If you ask Celtics fans to play a game of word association with the 2016 NBA Draft, you’d end up with a list of terms better suited for a warning label in your grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
Words like irritation, depression, slow burn and numbness.
But for all that happened on Thursday night in Brooklyn, and all the emotion it stirred up in Boston, there’s one word that really ties the room together: value.
At the cross section of everything that currently consumes the Celtics, “value” stands out like Gheorghe Muresan at a jockey convention. It’s at the heart of all the criticism of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge for not trading the No. 3 pick. It’s at the heart of any argument against him then using that No. 3 pick on a player some projected as low as No. 9; or for using No. 16 to nab a French forward named Guerschon Yabusele. No matter the issue, when it comes to Ainge and the state of the Celtics, every disagreement boils down to your perception of what everything is worth.
How much is this pick worth? How much is that pick worth? How much is Jae Crowder worth? How much is Nerlens Noel worth? How much is Brad Stevens worth? You need an opinion on all these things to have a real conversation about the Celtics. Sometimes an opinion is based on nothing but a hunch, or a wacky theory, but we run with it because who cares? It’s sports. There’s no reason to take ourselves seriously. So with that in mind here’s my question: Why is it so hard to admit that we don’t actually know what anything is worth?
Think back to what these last five weeks must have been like inside the Celtics’ front office. We knew from the start that they wanted to trade the No. 3 pick. And let’s be clear: If Boston had the No. 2 pick, a trade would’ve happened. The Bulls would’ve eventually given up Jimmy Butler for Brandon Ingram. Danny Ainge would’ve been the second coming of Red Auerbach. But in reality, Ainge got a little unlucky. He landed the third pick in a two-star draft. Still, a trade was his fastest route to improvement, so that’s what Ainge set out to do. He picked up the phone. He made some calls. Then he made some more calls. He had countless off the record conversations with real NBA executives about what everything is really worth to them.
Meanwhile, Ainge was also working on the draft. The front office is always working on the draft, but after the lottery they narrowed their focus, hosted workouts and broke down every potential pick on a level that could only be described as creepy in any other context. They met with these kids, and interviewed these kids, and dug for information wherever they could find it. Over five weeks, the Celtics studied literally every move of these players’ college careers. They ran the numbers across a database of statistics and personal records. You want to know how old Ben Simmons was when he lost his first tooth? Danny Ainge can tell you down to the hour of the day.
OK, he can’t do that, but the point is that by the time draft night rolls around, the Celtics have a pretty firm grasp of what everything is worth. They’re not living on hunches or manipulated Woj Bombs. These aren’t issues they think about randomly on the drive home or while out hammered at a bar with their friends. These are conversations that happen every day, for hours on end, between some of the best basketball minds in the game. Ainge’s only professional focus is on how to make the Celtics better, and while some people hate to say it, he’s really good at his job.
He doesn’t hit on every draft pick. He’s not close to perfect on any level. But the Celtics have also made the playoffs in 10 of their 13 seasons under Ainge. The Heat are the only team in the East with more postseason trips over that same time. Say what you will about the perils of NBA no-man’s land and whether the Celtics would be better off having missed the playoffs a few more times, but aside from one real pathetic stretch in 2007, Ainge has kept the Celtics competitive and respectable for more than a decade. They may not currently be one of the best teams in the league, but they certainly rank among the best organizations.
The bottom line is that Danny Ainge knows what he’s doing. If nothing else, he’s prepared. He’s not careless. He’s not lazy. He’ll never chose one course of action without being able to provide a sound reason for why every other course of action was wrong. Sure, at the end of the day, his opinions are opinions, but at least they’re based in the truth. And they should be. This is his job.
Success is his only motivation.
So now there he was on Thursday night, holed up with his staff in the Celtics’ home locker room, with five weeks of data, conversations and scenarios running through his head. There’s a scenario where they pull the trigger on this trade and that trade; there’s a scenario where they draft each of the six legitimate rookie prospects. Each scenario is teased out one, two, five, or 10 seasons down the road and thrown together into a giant vat of value. What matters most? Which one rises to the top?
Last night, the answer was Jaylen Brown, and even today that may irritate you. Maybe it’s left you a little depressed or a little a doubtful of the course of Boston’s path to Banner 18. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with believing what you want to believe and defending sports opinions at high volumes.
That’s part of what makes caring about sports so much fun.
But every once in a while it’s also OK to take a look around, have some faith in those who earn it, and concede that sometimes those opinions aren’t worth anything at all.