As I have been anxiously awaiting the upcoming season, I've also been thinking back on how things have changed since that day in July 2007 when the trade for KG was announced. That move, along with the trade for Ray Allen and the signings of solid vets for the bench brought the Celtics their first championship in 22 years. We are now once again contenders and life is good for Celtics fans. But, as the saying goes, you can't really appreciate the sunshine until after the rain. I have been thinking back through those 22 years and it makes me appreciate where we are so much more.
The Celtics are a proud and storied franchise with a history that reaches back to the early days of the NBA. There have been many players who have come through the franchise, some good and some bad. We remember the glory days of the 60's, 70's and 80's when the Celtics were perennial contenders and never went more than a couple of years without a contending team. Then came the 1986 championship and the Celtics were on top of the world with a team that will go down as one of the best ever and they had the second pick in the draft to boot. But the 22 years following that championship were marked with tragedies and setbacks and years of mediocrity.
The 1985-86 Celtics were one of the best teams ever. They lost only one game at home that season... to the Portland Trailblazers. In 2008 the Cavs came close to tying that record but they lost their second home game on the last day of the regular season. So, the 1986 team's record still stands. They ended the season with a 67-15 record and waltzed through the playoffs to beat Houston in the finals for their 16th championship. Bird won his 3rd straight MVP. The Celtics were on top of the basketball world. They had won 3 titles in the 80's and had a core group of future Hall of Famers as well as one of the top picks in the upcoming draft.
Things were going almost too well. The team had just won a championship behind a deep and talented team. They owned the #2 pick in the draft from the Gerald Henderson trade to the Sonics, and chose Len Bias out of Maryland after the Cavs chose Brad Dougherty with the top pick. Bias was one of the most exciting players to ever come out of college and the future was looking bright. Two days later it would all come tumbling down when Len Bias died of a cocaine induced heart attack while celebrating his selection by the Celtics. This was the beginning of a long period of futility for this proud franchise. During the year, injuries to key bench players forced coach KC Jones to play his starters big minutes. By the playoffs, the wear and tear of all those minutes was beginning to show and they didn't have enough left to beat the Lakers, losing in 6 games. The 1987 Eastern conference finals gave us one of the greatest plays in NBA history and a moment that every Celtic fan relives over and over. They were playing Detroit at the Boston Garden and the Pistons had a one-point lead and possession of the ball with five seconds left in Game 5. Larry Bird stole an inbounds pass from Isaiah Thomas and fed it to a cutting Dennis Johnson for a layup and the victory. Here is the call as Johnny Most called it, as only he could.
In the next draft in 1987, the Celtics picked Reggie Lewis out of Northeastern University. Reggie was a very promising young player that the Celtics hoped would develop to lead the team after the Big Three era ended. The Celtics were an aging team by this time. Bias, who was to lead the franchise and rejuvenate the veterans was gone and the only player younger than 30 was Danny Ainge.
In the 1988-89 season, Larry Bird had surgery to remove bone spurs from his feet. (Those bone spurs have a way of derailing a season, as we have since found out with bone spurs in KG's knee in 2009 and bone spurs in Ray Allen's ankles in 2012). The team finished with only 42 wins and they were swept by Detroit in the first round of the playoffs, who were happy to get some payback for Bird's steal and the Celtics' victory of the previous year.
In 1988 the Celtics drafted Brian Shaw but he left the team to play in Italy. Bird returned from his surgery, but age and injuries were catching up to the team. They lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. The next year, Michael Smith from Brigham Young was selected with the 13th pick and Dino Radja was chosen with the 40th pick. In 1990, they selected Dee Brown with the 19th pick. Chris Ford took over as coach. Things looked to be back on the right track as they jumped out to a 29 - 5 record. But then Bird developed back problems and they struggled through the second half of the season once again losing to Detroit in the second round of the playoffs.
In the 1991 draft, the Celtics chose Rick Fox with the 24th pick. Bird, McHale, and Brown all missed a considerable amount of time for various injuries, and the season was derailed once again. They were beaten by Indiana in the second round of the playoffs. Bird only played in 4 playoff games due to his back problems. There was a silver lining, though, as Reggie Lewis emerged as the leader and there was hope once again that the Celtics would rise behind their new leader once everyone got healthy.
In hindsight, we know that it didn't work out the way we had hoped. It seemed that getting our hopes up only to have them dashed was the recurring pattern. From this point, the Celtics took a steep decline and things went from bad to worse. The Celtics were a mediocre team, not good enough to win a title but not bad enough to get a top draft pick. From 1992 - 1994 they would choose 21st, 19th, and 9th in the draft.
