By PETER MAY/NY TIMES
Photo: The Celtics selected Kevin McHale with the No. 3 pick in the 1980 draft, which they had acquired in a deal with the Golden State Warriors. Credit Focus on Sport, via Getty Images
BOSTON — As the 2017 N.B.A. draft approaches, history is, perhaps, repeating itself in Boston. If it is, Celtics fans will be immensely gratified.
Consider that in the summer of 1980, as in the summer of 2017, the Celtics were coming off a loss in the Eastern Conference finals and needed an upgrade. In 1980, as in 2017, the Celtics held the No. 1 pick in the N.B.A. draft, not by virtue of having the worst record, but because of a trade.
And, as was the case in 1980, the Celtics in 2017 have traded the No. 1 pick for the No. 3 pick and other goodies. The Celtics made the swap Monday with the Philadelphia 76ers, obtaining a future No. 1 pick from them in addition to the No. 3 selection this year.
Back in 1980, the Celtics traded the No. 1 pick to the Golden State Warriors for Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick. And Boston then used the No. 3 pick to draft Kevin McHale.
As landscape-altering deals go, the 1980 swap may have set the gold standard. Parish and McHale became Hall of Famers and helped the Celtics win three N.B.A. titles in the 1980s.
The Warriors, with the No. 1 pick they received from Boston, took Joe Barry Carroll. And with the No. 13 pick, which they also received from Boston in that deal, they selected Rickey Brown. Neither had much impact on a Warriors team that was going downhill at the time.
There is no way of knowing if the 2017 trade will work out for Boston the same way. On Thursday night, when the draft takes place, the 76ers are now expected to use the No. 1 pick to take Washington guard Markelle Fultz. The Celtics will then make their selection two picks later — assuming they do not make another deal before then.
Still, just getting the Celtics to this point inevitably draws parallels between the Celtics’ current general manager, Danny Ainge, and the renowned Red Auerbach, who engineered the 1980 deal.
In 1980, the Celtics had the No. 1 pick because of a complicated deal with the Detroit Pistons. The Celtics had signed the Pistons’ M. L. Carr as a free agent in the summer of 1979; in those days the team losing the player and the team acquiring him then tried to work out an equitable compensation package. If there was no agreement, the N.B.A. commissioner had the final word.
After much back and forth, the Pistons agreed to what now looks like a ridiculously one-sided deal: They would take Boston’s Bob McAdoo as compensation for losing Carr but would also send the Celtics a juicy draft package.
And when the Pistons finished with a 16-66 record, the worst in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics suddenly found themselves with a 50 percent chance of securing the No. 1 pick in 1980.
Back then, there was no lottery. The No. 1 pick was decided by a coin flip between the worst teams in each conference (or by the club that held the worst team’s draft rights.) The Utah Jazz had the distinction of being the worst in the West and won the right to make the coin-flip call. Frank Layden, the general manager of the Jazz, called heads, going with the advice of his daughter. The coin came up tails, giving Boston the No. 1 pick and setting the stage for the swap with Golden State.
Ainge secured the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft by virtue of a deal with the Nets in 2013 that still remains hard to believe.
The Nets, thinking instant gratification under their new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, agreed to part with No. 1 picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, along with the right to swap No. 1 picks in 2017. In exchange, they obtained Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two famous, but fading, players. Other pieces were in the deal, but the draft picks were all that really mattered to Boston.
Since that trade, the Celtics have used the Nets’ No. 1 picks to draft James Young (No. 17 in 2014) and Jaylen Brown (No. 3 in 2016).
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In 1980, the consensus No. 1 pick was Carroll of Purdue. But when Auerbach won the coin flip, and the rights to the No. 1 pick, he had his eye on someone who was not on anyone’s draft board at the time, Ralph Sampson, who had just completed his freshman year at the University of Virginia.
There was no early entry deadline for the draft as there is today; an underclassman could simply declare for the draft citing financial hardship as a reason. Magic Johnson had done the same thing the year before after playing two seasons at Michigan State.
So Auerbach made a concerted effort to lure the 7-foot-4 Sampson out of Charlottesville. But Sampson, to Auerbach’s fury and amazement, turned down the Celtics’ boss. Auerbach fumed to reporters, stating that “maybe Ralph Sampson and his parents will come to their senses.’’
Sampson ended up staying at Virginia for four years and was then drafted by the Houston Rockets. Auerbach, rebuffed by Sampson, hatched the trade with Golden State.
Parish became a Celtic immediately, and McHale joined him as the No. 3 pick of the 1980 draft after Utah had chosen Darrell Griffith with the No. 2 pick. The rest is history. The question is whether Ainge, with his deal with the 76ers, is on his way to making history, too.