Take a bow, Danny Ainge. You just completed one of the greatest streaks in the history of sports. Between the 2006 NBA Draft and tonight, you didn’t lose a single trade. Congratulations. That’s a Hall of Fame accomplishment. You were bound to slip up eventually. Just a shame the stakes had to be so high. I’d like to direct your attention to the chart below.
I left 2014 and 2016 blank because Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have not played a full season. Otherwise, what we have above is the track record of the last 12 No. 1 and No. 3 overall picks. On first glance, the difference might not be huge. After all, a gap of 1.8 Win Shares could be interpreted as a gap of one Luke Babbitt, as that is how many Win Shares he produced last season.
But the difference is far more meaningful than that. The average No. 3 overall pick in that span has produced only 72 percent as much as the average No. 1 pick. Look at the list itself. Eight of the 12 No. 1 picks listed turned into superstars, and Greg Oden might have joined them had he been able to stay healthy. The only definitive superstar to come from the No. 3 list is James Harden. Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony came close, and Al Horford has been an All-Star, but the list of No. 1 picks is both stronger at the top and deeper. You can get a very good player at No. 3, but the goal of accumulating these assets isn’t to get a very good player. It’s to get a franchise-altering superstar.
History says you need one to win the championship. Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have won 19 of the past 27 championships. Add Stephen Curry, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon to that list, and every championship except for one over the past 27 years is covered by only seven superstar players. And since Jordan retired, almost half of the total Finals MVPs awarded went to No. 1 overall picks, as James, Duncan and O’Neal won nine of the 19 in that span.
We don’t yet know what Danny Ainge is going to do with these picks he’s accumulated. Maybe he’s going to stand pat and take Josh Jackson. Maybe the Celtics will trade it for Jimmy Butler. But you don’t win championships with Jimmy Butlers and Josh Jacksons. You win them with LeBrons and Tim Duncans. The goal isn’t to accumulate several very good players. It’s to get one great one and build a roster that complements him. Maybe Markelle Fultz will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the No. 1 pick is the surest way to get that guy. Philadelphia understood that under Sam Hinkie and seem to now as well.
Now they might have three in Fultz, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If one gets hurt, they’re still in great shape. If they have to trade one, they’ll get a boatload back. The philosophy under which they’ve built their team is to grab as many of those great players as possible and figure the rest out later. You can always find role players. You can’t always get true, franchise-altering superstars.
That’s what makes this trade so hard to swallow for the Celtics. They gave up what seems like their best chance to get that player without securing an asset as likely to provide one in return. The 2018 Lakers pick they acquired is certainly valuable. But the Sixers get to keep it if it falls No. 1 overall. The Celtics had a chance to turn a No. 1 overall pick into a No. 3 overall pick with the potential for another No. 1 overall pick coming a year later. They had the leverage to demand that. And they couldn’t seal the deal. They are now likely looking at two of those very good prospects instead of one great one.
An MVP is more valuable than two All-Stars. You’d rather have LeBron James than Jimmy Butler and Paul George. The Celtics can stockpile assets until the cows come home and none of it will matter if they don’t eventually find their LeBron. Tonight, that got a little bit harder.