Luck Of The Irish: Twenty Years Of Celtic Futility
June 8, 1986
That was the night that the Boston Celtics closed out the Houston Rockets, winning Game 6 on their home court to clinch their 16th NBA Championship, and third in the past six years. The 1985-86 Celtics club is considered their best of the era; it featured Bird, McHale, and Parish in or around their primes, a just emerging Danny Ainge, and veteran contributions from Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton. Celtics fans had reason to be confident; Bird and McHale were at the top of their games, Walton had played a full season for the first time in his ten year career, and they were about to add the second overall pick in the NBA Draft; a potential successor to the legacy of Bird, McHale, and Parish. Suffice to say, things were looking up for the Celtics franchise.
June 8, 2006
Twenty years to the day since the Celtics won their last championship, the NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat kicked off. Twenty years ago, the Mavs were just finishing up their sixth year of existence, and had yet to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. As for the Heat, they didn’t even exist; they began play in the 1988-89 season. An expansion franchise hadn’t even been awarded yet to Miami on this night. In the meantime, Miami emerged as a consistent contender in the Eastern Conference, reaching the conference finals twice, and except for a two-year hiatus in 2002-03, appearing in the playoffs every year since 1996. This year, they’ve finally broken through to appear in the NBA Final. The Mavs, meanwhile, finally broke through to the conference final in 1988, but after being bounced by the Lakers, fell apart. They missed the playoffs eleven years in a row, before turning things around in 2000 behind star forward Dirk Nowitzki. They’ve been a perennial contender since, appearing in the 2003 Conference Final, and finally breaking through this year.
A lot has happened in twenty years. I had just turned 4 when the Celtics won their last championship, I couldn’t comprehend at the time what was going on. But now, equipped with two decades of perspective, I’m going to try.
The Curse of Lenny Bias
The Cleveland Cavaliers, picking first, tabbed Brad Daugherty, a center out of North Carolina. The Celtics followed up by grabbing exciting, dynamic forward Lenny Bias, who had starred at the University of Maryland. Bias had a swagger about him that was uncharacteristic of the current Celtic crop, and his hybrid playground-esque style had won him fans from coast to coast. He promised to be the franchise player to carry the Celtics into the new era of the NBA – one that focused more on athleticism than fundamentals. Adding Bias to their existing core gave the Celtics the best frontcourt in the league; he would also be able to alleviate the minutes that had been killing Bird and McHale these past few years. In short, things were good.
In one of his first columns for espn.com’s Page 2, Bill Simmons chronicles the what ifs, and the hardships that have fallen on the Celtics franchise. To recap quickly for readers without an ESPN Insider account, and adding a bit of my own insight, here’s a summary:
Short on depth, the Celtics were forced to give Bird and McHale big minutes. Those two played through injuries, and slowly broke down over the next few years.
Good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to really compete for a championship, the Celtics slowly slid into mediocrity, as their stars aged and fell apart, but they still did well enough to miss out on the best prospects in the draft.
The draft picks the Celtics did use failed to pan out. They added Reggie Lewis in 1987, and he was on his way to being the franchise player when he died tragically in 1993, months after collapsing on the court in the first round of the playoffs. Following him, their draft picks either never stuck, found success elsewhere (Brian Shaw, Rick Fox, and Jon Barry), or settled into roles as complimentary players (Dino Radja and Dee Brown).
Of course, the bigger problem was that they drafted poorly between 1981 and 1986. The only impact player they added was Danny Ainge. Greg Kite and Rick Carlisle got minutes, but never figured significantly in their success. Suffice to say, when Bird and McHale collapsed, there weren’t the hands on deck to keep the ship afloat. But as the Celtics dropped in the standings, the quality of their picks should have increased; they didn’t by much.
By the middle of the 1990s, the cupboard was bare, and the Celtics had nowhere to go but down. They tasted the draft lottery for the first time in 1994, then after a minor resurgence in ’95 (spurred by the acquisition of Dominique Wilkins), they fell apart in 1996. Bird was forced to retire following the 1991-92 season, and McHale followed suit a year later. The Chief was running on fumes. Guys with names like Sherman and Acie were prominently involved, which is never a good sign. The closest thing to a star they had was Xavier McDaniel, and even the X-Man’s best work of that era came in the form of his cameo in the movie Singles.
