WALTHAM, Mass. — After the Boston Celtics earned a trip to the Eastern Conference finals and the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft less than 24 hours apart, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said the team’s patience with its building process has been rewarded.
A smiling Ainge met with reporters a short time after Boston’s envelope was the final one revealed at the draft lottery in New York. The Celtics, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, are set to open the conference finals on Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They earned the top pick thanks to a pick swap with the Brooklyn Nets from the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce blockbuster trade back in 2013.
“I think sitting here right now with the No. 1 pick in the draft, the answer is obviously yes [this shows the value of patience], and sitting in the Eastern Conference finals, the answer is obviously yes,” Ainge said. “I think that sometimes you need to be patient. It’s hard for me to be patient. I like action. But we have a good group of guys around us.
“My whole staff and ownership, we sit and calmly try to figure out what the best path is to take. We don’t want to make any mistakes, and so far, we’ve been pretty good.”
For more than two decades, the ping-pong balls have defied the Celtics. Twenty years ago, as the overwhelming favorite for the top spot (a 27.5 percent chance), the Celtics slipped to No. 3 and missed out on Tim Duncan. A decade ago, with a 19.9 percent chance at the top spot, the Celtics missed out on both Greg Oden and Kevin Durant after slipping to No. 5.
But on Tuesday night, the ping-pong balls finally cooperated, and now the Celtics can either add a top option — Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball are the premiere names in this year’s draft — or explore the trade market. After years of not being in control of their draft fate, the Celtics sit in a power position.
“Getting the No. 1 pick is very fun. It’s very exciting. We’ve never had that before, so that would be a lot of fun to explore those options,” Ainge said. “But right now, it’s just good to have clarity as to where everybody is in the draft. When you’re in the trade deadline and you’re talking about trading picks, it’s 1-4 or possibly 5 if Brooklyn starts winning games and so forth. There’s so much uncertainty when you’re [exploring] the trades, I think for both teams. And now there’s certainty and clarity.”
“We watched it for 10 or 15 minutes and felt the butterflies coming, nerves, right when they started opening the envelopes,” he said. “It was going really well, and there was a little misdirection there by one of the envelopes, and then we got right back on track. [Celtics co-owner] Wyc [Grousbeck] pulled it home for us.”
While the top options are guards, Ainge was quick to note that the team won’t pick based on who fits best next to All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas.
“Isaiah can play with anybody,” Ainge said. “He can play 2-guard. He can play whatever. He’s just a basketball player. He’s a scorer. And he’s a great off-the-ball player as well.”
Asked how it felt to “beat” Magic Johnson after the Los Angeles Lakers finished with the No. 2 pick, Ainge laughed and downplayed the notion.
“We didn’t beat Magic,” he said. “It’s total luck. They’re picking ping-pong balls. There’s no beating anybody. I think the Lakers obviously were very, very fortunate in the draw, and they’re off to a great start.”
Down in New York, Grousbeck, representing the team on stage while fellow co-owner Steve Pagliuca was in the draw room, laughed about being in the final three alongside Los Angeles’ Magic Johnson and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
“My emotions were, ‘What am I doing on stage with these two great players?'” Grousbeck said with a laugh. “You know, Joel Embiid and Magic Johnson and I am standing there, a guy in a suit, but there I was, and we pulled it off somehow.
“That felt pretty good. It felt just like winning Game 7 [Monday] night. There’s a lot of good feelings around the Celtics right now. It’s great to be a Celtics fan right now.”
Information from ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.