Tomase: Danny Ainge's best asset isn't anywhere near Boston, but could arrive at perfect time

John Tomase
July 06, 2018 - 12:41 pm

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

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Danny Ainge altered the course of the Celtics during the winter of 2015 by acquiring Isaiah Thomas, but he made another deal that January that could pay even bigger dividends.

For all the attention paid to the Kings pick that could be as high as No. 2 overall next year, there's another draft pick in Ainge's war chest with the potential to be downright obscene.

Does this transaction look familiar?

January 12, 2015: As part of a 3-team trade, Jeff Green traded by Celtics to Grizzlies; Grizzlies trade Tayshaun Prince and a future 1st round pick to Celtics; Grizzlies trade Quincy Pondexter and a 2015 2nd round pick (Branden Dawson) to Pelicans; Pelicans trade Austin Rivers to Celtics; and Pelicans trade Russ Smith to Grizzlies. (Grizzlies will receive a traded player exception.)

That's courtesy of basketball-reference. The relevant portion of that agate is "and a future 1st round pick to Celtics."

Ainge's ability to see multiple seasons down the line has put the Celtics in a position to compete for Banner 18, and in terms of foresight, the Grizzlies deal may top even the one with Brooklyn that yielded three first-round picks for future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

The 2015 Grizzlies were really good. They won 55 games and extended the eventual champion Warriors to six games in the conference semifinals, even leading the series 2-1 after stealing homecourt behind Gasol and fellow big man Zach Randolph.

They were nearing the end of the run with their Grit 'N Grind group spearheaded by ex-Celtic Tony Allen, though, and Ainge sold high on Green, who had returned from heart surgery three years earlier to average a career-high 17.6 points a game for a Celtics team going nowhere.

Green was so-so in Memphis, but a first-round pick felt like a small price to pay for a team that was about to top 50 wins for the third straight season. The protections on the pick didn't even feel particularly relevant, since Memphis would likely be picking at the bottom of the first round for years, anyway.

Those protections mean a lot now, though. The pick is top-eight protected next year and top-six protected in 2020. It's unprotected in 2021, which is when it could make the biggest impact on the Celtics.

First, a word on the Grizzlies: they stink, with little hope of improvement. Minus point guard Mike Conley, who missed virtually the entire season, the Grizzlies went 22-60 and finished 14th in the West. They just lost last year's best player, guard Tyreke Evans, to the Pacers in free agency. That they let him walk rather than deal him for a combination of second-round picks and players at the trade deadline remains indefensible.

Conley is expected back, but with his 31st birthday around the corner, the zero-time All-Star is on the downside of a decent career that'll be mostly remembered for the $153 million contract he signed at the start of the magical 2016 offseason, making him the highest-paid player in NBA history for a time.

That same summer, the Grizzlies bestowed a $94 million max contract on Chandler Parsons, who broke down almost immediately and is now worthless. Those two, as well as aging center Marc Gasol, remain on the books through the 2020 season at a combined $83 million. Gasol should be moved at some point to kick off a rebuild. It's going to get worse in Memphis before it gets better.

It's easy to envision the Grizzlies picking in the top five for the next two years (they picked 4th this year), clearing the way for the Celtics to receive the unprotected 2021 pick just when they're going to need it.

Al Horford and Kyrie Irving (if he's still around) are due to expire in 2020. Gordon Hayward is up in 2021, the same year that Jaylen Brown hits restricted free agency, followed in 2022 by Jayson Tatum. With the NBA's salary cap system designed to prevent the creation of long-term super-teams (all evidence in Golden State to the contrary), the C's will be looking to import some cheap, top-flight talent to offset the big bills due some combination of Irving, Brown, Tatum, as well as perhaps another free agent to replace Hayward. And there's no better way to do that than at the top of the draft.

So while the Grizzlies may not be a front-burner concern next year, they'll be worth watching. Do they dump Gasol as part of a rebuild? Is No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson ready to contribute? Will a recently settled ownership situation lead to stability?

Celtics fans will have a reason to keep an eye on all of it, while waiting on what could prove to be Danny Ainge's masterstroke.

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