson Tatum — that has just as much upside as Fultz, even if the hype is less. And maybe moving back was simply about generating a future asset because Boston knew its preferred player would still be available at No. 3.
But it just feels like there’s something more here. Remember, this is a team that was plotting its run at Kevin Durant and Al Horford long before the summer of 2016. This was a team that positioned itself to pitch Kevin Garnett long before the summer of 2007.
In this moment of uncertainty for the Celtics, it’s a good bet that this isn’t the only spin the Celtics will take this summer in Trader Danny’s Tesla.