Trade grades: Who wins the Celtics-Sixers top-3 pick swap?


The reported deal

Sixers get: 2017 No. 1 pick

Celtics get: 2017 No. 3 pick and 2018 L.A. Lakers first-round pick if No. 2-5 (otherwise 2019 Sacramento Kings first-round pick)

Philadelphia 76ers: B

At a gathering of the NBA media and executives in town the night before this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a member of Boston’s front office and a former counterpart with the 76ers engaged in an entertaining debate: Which team had completed the best trade in recent NBA history?

Both argued for the opposite side, the Celtics executive nominating Philadelphia’s deal with the Sacramento Kings to secure swap rights the next two years and an unprotected 2019 first-round pick and the ex-Sixers exec favoring Boston landing three first-round picks and a pick swap from the Brooklyn Nets.

Remarkably, those two lopsided trades intersected in a fascinating deal reported to have been made between the two teams in advance of Thursday’s NBA draft. The Celtics, who used the Nets’ combinations to win the lottery while reaching the Eastern Conference finals, will move down two picks to the selection the 76ers got by swapping with Sacramento. And part of the payment Boston extracted from Philadelphia to move up might be the unprotected Kings pick the Sixers have coming.

So was that price worth it? Maybe. Philadelphia was stuck in a relatively tough spot picking third in this year’s draft. Whether you look at the tiers Chad Ford generated through conversations with NBA front offices or my consensus stats-based projections, it’s clear there was a drop-off after this year’s top two prospects.

Worse yet, the players most teams have third through fifth on their draft boards — De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum — fit poorly with a 76ers lineup built around Ben Simmons running the offense as a de facto point guard. Philadelphia already has a capable 3-and-D role player at small forward in Robert Covington and could use a player with spot-up shooting ability alongside Simmons. That’s why I figured a trade down might make sense for the Sixers. Instead, flush with extra draft picks from the deals made during the tenure of former GM and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie, Philadelphia decided to make a bold move up with little recent precedent.

On Saturday, I took a look at the typical difference in value between the first and third picks in the draft to offer some context to reports about this deal. One perfectly reasonable response was that analysis described a typical draft, not this specific one. And indeed, if you use my projections for presumptive No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and possible No. 3 pick Jackson instead of the generic figures, the difference in terms of surplus value between the two picks increases from $7.3 million over their rookie contracts to $16 million. Suddenly the additional value (that is, the second draft pick) needed to make this swap even increases from equivalent to the 13th pick to at least the fifth pick.

Moreover, Fultz is a better fit, though playing alongside Simmons would put greater urgency on Fultz’s ability to be at least an average NBA 3-point shooter. His 41.3 percent accuracy on 5.0 3-point attempts per game at Washington is encouraging in this regard. His 64.9 percent shooting at the foul line — historically a slightly better predictor of NBA 3-point percentage than college 3-point percentage — is not.

Fultz has the ability to play off the ball in the NBA. Such a role is unlikely to maximize his value, however, since Fultz’s best skill is playmaking out of the pick-and-roll. It’s up to Brett Brown to ensure the Philadelphia offense utilizes both Fultz and Simmons in that capacity, with the Portland Trail Blazers‘ backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as a good model.

The Sixers had the additional draft assets to make this trade without betting their future on it. Still, it is a gamble, one that will almost certainly cost them a high-value draft pick in one of the next two drafts. Ultimately, the 76ers are betting on Fultz’s potential. If he becomes the superstar that scouts project, the price paid to get him will almost certainly be worth it. Though that’s certainly a reasonable possibility, I’m not convinced Fultz will be transcendent.

This trade can look like a win-win if the two front offices have different evaluations of this year’s draft class. While the Sixers almost certainly saw a big gap between Fultz and their options with the No. 3 pick, the Celtics probably don’t view things that way. They’re surely looking at the draft like the executive who told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman?that there’s less difference among the top four prospects this year than there has been in a long, long time.

Even if this year did have a typical drop in quality from the first pick to the third pick, that almost certainly would leave Boston as a big winner here. Again, the Celtics would have to get a pick 13th or better to get equivalent value, and even accounting for the fact that they’ll have to wait a year or two, the pick should be much better than that.

The reported protections on the 2018 Lakers pick are fascinating. While Boston wouldn’t get the pick if it landed No. 1 overall — protecting Philadelphia from losing the best prospect in a draft expected to feature Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. and Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic, whose production for ACB and Euroleague power Real Madrid at age 18 projects off the charts — the Celtics are also protected from the Lakers improving dramatically next season, when they could potentially add Paul George.

It’s even more challenging to figure out where the Kings’ 2019 pick might land, given how far out that is, but there’s a good chance it’s in the lottery — giving Boston two cracks at getting a pair of top-five picks out of the deal.

Trading down also has the small but real benefit to the Celtics of saving them about $1.4 million in salary this season, which is important as they try to get to enough cap space to make a max offer to unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward. Depending where the cap falls, it’s possible Boston could get to the necessary $30 million-plus in space by trading only reserves Demetrius Jackson and Terry Rozier, which would allow them to hang on to sixth man Marcus Smart.

Given the way this trade will shape the futures of two of the Eastern Conference’s most promising franchises for years to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up debating it at a future Sloan Conference. Right now, I’d give the Celtics better odds of being the team that gets more from it.