The 9th pick in the draft has the potential to yield a very good player. But the Celtics chose Eric Montross who never really developed like they hoped he would when they chose him. Bird and McHale would retire due to their injuries. And once again, tragedy would strike the Celtic family. In Game 1 of the 1993 playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets, Reggie Lewis collapsed on the court. He was later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. After a dream team of doctors determined that he should not play baskeball any longer, Reggie sought a second opinion and was told that he would be able to resume his career safely. On July 27, 1993, while shooting baskets at Brandeis University in Boston, the 27-year-old Lewis collapsed again. When paramedics arrived, they found him in complete cardiac arrest and he died shortly thereafter.
Robert Parish, the last of the Big Three, left the Celtics to sign with the Hornets. ML Carr was named GM. and the Celtics finished with a 32- 50 record. They didn't make the playoffs for the first time since the Celtics drafted Larry Bird. The League refused to give the team any cap relief due to the death of Reggie Lewis and so their hands were tied as far as signing free agents. In years following this, the league would give teams cap relief for players who were deemed to have a career ending injury, such as the knee injury to Darius Miles, and has since given other teams cap relief due to an injury to a player. The Houston Rockets were given cap relief for Yao Ming's injury in 2009, whether he would return to play or not. But, back in 1993, David Stern refused to give the Celtics any cap relief when they lost their captain. ML Carr then took over as coach in addition to being the GM. The Celtics finished the season at 35 and 47 and made it into the playoffs but couldn't get past Orlando in the first round.
In the 1996 draft, the Celtics chose Antoine Walker with the 6th pick. In this, the 50th year of the once proud franchise, the team finished with a league worst 15 and 67 record. The only bright spot in the season was the play of Eric Williams and Antoine Walker. ML Carr stepped down as coach after the season and Rick Pitino was signed as the new coach and president. In spite of having the worst record (and having ignominiously tanked to get it), the Celtics picked 3rd and 6th. They had banked on winning the lottery and claiming Tim Duncan as their prize but, the Celtics have never had good luck with those lottery balls. The Celtics chose Chauncey Billups with the 3rd pick and Ron Mercer with the 6th pick. In February, Rick Pitino pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Billups and Dee Brown to Toronto for Kenny Anderson and Popeye Jones. He traded away a very promising young player for one who was slowed by age and injury. Rick Pitino's reign as GM would set the Celtics back years.
But, Pitino did one thing right in his tenure with the Celtics. With the 1998 draft it appeared as though the team's luck might be changing when a very talented Paul Pierce fell to them with the 10th pick. Pitino's other draft choices were Jerome Moiso in 2000 and Joe Johnson, Kedrick Brown and Joe Forte in 2001. Of those, only Joe Johnson became a player and that was after he was traded from Boston. Pitino was replaced by Jim O'Brien for the 2000-01 season. Pierce and Walker were playing very well together, Pitino was gone, and it appeared as though the Celtics were heading for respectability again.
The franchise posted its first 40 win season in a decade in the 2001-02 season. This team had two very important things going for it. They ranked fifth in the league in fewest turnovers per game with less than 14 turnovers per game. In fact, the Celtics finished with the fewest turnovers (1,114) of any Celtics team since 1973-74. The other thing was that this team finished the year first in the NBA in steals per game (9.67). Once again, it seemed that things were finally turning around. The 2002-03 season began with new owners for the Celtics. Wyc and Irv Grousbeck were among the new owners and were not only owners but also fans. The team continued to play tough defense under coach Jim O'Brien and made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Nets.
The following year marked the return to the franchise of Danny Ainge as GM. Danny dismantled the existing team and started to rebuild around Paul Pierce, who had become a star. Danny's first draft brought in Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins. In his first year, Danny made two major trades that completely revamped the team. As the 2003-04 Celtics were going through Training Camp and preparing for the upcoming season, Danny made a major move. The team acquired center Raef LaFrentz, forward Chris Mills, guard Jiri Welsch and a 2004 First Round draft choice from the Dallas Mavericks, in exchange for Tony Delk and Celtics star Antoine Walker. Two months later, the team acquired veterans Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm and Michael Stewart (and a Second Round draft choice) from the Cleveland Cavaliers, in exchange for veterans Tony Battie, Kedrick Brown and Eric Williams. The trade for Ricky Davis was too much for Coach O'Brien and he resigned midway through the year leaving assistant coach John Carroll as the interim coach. But Danny wasn't through, and just before the trading deadline, the Celtics acquired veterans Chuck Atkins and Lindsey Hunter along with a 2004 First Round draft choice and cash from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Mike James and Chris Mills. The Celtics made the playoffs but lost to Indiana in the first round.
