Why the Celtics may end up with four first-round draft picks in 2019 after all

(Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The recent shifting of the NBA lottery standings reminds me of a familiar saying about New England weather: Don’t like it? Just wait a minute.

Just one week ago the Memphis Grizzlies looked safely destined for a top-8 pick (barring lottery luck) for the 2019 NBA Draft, thanks to a miserable stretch that produced just six total wins in January and February combined (6-21 overall) for the franchise. Memphis had always wanted to get rid of their first-round pick obligation to the Celtics this season and finish far out of the bottom eight in the NBA, but injuries and ugly slumps looked poised to prevent that from happening. As recently as last week, the top-8 protected pick was set to carry over to 2020 as Memphis was firmly planted with the sixth-worst record in the NBA and a tough remaining schedule. The Memphis pick is one selection the Celtics would prefer to land later than 2019, according to team sources, due to the potential higher upside down the line. Here’s a reminder at the protections on that pick.

2019: Top-8 protected
2020: Top-6 protected
2021: No protection

Needless to say, a case can be made that the Celtics (or whatever team acquires this selection from them) would love this pick to arrive in 2021 given the lack of young building block-type players on the Grizzlies roster under contract for the future. Memphis has the potential to be a bottom-5 team for a couple of years going forward. 

However, the tide has quickly turned in the standings over the past couple weeks after Memphis traded away a number of veteran pieces (Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple) for younger players (Avery Bradley, Delon Wright, Jonas Valancunias). Bradley (16.6 ppg) and Valancunias (18.5 ppg) have quietly started to fit in, playing some elite basketball again, which has allowed Memphis to sneak up the lottery standings with five unexpected wins in their last seven games.

The noteworthy part of those wins has been the competition it has come against for Memphis. The Grizzlies have played spoiler in three straight games against teams that are in the playoff race in both conferences (Portland, Utah, Orlando). More importantly from Boston’s perspective, they have played themselves back toward the No. 9 pick line in lottery standings, opening the door once again for the Celtics to have four first-round draft picks in 2019. The Clippers pick appears to be a lock in as well with them holding a 5.5 game lead over the Kings in the West playoff race with just 15 games left.

[caption id="attachment_493960" align="alignnone" width="863"] Tankathon.com[/caption]

So what exactly are the odds of Memphis finishing up the season on a high note and getting rid of their pick obligation now (a best-case scenario for the franchise)? Let’s examine a complicated blend of factors in play here to determine where the Grizzlies could end up.

1. The schedule: Memphis has the 13th-toughest schedule remaining in the NBA, which includes just four games against tanking squads over their final 14. It’s a road-heavy slate (eight) with no easy home opponents until April (Dallas). All of this bodes well for the Grizzlies to have trouble keeping their hot streak going.

2. Crowded standings: There are seven different teams in the 6-12 spots in the lottery that are separated by just three games. Memphis is currently just 1.5 games out of the No. 9 spot, an indicator that an extra win here or there down the stretch could very well be the difference in whether the Grizz send their pick to Boston this year.

3. Who is tanking? While the field is crowded in the 6-12 spots, there are plenty of different motives for the teams in those spots. Let’s take a look at what each team will (or won't) be playing for down the stretch.