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A few weeks ago, someone asked Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge if his team was better off making the playoffs or the draft lottery.
"That's a good question," Ainge replied. "The playoffs are great for the players, coaches and fans, but our franchise would be better off with a higher draft pick."
Ainge has been criticized for many things this season, but a lack of candor isn't one of them. That's what made him a great broadcaster. And while Ainge qualified his comments by saying that he would never do anything to hurt the team's chances to win on the court, his initial response was truthful and appropriate.
The Celtics would be better off with a chance at the top pick in the draft than a certain first-round flameout in the playoffs.
They are building for the future and desperate for an infusion of talent. The Celtics have hardly any cap room this summer, and unless Ainge can pull off a miracle trade or two, their only hope is to add the needed players through the draft.
If Boston makes the postseason, it would have a pick in the middle of the first round. But if the Celtics miss the playoffs altogether, they have a shot at the No. 1 pick – possibly Connecticut center Emeka Okafor or Atlanta high school star Dwight Howard. And if Boston doesn't like the players available in the draft, a high pick would be strong leverage for a possible trade.
This type of situation is not unprecedented. After all, the draft lottery was initially instituted into the league for the 1985 draft, a year after the Rockets were accused of tanking games late in the season in order to secure the worst record in the Western Conference and a coin flip for the first pick in the draft (which turned out to be Hakeem Olajuwon).
Even with the new system in place, plenty of teams have benefited from ending up in the lottery instead of the playoffs. The Spurs turned a couple of bad seasons into David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The Cavaliers' reward for last season's disastrous record was LeBron James.
In 1992-93 (Shaquille O'Neal's rookie season), I was a member of an Orlando Magic team that battled the Indiana Pacers for the eighth spot in the East. We desperately hoped to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history, but the Pacers claimed the final spot based on the fourth tiebreakerat the time (net points in head-to-head matchups).
The Pacers went to the playoffs and were swept by the New York Knicks. The Magic improbably won the lottery, drafted Chris Webber and traded his rights to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway. Two years later Orlando was in the NBA Finals. Who ended up with the better deal, Indiana or Orlando?
But while general managers and owners look at things in the big picture, players and coaches see only the game in front of them. Nobody on the Magic that season thought about being in the lottery, and nobody on Boston is concerned about the draft this year. Coach John Carroll doesn't know if he even will be the coach of the team next season, so he's going to do everything he can to win as many games as possible and make the playoffs this season.
Celtics players also are competing for their own careers. Roster spots, new contracts and job stability are at stake in the last few weeks of the season. The last thing any of the Celtics are thinking about right now is the upcoming draft. They don't have that luxury, and they'll keep playing and competing until the end of the season.
Ainge's comments were blunt but on the mark. Despite the desires of the players, coaches and fans, history shows that Boston would be better off in the lottery. But for Ainge – one of the nastiest competitors in the NBA during his playing days – watching his Celtics lose must be very painful.
Yet that's what this season has come down to for him. He is forced to quietly watch his team, battle his inner competitive desire to win and hope that a few losses and a few good bounces from the pingpong balls will bring better days to the Celtics.