Because of the trades the previous year, Danny had 3 first round picks in the 2004 draft and he chose Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen. The following year, Danny picked Gerald Green in the first round and Ryan Gomes in the second round. And in the year after that, Danny added Sebastian Telfair, Rajon Rondo, Allan Ray, and Leon Powe Danny made the choice to build through the draft and gather young and talented players that he could use as trade chips. Only Paul Pierce remains from the team that Danny inherited. He stated that he had a 5 year plan to build a contender by gathering chips that he could use to bring in a veteran superstar to team with Paul Pierce.
Once again in 2006, tragedy struck the team when they lost the Celtics beloved patriarch Red Auerbach only 4 days before the season started. Then, they also lost a Celtics' legend when Dennis Johnson passed away in the middle of the season. Along with the tragedies, they had injury after injury on the team. The injuries had a silver lining, though, when the young players got more experience and began to emerge as legitimate NBA players. Once again, the Celtics had a chance to land a top draft pick.
The Celtics ended the season with the second worst record and a chance at one of two franchise players in that year's draft. Landing either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant would have given the young talent on the team a star to build around along with Paul Pierce. Greg Oden was being discussed as the same type of franchise center as Bill Russell had been and Kevin Durant was a young, athletic wing player who could score from anywhere. But, just as in 1997, when the Celtics lost out on the Tim Duncan Lottery, the lottery balls didn't bounce the Celtics' way and they ended up with the 5th pick, which was the lowest they could have picked with the 2nd most ping pong balls in the lottery.
Once again, hindsight tells us that had Danny picked Greg Oden, it would have been a big mistake, but at the time, Oden was almost certain to be the top pick. There was much talk about Yi, Joakim Noah, Jeff Green and others who might be available to them with the 5th pick. And then on the night of the draft, Danny once again surprised the Celtic Nation by trading the pick, with which they picked Jeff Green, to Seattle, along with Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak for Ray Allen and the 35th pick, with which he drafted Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
At first, most of the Celtics' fans were wondering what Danny was doing. He traded a lottery pick for an aging player who was coming off of double ankle surgery. Surely, this wasn't the way the plan was supposed to work. But we didn't have long to wonder about Danny's plan because on July 31st, it became very clear when the signing of Ray Allen yielded rewards in the form of Kevin Garnett's arrival as a Celtic. And with those 2 signings, the Celtics once again had a Big 3 of future Hall of Famers, and were instantly vaulted to the top of the rankings.
2008 was a magical season from training camp in Europe, all the way to the 39 point victory over the Lakers in Game 6 of the Finals. The Celtics had finally risen above the tragedies and questionable management of past years as Danny Ainge's plan worked to perfection and the Celtics raised Banner 17 to the rafters after a long 22 year drought. Since that championship in 2008, the Celtics have remained contenders each year, but have been derailed by injuries from hanging Banner 18.
The Celtics played the Heat to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season in spite of having lost key players throughout the season to various injuries. Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox both had heart surgery. (What are the odds that TWO players on the same team would miss the same year for heart surgery?) Jermaine O'Neal was out with knee and wrist problems. Mickael Pietrus had a concussion and then a hamstring injury, Paul Pierce had an MCL injury, and Ray Allen was playing with bone spurs in both ankles. But yet, they almost made it back to the finals.
This season the Celtics are once again poised to be contenders to raise Banner 18. They have their core back from last season minus Ray Allen. But replacing Ray are Courtney Lee and Jason Terry, who should fit the team even better than Ray. They have a healthy Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox back. And they have arguably 3 of the best players in the league in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo to lead the team. In the draft, a lottery talent in Jared Sullinger dropped to the Celtics and so hopes are once again high in the Celtic Nation.
This look back has 2 purposes. One, it should make us appreciate even more where the team is now. Going into this season, we have a big three with KG, Pierce and Rondo. They also have a player in Jason Terry who is capable of being the Sixth man of the year. The team is very nice mix of veterans and youth. Yes, life is good for Celtics fans once again. But, looking back also reminds us that success can be fleeting. Injuries and aging can take their toll on a team. The Celtics veterans are aging just as they did in the 80's. But unlike that 1986 team, this team has a group of young players who can carry a bigger share of the load so as not to burn the veterans out. So, with this little look backwards, we should be encouraged by what lies ahead for this team but also recognizing what has gone before to get us here. Let's Go Celtics!
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TEAMS: Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies
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