The Pitino Reign of Error

Ah Rick Pitino. Love him or hate him, he is one of the most well known personalities in the sport of basketball. Whether it was the pros or the college level, Rick certainly left his mark whether good or bad. One of the many things he did right was put together some great basketball programs. Providence College went to the Final Four in 1987, the Kentucky Wildcats won the NCAA Championship in 1996 and the Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA Championship in 2013. One of the many things he did wrong was take a Boston Celtics franchise that fell flat on its face and curbstomped it. Make no mistake, the Celtics had already fallen on hard times even before Rick Pitino came into the picture. Much like Vince Russo was to an ailing WCW in 1999, Rick was the lethal dose of poison to kill any chance of there ever being another Celtics dynasty. It was the perfect storm of incompetence that the Celtics never fully recovered from, even after they won the world championship in 2008.

Without going into an in-depth chronicle of the downfall of the Celtics heading into the Pitino regime, read this if you want that to hear about that again, this will be brief….sorta. Following the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, the Celtics went splat in the mid 90’s. It all starts up top unfortunately. Red Auerbach had “retired” as General Manager in 1984 but kept his presidency role, meaning whoever was the real GM answered to him anyway. Jan Volk took over the GM duties but it was still Red’s team. By 1990 Red began to slow down and he brought in college legend Dave Gavitt to be his right hand man with Jan his left. This proved to be costly as neither of them were as shrewd as Red to make the right trade or draft the right guy. The Celtics made huge blunders by drafting Michael Smith over Shawn Kemp in 1989, Jon Barry over Latrell Sprewell in 1993 and Eric Williams over Theo Ratliff in 1995. Following the 1994 season Gavitt realized he was in over his head and resigned. Also following 1994, Jan Volk let Robert Parish walk to the Charlotte Hornets when most everyone thought he should have been traded a year earlier while he still had value. Following the closing of the Boston Garden and back-to-back losing seasons in 1995, ML Carr of all people was given the coach and defacto general manager role with Volk still in the background. He was in over his head as well as the Celtics suffered another losing season in 1996 although they finally drafted the right guy in Antoine Walker in the 96 draft. The 1997 season was one of the biggest embarrassments in NBA history. Dee Brown, Dana Barros and Dino Radja only played in 21, 24 and 25 games respectively with Pervis Ellison playing in a whopping 6. With Carr in over his head as coach and starting 4 of Walker, Williams, David Wesley, Rick Fox, a revolving door of centers, the team turned into a rag-tag bunch closely resembling the movie Major League. Instead of the team packing up and moving to Florida, the Celtics goal was to suck so hard they would get the Number 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft which would have been Wake Forrest’s Tim Duncan. That was the only explanation of why they almost literally brought in guys off the street to play. Brett Szabo was a big goofy white guy with goggle glasses that barely played for a Division 2 school and there he was starting for the Boston Celtics. At the end of the season, the Celtics had not one but two first round lottery picks so the hope was to win the lottery and draft Duncan with one of them. This is where Rick Pitino comes in.

