Their presence was a reminder of how Celtics and Nets games used to have a bit of a buzz about them in recent seasons. Celtics fans obsessively tracked the Nets and their struggles, frequently utilizing the “#Netspick” hashtag on social media to celebrate the struggles of a team that delivered three first-round picks — and the ability to swap another — in a deal that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.
But the Celtics have exhausted their collection of Nets picks, dealing the final one away in August in order to obtain Irving in a blockbuster deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. So even as the Celtics held on late for a 108-105 triumph over the Nets on Sunday, the Brooklyn games don’t have quite the same sizzle. Boston’s fan base has transferred its gaze to another struggling rival.
The Lakers, who have lost six straight after visiting Houston and losing in double overtime on Sunday night, have the second-worst record in basketball and are last in the Western Conference. Los Angeles will deliver its first-round pick to Boston if it lands between spots Nos. 2-5 in the 2018 draft.
When the Celtics traded the Nets’ 2017 first-round pick, the No. 1 overall selection, to Philadelphia for the No. 3 pick, they also received the conditional pick that could end up being delivered from the Lakers. Otherwise, that pick might become a 2019 first-round pick from the Sacramento Kings (or the 76ers if the Kings get the No. 1 pick in 2019).
Considering Boston’s status atop the Eastern Conference, it’s an embarrassment of riches for a team that remains stocked with the sort of future draft assets that will either maintain a flow of young talent to Boston or be utilized in obtaining the star that could propel the Celtics even closer to championship contenders.
When the Celtics dealt Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers, some fans balked at the idea of including the Nets pick, especially without any protections.
But the Nets are scrappy this season. They nearly overcame a double-digit deficit in the final minutes of Sunday’s game. Brooklyn is 13-23, but owns only the seventh-worst record in the NBA, along with the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets.
The Lakers are now 11-24. Los Angeles has lost nine of its past 10 and 14 of its past 17.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projected the Nets to win 30.8 games entering Sunday’s action and there are six teams with worse projections, including the Lakers.
The Nets’ pick had a 93.5 percent chance of being a top-10 selection — nothing to sneeze at — but only a 20.4 percent chance of being a top-three pick and a 33.8 percent chance of being top five, according to BPI. By comparison, the Lakers’ pick had a 37.7 percent chance of being top five, including a 30.5 percent chance of landing in that Nos. 2-5 sweet spot in which it would transfer to the Celtics.
The good news for Boston: The Lakers project to play the seventh-toughest schedule in the NBA this season. Los Angeles’ schedule eases a bit with an upcoming five-game homestand (three games of which the Lakers are BPI projected to win), but the rigid Western Conference will make winning consistently tough on the young Lakers.
Celtics fans were already rooting against the Lakers even before the possibility of getting their pick; now they have even more incentive. Boston defeated Los Angeles in their first meeting earlier this season; the two teams play again in Los Angeles in late January.
Celtics players are largely indifferent about future draft picks but, make no mistake, those picks most certainly helped make Boston an even more intriguing destination when the likes of Al Horford and Gordon Hayward were making their free-agent decisions.
And those picks might ultimately be the difference in getting Boston to true title contention again, all without ever having to have bottomed out like the Nets and Lakers did in recent years.