The first letters about the 2014 NBA draft started rolling in a year ago, given all the hype surrounding this year's incoming class, and mail really started piling up around February when it became clear the Boston Celtics were headed toward the high lottery.
We try to limit the draft chatter until we get closer to the event; everything is simply too fluid to try to predict even a month or two out. Who would have thought we'd be sitting here in the days leading up to the draft wondering if Joel Embiid might slide within Boston's reach, or whether the Celtics might pull off a draft-night swap for the likes of Kevin Love.
What will happen this year? Nobody can know for sure. But let's make a few educated guesses while opening your letters.
Q: How comfortable would Danny Ainge be in drafting Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, knowing neither would potentially contribute for years? I know he's a risk-taker, but those picks would all but guarantee at least another lean year and a Rondo trade/walk. -- @theREALMikeDunn (via Twitter)
A: I don't think the Celtics fear patience. The goal of any rebuilding process is to avoid enduring that phase again for as long as possible. If tolerating another lean year (or two) means that Boston is a sustained contender for the decade that follows, is it worthwhile? Every team wants to accelerate the rebuilding process, but there's a danger in being shortsighted.
Here's how I look at it: If I had said a week ago that the Celtics had the potential to emerge from the draft with Embiid and Saric, most fans would have been turning cartwheels. And to do it without having to sacrifice any of the team's future draft pick surplus would have seemed like larceny.
If -- and it's definitely a big if -- the team is satisfied with what it can uncover about Embiid's medical situation, it's hard to imagine passing up the opportunity to add a franchise-caliber center. And if that happens, it makes waiting to bring over a skilled European forward that much easier. I still think both guys might be off the board before Boston has a shot at them, but I don't think the team would mind the opportunity to make those decisions.
A: Do the Celtics really need players now? I'd argue that it's unlikely that any combination of players plucked at Nos. 6 and 17 could immediately thrust Boston back into a position to truly contend (even in a lowly Eastern Conference). If Boston elects to use its picks, it almost certainly means another lean year while developing not only the players it selects Thursday, but nurturing the progression of recent picks such as Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger.
I would relent that taking a chance on Embiid is made slightly more difficult by the perceived depth in this year's draft. It's a lot easier for teams to select NBA-ready players -- guys such as Marcus Smart or Julius Randle -- knowing they're likely to get immediate returns. The question, though, is ceilings and whether a team will be rewarded in the long run for exhibiting patience with someone like Embiid.
Ultimately, I lean back on what the Celtics have stressed before every draft: talent over need. You take the player who projects to have the best career, not the player who can help your team in the immediate future. Unless his medicals scream "run away!" then Embiid appears a steal at No. 6.
Q: A great draft doesn't make the Celtics a contender any time soon, if at all. Kevin Love, on the other hand ... -- @sportsanalyst13 (via Twitter)
A: There's no doubt that putting Love alongside Rajon Rondo, along with some complementary talent, at least moves Boston back into the playoff picture in the East. With the right moves in the aftermath, there's potential for the Celtics to be a legitimate contender. That said, I remain leery of overpaying for Love. The Celtics should not mortgage their future to add one piece of the contender puzzle, particularly when it still requires additional moves to put the team in position to really make waves.
While so much of Boston's strategy toward next season could depend on how the draft plays out, I remain convinced that there is no need to rush into a move. If you can get Love at a fair price, you do it. If the Wolves desire a bidding war, you politely step back and let the rest of the league duke it out.
There's this notion that Boston has to do something fast in order to ensure that Rondo wants to stick around when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. I don't buy this. Sure, Rondo wants to win -- and win now -- but if the Celtics can show him they're on the right path and that they're building a low-cost, high-ceiling base during this lean period, he ought to want to lead that group into the future (particularly if Boston were to create a situation where it had the sort of available cash to pursue a big-ticket free agent of its choice down the road).
Q: Do Celts fans realize that Love is the opposite of everything they loved about Kevin Garnett? They will hate his lazy defense and stat-padding -- @B1GT1CKET (via Twitter)
A: [Ducks and covers] To be fair, name another player in the Garnett mold who is available at the moment. He was a very unique situation. There's plenty to like about Love's game, and it would be unfair to expect him to fill the same role as Garnett. But your point is valid to a degree. It's unlikely that Love would impact the franchise in quite the same way Garnett did, and the price tag could be higher to obtain him.