Pitino needs no introduction but this is a scenario that should never be equaled by anyone. The Celtics were so desperate for a new direction and past success that Pitino asked not only for the coaches job, but the general manager AND president. Red had been president for 47 years under Walter Brown and whoever else owned the team so a lot of fans and media alike thought it was preposterous to give him the presidency when he hadn’t done anything yet. Sure enough, Red reluctantly handed over the role so Rick could be the czar of the Celtics like he was at Kentucky University. One of the biggest mistakes Rick made was bringing in a man named Chris Wallace to be his general manager. He would screw over the Celtics not once but twice but I’ll get to that later. Things went bad right from the very start because the consensus was he would be coaching Tim Duncan to pair his former Kentucky star Antoine Walker. Turns out he wouldn’t be coaching Duncan. The lottery came and the Celtics ended up with the 3rd and 6th picks in the draft with the San Antonio Spurs getting number 1 and Duncan. The Spurs went on to win 5 world championships between 1999 and 2014. With Wallace who didn’t know a basketball from a basket case, Pitino began his reign of error by drafting Chauncey Billups with the 3rd pick and another former Kentucky protege Ron Mercer with the 6th. It should be noted 3 picks after Mercer, the Toronto Raptors drafted Tracy McGrady.  The 1998 season got off to a rollicking start when the Celtics defeated the two-time defending world champion Chicago Bulls on opening night. That ended up being the highlight of the season as Pitino figured out very quickly the pro game was entirely different from college. He could control what his players in college did because they were on scholarship but now the players had million dollar contracts. Not only that, he brought his full court press defense with him and while that may work with 20 minute halves and 40 minute games….you can’t do it for 4 quarters and 48 minutes without running your own guys ragged. That’s what happened as the Celtics stumbled and bumbled throughout the 98 season. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Celtics blew their future when they traded Billups for Kenny Anderson midway through the season. Pitino claimed he was the greatest high school player to ever come from New York and while Anderson was damn good, Billups is going to the NBA Hall of Fame some day. Also he started turning the Celtics into the damn Kentucky Wildcats. The Celtics signed Chris Mills as a free agent before the season but Pitino traded him to New York in training camp for Walter McCarty. Then in what could only be a favor job, he signed Reggie Hanson to play out the string. Walker, Mercer, McCarty and Hanson well all Kentucky guys as was his assistant coach Jimmy O’Brien.

As annoying as Pitino was and as incompetent as Chris Wallace was, they did get one thing right. In the 1998 draft they picked 10th overall and chose Kansas forward Paul Pierce. Going into the 1999 season the Celtics had Anderson, Mercer, Pierce and Walker which would make for a good core….but something happened that was out of Pitino’s control. The NBA owners locked out the players and 32 games were wiped off the schedule. When play resumed in January, Walker was woefully out of shape and Pitino once again kept making stupid decisions. He traded Mercer for Danny Fortson which Wallace said was “the missing piece”. More like the missing link because they still stumbled and bumbled with Fortson. On March 11 Pitino and Wallace made another blunder when they traded Andrew DeClerq and their first round pick in the 1999 draft to Cleveland for Vitaly Potapenko. While Vitaly was entertaining for 3 years, the Cavaliers chose Andre Miller with that pick who ended up playing 17 years and scoring 16, 278 points. Not only did the Celtics draft Chauncey Billups only to trade him, drafted Ron Mercer over Tracy McGrady only to trade him too, they traded away the career of Andre Miller for 3 years of a backup center. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention another blunder. Before the 1998 season the Celtics signed Bruce Bowen for his defense. He left for the Sixers in 2000 and eventually became San Antonio’s star defender during their golden years. One last kick in the ass was even though they had no first round pick in the upcoming draft, they did have a second. They chose Texas forward Kris Clack who Wallace was “shocked” fell that far. Clack ended up never playing for the Celtics while a few picks later San Antonio drafted Manu Ginobli. Yes, the very same star for the Spurs.

Patience began to wear thin for fans and media alike as the Celtics once again under-performed in the 1999-’00 season. Pierce, Walker and Anderson had decent years but the rest either sucked or under-performed. Rick Pitino wanted to be the czar but he had no idea what he was doing. He refused to show any patience that he could get away with at the pro level because he still had the college mentality of winning had to be now. At that point they could have had Billups, Pierce, Walker, Miller and T-Mac if they had a clue on what they were doing. It all came to ahead in a now legendary promo following a loss to the Toronto Raptors on March 1, 2000 to drop their record to 23-34. Pitino launched into a tirade saying the negativity in Boston sucks, its unfair that he and others get booed and Larry Bird is not walking through the door. He had a point since the Celtics won in ’86 not a single other Boston team hoisted a world championship banner in the 14 years since so fans were increasingly hostile. The flip side was it was entirely his fault. I already mentioned the team he could have had if he showed some patience but believe it or not it would get even worse.