The team was a collection of role players (Barros, Radja, Fox, David Wesley) and draft busts (Eric Montross, Pervis Ellison). They might have formed an excellent supporting cast had they a star or two for these guys to compliment (such as Lenny Bias), but left to fend on their own, this group went nowhere fast. Things bottomed out in the 1996-97 season, as the Celtics, led by lottery pick ballhog Antoine Walker, posted a 15-67 record, the worst in the league. Fortunately, they were staring at a strong draft class, highlighted by potential franchise center Tim Duncan.
A Bad Break for the Celtics, A Good Break for the Spurs
Early on in the 1996-97 campaign, San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson suffered a season ending injury. This came after a three-year stretch where he led the Spurs to three 50-win seasons, and captured the MVP trophy. Just how valuable he was to the Spurs became apparent, as in his absence, they tumbled to a 20-win season. They then beat the odds and leapfrogged over the Celtics in the draft lottery to claim the number one pick. Not only did the Celtics have the worst record, but they held an additional lottery pick, giving them an even greater chance of claiming the top pick. Instead, they ended up with the 3rd and 6th selections. Even eventual flop of a Coach/GM Rick Pitino could see this was bad news, as he later said that he would never have taken the job if he knew how the lottery would have turned out. If only…
Hey, speaking of!
The Ricktator Cometh
1997 also signaled the end of the M.L. Carr reign in Boston. The former player gave way to Rick Pitino, the young coach from the University of Kentucky who had won the 1996 championship, and faltered only in overtime of the championship game in a bid to repeat in ’97. Pitino was given the keys to the kingdom – full control, and a record setting 10-year, $70 million contract. The 1997 lottery would be the beginning of his overhaul of the Celtics, as he built around 1996 lottery pick Antoine Walker, his pupil from the Kentucky Wildcats. That off-season, 10 free agents would depart from Boston, and Pitino would assemble a team in the image of his college powerhouse. Amongst them were three of his former players – Walker, forward Walter McCarty, and swingman Ron Mercer (taken with the 6th pick in ’97). Pitino’s team was a surprise, and relative to the previous season, a smashing success. They posted 36 wins, and were 8-8 after swapping rookie guard Chauncey Billups (the 3rd overall pick the previous summer) to Toronto as part of a multiplayer trade that netted them veteran point guard Kenny Anderson. After stealing Paul Pierce with the 10th pick in the 1998 draft, things were looking up in Boston. However, over the next two and a half seasons, Pitino failed to improve upon his initial campaign. His coaching style wore on the players, his lack of success wore on the Boston public and media. His stars seemed to plateau – especially Walker, who settled into the (first) ‘don’t play defense, then throw up bricks from all over the court on offense’ phase of his career. Pitino became frustrated on and off the court, as did the players, the fans, and the media. It all culminated in a now infamous rant on Boston sports radio station WEEI.
The Ricktator Falls Apart
Following his 36-46 record in year one, he failed to improve upon his record in the subsequent two seasons. While he did well to assemble two pieces of a nucleus in Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, he failed to build an appropriate, or even adequate, supporting cast:
He gave up on Chauncey Billups after half a season (bad move), and Ron Mercer after less than two seasons (good move, in hindsight).
Of the players he acquired for the aforementioned duo, Kenny Anderson provided a couple of serviceable years, and was key to the 2002 run that saw the Celtics advance to the conference finals, and Eric Williams was a key supporting player on that same team. No one else made a big contribution, and Kenny’s contribution was mitigated by the fact that he was signed to a cap-killing contract extension.
Upon arrival, he let David Wesley and Rick Fox, two excellent role players, walk as free agents. Wesley is still a serviceable backup guard in the league, while Fox became a member of the three-peat Laker teams of this decade, and had a memorable fight with Doug and Mrs. Christie.
He acquired a series of stiff white centers who were absolutely horrible fits for the full court press his team tried to run. The most egregious acquisitions were Vitaly Potapenko (in exchange for a lottery pick) and Travis Knight, who was signed to a seven year contract.
&$149 He saddled the team with a series of cap-killing contracts handed out to players such as Potapenko and Kenny Anderson.
He gave up a lottery pick for Potapenko, then wasted one in 2000 on Jerome Moiso. Worst of all, neither of them really fit into his system.
By the time of his meltdown, few, including Pitino himself, though the situation could be salvaged. When he eventually resigned on January 8, 2001, hardly a tear was shed.