Q: Two days to go and still no rumors; does the silence mean anything? -- @Bird33Ward (via Twitter)
A: No, there was silence last year, and the Celtics not only shuffled up a couple spots to nab Olynyk at No. 13, but they agreed to the Pierce/Garnett deal with Brooklyn. The Celtics were mapping out all the potential avenues that could be traveled this week, and director of player personnel Austin Ainge noted that Boston will engage teams on potential deals that might interest them in the days/hours leading up to the draft (in order to allow them to marinate a bit before being on the clock kicks things into overdrive). So much of the maneuvering on Thursday is likely to depend on how the draft unfolds, it's on teams to think quickly and react.
Q: If the C's keep their picks, do you see players being traded to make space for rookies ? -- @hall0fame (via Twitter)
A: If the Celtics elect to stay in rebuild mode, there's a benefit to eliminating some veteran depth with a goal of creating more opportunities for younger players. But the Celtics' picks on Thursday will likely determine how exactly the roster is shaped from there. It's worth remembering that, even this past season, the team eased along Olynyk, ramping him up at season's end. They won't just throw these guys to the wolves (or, maybe they will if they can get Love ...)
A: I think the cost to get into the top 2 for a shot at Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker will be too prohibitive. I could see Philly being enticed to move off No. 3 (despite their posturing about wanting to take Embiid), but the 76ers don't lack for draft picks? This armchair GM would certainly consider moving up a spot or two to nab Embiid if he starts to slide, but you're balancing a risk that he won't simply be there at No. 6. As for Rondo-to-Sacramento hypotheticals, I wonder if the Kings would give up a ransom for a player that might not want to resign there the following summer.
Q: Would the Magic deal Nos. 4 and 12 for Rondo? If Celts had four of top 17 picks, there would be lots of options. -- @IrishKelleher (via Twitter)
A: Interesting thought, but the guess here is that Orlando is better off in rebuilding mode. The Magic can get their choice of young point guard in Dante Exum or Marcus Smart, while still hunting for help at 12. That seems better for a young team than bringing on a player that's due a huge contract next summer.
Q: Let's say the C's are on the clock at pick No. 6 and all the so-called top names, including Embiid, are off the board. What's your pick? -- Barrett (Wellesley, Massachusetts)
A: I think there's an awful lot to like about Smart if he's available. His skill set should translate to the NBA level and his body is ready for the pro game. The Celtics obviously have an All-Star point guard already, but there's room for the two to coexist, while giving Boston a backup plan given Rondo's uncertain future. Of the power-forward types, I like Gordon and his NBA-ready defense the best of the bunch (especially given his versatility and ability to play the 3).
Q: Danny Ainge has been excellent picking in the mid- to late-first-round. Who should he eye at No. 17? -- Stephanie (Burlington, Massachusetts)
A: This is another situation where I'd be intrigued about moving back, particularly if none of the top names slide out of the lottery (like Saric or James Young). The Celtics can seemingly find young scorers in the 20s in the likes of TJ Warren or PJ Hairston. I'd ring the Thunder to see what it would take (the 17th and another late first-rounder or early second in the future?) to get their two late first-round picks this year (21, 29). Adding a late first or early second for a shot at another body, whether it be an overseas center such as Walter Tavares or Michigan swingman Glenn Robinson III, could produce more total value in this year's draft than sticking at 17.
Q: Will the Celtics end up buying a second-round pick after auditioning so many guys pegged to go there or undrafted? -- Justin (Hull, Massachusetts)
A: The Celtics will certainly give consideration to players they like who stay on the board deep into the second round. They did it last year, buying a pick from Indiana to land Colton Iverson, who will be competing for a roster spot this summer (and then immediately invited undrafted Phil Pressey to summer league). One way or another, it seems likely that some of the players Boston auditioned recently will end up with a chance to compete for a spot, whether it's on the summer league squad or training camp invite.