Are the Celtics Draft Savants? Not Really, But…
Posted by Zach Lowe on Feb 14, 2009
Since the Celtics are apparently going to be inactive at the trade deadline (and, really, they don’t have much to work with), we need to find some other personnel-related topic to write about. Luckily, 82games has come through with a new list ranking teams based on their drafting acumen since 1989–and the Celtics, to my surprise, ranked 8th overall. (The site compiled the rankings by comparing how a player performs over his career versus how all players picked at that player’s draft slot performed).
Off the top of my head, I didn’t think the Celtics had done a particularly good job drafting since 1989. So I looked through their draft history to try and figure out how they ended up ranking in the top quarter of the league. Here are the quick conclusions; we’ll get to the nitty-gritty after the jump:
1) The Celtics have rarely whiffed badly on a draft pick. They’ve drafted some truly bad players, but when you look at the players taken later, you realize the C’s didn’t miss much by taking, say, Eric Montross and Jerome Moiso in the lottery. Montross, for example, was taken ninth overall in 1994. Terrible pick, right? But here are the next ten: Eddie Jones, Carlos Rogers, Khalid Reeves, Jalen Rose, Yinka Dare, Eric Piatkoski, Cliff Rozier, Aaron McKie, Eric Mobley and Tony Dumas. Would Jones or Rose have been better? Sure. But it was not a franchise-altering mistake on the level of Eddy Curry or Kwame Brown.
2) The C’s, in a way, have never been in a position to make a franchise-altering mistake. That’s the benefit of constantly picking between 10 and 25. You don’t get a chance at the best guys, but you won’t pick an epic bust.
3) The Celtics have avoided taking any stupid risks when the best player available falls into their laps. The C’s get a lot of credit for nabbing Pierce with the 10th pick in 1998, but they shouldn’t. There was no other choice. The next few picks were Bonzi Wells, Michael Doleac, Keon Clark, Michael Dickerson, Matt Harpring and Bryce Drew. Same with Antoine Walker in 1996 (next picks: Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier).
4) Add all of the above together with a home run in 2004 (Al Jefferson at #15, Delonte West and Tony Allen back-to-back at #24 and #25) and the 2006 fleecing of a cash-strapped Suns team for Rajon Rondo, and that’s all it takes to make the top 10 on this list.
After the jump, a look at the C’s best and worst draft moves since ’89.The Best:
1) Rondo: Man, the Suns have made some terrible personnel decisions in the last few seasons. But draft night in 2006 may have been their worst moment. The Suns wanted to cut payroll, so they selected Rondo at #21 and traded him to Boston along with Brian Grant’s bad contract in exchange for a future first-rounder. People forget that on the same night, the Suns picked Sergio Rodriguez and traded him to Portland for cash. It’s not like they have an aging point guard who desperately needs a competent back-up or anything.
2) 2004: The aforementioned Jefferson-West-TA first round. Here are some players taken above Al Jefferson: Rafael Araujo, Sebastian Telfair (ouch), Robert Swift, Josh Childress and Luke Jackson. And here are the players taken between Jefferson and West/Allen: Kirk Synder, Josh Smith (nice one, Hawks!), J.R. Smith, Dorell Wright, Jameer Nelson, Pavel Podkozin, Viktor Khryapa and Sergei Monia. It would be hard to find a better list of randomly good late first-round picks and awful busts. One what-if note: Kevin Martin went one spot after Delonte and TA.
3) Ryan Gomes: 50th pick in the 2005 draft. I just counted: Ryan Gomes is definitively better than 28 of the players picked before him–and that was being cautious. It could easily have been 35. A useful player who play the 3 and the 4, hit threes and grab rebounds–and he helped the C’s land KG.
A word of caution first: You won’t see Montross or Jerome Moiso or Acie Earl on this list, because the players taken after them were largely fringe NBA players or busts. Check out the 1993 (Earl), 1994 (Montross) and 2001 (Moiso) drafts to confirm. We’re looking for real missed opportunities here:
1) Michael Smith (BYU), 13th overall pick in 1989. As Simmons recounts here, this was Red’s pick, and it was a disaster. Smith played 141 NBA games over three seasons, averaging five points per game. The next pick? Tim Hardaway. Shawn Kemp went #17. Ouch. Auerbach told the Globe he wanted Smith all along, calling the 6-10 BYU star “a great passer, very innovating in his shooting and a great scorer.”
2) 2001: Joe Johnson (#10), Kedrick Brown (#11), Joseph Forte (#21). Johnson was a no-brainer pick in the Pierce/Walker sense, and the story of Forte has been told ad nauseum (Tony Parker went 28th, Red screwed up again, etc.). It’s the Brown pick that receives too little attention. He was the classic enticing junior college guy, a swing man with great athleticism. But he was terrible (3.6 points per game in 143 career games), and the C’s missed out on Richard Jefferson (#13), Troy Murphy (#14) and Zach Randolph (#19). They also traded Johnson to Phoenix for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk in 2002 in a desperate (and probably ill-advised) attempt to make a long playoff run with a best-case scenario of getting swept by the Lakers.
3) 2006: Celtics trade Raef Lafrentz, Dan Dickau and the rights to Randy Foye (#7 overall) to the Blazers for Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and a second-round pick.
This one became easy to kill, because Portland flipped Foye to Minnesota in exchange for Brandon Roy, making it possible to imagine that the C’s had swapped Roy for Telfair. That’s not really true (and there’s no way the C’s would have had Roy-Garnett-Allen-Pierce), but it’s still a bad deal. The only positive: It’s unclear of the C’s could have taken on KG’s salary if they hadn’t found a sucker to take Lafrentz’s awful contract.
Best irresponsibly speculative what-if scenario: Antoine Walker was the obvious pick at #6 for the Celtics in 1996, and, like many C’s fans, I have a strange affection for ‘Toine. Picks 7-12 were awful, but at #13, the Hornets took Kobe Bryant. Peja Stojakovic went next, and, at #15, the Suns took Steve Nash. Nash and Kobe are two of the defining players of the post-Jordan NBA.
There was a sense then that Bryant was going to be a special player, but drafting a high school kid was still considered a big risk (even though KG had gone #5 the year before). Realistically, no GM was taking Kobe as high as number six back then, which of course seems ludicrous now. The same goes for Nash–there was nobody saying that he merited a top-10 pick. Still, it’s fun to look back and see what might have been.