Rebuilding the Celtic Pride
The job of turning the Celtics around fell to Head Coach Jim O’Brien, and new General Manager Chris Wallace. O’Brien led the team to some early success, posting a .500 record in the 48 games he led the team for in 2000-01 after Pitino’s resignation. Wallace had his first crack at making his mark in the 2001 draft. The Celtics already had two first rounders, and acquired a third by exercising their right to use Denver’s first rounder – a remnant from the Ron Mercer trade. That left them with the 10th, 11th (from Denver) and 21st picks.
In hindsight, exercising their right to Denver’s pick was the first mistake. The Nuggets were at the time one of the worst franchises in the league. Aside from the their upset of Seattle in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, the past fifteen years had been colored by consistent disappointment and trips to the lottery. They were picking 11th, which was one of their lower placements in the first round in recent years. It stood to reason that if the Celtics waited a year or two, they would have a crack at a better pick. Reason would, of course, prevail. The Nuggets picked 5th in 2002, and 3rd in 2003 (when they nabbed Carmelo Anthony). What made things worse was that the Celtics exercised the pick in 2001 for the purpose of picking JuCo workout warrior Kedrick Brown, who would go on to become the bust that pretty much everyone outside of the Celtics front office predicted he would. The Celtics got an easy ride for the Brown pick at the time, mostly because they made the consensus choice and took swingman Joe Johnson at ten. They followed up at 21 by picking Joe Forte of North Carolina, an undersized two in an era when combo guards had difficulty finding a spot in the NBA. For that and other reasons, he never panned out, and was out of the league after two seasons and a mere 25 games. In the spring of 2002, sensing that his team had a chance to make a run in the playoffs, Wallace flipped Johnson to the Phoenix Suns as part of a package to get forward Rodney Rogers and guard Tony Delk – ironically, a former Pitino player at Kentucky.
A Resurrection, of Sorts
Wallace’s hunch paid off, as Rogers and Delk became key players off the bench for a Celtics team that advanced to the conference final. That they bowed out at the hands of the New Jersey Nets seemed irrelevant. The Celtics were back.
The Years of Promise
The Celtics entered 2002 with high hopes. They returned most of the same club from the previous spring, with the exception of Rogers, who left as a free agent. In his place, they added troubled forward Vin Baker and his cap-killing contract. The Celtics rode their two horses to a winning record, playing them about 40 minutes a night. They carried the load almost by themselves, as no other Celtic averaged over 10 points a night. After gutting out a first round win over Indiana, they got swept in the Eastern Conference Semis by the Nets. Despite a second consecutive playoff appearance, many of the problems of the late Pitino era had continued, or begun to reappear. Notably:
The dearth of young talent around Pierce and Walker.
The willingness to take on aging veterans and bad contracts (Vin Baker).
The lack of a reliable scoring option beyond the big two.
In the spring of 2003, the new ownership group set out to remedy this. Their first move was the hiring of Danny Ainge to run the front office.
After running his first Celtic draft in 2003, Ainge picked a curious way to make is mark – he went to war with Antoine Walker. In many ways, Walker was an easy target. He was seen as a ballhog; he had a tendency to take bad shots; he openly dogged it on the court at times. But in other ways, Ainge made a miscalculation – Walker was also the locker room leader, and helped serve as a mentor for the more talented Paul Pierce. Nevertheless, he was shipped out of town on the eve of the 2003-04 season, netting from the Dallas Mavericks a package highlighted by injury-prone center Raef LaFrentz. Raef would play a mere 17 games that season before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. The overhaul continued with the in-season acquisition of swingman Ricky Davis. When these moves failed to turn the club’s fortunes, Ainge canned O’Brien, and replaced him with Assistant Coach John Carroll. The only other significant move came when Ainge dumped guard Mike James at the trade deadline, sending him to Detroit for Chucky Atkins and a first round pick. Both of those assets would come in handy in the summer ahead. This latest incarnation of the Celtics stumbled to a 36-46 record, but still qualified for the playoffs, where they were swept by the Indiana Pacers in the opening round.
Ainge continued his makeover of the team in the off-season, bringing in veteran point guard Gary Payton from Los Angeles, and using his three first round picks to add high school forward Al Jefferson, and guards Delonte West and Tony Allen. He also hired Doc Rivers to coach the club.
