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Is the lottery the Celtics' ticket?

5/22/2014
Courtesy Jack Hamilton

My fondest memory of the NBA draft lottery happened in May 2007. The previous fall I’d moved back to the Boston area, where I’d been born and raised, and for my homecoming had endured one of the worst seasons of Celtics basketball history. In January and February they’d lost 18 straight games; I’d watched every one of them. Sometime during that slump a friend and I ordered custom-made T-shirts bearing the names and numbers of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, everyone’s consensus top two picks that year. On lottery night, we convened at another friend’s house to witness America’s most-watched pingpong balls take their course. The Celtics -- owners of the NBA’s second-worst record and, to our minds, rightful inheritors of either Oden or Durant -- landed the fifth pick. A few hours later, on a deserted Cambridge street, the photo above happened.

It’s odd that this is my fondest lottery memory. That night was a traumatic and unhinged ordeal that could have easily landed several people in jail. But it was also a great evening, full of the ridiculous overinvestment and childish camaraderie that remind us why we follow teams in the first place. And of course it’s also my fondest memory because of what happened in the months after, when team president Danny Ainge spun crushing disappointment into one of the greatest offseasons in the history of pro sports. On draft night in June, Ainge flipped that hated fifth pick (along with Delonte West and Wally Sczerbiak) to the Seattle Supersonics for All-Star shooting guard Ray Allen. A month later, he shipped half a roster’s worth of future commodities to Minnesota for all-world power forward Kevin Garnett. The following June, Allen, Garnett and franchise icon Paul Pierce were clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the TD Garden locker room.

Right now, that feels like a long time ago. Tuesday night, at the team’s first lottery visit since that fateful, fiery night in 2007, the Celtics landed the sixth pick in the 2014 NBA draft. This wasn’t the absolute worst-case scenario, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone was hoping for, even if it was what everyone probably should have been expecting. And if history is any indication, it’s cause for concern. The Celtics, you see, have draft difficulties, and by that I’m not simply referring to the fact that in the 29 years since the lottery began, the Celtics have never won the first pick. Complaining about lack of luck on behalf of any team that’s won 17 NBA titles is remarkably obnoxious, and I won’t do it here.

Besides, the Celtics’ draft misadventures over the past few decades haven’t been due to lack of luck, but rather lack of skill. Aside from a few scattered bright spots (Rajon Rondo at 21 with Phoenix’s pick in 2006, Paul Pierce at 10 in 1998) the modern-day Boston Celtics have not drafted well, and their trips to the lottery have been spectacularly inept. In fact, with the exception of Pierce -- a no-brainer who inexplicably fell to the team during one of the more erratic first rounds in NBA history -- the best lottery choice the Celtics ever made was in 2007, when they chose against making a choice at all.

The rest of the record is a bloodbath of stupidity. In 2006, the team traded its pick (seventh overall) to Portland for another failed lottery pick, underachieving point guard and overachieving firearm enthusiast Sebastian Telfair. The Blazers, with an assist from Minnesota, ended up with three-time All-Star Brandon Roy. In the early 2000s, the Celtics swung away at lottery immortals like Kedrick Brown and Jerome Moiso. In 2001, they snagged Joe Johnson at No. 10 but traded him less than 50 games into his rookie season. In 1997, they infamously failed to land Tim Duncan, then drafted Chauncey Billups at No. 3, whom they -- yes -- traded away midseason. That same year, they drafted Ron Mercer at No. 6, an inefficient gunner overvalued by his former college coach, Rick Pitino, who now happened to be running the Celtics. Another swingman, Tracy McGrady, went three spots later. And, of course, the highest pick the Celtics have ever held in the lottery era, the second pick in the 1986 draft -- obtained through another lopsided deal with the aforementioned Sonics -- yielded one of the greatest tragedies in NBA history, Len Bias.

And now here we are in 2014, with the Celtics holding the sixth pick in an allegedly loaded draft, and it feels like a nightmare scenario. I don’t trust the Celtics with this pick any more than I’d trust anyone with it. The lottery and the players it produces is exactly what it sounds like: a random, capricious and mostly cruel grab bag of results. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant’s respective team’s might meet in the Finals this year, but it won’t be anything like we once expected. And past drafts we now remember as great weren’t always understood to be at the time; 1998 produced three Hall of Famers in the top 10, but Michael Olowokandi went first overall and Robert Traylor was thought to be a better bet than Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce. The top five in 2003 begat four, but Darko Milicic was drafted ahead of three of them.

Teams that fumble their way into high draft picks are usually the last teams you’d trust to know what to do with them -- behold the Cleveland Cavaliers. And “building through the draft” is an inexact and often foolish process, as this year’s playoffs indicate. The Pacers are led by a swingman who was widely considered a reach at the 10th pick (Paul George), an allegedly upside-less center who fell into the later part of the first round (Roy Hibbert), and a second-round bygone prodigy whom most teams couldn’t stay far enough away from (Lance Stephenson). With the exception of Dwyane Wade, the Heat built through free agency; you might have heard about it. The last time the Spurs were in the lottery, Andrew Wiggins had just turned two years old. The Thunder are the exceptional team that did build through high draft picks, but for every OKC there’s a Minnesota, a Sacramento, a Milwaukee, perpetually mediocre teams trapped in spin-cycles of unfulfilled promise.

This year’s draft class is strong but probably overhyped and lacks a clear-cut franchise-changer in the mold of a LeBron or a Durant or an Anthony Davis. The prevailing view is that there is a precipitous talent drop-off after the top few picks. The Celtics say they’re confident they can land a player at No. 6, but they said the same thing about No. 5 back in 2007. And this Celtics team is in significantly better shape than the ’06-07 bunch: It has a top-shelf point guard in Rajon Rondo, an exciting young coach in Brad Stevens and intriguing, a decent array of intriguing, still-reasonably-priced young talent and a bevy of future draft picks.

If Ainge is smart -- and Ainge is smart -- he’ll pursue the same path he took seven years ago and dump this pick (and maybe a few more) on whoever’s dumb enough to want it. This year's top pick could end up being Kansas’ Joel Embiid, a raw big man of the sort who can save and kill teams in equal likelihood. When the dust settles, the best player might end up being Kentucky’s Julius Randle, currently flying under the radar since everyone already agrees he’ll be good (what fun is that?). Maybe he’ll fall to six, but maybe he won’t, and I don’t want to risk it.

Forget the lottery, forget the draft, forget the lure of the random and unknown. And besides, there’s always second chances. The fifth pick in the 2007 draft that ultimately turned into Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, a couple of Finals appearances and a 17th championship banner? Jeff Green, leading scorer for the 2013-14 Boston Celtics.

Jack Hamilton is the pop critic at Slate and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture. Follow him, @jack_hamilton.