May 22, 2007
The main reference point was always the tragedy of Len Bias.
Many Celtics fans considered the Maryland forward's cocaine overdose death, suffered the night after the Celtics took him with the third pick of the 1986 draft, the true beginning of their apocalypse.
The Celtics haven't won an NBA title in 21 years. They haven't reached the NBA Finals since 1987, and have reached the Eastern Conference finals only three times (1987, 1988, 2002) since winning their 16th and last title in 1986. But considering that they have also had a seat at the NBA Lottery for six of the last 10 years, there is a more recent measure of despair.
We're talking about the 1997 draft lottery, when the 15-67 Cs landed the third overall pick, and 20-62 San Antonio scored the big prize - Tim Duncan.
The Spurs haven't been in the lottery since - an absence longer than that of any other team - and have also won three NBA titles. Only the Lakers have won as many over that stretch.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have never suffered through a more humbling 10-year period. They have only produced three over-.500 teams since the 1997 lottery. With a significant push from this year's 24-58 squad, they now hold a 10-year record of 357-431 - a .435 losing percentage.
That's why tonight's NBA lottery, with the Celtics holding the second best chance of landing the top pick in next month's draft, is one of those pivotal moments - a make-or-break evening. Greg Oden, quite possibly a defense-changing franchise player on a par with the young Duncan, is on the board. So is Kevin Durant, one of the most offensively gifted big men in memory.
Land one of the top two picks tonight and there is a palpable future. If team rep and good luck charm Tommy Heinsohn leaves New Jersey with anything less, Duncan's ghost will grow a little bigger. He might even be joined by the specters of Oden and Durant.
What follows is a chronology of the paths taken by the Celtics and Spurs since that 1997 night in the swamps of Jersey.
** CELTICS (36-46, fifth in the Atlantic Division)
Rick Pitino, to much hullabaloo, takes charge, and trades Chauncey Billups, the third pick in the draft, before the season is even finished. A pattern of extreme impatience is thus established. The Celtics miss the playoffs for a franchise record third straight year.
** SPURS (56-26, second in Midwest Division)
Sue-praaahz, sue-praaahz, as Gomer Pyle used to say. Duncan is named the NBA Rookie of the Year after playing all 82 games and averaging a 21.1-point, 11.6-rebound double-double. After missing 76 games to injury the previous season - some say with the Spurs winking and nodding while improving their lottery odds - David Robinson returns to play 73 games and combines with Duncan to lead San Antonio into the Western Conference semifinals.
** CELTICS (19-31, fifth in Atlantic)
Rookie Paul Pierce, taken with the 10th pick the previous June, finishes third in scoring (16.5 ppg) behind Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer in this strike-shortened season. The record postseason drought extends to four years.
** SPURS (37-13, first in Midwest)
Not needing much time at all, Duncan leads the Spurs to the first NBA title in franchise history, eliminating New York in five games in the NBA Finals. The second-year center leads his team in scoring (21.7), rebounds (11.4) and blocks (2.5). Duncan makes his second straight All-NBA first team, and is named the finals MVP.
** CELTICS (35-47, fifth in Atlantic)
They finish two wins worse than the previous year. They haven't reached the playoffs in five years. They haven't finished with a winning record in seven, dating back to 1992-93, and the summer that Reggie Lewis died. Ex-Celtics Rick Fox and Brian Shaw - the former a Pitino discard - are role players on the Lakers' first NBA championship team since the Magic Johnson era.
** SPURS (53-29, second in Midwest)
Duncan averages career highs in points (23.2) and rebounds (12.4), but the Spurs are stunned in the first round by Phoenix.
** CELTICS (36-46, fifth in Atlantic)
The Jerome Moiso era begins, and ends. Fox and Shaw pick up their second straight championship rings as Lakers. Each will add his third a year later. Impatience continues to rule Pitino. Talk builds of his reign coming to a premature end.
** SPURS (58-24, first in Midwest)
Duncan and Robinson continue to grow as the best center-power forward tandem in the NBA, but after steaming through the first two rounds of the playoffs, they are knocked cold by the Lakers, who sweep the Spurs in four games in the Western Conference finals.
