Are the Philadelphia 76ers finally off the clock?
The deal between Philadelphia and the Boston Celtics not only gives the 76ers the first pick in Thursday’s Draft, it will give the franchise a chance to finally turn the page on a dark passage in its history. Markelle Fultz won’t solve all of the team’s problems right away, if ever. But his talent and personality and potential should put smiles on most fans’ faces in the 215.
Amazing that some Twitterati took issue with my labeling "The Process" as “achingly slow” on Saturday night, as if four years was just a walk in the park and all those losses on Brett Brown’s ledger were just practice Ls. Philly has taken a big, big hit in fan interest locally and perception of ownership’s willingness to win nationally. "The Process", however well-meaning, has cost the franchise, dearly.
But in the end, the Sixers had enough assets because of "The Process" to entice Boston to give up the first pick. It was the first big move before Thursday; but almost certainly won’t be the last.
The pre-Draft buzz
• Philly’s interest in Fultz, the one-and-done Washington star, makes sense. Most around the league believe that even if Ben Simmons is healthy and ready to contribute after missing all of last season, he’s still not a natural point guard and will need some help making plays and initiating offense. A Fultz-Simmons-Joel Embiid trio will be as athletic as any young group in the league, including Minnesota’s Zach LaVine-Andrew Wiggins-Karl-Anthony Towns entry.
• The trade doesn’t change the Lakers’ Draft trajectory; Fultz was likely going No. 1 overall whether Boston or Philly was doing the picking. That leaves L.A., picking second, with a decision to make on whether or not to go for UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball or Kansas freshman wing Josh Jackson. Ball was in for a second workout with the Lakers on Friday after a lackluster first workout in L.A. the week before.
The Lakers, according to a source with knowledge of their thinking, will likely go up until the Draft before deciding on which player to take, with Johnson still looking longingly at Ball but listening to others in the Lakers’ war room who are arguing for Jackson.
• Boston, now third, will still have most of the elite prospects available from which to pick -- if the Celtics keep the pick. They’d have either Ball or Jackson (whichever one the Lakers do not select second), and a group including Kentucky freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox and Duke freshman forward Jayson Tatum. The thought in recent weeks was that Boston would have to take either Fultz or Ball, just as insurance in case the Celtics can’t re-sign 2018 free agent Isaiah Thomas, their current All-Star point guard.
But Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has surprised people on Draft night before -- most recently last year, when he took Cal rookie Jaylen Brown with the third pick overall. (And: no one had coach Brad Stevens going to Beantown.) The drumbeat has gotten louder in recent days that the Celtics are zeroing in on Chicago Bulls All-Star guard Jimmy Butler, whom they inquired about at the trade deadline, and are ready to cash in a good chunk of their cache of future Draft picks to go get him.
With the 76ers’ deal, Boston again has a ridiculous lode of picks: the third overall this year, the Celtics’ own 2018 first-round pick and the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected 2018 first-round pick, along with either the Lakers’ first-rounder next year (via the Phoenix Suns) or the Sacramento Kings' 2019 first-rounder -- depending on which one conveys from Philly -- and the LA Clippers’ and Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-rounders.
What happens next for Paul George?
Given Sunday’s almost certainly CAA-leaked story that Paul George officially has told the Pacers he’ll leave after next year, the Celtics are also more primed than any team to give Indiana what it wants: two first-round picks and a starter. That’s by no means assured, though. If Ainge truly wants to build a team that can last and perhaps surpass the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, would he take the chance of George walking in ’18 after a one-year stay, or opt for Butler, who’s under contract through at least 2019 and has a player option for ’19-‘20?
There is no scuttlebutt in league circles to counter the consistent rumor that George is dead set on returning to his native California and to Los Angeles to play with the Lakers in 2018. But if George is serious about winning, as he has shown he is throughout his career to this point, going to the Lakers in a year don’t make any sense.
