How Ja Morant and an unlucky lottery bounce changed Celtics’ fortunes
Tomase: How Ja Morant altered the course of recent Celtics history originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Celtics fans lament the 2019 NBA Draft as the one where Tyler Herro nearly fell into their laps, but the real killer will be on display on Thursday night when the Memphis Grizzlies come to town: Ja Morant.
The No. 2 overall pick in that draft — and suddenly the most exciting player in the NBA — wasn’t supposed to land in Memphis until a fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls altered the course of two franchises.
What should’ve been another master stroke from Danny Ainge instead crumbled when the Grizzlies hit six percent odds to jump from eighth to second in the lottery.
The C’s had been hoping to secure a top-three pick in 2021 on the strength of a deal Ainge struck in 2015 with considerable foresight when he shipped veteran Jeff Green, who has pretty much been traded everywhere, to Memphis for a future first-rounder.
The pick contained diminishing lottery protections that included top-eight status in 2019 and top-six positioning in 2020 before being completely unprotected in 2021. That’s the selection the C’s dreamed of nailing, à la the eventual No. 1 overall they scored from the Nets in the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade that ultimately yielded young superstar Jayson Tatum.
Where do Tatum, Ja Morant rank among 10 best NBA players under 25?
The odds were in their favor as the 2019 lottery began, their biggest fear that one of the true longshots would leapfrog Memphis and drop the Grizzlies to ninth, thus conveying the pick to Boston. That’s the outcome the Grizzlies actually desired, with general manager and old friend Chris Wallace noting the sooner that pick went to Boston, the sooner they could start rebuilding without any uncertainty.
Instead, Memphis hit paydirt and drafted Morant, a freakishly creative and athletic do-it-all point guard from Murray State who immediately made an impact. He won the Rookie of the Year Award and nearly took the Grizzlies to the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
That finish was good enough to drop Memphis to 14th, which sent the pick to Boston. The Celtics chose Aaron Nesmith, a dead-eye college 3-point shooter who is not even converting 25 percent of his attempts from distance this season.
As for Morant, he’s the greatest individual show in the NBA at the moment, as high-flying as vintage Vince Carter and as elusive as Allen Iverson, a 22-year-old MVP candidate averaging nearly 28 points, six rebounds, and seven assists a game for the surging Grizzlies, who rank third in the Western Conference at 43-20. Morant is coming off games of 46 and 52 points, the latter a one-man highlight film vs. the Spurs that included maybe the dunk of the year and the buzzer beater of the year, only two minutes apart.
Just for fun (or torture) let’s consider a world where the Grizzlies stay put in 2019 and pick eighth. The Pelicans used that pick to select Texas big man Jaxson Hayes, hoping to pair him alongside No. 1 overall selection Zion Williamson and start a New Orleans revival. Instead, Williamson hasn’t played at all this year because of a foot injury and Hayes is averaging eight points and four rebounds a game.
Outside of Herro (13th) and maybe Phoenix sharpshooter Cameron Johnson (11th), no one in the next dozen picks has particularly shined. The Grizzlies would’ve almost certainly landed someone mediocre and returned to the lottery in 2020, where the two best players have been No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards of the Timberwolves and No. 3 pick LaMelo Ball of the Hornets.
Seeing as Edwards only led the T-Wolves to 23 wins last year, it’s a safe bet that Memphis, after dealing franchise stalwarts Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, wouldn’t have landed a player capable of immediately changing the franchise’s fortunes.
That means the Celtics would’ve owned Memphis’ pick in this past draft, and without Morant, who knows how high it could’ve been?
Grizzlies’ win percentage in two seasons before drafting Morant
Grizzlies’ win percentage since drafting Morant
The Pistons took Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall, and after a slow start, he looks like a potential star. Houston’s mercurial Jalen Green went second and may be a tad undisciplined, but there’s no doubting his jaw-dropping athleticism. Big man Evan Mobley (No. 3) is making an impact for the surprising Cavaliers, while teenaged triple-double machine Josh Giddey (No. 6) brings hope to OKC, and Orlando’s Franz Wagner (No. 8) ranks second to Cunningham among rookies at 15.5 points a game.
Imagine the Celtics with one of those players alongside their young core, or imagine the battle-proven veteran they could’ve added in a trade by dangling a top-five pick. What’s already a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference could be battling the Nets, Sixers, and Bucks for overall supremacy and feeling even better about its promising future.
Is that getting greedy? Of course. Most organizations would kill to build around young talent like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Robert Williams. But every time Morant soars to the hoop or converts an acrobatic finish on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Boston), feel free to let yourself wonder how different the Celtics would look right now if he were playing for literally anyone else.