How much of an advantage are the Boston Celtics' extra draft picks when it comes to making a possible deal for Anthony Davis?
If the New Orleans Pelicans decide to trade Davis this summer, most of the interested parties will be limited to offering their own draft picks. The Celtics' options are different by design. Boston has stockpiled future picks for a situation like this, and it could have as many as four first-round picks in the 2019 NBA draft.
How likely are the Celtics to get those picks, and how valuable are they? And what would that mean for a potential Davis trade? Let's take a look.
How Boston can trade this year's first-rounders
First, let's reconsider an important caveat for the Celtics with regard to Davis. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from acquiring more than one player currently signed to a designated rookie extension, which means Boston can't have both Davis and Kyrie Irving this season. That will change come July 1, when Irving is all but certain to decline his player option and become a free agent.
Hypothetically, the Celtics could trade for Davis before the Feb. 7 deadline if they included Irving in the deal. Realistically, pairing Davis with Irving is a large part of the appeal of a trade. So a Boston deal for Davis would almost certainly not happen until after the July moratorium -- after this year's draft. However, the teams are free to negotiate and agree on terms before that, meaning the Pelicans could get their choice of picks at the draft and then complete the deal once Irving is officially a free agent.
With that in mind, let's go through the picks the Celtics could have, using projections based on ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) to estimate their value.
Projecting Boston's picks
Boston first-round pick
Chances: 100 percent | Most likely position: 28th
The Celtics will, of course, have their own first-round pick. The bad news -- which is probably actually good news -- is that it's likely to fall at the end of the round. Because Boston should win more games in the second half of the season by living up to its strong point differential, BPI projects just two teams (the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors) with better records on average. That would mean picking 28th for the Celtics, who used the 27th pick in last June's draft to take Texas A&M center Robert Williams.
Sacramento first-round pick (top-1 protected)
Chances: 97 percent | Most likely position: 11th
Entering the season, the Kings' first-round pick looked like the crown jewel of Boston's trade coffers. The Celtics get the pick unless it's No. 1 overall, in which case the Philadelphia 76ers would keep the pick (from the Markelle Fultz trade) and Boston would get Philadelphia's first-rounder instead. Alas, Sacramento has made its pick far less valuable by exceeding expectations and staying in the Western Conference playoff race.
Because of the Kings' poor preseason projection -- which still retains predictive power this deep into the schedule -- and their relatively weak point differential (minus-1.4 points per game), BPI gives Sacramento little chance of making the playoffs in the West (the Kings do so in 1 percent of simulations). Nonetheless, Sacramento's pick is still most likely to land at the bottom of the lottery, and that's even without considering that the Kings will have no incentive to lose games late in the season.
So while this is still a useful pick to trade, it's no longer the blue-chip trade piece it once appeared to be.
Philadelphia first-round pick
Chances: 3 percent | Most likely position: 23rd
Again, the Celtics get the Sixers' pick only if Sacramento wins the lottery. That happens in just 3 percent of BPI simulations, which is good for Boston because swapping picks would mean a huge tumble. With Philadelphia firmly entrenched in the East's top five, this pick will most likely fall into the 20s.
Memphis first-round pick (top-8 protected)
Chances: 64 percent | Most likely position: 10th
Having slumped since a strong start, the Grizzlies have fallen behind Sacramento in BPI's projections, meaning amazingly this could be the best pick the Celtics get this year. At the same time, there's a narrow window for Boston to get a top-10 pick because Memphis keeps it if it lands in the top eight. If they can no longer realistically make the playoffs, the Grizzlies might try to fall in the standings to improve their chances of keeping the pick.
The good news for the Celtics is twofold. First, no matter how hard Memphis tries (or doesn't try), there will almost certainly be a chance for Boston to get the pick this year. Because the top four picks will be chosen by lottery under this year's changes, up from the previous three, only a team with a bottom-four record will be assured a top-eight pick. Given how bad the NBA's bottom five teams (Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Phoenix) have been, it will be difficult for the Grizzlies to enter the lottery any higher than sixth.
Second, if Memphis' pick rolls over to 2020, the protection drops to top-six before becoming unprotected in 2021. Given the age of Grizzlies stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the 2020 or 2021 Memphis pick would probably be even more valuable as a trade chip than a pick in the back end of this year's top 10.
Having that pick in reserve could become especially handy if Davis negotiations drag on past July 1, meaning the Celtics would have to draft this year instead of the Pelicans getting to control the picks.
LA Clippers (top-14 protected)
Chances: 73 percent | Most likely position: 18th
The Clippers' pick, originally sent to the Grizzlies in exchange for Jeff Green before being rerouted to Boston during a 2016 draft-night trade, is lottery-protected each of the next two years before converting to a far less valuable 2022 second-round pick if not conveyed.
Given the reasonable possibility the Celtics will never see the first-round pick, it's exciting for Boston that the Clippers are on track to likely make the playoffs this season. BPI projects them doing so nearly three-quarters of the time. Although the Clippers will probably fall near the bottom of the West playoff standings, they're not likely to pick any higher than 18th because of the weaker projected records of the East's last three playoff teams.
What would New Orleans want?
Even if Boston doesn't get the top-five pick from the Kings that fans were dreaming of entering the season, the Celtics' extra first-rounders are still an edge no other team could match in dealing for Davis. After all, most teams have only their own first-round picks, which are likely to fall near the end of the round if they add the superstar big man.
At the same time, it's unclear just how much New Orleans would covet draft picks in a possible Davis deal. Given their small market and poor ticket sales (they currently rank 26th in home attendance), the Pelicans might prioritize players who can keep them competitive even after Davis' departure.
That's the approach that would open the door for a team like the Lakers, with its unusual cache of recent first-round picks on rookie contracts: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Moritz Wagner, plus early second-round pick Ivica Zubac.
Consider the original incarnation of New Orleans' Chris Paul trade, which brought back veterans Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom and Luis Scola in lieu of picks. Only after NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed that deal in his role as the Pelicans' owner rep did New Orleans instead get a quality draft pick (which ended up 10th overall, used on Austin Rivers) in the eventual trade sending Paul to the Clippers.
While Davis is surely even more coveted, we've also seen recent trades involving star players entering the final year of their contract offer little in the way of draft picks. The Indiana Pacers got young players Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis instead of picks when they sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and players DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl were more important to the San Antonio Spurs' return for Kawhi Leonard than the Toronto Raptors' top-20-protected 2019 first-round pick.
From that standpoint, Boston's own young talent might be the key in potential Davis trade negotiations rather than the Celtics' draft picks. Jaylen Brown is the kind of young player with playoff experience the Pelicans might target, while Boston agreeing to deal Jayson Tatum would presumably trump any other offer that could be made for Davis. So although the Celtics' draft picks can be useful sweeteners, they might not prove to be the core of a Davis deal.