The 2000 draft was one final nail in Pitino’s coffin as the Celtics had the 11th overall pick. Pitino and Wallace passed on Jason Collier, Hedo Turkoglu, Desmond Mason, Quintin Richardson, Jamaal Magloire, Speedy Claxton, Mo Peterson, DeShawn Stevenson, Eddie House and Michael Redd for…..*drumroll* Jerome Moiso. If you have no idea who the hell he is, you weren’t the only one. He was a French born forward from UCLA who ended up being a complete bust. He couldn’t play and was traded following the season. Years of bad drafting, bad personnel decisions, the “negativity” and no results finally was too much for Rick to take. Following the January 6, 2001 loss to the Miami Heat, Pitino resigned as coach, head of operations, president, czar and ticket taker. Jimmy O’Brien took over for the remainder of the season. Thus ending the 3 1/2 year reign of error by Rick Pitino. He wanted to be God in Boston and he quickly found out when you don’t perform, the fans will let you know. You know what the ultimate kick in the ass was? Later on Rick wrote a self help book called Rebound Rules and in it he admitted had he known he wasn’t going to get Tim Duncan he never would have taken the job. Well isn’t that just wonderful?

What, you think that’s it? Oh hell no. Pitino may have been gone but he left behind his trusty buffoon Chris Wallace who still had plenty of incompetence to wreck the Celtics. Remember how they traded Ron Mercer for “the missing piece” Danny Fortson in 1999? They got a first round pick in 2001 for that. One year later Fortson along with Dana Barros was shipped away in a massive trade that brought Robert Pack, Hot Rod Williams and a 1st round pick from Denver. The Celtics had 3 first round picks in the 2001 draft and Wallace found a way to bungle it. The Celtics own pick was 10th overall and took forward/guard Joe Johnson out of Arkansas. That was a good pick. Then with the 11th overall pick they passed over Arizona forward Richard Jefferson to take Kedrick Brown out of a community college….that was not good. The final kick in the ass was when they drafted UNC guard Joe Forte with the 21st pick 7 picks before San Antonio selected Tony Parker. The season started out well but there were too many bodies at the guard and forward position. Kedrick Brown had a ton of athleticism but not much basketball skill and Joe Johnson couldn’t crack the forward slot with Pierce and Eric Williams in the way. The one who was the most miserable was Forte. He thought he was going to start right away just like he did in high school and UNC but Jimmy O’Brien said not so fast. They had Kenny Anderson, Milt Palacio and veteran Randy Brown along with free agent pickup Erick Strickland. Kenny once told me personally that all Forte had to do was be patient, learn the game and be ready because his time would come. Instead Forte pouted like a crybaby and shut himself down. Oh it gets even worse. The Celtics were having a good season and it was highlighted by a buzzer beater by Antoine Walker against the defending repeat champion LA Lakers in LA on February 19 to give the Celtics a 31-23 record. That year the Eastern conference was weak with the Sixers and the Milwaukee Bucks having down years. The two biggest threats were the Detroit Pistons and Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets. Wallace had his eye on the one remaining member of the 1996 Kentucky team that hadn’t played for the Celtics, shooter Tony Delk. Also Rodney Rogers was a 6’8 center/forward that could hit a 3 and these would be the guys the Celtics would need to go on a playoff run. What was the asking price? The Phoenix Suns wanted a 1st round pick, Milt Palacio, Randy Brown and Kedrick Brown. Wait, that’s not what you remember? Well guess what, to prove how lost at his job he was, Wallace COUNTER-OFFERED Joe Johnson instead of Brown. Yes, the guy who actually performed at Arkansas and who many considered a can’t miss was gone in favor of the community college star that could jump high. As it turned out, the Celtics did go on a run. They went 18-10 the rest of the season to win the third seed. Paul Pierce had his coming out party in a decisive Game 5 rout of the first round playoff series with the Sixers by burying them with 46 points. Delk and Rogers were instrumental in helping the Celtics defeat the Pistons in 5 games to advance to the Eastern Finals against the Nets. That’s where they ran out of gas where Kidd’s Nets defeated the Celtics in 6 games to advance to the Finals. Wallace had one last bad trade left in him and by god he was going to do it! After the season the Celtics shipped Forte, Kenny Anderson and Potapenko to Seattle for Vin Baker and Shammond Williams. Anderson himself said they were expecting the Baker from 5 years before but wouldn’t be getting that, he was right. With no first round pick, Anderson gone and Rogers in New Jersey, the Celtics were mediocre in 2003. Meanwhile Richard Jefferson was becoming a star for New Jersey, Tracy McGrady was becoming a star in Orlando, Andre Miller was becoming very dependable and Joe Johnson had his coming out party with Phoenix. Chauncey Billups had found his groove with Detroit and Kedrick Brown never developed. The Celtics did manage to beat the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2003 playoffs mostly due them quitting on their incompetent coach Isiah Thomas, but were swept out of the second round by the Nets. Wyc Grousbeck the Celtics owner took a look around the league and saw all the players they could have had and DID have become stars. Finally, FINALLY…he had enough of Wallace. For the 2004 season Grousbeck introduced Danny Ainge as the new boss of the Celtics and in the 14 years since he took over, there have been more good years than bad. Thus ending the reign of error in Boston of the Pitino era.

