The Celtics have been here before.
They have been subjected to banking on ping-pong balls to determine the future of the franchise, crossing fingers, holding on to a rabbit’s foot, or as general manager Chris Wallace did in 1998, carrying an already smoked cigar from legendary coach and president Red Auerbach to elicit good luck.
And mostly, the Celtics’ hopes in the NBA Draft have been dashed, plans disintegrated, and dreams crushed in the process. In 2007, they missed out on an opportunity to draft Kevin Durant, and team president Danny Ainge turned that unlucky fate into the Big Three, but 1997 didn’t have such a happy ending.
Seventeen years ago, the new Boston brass gathered in Secaucus, N.J., with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the following month’s draft. And the unquestioned top pick that year was named Tim Duncan, a center from Wake Forest. The same Duncan who has helped the San Antonio Spurs win four NBA titles and the same Duncan who is preparing to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
Duncan’s presence in Boston would have changed the course of the downtrodden franchise, which had not recovered from the retirements and departures of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, and the death of Reggie Lewis.
The Celtics suffered through a miserable and deflating 15-67 season under coach M.L. Carr in 1996-97 for the chance to get first dibs at Duncan. Vancouver finished with the league’s worst record but the second-year franchise was ineligible for the top pick.
So Rick Pitino, Carr, and an anxious fan base approached May 18, 1997, with enthusiasm, given the Celtics had a 27.51 percent chance of landing the top pick. And this was an all-or-nothing proposition. The dropoff after Duncan in that draft was so substantial that the Celtics didn’t even want to consider the consequences. The second overall pick in 1997 was Utah forward Keith Van Horn, who never made an All-Star team.
“The reality is . . . ” Carr said, “we were banking on [Duncan] in many regards. There were very few times where you think one player could change the future of your organization. Tim was one of those guys.”
Carr had just been replaced as coach by Pitino but was named director of corporate development and represented the Celtics at the lottery. He endured being locked in a room to watch the actual process. Observers are not allowed to have any electronic media devices and don’t find out the results until the live television broadcast.
On that Sunday afternoon, Carr heard the Celtics’ name called twice, first with the sixth overall pick and then the third, meaning Duncan was headed elsewhere. Spurs managing partner Peter Holt pumped his first in excitement as his club beat out the 76ers for the right to Duncan.
And we know how that turned out.
The Celtics finished with two of the top six picks and selected Colorado guard Chauncey Billups third and Kentucky swingman Ron Mercer sixth. Billups was traded after 51 games, while Mercer played two seasons in Boston before being dealt to Denver. And the organization continued to suffer.
“It was really a Tim Duncan sweepstakes,” recalled Pitino, who had been named president and coach of the Celtics 13 days before the lottery. “We got the worst possible scenario. Our fortunes could have been a lot different, but in reality if you’re banking on ping-pong balls, percentage-wise, you really are better [off] going to the racetrack than doing that.”
The Celtics came up snake eyes and it cost the organization years of rebuilding without Duncan in the middle.
He was a known commodity and the rest of the lottery was a crapshoot. Players such as Antonio Daniels, Tony Battie, and Adonal Foyle were drafted in the top 10. Tracy McGrady would have beena great pick for the Celtics in hindsight, but he was an unknown high school product in those days and was selected ninth by Toronto.
The result still haunts Carr, whose coaching reputation was damaged as the Celtics did little to improve in 1996-97 because it would worsen their chances at Duncan. He played various inferior lineups. David Wesley was the team’s No. 2 scorer. At age 38, Alton Lister played 53 games. They allowed 108 points per contest.
“It was brutal,” Carr said. “But you were doing the things that were right for the organization, not going out and getting players that would get you further towards being stuck. You weren’t going to take a chance on any of that when you had Tim Duncan in the upcoming draft. It’s a tough battle when you’re at the bottom looking up. The organization did not use those [1997 draft] resources right and it took a longer time to come back.
“Pitino made the wrong decisions where to go in that regard, quite frankly.”
While Carr was a solid player in the NBA and enjoyed a successful career, his lasting image in Boston is the apparent tanking of that 1996-97 season, and that is not lost on him.
“[Sacrifice] is what Red taught us,” Carr said. “He said you always put the team first. He initially told me not to do it. He said, ‘You have such a good reputation, you’ll get killed with this.’ He came back a couple of weeks later and said, ‘You’re right, you’ll be able to take it.’ And I did. It was the right decision to do it for the organization.”
Carr also claims that Pitino’s people called him following the lottery results and asked him to offer the third and sixth picks for the top pick on the spot. Carr asked San Antonio general manager and coach Gregg Popovich and was rejected.
“Popovich wouldn’t give up Tim Duncan for those two picks, your next five picks, the revenue for the Mass. Pike for the next 50 years, the John Hancock Building, and half of the city of Boston,” Carr said.
Said Pitino: “I think we all agree that Chauncey and Mercer were the best guys to pick at the time. You could have gambled on Tracy McGrady, but he didn’t develop until later years.”
Pitino laments those decisions but said the Celtics were able to bounce back eventually because of the 1998 lottery, when Paul Pierce fell into the organization’s mitts at No. 10. The draft pick following Pierce was Ball State forward Bonzi Wells.
“It shows you how unpredictable this draft thing can be,” Pitino said. “We lost out in ’97, but here we had either Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce coming to us at 10 [Nowitzki was selected ninth].”
In 2007, the Celtics found themselves in virtually the same situation, having endured a disheartening 58-loss season that included an 18-game losing streak under embattled coach Doc Rivers. Pleasant days were coming, however, as the Celtics entered that draft lottery with a second-best chance (19.9 percent) at landing the top pick, most likely Ohio State center Greg Oden, and even if the Celtics landed second, Durant, the Texas swingman, was the consolation prize.
The Celtics were ready to become significant again, and this was their opportunity. On May 22, 2007, Rivers and Ainge got together to watch the lottery on television, while Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn represented the franchise in Secaucus. The Celtics had nearly a 39 percent chance to land one of the top two picks, but Ainge and Rivers watched in shock as Portland, with an 8.8 percent chance, got the first pick, and Seattle (5.3 percent) got the second.
Ainge’s “wow” reaction was caught on television, while an ESPN camera quickly switched to a Celtics fan, green cap backward, with his mouth wide open in amazement at the results.
The Celtics would choose fifth in the June draft, but by then Ainge had devised a plan to rebuild by using the team’s young assets, ditching his lottery hopes until this season. On draft night, he executed the trade that sent No. 5 overall pick Jeff Green to the SuperSonics for Ray Allen, and 34 days later Ainge traded five players to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett.
“I would liken it to losing a game,” Ainge said. “It doesn’t do any good to look back, you just do the best with what’s before you. There’s better odds in all cases that your number won’t be drawn, you just have to prepare for [the worst]. It did work out well [eventually], but sometimes your backup plan doesn’t work. We were fortunate that Minnesota was huge, huge fans of Al Jefferson. Those things don’t happen very often.”
And quite honestly, Ainge said, he considers the possibilities if the Celtics had ended up with Durant, the repercussions of a lineup with he, Pierce, Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins, along with salary cap space.
Things turned out well with an NBA title in 2008, but . . .
“That’s hard to say [the one title was the best-case scenario],” Ainge said. “I don’t think it does any good to speculate. Maybe ’08 doesn’t happen but maybe 2010 happens and there’s more stability long term. I don’t know the answer to that. It was a good run for our team and we did get one banner out of it, and it would have been spectacular to get two banners out of it but we didn’t. So now we’re trying to build a team the best way we can.”