Trading the No. 1 pick once netted the Celtics two Hall of Famers

Attention to detail helped the Celtics land two pillars of the '80s dynasty.

The 1985-86 championship starters: Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
The 1985-86 championship starters: Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. –Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding

“They’ve got the number one pick, and no offseason story has so captivated the local basketball public in the…history of the Boston Celtics.”

That was Bob Ryan’s lede in a Boston Globe article from June 8, 1980, but it could very well have been dated 2017. And just like the modern incarnation, the Celtics ended up trading the pick.

Whether current Celtics general manager Danny Ainge appreciates the historical symmetry or not, he has officially recreated a very similar scenario of the only other time Boston has held the No. 1 pick. As happened in 1980, the 2017 Celtics will now pick third after trading the first overall selection.

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In the case from 37 years ago, the Celtics emerged as the clearcut victors. Boston came out of the deal with the third pick (used to draft Kevin McHale) as well as a 26-year-old center named Robert Parish. It was arguably one of the best trades in NBA history, considering the two players acquired would partner with Larry Bird to form the era’s “Big Three,” winning a trio of championships.

Still, the background to the deal was indicative of how Red Auerbach and the Celtics’ front office operated in that time. And given the intricate usage of draft pick trades, it also more than a few comparisons with how the modern Celtics’ front office works. Ainge is well versed in forward-looking trades. And that mentality, used three and a half decades ago, is exactly how Boston wound up with the ammunition necessary to build their 1980s dynasty.

“There was only one example of it. Who do you think the team was? Detroit.”

The Celtics’ path to having the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 draft was not the traditional route. Like the 2017 Celtics, the 1980 team did not end up with the first pick because they led the league in losses. Instead, Boston traded for it beforehand.

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In a recent interview, former Celtics general manager Jan Volk explained some of the background to the deal:

We acquired M.L. Carr via free agency (in 1979) in the point in time when there was compensation that would be due when you signed a free agent player. The two teams would get together to essentially hammer out what would’ve been a trade for that player. In a situation where the two teams couldn’t agree – which happened fairly regularly – there was a mechanism for appealing to the commissioner for an expedited compensation hearing where the commissioner would impose a trade. And that’s what happened with us.

Initially, Volk explained that Red Auerbach and the Celtics suggested sending Bob McAdoo to Carr’s former team, the Detroit Pistons, as compensation. Detroit would also include two first-round draft picks. It was a bold proposal, and the Pistons were at first resistant.

“They balked at it. They said no,” Volk recalled. “We were really far apart on compensation.”

Yet Volk produced an unexpected breakthrough when he was reading through written opinions about previous examples of commissioner-directed compensation. His attention to detail sparked an idea:

One of the reasons we were able to sign M.L. was that he had a bonus provision in his contract with Detroit that in his negotiation for an extension they had not yet paid. M.L. said to Detroit, ‘I need you to pay this bonus,’ and they said, ‘When you sign, we’ll pay the bonus.’ He told them he wouldn’t negotiate [on the extension] until they paid the bonus. And they went back and forth but ultimately Detroit didn’t provide the bonus.

So I had seen in one of these opinions that the commissioner had written about compensation where a team had not shown sufficient interest in the player to warrant compensation. There was only one example of it. Who do you think the team was? Detroit. As far as I was concerned, that’s what they were doing with M.L. They weren’t showing sufficient interest in the player to pay what they already owed to get him to negotiate.

Confident that they had found a legal opening, the Celtics used the possibility of Detroit being awarded no compensation by the commissioner to scare the Pistons back to the negotiating table:

We hit that really hard in the brief that we submitted. You had a three-day turnaround to make a reply brief. The next day they came back and said, ‘Are you still interested in that McAdoo compensation deal?’ We did. And one of those picks became the first pick in the draft the next year.

McAdoo would last just 64 games in Detroit before being waived in March, 1981.

“If Robert Parish were coming out with this year’s crop…he would go No. 1.”

After the Pistons went an NBA-worst 16-66 in the 1979-1980 season (in which team coach Dick Vitale was fired after just 12 games), the Celtics became the owners of the first pick in the 1980 draft.

Examining the talent in the top portion of the draft, Boston’s front office quickly came to a major realization. The player that everyone viewed as the presumptive No. 1 pick, center Joe Barry Carroll, was not at the top of their draft board.

“Our feeling – this was Red’s feeling – was that Kevin McHale would be our No. 1 pick,” Volk remembered. “If we have the No. 1 pick and we make no deal, we’re going to select Kevin McHale. But we think we can get McHale down lower.”

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Interestingly, this mentality echoes the 2017 Celtics’ view of their own draft situation.

The 1980 Celtics then sought to maximize the value for their pick. Looking around for a trade, there was obvious interest from other teams about the potential of drafting Carroll.

“What happened was Golden State was No. 3 [in the draft],” Volk explained. “They wanted Joe Barry Carroll. So did Utah. Utah expected that he would be gone with the first pick, so they were pretty much zeroed in on Darrell Griffith. Golden State knew that to get Joe Barry Carroll, they had to jump up ahead of Utah. And we did that for them.”

The Celtics completed the trade the day before the draft, sending the first and 13th picks to Golden State for the third pick and Parish. Celtics coach Bill Fitch eyed Parish as the reason why he immediately liked the deal, given that he was already an experienced (though still young) NBA player

“We won’t have to worry about how Parish reacts to NBA officials, NBA travel or NBA life in general,” Fitch told the Globe. “If Robert Parish were coming out with this year’s crop of college players, there is no doubt he would go No. 1.”

In their first season with the Celtics, both McHale and Parish would help Boston win a championship (the first of three). Combined, they would score 35,580 points for the Celtics. Added into a nucleus with Bird, the three players became an iconic NBA trio over the ensuing decade.