……..except that’s not the end. Oh no, Chris Wallace had one last dirty trick up his sleeve to screw over the Celtics. Going into the 2008 season the Los Angeles Lakers had fallen on hard times. The Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant three-peat championship team imploded and Bryant was the only star left by 2008. They managed to draft Andrew Bynum and sign Lamar Odom but the ’08 Lakers were floundering. They had a decent 28-16 record after a January 31st loss to the Pistons but Chris Wallace struck again. By now he was the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak called him up and said how much for superstar Pau Gasol? Wallace demanded two first round picks, Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Pau’s brother Marc and Javaris Crittenton. Just like that the Lakers went from floundering to instant contenders. An injury to Andrew Bynum hurt the Lakers in ’08 as they lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, but a healthy Bynum along with Gasol led the Lakers to repeat as NBA champions in 2009 and 2010. The New Big three Celtics had to take a backseat to the Lakers thanks to Chris Wallace. Wonderful.

THAT is the end of it, thank god. The decline of the Boston Celtics from 1987 to 1994 was bad enough, but nothing compares to the absolute incompetence of the Pitino/Wallace regime. From 1998 to 2003 apart from drafting Paul Pierce they did virtually nothing right. Let’s look at some facts before we close this up. Kenny Anderson ended his career with over 10,000 points while Chauncey Billups scored over 15,000. They traded a 1st round pick for three years of Vitaly Potapenko which turned into Andre Miller that scored over 16,000. Kris Clack never played a minute in the NBA while Manu Ginobili scored 14,000. Ron Mercer scored 5,892 career points while Tracy McGrady scored over 18,000. Jerome Moiso scored 386 points while Hedo Turkoglu scored over 11,000. Kedrick Brown scored 509 career points while Richard Jefferson scored 14,904. Joe Johnson scored 20,405 career points while Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk were gone by 2004. Joe Forte scored 30 career points while Tony Parker scored 18,493. Look how lopsided the career point totals of the guys they traded, let go or didn’t draft compared to the guys they did draft or traded for. Its one thing for when the Celtics drafted Acie Earl and there was nothing else they could have done, its another to draft Joe Forte over Tony Parker. The Celtics dynasty could have been revitalized and kept for years to come if Pitino and Wallace knew what they were doing. Imagine in 2002 Tony Parker and Paul Pierce the guards with Antoine Walker and Joe Johnson the forwards. They could have had traded some assets for a stud center to round out the group to become the Spurs. Speaking of the Spurs, apart from Tim Duncan the Celtics had a chance to become their two decade success. They let Bowen go, they drafted Clack over Ginobili and Forte over Parker. Its a sin how many guys the Celtics could have had while they were still good from 2002-05. At least Danny Ainge knows what he’s doing which is why the Celtics have now qualified for back to back East Finals while becoming the odds on favorite to win it all next season. That’s not to say Ainge hasn’t had his duds, he drafted Jajuan Johnson over Jimmy Butler and Fab Melo over Draymond Green…but even his misfires haven’t come close to the absolute bombs Wallace/Pitino came up with. Thank goodness.

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