History has a way of repeating itself. It has to. Some people won’t listen no matter how many times it says the same thing.
Historians of the modern NBA will already have the context I’m about to provide. That’s fine. If history is doomed to repeat itself ad nauseum, it does so through the written word.
In 2013, the aging Boston Celtics were at a crossroads. Heading into the 2013-14 season, they were five seasons removed from their last NBA championship. They’d just wrapped up a season that saw them finish 42-40. Something had to be done.
Something was. It wasn’t an outcome anybody was expecting. That summer, the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for effectively a bunch of so-so veterans and four first-round picks. The deal was not well received.
In fact, it was met with something resembling moral panic. “What are these draft picks? They won’t even land in the lottery!”. Somehow, it was widely assumed that everyone had the power of clairvoyance. The Nets were good. They’d always be good. The Celtics traded two Hall-of-Famers for a handful of magic beans.
Bill Simmons infamously referred to the C’s return as “35 cents on the dollar”. Well, history repeats itself, and apparently, so do I. It’s doubtful that Simmons will listen to either of us.
This is hilarious. What they got back from the Harden trade was historically, comically, unfathomably bad and this dude is excited.https://t.co/R6O3yD0Y62— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 12, 2021
Last season, the Rockets found themselves at a crossroads of their own. They traded the best guard in franchise history for (you guessed it) a boatload of draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets.
Let’s take a look at how that worked out for the Celtics.
The Celtics built a contender through the draft
Whenever a team trades win-now talent for draft capital, there’s a corollary effect: assuming the team owns its own immediate picks, they increase the value of those as well. They bottom out.
The Celtics only did that for one season. Following their deal with the Nets, they went 25-57 in 2013-14. That summer, they selected Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick in the draft.
In all likelihood, you know how that’s going. Smart was just the first guard to be named Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton. His brand of hard-nosed basketball is woven into the Celtics’ fabric. From that point on, Boston has been at least competitive.
It was the Nets who bottomed out.
Their 2016 pick conveyed third overall. Boston used it to select Jaylen Brown. Their 2017 pick conveyed first overall. The Celtics masterfully traded it for the third overall pick to select Jayson Tatum.
With the workings of a core in place, they made bolder moves. They used the Nets’ 2018 pick to grease the wheels on a trade for Kyrie Irving. That didn’t work out.
For all of his talents, leaning on Kyrie Irving is sometimes a regrettable choice.
The Rockets can do the same
Flash forward to 2022, and Kyrie Irving is a Brooklyn Net. As a product of that James Harden trade, the Rockets own his team’s draft to 2027.
Insert thematic reference to history here.
The situations are not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Nets, as currently constructed, are probably marginally less likely to collapse than the 2014 version. Most significantly, they’re a bit younger. Still, there are good arguments to be made that the Rockets are likely to reap every bit of success from the deal that the Celtics did.
Firstly, the Rockets acquired three more picks and/or pick swaps in their exchange than Boston did. Arguably, that’s a quantity over quality approach. That’s fine. The (star) quality is likely to come through the Rockets’ own selections.
The Rockets didn’t acquire a number of mediocre veterans to match contracts. The only meaningful chips they received in their deal were the picks. They’re bottoming out in a way the Celtics could only have dreamed. It’s not hard to draw a direct line between the Harden trade and the team’s ability to select Jalen Green. They’ll have a top five pick in the 2022 draft as well.
The Celtics used the Brooklyn picks to draft their cornerstones, and their own mid-to-late first-round picks to round out the roster. They nabbed Robert Williams III with the 27th pick in 2018, and Grant Williams with the 22nd in the following season.
The Rockets can do the inverse. Even if precisely zero Brooklyn picks land in the lottery, with smart drafting, Rafael Stone can find vital role players with the whopping seven picks and/or pick swaps he received from the Nets. Meanwhile, he can find his star players with the Rockets’ own selections.
That’s a smart plan if we operate under the assumption that the Nets will avoid the lottery for every season between now and 2027.
That’s not necessarily a smart assumption.
The Nets are a ticking time bomb
As mentioned: Kyrie Irving is not the picture of reliability. If he retires from basketball early to focus on energy reading, anti-vax activism, or flat earth exploration, it should shock no one.
Ben Simmons is no more dependable. It’s recently surfaced that there seems to be a relationship between his mental and physical health. I’m no expert, and I won’t speculate on the validity of his claims. I’ll only say this:
If I was a Nets fan, I’d be worried about him.
I’d probably be worried about Kevin Durant too. He’s 33. He looked a little compromised in the first-round against, ironically, the Boston Celtics. Father time is undefeated. It’s likely that Durant will be showing signs of age-related decline as early as next season.
Frankly, I love the chances of a Brooklyn pick landing in the lottery between now and 2027. I think it’s almost inevitable. If a seventh seed and a first-round sweep is the baseline for this Nets team now, how can anyone assume they’ll remain competitive for five more years?
Nets’ fans will beg to differ. They’ll tell you that the team has no incentive to lose following the Rockets trade. They’ll spend to win.
Only, there’s no amount of money you can throw at an early-season injury. You can’t buy yourself out of an unexplained player absence. If it was as simple as “we want to win, so we will”, all 30 teams would win the championship every season.
The Rockets may not need the Nets to collapse. Over the next five years, at some point, they’re likely to.
If you listen closely, you can hear history grumbling.
Nobody ever listens to her.