What were Boston's chances of winning the lottery and landing the No. 1 choice? "About 38 percent," Pitino says.
Meaning that there was a six-in-10 chance that another team would draft first. "If that failed," Pitino shoots back, "it was almost 50 percent we were going to get the Number 2 pick and Keith Van Horn."
Alas, the Ping-Pong balls bounced the wrong way. The Celtics wound up with the third and sixth picks, taking guard Chauncey Billups first, then swingman Ron Mercer, while passing on talents such as Tim Thomas and Tracy McGrady. Only four months into the season Pitino swapped Billups for Kenny Anderson as part of seven-player trade with the Toronto Raptors. "It turned out that Chauncey was mort of a two guard than a point guard," say; Pitino. Anderson, not surprisingly, has failed to become the kind of playmaker needed to run the high-intensity, full-court game that Pitino prefers. As for Billups, last Friday hi returned to Boston and added insult to injury, scoring a season-high 29 points (he was averaging 16.0) for the Minnesota Timberwolves in their 102-98 victory.
Except for Walker, Pitino has overhauled the entire roster since his arrival, earning a reputation as a fickle wheeler-dealer. Although he takes full responsibility for each transaction, Pitino insists he has sought advice from his staff before making deals. "I don't just trade a player after he has a bad practice," Pitino says. "We went to the draft this year, and when it turned upside down after the first few picks, we realized we were going to have to change our strategy. I gathered everybody and asked them, 'Who would be your top three choices for us to draft?' We were going around the table when this voice comes out from across the room: 'This is not a democracy! You decide! Who do you want to coach?' It was Red Auerbach."
General manager Chris Wallace maintains that the Celtics have risen from the ashes of 1996-97 in decent shape. With the 10th selection in '98, Boston took the 6'7" Pierce, who, with the 6'9" Walker, could give the team a solid foundation for years to come. Boston has been criticized for its commitments to Tony Battie (six years, $25.2 million) and Vitaly Potapenko (six years, $33 million), but Wallace points out that through November the center tandem was averaging a respectable 16.3 points (12th in the league in production at the center position), 13.6 rebounds (eighth) and 2.8 blocks (tied for ninth). The Celtics also could have three first-round picks in 2001, depending on when the team exercises its option on a choice obtained from the Denver Nuggets.
However, that long-term view is asking for more patience than Celtics fans seem willing to give. Attendance has dropped each of the last three years, to an average of 15,110 this season through Sunday. For a 98-87 loss to the Vancouver Grizzlies on Nov. 26, ticket sales were 11,551—fewer than 9,000 fans showed up—making it the smallest home crowd in 21 years, going back to the third game of the Larry Bird era. The poor quality of play and the introduction of annoying sideshows at the FleetCenter have combined to drive away the fan base that the Celtics worked four decades to build.
Everything might have been different if Boston had closed a deal to acquire Scottie Pippen for the third and sixth picks in the '97 draft. Because Pippen was in the last year of his contract, his presence might have forced Pitino to be more accommodating toward his veteran players. When the Chicago Bulls backed out of the trade at the last instant, Pitino took the opposite approach, slashing veterans Dee Brown, Rick Fox and David Wesley off the payroll. Over the last two years his teams have suffered from the absence of experienced players, failing to win tight games and to develop locker room leadership. Walker, a gifted but inconsistent player who might benefit from having a mentor, was named team co-captain three years ago at age 21.
"Pitino is very much a 'me' person," says Brown, who is now with the Orlando Magic. "People come to games to watch me coach—that's how he thinks. He didn't want veteran players when he got there. Now he realizes that wasn't right."
Recognizing that his players may need to hear criticism from someone else, Pitino has begun replaying broadcasts in which color man Tom Heinsohn scolds the Celtics for not getting back on defense. But the exercise only proved how far removed this team is from Boston's glorious past. After listening to Heinsohn's barbs, Battie approached Cedric Maxwell, a Celtics radio commentator, and asked, "Hey, did Tommy ever coach someplace?" "Yes," responded Maxwell with a blank stare. "Here. He won two championships."
In guards Bryant Stith, 30, and Randy Brown, 32, Pitino has found two veterans who have bought into his system. When preaching strong man-to-man defense and unselfish offense, he can cite them as flesh-and-blood examples. "There are three coaches whose reputation for toughness precedes them: Pat Riley, Larry Brown and Rick Pitino," says Stith, who was acquired from Denver and is in the final year of his contract. "I had heard all the stories, and they were all true—the grueling practices and all of that. But Coach Pitino was up front with me, and I'm hungry. I'm trying to resurrect my career."