Not only are they at least a couple of years away from having anywhere near the assets necessary to make a serious run at the Golden State Warriors, no matter who they pick Thursday, they won’t be anywhere close to the current San Antonio Spurs, Clippers or Utah Jazz by then, either. The LA scenario seems just as driven by George’s shoe deal; unknown is whether he could actually move more product by playing there, or would just get paid more loot by Nike by being there.
Staying in the Eastern Conference, on a better team than Indy, is the move that would make the most sense and give George a more realistic path to The Finals. And clearly, the Cavs would make the most sense under that scenario.
Cleveland sent its first-rounder this year to Portland, but the Cavs could send a 2018 and 2020 or 2021 first-round pick to Indy to start. And, before you automatically say Kevin Love must be part of a potential package, consider: if Cleveland were to put Love in an offer for George, that means LeBron James would have to move to the four spot more or less permanently. George balked at moving to the four a year ago when Larry Bird all but begged him to do so; similarly, James has been reluctant to make power forward his home, even as he’s dominated in spot minutes at the position in various lineups over the years. Maybe they’d just figure all that out in training camp.
Washington, to a lesser degree, could fit the bill, too, and the Wizards are looking for a way to make a George deal happen. They don’t have a player of Love’s caliber to put in a deal; they’re not moving Bradley Beal after the 23-year-old just had his best NBA season. Playing alongside Washington’s backcourt of Beal and John Wall, after all, would be the selling point for George in D.C.
Wizards small forward Otto Porter also had his best season and would almost certainly have to be in a potential George deal for it to make any sense for Indiana, but he’s a restricted free agent and would lose tens of millions of dollars if he agreed to a sign-and-trade deal with anyone this summer (fewer years, smaller yearly raises) instead of re-signing with Washington. There’s literally no incentive for anyone to do a sign-and-trade anymore, which was the point of changing the CBA -- to make it easier rather than harder for teams to keep their own players.
Back to the pickin’ ...
• The Phoenix Suns, picking fourth, looks in position to get either Jackson or Tatum, with the potential of Tatum as a scorer/shooter a solid match for a Suns team that finished 29th in the league in 3-pointers last season and 27th in 3-point percentage.
• At pick No. 5, the Kings will then gleefully inhale Fox, if there, to play alongside Buddy Hield for the next decade or so and finally solve the Kings’ years-long search for a dynamic point guard.
• The Orlando Magic's new braintrust of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond has frequently opted for length and size, so either Arizona’s seven-foot sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen or Florida State’s long freshman forward Jonathan Isaac would seem to be in play with the sixth pick.
• The Minnesota Timberwolves, picking seventh, will be in line to take whichever player the Magic does not.
• The Knicks are pretty sold on French point guard Frank Ntikilina with the eighth pick, though they haven’t made a final decision yet. Given Phil Jackson’s love of big guards, it’s hard to see him pulling the trigger on Kentucky’s undersized guard, Malik Monk.
• Monk’s shooting would help the Dallas Mavericks at pick No. 9, but Dallas’ need to find a long-term solution at point guard points strongly at N.C. State freshman Dennis Smith, whom many believe could wind up the best point in the Draft.
• The Kings come back at pick No. 10, with athletic bigs like Gonzaga freshman forward/center Zach Collins or Kentucky center Bam Adebayo still on the board -- or Indiana’s rugged three O.G. Anunoby, who could replace Rudy Gay, likely to depart via free agency.
• Rounding out the Lottery teams are the Charlotte Hornets (pick No. 11), who look to be locked in on one of two guards -- Duke’s Luke Kennard or Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell.
• The Detroit Pistons (12), who would be well-served by taking whichever of Kennard or Mitchell the Hornets pass upon, as in case the price of rising restricted free agent guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets too high
• The Denver Nuggets (13), who just missed the playoffs and could use a big like Wake Forest’s John Collins to groom as a potential long-term four alongside Nikola Jokic
• The Miami Heat (14), who officially now need to replace Chris Bosh at the four and, despite a strong season from James Johnson -- who’ll be expensive to re-sign -- could be looking at a talent like California sophomore Ivan Rabb.
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