Playoffs 2017: East Finals -- Celtics (1) vs. Cavaliers (2)
Top pick provides no obvious option in Boston Celtics' quest to end LeBron James' supremacy
Holding No. 1 pick in 2017 Draft proving to be a dilemma of sorts for Boston's future
BOSTON — It’s very possible that, unless LeBron James grabs a body part, the final Boston Celtics’ victory of the season happened Tuesday when they leprechaun’d their way to the top of the Draft lottery.
The following night, revelry surrendered to reality when the Celtics were blasted 117-104 by Cleveland to start the Eastern Conference finals, feeding the belief that the distance between LeBron and his biggest threat in the East is wider than the ocean that separates us politically.
The pummeling was made possible by too much LeBron (38 easy points) and too little blowback from the Celtics, a combination that sucked the suspense right out of Game 1 and, perhaps, this series. The foundation of a sweep is now in place, and the solution to loosening the chokehold that LeBron has on the East must wait until we see the Celtics’ plans for that No. 1 overall Draft pick this summer.
Do they use it to take a 19-year-old, which means they’ve decided to wait out LeBron, which could take years? Or do they swap the pick for more immediate help and narrow (or close) the gap next season?
Judging by what we saw Wednesday at TD Garden, and from what we’ve seen from LeBron the last five-plus seasons, the only mystery lies in next season. The Cavs haven’t lost a game in five weeks or stumbled in the playoffs, which says plenty about them and also about for what passes for “elite” challengers in the East.
This Cleveland locomotive is racing toward the Bay Area, building too much steam for the Indiana Pacers (first round), Toronto Raptors (East semifinals) and, perhaps now, the Celtics to prevent seven straight Finals trips by LeBron. We haven’t seen this level of conference control by one person since Bill Russell in the 1960s — remember, Michael Jordan took two-plus seasons off between his three-peats — and LeBron shows no signs of slowing down at age 32.
Do the Celtics “concede” next season, too, by drafting a rookie, or bring in a ready-made ringer? Is it time to add Markelle Fultz … or Jimmy Butler?
The only drawback to holding the No. 1 pick is that there’s no guaranteed difference-maker in this Draft. This isn’t a Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron and — sorry to pick an old Celtics’ scab — a Tim Duncan draft, either. Remember that one? Then-coach Rick Pitino and the Celtics braced for the chance to get Duncan in 1997 but were leapfrogged in the lottery by the Spurs.
The man responsible for calling the shots now is Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. He can grab Fultz or even Lonzo Ball, both of whom are teenage guards who may eventually be good or even great players. But, straight out of the gate, will either make a larger impact as rookies than Avery Bradley (the guard either would likely replace in the Celtics’ lineup)?
Even if they’re marginally better than Bradley, will LeBron lose sleep over that?
“My whole staff and ownership, we sit and try to figure out what is the best path to take,” said Ainge. “We don’t want to make any mistakes and so far, we’ve been pretty good.”
Ainge’s drafting history certainly isn’t horrible, but also not exactly Auerbach-ian. Will he take the right guy? In 2014, he took Marcus Smart (No. 6 pick overall) and James Young (No. 17), missing on Zach LaVine and Clint Capela. Smart is a solid backup but not star material and Young doesn’t play.
In 2015, Ainge took backup guard Terry Rozier (No. 16) and RJ Hunter (No. 28), who is out of the league, while the jury’s out on Jaylen Brown, the highest of Boston’s three picks in 2016. Ainge’s most impressive body of work lies in the trades he made for star guard Isaiah Thomas and the deal with the Brooklyn Nets that led to this No. 1 overall pick in 2017. What Ainge does with those picks could determine how much longer LeBron will reign in the East.
He can cash in his chips, call the Bulls and ask for Butler, a true two-way All-Star. Butler would instantly upgrade Boston’s defense and become a co-scorer to Thomas and reduce his workload. It would elevate the Celtics a few extra levels above the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards and invite suspense in a future series with the Cavs.
It wouldn’t come without some risk: Butler is more expensive than a rookie and his impact would be more short-term. Same goes for a trade involving Indiana Pacers star Paul George. He’s an unrestricted free agent in 2018 and Boston can’t surrender the No. 1 pick for him without some assurances that he’ll re-sign in two summers.
The alternative for Boston is to draft the right player (maybe Fultz), stay in contention for a while and hope something breaks its way. In that scenario, though, LeBron seems built to last at least a few more seasons. He’s in supreme physical shape, keeps avoiding major injury and is laser-focused on collecting championships to the point where any future comparisons between him and Jordan will tilt in his favor.
In the 2017 playoffs LeBron is averaging 34.8 points, nine rebounds and 7.1 assists per game while making 56 percent of his shots and 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got into the league,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “A lot better. Yeah, I didn’t think he could get any better after that, but he is. Good player. Great player.”
Also, his help remains solid: Kevin Love (32 points, 12 rebounds in Game 1) is playing his best ball as a Cavalier, while Kyrie Irving just turned 25.
LeBron had an interesting reaction to the Celtics winning the lottery: “It was like, OK, to be a very, very good team and get the No. 1 pick, they got the better side of that situation with Brooklyn, I’ll tell you that.”
What LeBron didn’t say is “I’m worried.”
Because, why should he be? The player Boston drafts, if the Celtics keep it, will probably get his autograph before he beats him.
The last “very, very” good team to also hold the No. 1 pick was the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers, who took advantage of the Ted Stepien-owned Cavaliers the same way Ainge did the Nets and drafted James Worthy. The difference is the Lakers then were defending champs and in the middle stage of the “Showtime” era. These Celtics are a 50-win team trying to beat LeBron with a 5-foot-9 guard (Thomas) as their best player.
After his team won the lottery, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck joked about wishing the No. 1 pick could arrive in time to help Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. Help for the No. 1 team in the East won’t arrive until next season.
Will he be a rookie, or a proven star? Armed with an asset that may or may not make a difference next time he meets LeBron, Ainge has some thinking to do. And he’ll have plenty of time on his hands to ponder, should this series end as quickly as expected.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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