How NBA’s Western Conference Play-In Tournament Could Impact Celtics

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The Boston Celtics play in the Eastern Conference, and their first-round playoff matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers already is mapped out, with Game 1 inside the Orlando bubble scheduled for Monday night.

Still, C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge likely will keep a close eye on this weekend’s Western Conference play-in tournament featuring the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzles, as it could impact Boston’s plans for the 2020 NBA Draft.

The Celtics, as you’ve probably heard, own the Grizzlies’ first-round pick by way of a 2015 trade in which Boston sent Jeff Green to Memphis. The pick, which conveyed to 2020 because it was top-eight protected in 2019 (when Memphis landed the No. 2 overall selection and drafted Ja Morant), now is top-six protected.

Before the season, it seemed entirely possible the pick would land inside the top six, in which case it would convey to 2021 — its final stop, no matter what — and become unprotected. As such, it was considered a very valuable asset and therefore the focal point of various Celtics trade rumors.

The Grizzlies have been much better than expected, though, and it’s now a near certainty the pick will fall outside the top six and thus be shipped up to Boston before the draft on Oct. 16. The pick’s exact spot in the first round will depend on what happens this weekend when Portland and Memphis lock horns.

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As part of the NBA’s return-to-play plan, Memphis, the ninth seed in the West, will face Portland, the eighth seed, for the conference’s final playoff spot because fewer than four games separated them in the standings. The Grizzlies, since they’re the lower seed, will need to beat the Blazers twice to secure the final spot, whereas Portland just needs to win once. (The games are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET and 4:30 p.m. ET, respectively.)

In short, the Celtics will be rooting for Portland, because a Blazers victory would force the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture and into the NBA draft lottery. Memphis would have the worst odds of the 14 lottery teams, with just a 2.4 percent chance of its pick jumping into the top four — it’s impossible for the Grizzlies to land the No. 5 or No. 6 pick — and therefore conveying to Boston as an unprotected pick in 2021. But it’s still a long shot the Celtics won’t be afforded if the Blazers drop back-to-back play-in contests.

If Portland wins, the most likely scenario is Boston winds up with the 14th overall pick when the pingpong balls are pulled Aug. 20. If the Grizzlies defeat the Blazers twice this weekend, thus securing the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, the Celtics will net the 16th overall pick.

(The 16 playoff teams draft in inverse order of their combined records across regular-season games and seeding games, and the Orlando Magic would be the only playoff team with a worse record than the Grizzlies.)

Small difference? Maybe, especially since the Celtics own two other first-round picks (their own and Milwaukee’s). But hey, it’s worth noting, even if the once-intriguing buildup surrounding the Grizzlies pick ultimately leads to a very anticlimactic conclusion.

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Thumbnail photo via Ashley Landis/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports Images

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