In the middle of the 2004-05 season, Ainge made another dramatic move – he reacquired Antoine Walker, who had since been dealt to the Atlanta Hawks. This move emboldened the mediocre Celtics, who had the talent of a lottery team, but benefited from playing in the weakest division in the league. The move helped spur the Celtics to an Atlantic Division crown, and a birth in the playoffs. Nonetheless, the Celtics weren’t able to hang with the more talented Indiana Pacers, and bowed out again in the first round. A lack of talent, a couple of fourth quarter collapses, and some poor coaching moves by Doc sent the Celtics home early for the second consecutive year.
At this point, Ainge had made the club his own. While he had made some shrewd acquisitions, especially in the draft, he had also saddled the Celtics with high-priced, underperforming players like Ricky Davis and Raef LaFrentz. His one legitimate star, Paul Pierce, feuded with his coach, teammates, and the media. And things weren’t getting any easier. Payton and Walker were free agents in the summer – this particular club had gone as far as it was going to.
The Rebuilding Begins
The summer of 2005 started with a stroke of luck, as highly touted high schooler Gerald Green (seen as a top 5 pick) fell all the way to the 17th spot, where the Celtics eagerly scooped him up. Green, along with Al Jefferson, gave the Celtics two teenage sensations around which they could build. But they had a problem at the same time, what to do about their superstar of the present, Paul Pierce.
Pierce has had a tumultuous career in Boston. He arrived in Boston in the fall of 1998, after falling into their laps with the 10th overall draft pick. He struggled to assert himself as a franchise player on the court, and with controversy off the court – notably a stabbing at a Boston night club in September of 2000 that nearly took his life. After recovering from that incident, and emerging as one of the better players in the league, he continued to struggle with his role in Boston, which I chronicled here.
That Pierce is just coming into his own as a true franchise player is the best news for the Celtics in twenty years. Unfortunately, it presents a problem, since the Celtics have a young nucleus around him. Pierce is ready to win now, but the Celtics are built to compete in the future. This is the latest bind that the Celtics find themselves in – do they trade away their young talent and gamble on winning it all in the next 2 or 3 years, or do they stand pat with their current squad, and hope that Jefferson and Green turn into all-stars, and that Pierce will still be around to mentor them 5 years from now.
Making Sense of It All
To summarize, the Celtics have been consistently plagued by the following problems:
A 15 year funk (1981-1996), where they failed to add an impact player in the draft.
A string of owners who didn’t invest the attention or money that the club needed to compete.
A string of incompetent General Managers who gave up on talented young players too early (David Wesley, Joe Johnson).
A tendency to award long-term, cap-killing contracts to veteran, injury-prone or troubled big men (Vin Baker, Raef LaFrentz, Brian Scalabrine).
The inability to attract top-level free agents to their club.
The inability to develop an identity for the franchise on the court, and to stick to it.
While the Celtics have had a lot of bad luck, the evidence points more to a string of bad personnel decisions and poorly managed clubs to explain the two decades of futility. For 30 years, the Celtics were the model franchise in the NBA. They never missed the playoffs more than two years in a row (and only four times over that period), collected 16 championships, and managed a nearly seamless transition from one era to another – Cousy and Russell gave way to Havlicek, who gave way to Cowens, who gave way to Bird. Len Bias was the heir to the Celtics legacy; when he collapsed on that fateful night in June of 1986,
Where Do We Go From Here?
While there’s a chance that Bias could have busted, or let drugs ruin his career like they did to fellow 1986 draft pick Roy Tarpley, Celtics fans can’t shake the thought that he would have added another 5-10 years to the Celtics run. Between him and Reggie Lewis, the Celtics would have had the core of another championship team. While they might not have competed with the Jordan and Pippen-led Bulls, they might have been able to steal a championship from the Houston Rockets during the Jordan sabbatical in the mid 1990s. Maybe they would have stopped the 1998 Bulls team that was running on fumes and pride. Maybe the owners wouldn’t have panicked and handed the kingdom over to Rick Pitino. Maybe Boston would have become a hotbed for free agents – players would have wanted to wear the Celtic green, wanted to play with Lenny and Reggie.
If nothing else, I feel that they would have maintained the proud tradition of excellence – there’s no way they would have let the Celtics flounder in mediocrity, which has happened for all but a few of the past twenty seasons. Now, it’s time to recapture that tradition. I may not have all the answers, but I know this much:
Doc Rivers is a bad coach.
