BOSTON (CBS) -- We've made it.
Months of rumors, speculation and mock drafts come to a close tonight, with the NBA Draft set to get underway at 7:30 p.m. in Brooklyn. We're in for a day that will undoubtedly be filled with even more rumors and speculation, but at least the finish line is in sight.
It's a huge night for the Boston Celtics, which is just a small part of what could be a franchise-altering summer. They own the sixth and 17th overall picks, but it's still unclear if Danny Ainge and his staff, who welcomed in dozens of prospects over the last month for workouts, will be the ones making those selections.
Ainge can sit back and take the two selections that he and his team earned last season; securing the sixth pick thanks to their 25-57 record (and a lost coin flip) while obtaining the 17th overall pick from the Brooklyn Nets in last year's draft night trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. There will be plenty of raw talent sitting there at sixth overall, and with the depth of the draft there's a very good chance they can get a solid player at 17th as well.
But Ainge has said countless times that he isn't very impressed with this year's crop of prospects, and if the team wants to "win now," they'll have to go out and surround Rajon Rondo with a couple of more All-Star players. Kevin Love trade rumors have been the hot headline this summer, but the Celtics' chances at landing Minnesota's star forward have cooled off as of late. All of that has led to speculation that Rondo could be dealt, meaning the Celtics would be in for a much longer rebuilding process.
All the pre-draft hype is nearly over and we'll have a few answers later this evening, but here are three questions facing the Celtics as we hit draft day.
Is There A Franchise Guy At Six?
Ainge has said time and time again there are no Lebrons or Durants in this draft. He said this even before the Celtics learned their draft fate and had no shot at taking Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, though a lot of it could just be Danny being Danny. Why hype up players who, while they may have been good in college, are still a pretty big unknown when they line up against the professionals?
When the pingpong balls were done bouncing and the Celtics had the sixth pick (the pick they had the highest percentage to receive), we began to focus on players like Indiana's Noah Vonleh and Arizona's Aaron Gordon; both big men with huge upside but plenty of question marks about how their games would transition to the NBA. They're both projects and would need time to find their way at the next level, but players who could, at some point down the road, be a key part of the franchise.
Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart is also in the mix, and could be a great pick if the Celtics feel the need to move on from Avery Bradley (a restricted free agent who could make from $7-10 million per year, according to reports) or decide to trade Rondo (more on that soon). Julius Randle was an interesting name as well, but he is reportedly now convinced that the Lakers will take him seventh overall. The Kentucky big man skipped his second workout with the Celtics on Tuesday to go to a GQ interview, so it doesn't sound like he wants to be a part of the Celtics future (but will fit in perfectly with the Lakers).
Then there is Joel Embiid. The Kansas big man was thought to be the definite first pick 10 days ago, but a stress fracture in his right foot and subsequent surgery have him missing at least 4-6 months of his rookie season, and his draft stock has taken a 7-foot plummet. But thanks to that plummet, he's actually an option for the Celtics, and it's speculated that Ainge would be more than happy to take a chance on a player who could be the franchise player they seek.
But Embiid can only alter a franchise (at least in a good way) if he's healthy. The 7-footer has only been playing basketball for a couple of years, and he couldn't make it out of his lone season at Kansas without suffering a back injury that caused him to miss the Big 10 and NCAA tournament. The numbers were impressive when Embiid played, but he's going to have to actually play in order to do anything in the NBA. He would absolutely provide that "rim protection" the Celtics have coveted since being destroyed on the boards and in the paint through their 57-loss season, but the biggest question that surrounds the Cameroon native is whether or not he'll actually take the court.
Depending on how Ainge looks at things, there may be a franchise guy at six. Unfortunately for them, he probably won't be able to play until the calendar turns to 2015 -- if at all. If that's the case, and given Embiid's brief injury history, the safe bet would be to go a guy like Smart or Gordon (if available) and hope on Lucky's shillelagh that they develop into something special.
Will "Trader Danny" Make A Move?
If you're a betting person, chances are Danny Ainge isn't staying put tonight.
Ainge has had a top 10 pick twice during his 11 seasons in charge of the Celtics, and he's dealt it off both times; in 2006 sending the seventh overall selection (Randy Foye) along with Raef LaFrentz and Dan Dickau to Portland for point guard Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and a future second-round pick and in 2007 sending the fifth pick (Jeff Green), Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak to Seattle for Ray Allen and a second-round pick that turned into Glen Davis.
Related: Danny Ainge's Draft Night History
The Celtics have been heavily involved in the Kevin Love sweepstakes this summer, and their two picks Thursday night are a key part of it. Though it seems like Flip Saunders, who has added "Timberwolves head coach" to his business card since all the trade chatter began, would like to keep his All Star forward, the threat of Love opting out of his contract after this season still remains. There isn't much pressure for Saunders to make a Love trade before the draft because he will have plenty of suitors lining up ahead of the trade deadline, but if he wants to draft a young big in hopes they can eventually turn into a Love-type player, Ainge is the guy to call.
There have been murmurs of Ainge asking the Cavs about the first overall pick, and there are probably other available stars that we haven't yet heard about (we didn't hear whispers of a Ray Allen trade in 2007 until the late afternoon of draft day). You can count on Ainge working the phones like crazy all the way up until Boston's first selection, but that doesn't mean he'll only be looking at trades that bring talent to Boston.
Ainge will leave no stone unturned, and that includes exploring trade scenarios that send Rajon Rondo packing for future assets. At this point, Rondo is the biggest trade chip that Ainge has at his disposal, and sending his point guard out of town would yield the highest return. Rondo, who will also be testing the free agent waters next summer, doesn't have to be traded on draft night, but those phone calls could also lay the groundwork for a deal during the season.
Blockbusters aren't the only deals Ainge could make though. The Celtics don't have a second-round pick, and Ainge loves to scour the second round for talented players who can give him a couple of years of production (Leon Powe, Glen Davis and Ryan Gomes are a few examples). He bought a second-round pick from the Pacers last year to draft Colton Iverson, and if he likes someone on the board at some point in the second round, he'll do it again.
Whether he trades the picks, his star point guard or some chump change for an extra pick late, Ainge will be up to something Thursday night. Let's just hope if it is a blockbuster, it looks more like 2007 than 2006.
Prepared For A Long Rebuild?
The Celtics were hoping that they could surround Rondo with some additional stars this offseason and get back into the playoff picture next season. Love would be a great start, but if that falls through (which is looking more and more likely) and Rondo gets traded, expect the rebuilding road to be a longer one for the Celtics.
We'll know more about the Celtics' direction when it's all said and done tonight, and whether or not the rebuild will be quick or lead to a few cold, dark winters for Green-teamers. If Ainge drafts Embiid and someone like Dario Saric, who has to play two years in Turkey before he thinks about the NBA, then we'll know he and C's ownership are OK with taking the long and not-so scenic route.
If that's the case, expect a few more 50-plus loss seasons for the next few years. But at least we may be treated to no-tie Brad Stevens on a nightly basis.
The Celtics said to expect some fireworks this offseason, and that fuse could be lit tonight. As we hit draft day, there's a good chance the Celtics front office doesn't know which direction the franchise will be heading come 10 p.m. this evening, but count on them to explore every possible scenario to get the team back to relevance. If not, be prepared for a longer rebuild, but one that is necessary to (we hope) eventually hang an 18th championship banner.
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