** CELTICS (49-33, second in Atlantic)
Pitino finally pops mid-way through the season, and doesn't return with the team from a road trip in Florida. Jim O'Brien, until now his quiet second in command, takes over, and the team responds with a huge sigh of relief. Rookie Joe Johnson is traded to Phoenix for Rodney Rodgers and Tony Delk; Walker and Pierce develop into a capable 1-2 punch; and the postseason drought ends at six seasons. The Celtics, with their first winning record in nine seasons, reach the Eastern Conference finals before falling in six games to New Jersey.
** SPURS (58-24, first in Midwest)
Tony Parker, an important rookie addition who somehow eluded the Celtics when they took Joe Forte with the 21st pick in the draft, is the best point guard Duncan has ever played with. The big man wins his first NBA MVP award. But the Lakers, on the way to their third straight title, prove to once again be San Antonio's bane. The Spurs fall in five games in the conference semifinals.
** CELTICS (44-38, third in Atlantic)
The magic starts to fade, though the Celtics beat Indiana in the first round before getting swept by New Jersey in the second. Danny Ainge is introduced as Director of Basketball Operations during the playoffs, and makes it clear that he wants to change the style of play from O'Brien's 3-point mania to an up-tempo style. He also doesn't care much for Walker's game.
** SPURS (60-22, first in Midwest)
Discord on the Lakers coincides with the Spurs' return to prominence. Now with energetic swingman Manu Ginobili in the mix, San Antonio beats New Jersey for the second title of the Duncan era. Duncan wins his second straight MVP award, and also his second finals MVP honor.
** CELTICS (36-46, fourth in Atlantic)
O'Brien, unsettled by Ainge's changes, leaves in December following a trade for Ricky Davis that sent, among others, the beloved Eric Williams (along with Tony Battie) to Cleveland. Ainge also draws fire for trading Walker to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz - who needs knee surgery - and Jiri Welsch. John Carroll takes over as interim coach, and thanks to Eastern Conference mediocrity actually makes the playoffs. They are swept by Indiana in the first round.
** SPURS (57-25, second in Midwest)
The Lakers eliminate the Spurs in a familiar place - the conference semifinals.
** CELTICS (45-37, first in Atlantic)
Despite trouble between Pierce and his new coach, Doc Rivers, the Celtics finish at the top of the league's worst division, marking the first time since the 1991-92 season that the Celtics have won the Atlantic. Ainge, who signed Gary Payton at the start of the year, re-acquires Walker in a midseason trade, and the team makes a late push for the playoffs. Indiana beats them in seven games in the first round.
** SPURS (59-23, first in Southwest)
The Spurs, without the Lakers to get in the way, breeze to their second NBA title in three seasons and their third under Duncan. They beat the defending champion Pistons in seven games in one of the best Finals series in memory.
** CELTICS (33-49, third in Atlantic)
The Ricky Davis experiment fails. So does a decision to sign the oddly melancholy Mark Blount to a mid-level contract. Both are traded to Minnesota for Wally Szczerbiak, whose Celtics tenure will become known more for his injuries than his contributions. They miss the playoffs for the first time in five years. Walker, now with Miami, earns his first championship ring.
** SPURS (63-19, first in Southwest)
Dallas, the team that finished just behind San Antonio with the league's third-best record, catches the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.
** CELTICS (24-58, fifth in Atlantic)
Back in a familiar position thanks to injuries and a woeful lack of depth, the Celtics finish with the second worst record in the league. Though he finishes on shaky ground, Rivers' contract is extended through the 2008-09 season.
** SPURS (58-24, second in Southwest)
Owner of two NBA MVP awards and two Finals MVP awards, the future Hall-of-Famer enters the season with three NBA titles and the distinction of never having suffered a losing season. His is voted to his eighth All-NBA first team. The Spurs make the playoffs again - as they have throughout Duncan's career - and are currently battling the Utah Jazz in the conference finals.