What If Celtics, 76ers Never Made 2017 NBA Draft Trade?

Boston's sustained level of success certainly would look a lot different


Feb 28, 2023

Joel Embiid once famously acknowledged how it was not fair to qualify the Celtics as a rival of the 76ers because Boston consistently kicked Philadelphia’s, as he put it, “ass.”

At the time of Embiid’s admission in October 2018, it was an admirable big-picture outlook from the usually outspoken big man. And some four-plus seasons later, it continues to be just as true as it was admirable.

The Celtics can point directly to the 2017 NBA Draft for where they gained that level of separation. Because the reality is, if that night’s draft played out differently, it might be a Celtics star who currently is left saying Boston is no match for the City of Brotherly Love.

Let’s reflect on draft night and the trade that led up to it: Then-Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge took a massive chance and traded the No. 1 overall pick to the 76ers after gaining intel that Philadelphia was all-in on point guard Markelle Fultz. Since the Celtics were leaning elsewhere with the top pick, they traded it to their Eastern Conference rival. The 76ers sent the No. 3 pick and a future first-rounder for the chance to control their draft night destiny, which became Fultz.

This is certainly a trade that is under the microscope more than others.”

Former Celtics president of basketball operations
Danny Ainge

Boston, of course, used the third overall pick to draft Jayson Tatum while the future first-rounder ultimately became Romeo Langford. The rest, fortunately for the Celtics, is history.

“This is certainly a trade that is under the microscope more than others,” Ainge told reporters before the draft in June 2017, per the Associated Press, knowing the gamble he took. “But we’re not afraid of that.”

Ainge remaining steadfast on drafting Tatum when others in league circles and analysts felt Fultz was well-deserving of the top selection, and it proved to be one of the biggest decisions of Ainge’s tenure in Boston. The Los Angeles Lakers also helped the rival Celtics by selecting UCLA product Lonzo Ball instead of Tatum, a player LA was fixated on throughout the draft process. Ainge stated confidently that Boston’s would-be pick at No. 1 overall would be there at No. 3. He was right.

But what if that NBA draft went differently for the Celtics?

Not only is it fair to think Ainge would be remembered much differently if he gifted Tatum to Philadelphia because of his greed for another draft pick, but it’s also fair to believe the level of sustained success since that night would not be the same. After all, Tatum is not only far and away the most talented player out of that three-player group including Fultz and Ball, he’s one of the most talented in the NBA. In his first six seasons in the league, Tatum has been named an NBA All-Star four times and was selected to two All-NBA teams. He also was named the Eastern Conference finals MVP as he helped Boston to the 2021-22 NBA Finals and was named the MVP of the 2023 NBA All-Star Game after setting a scoring record.

He’s a legitimate budding superstar amid the 2022-23 campaign, and should he soon help the Celtics claim the long-awaited Banner 18, he’ll be well-deserving of that superstar distinction.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum
Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 25, 2023. (Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports Images)

Meanwhile, Fultz lasted just two seasons in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Orlando Magic in Feb. 2019. Injuries have continued to hinder his potential as he’s played just 139 games for the Magic in three-plus seasons. Similarly, Ball lasted an identical two seasons in LA before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal that netted the Lakers star center Anthony Davis. Ball has played for three teams in his first five seasons, far from the ideal career path of a recent No. 2 pick.

While everything after landing Tatum probably is now seen as gravy, it’s also worth looking back on how Philadelphia’s future first-rounder played out. Boston selected Langford No. 14 overall in 2019 after protections pushed it from 2018 to 2019. Admittedly, Langford was an afterthought during his two-plus seasons in green, though that was in large part because he was behind wings like Jaylen Brown and Tatum. What Langford later became for the Celtics, however, remains notable.

Brad Stevens acquired Derrick White for Langford and other assets prior to the 2022 NBA trade deadline. Since his arrival, White has since become of one Boston’s key depth pieces and he even was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week when he saw more time due to backcourt injuries. White has been a welcome addition in his first 90 or so games in Boston, and could serve as a crucial depth piece on a championship team himself.

And to think, the Celtics were able to put themselves in an incredibly favorable position because of that 2017 NBA Draft and the ensuing dealings that root back to it.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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