Danny Ainge has a great eye for drafting talent, but questionable judgment when it comes to acquiring established NBA players.
Paul Pierce is in his prime, and with the right supporting cast, could carry a team to the championship in the next 2-3 years.
Gerald Green and Al Jefferson are at least 2-3 years away from hitting their stride, and 3-5 away from being all-stars.
So the Celtics are at a crossroads. If they stick with their current group, they waste Pierce’s prime on their umpteenth rebuilding period. If they trade their young assets, they risk giving away the future for what could amount to one unsuccessful playoff run (as they did with the Joe Johnson in 2002).
A Plan of Action
They have a better group now than they did in 2002. This is why I think they have to make a run now. The window for the Heat and Pistons to win the East is maybe another year or two, but both of them are going to be ripe for the picking, especially if Big Ben leaves Detroit. Teams like the Cavs and the Bulls are on their way up, but have a ways to go before they get over the hump.
With that in mind, here’s how I would approach the off-season:
The Celtics need a star to compliment Paul Pierce. There’s no question that he’s the franchise player, but the Celtics need a reliable second option. The best target, in my opinion, is Indiana Pacers big man Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers, never the same after the brawl with the Pistons, should be looking to rebuild. 9O’Neal, an all-star caliber player, will fit in well as option 1b on Boston. Here’s how the trade would break down:
To Boston: O’Neal, Indiana’s 2006 First Round Pick (17th Overall)
To Indiana: Al Jefferson, Wally Szczerbiak, Vin Baker’s expiring contract, Boston’s 2006 1st Round Pick (7th Overall)
In addition to O’Neal, Boston only drops down 10 spots in the draft (this year’s a crapshoot anyway), where they can add a player for depth, or package the pick in a sign and trade this summer. Giving up Jefferson hurts in the long-term, but Szczerbiak could be expendable soon given the development of Ryan Gomes. Missing out on the lottery will hurt, but like I said, this year’s a crapshoot anyway.
I would follow this up by targeting an established forward who can play both the 3 and 4. This would allow O’Neal to play at the 5, but also provide some mentorship for Gomes and Gerald Green. Keith Van Horn of Dallas fits the bill, and unless the Mavs make a major play for him, could be had for the mid-level exemption.
The last hole on the Celtics is point guard. Delonte West does a capable job, but is better suited to coming off the bench to back up both guard positions. Jason Terry and Sam Cassell will both be free agents, but are the type of shoot-first point guards that a team like the Celtics – already full of shooters, really doesn’t need. Of the two, however, Cassell would be ideal because of his leadership abilities. Speedy Claxton isn’t worth the investment, but injury-prone Jamaal Tinsley of Indiana (rumored to be on the market) could be intriguing. The only other option in this scenario would be to take a point guard in the draft (Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Jordan Farmar could be available) and hope they can contribute right away. Unless the Clip agrees to part way with Cassell, I think this is the best course of action. If they need to upgrade the position, they can do so in the middle of the season, and will have the assets to do so.
With this plan, the Celtics would start the season with a starting five of Raef LaFrentz, Jermaine O’Neal, Ryan Gomes, Delonte West, and Paul Pierce. Kendrick Perkins, Keith Van Horn, Gerald Green, and Rondo/Farmar/Lowry would also see minutes. When one came on the market, they could package their rookie point guard, along with Tony Allen, and Dan Dickau (his contract comes off the books in 2008) and possibly a draft pick to get that elusive point guard. I think this team could be a spoiler in 2007 and a real contender by 2008.
After two decades of futility, the Celtics are in a great position to begin reversing their fortune. After the tragedies of Bias and Lewis, the fiasco that was Rick Pitino, and all the mediocrity in between, I hope they can do it. As a Celtics fan, I would like to be old enough to appreciate a championship team; I would like the kids growing up in New England (and around the country) to see them raise a banner to the roof of the new garden. I would like to see the older generation get to relive the memories of championships past.
I would like to see a Celtics win wipe away twenty years of baggage. A championship would soothe the heartbreak of Bias and Lewis, and the bitter feelings of the Pitino era. We could start anew, the way that Red Sox Nation did after their dramatic World Series win.
And more than anything, I would like to see Red light one more victory cigar. After everything the club has been through in the past twenty years, nothing would be sweeter.