Pitino, Lottery Loser, Gets on Bat Phone to Popovich


The Celtics failed to win the NBA lottery yesterday, but the opportunity to secure prize Wake Forest center Tim Duncan could still be within their grasp.

Five minutes after San Antonio won the lottery and the right to the first overall selection in the June 25 draft, Rick Pitino was on the phone with Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich.

The Celtics' new coach and president, whose team landed the third and sixth overall selections, had more than just congratulations on his mind during their brief chat.

"I wouldn't have spoken to Gregg five minutes after it ended if I didn't think (a deal) was an option," Pitino said in conference call about an hour after the nationally televised lottery had concluded. "There is a distinct possibility they may trade the draft pick, but obviously a trade is only good when both teams can benefit."

A Celtics-Spurs hookup could fit that criteria. San Antonio already has perennial All-Star David Robinson roaming the middle.

Robinson, 31, injured for much of the 1996-97 season, would have to share the low post with Duncan should the Spurs decide to keep the pick and employ a twin-tower attack.

"We're going to get as creative as possible, but as much as we want Tim Duncan, I think you'll see comments from Gregg to the effect that David and Tim can probably play together," said Pitino, an assistant coach with the Knicks when they tried unsuccessfully to team centers Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing in a frontcourt 12 years ago. "People might be thinking, 'Well, they already have David Robinson, why do they need Tim Duncan? Maybe trade one.'

"They'll probably say both players are very agile, very mobile - let's move David to power forward or vice versa and see if we could play with them first. We could always trade one down the road."

Pitino, exercising his role calling Celtics personnel shots for the first time, sounded like he was prepared to explore multiple avenues before the June 25 draft. At the same time, he did not want to leave the impression he was disappointed with the Celtics' dual draft position.

"Obviously, the No. 1 pick was Tim Duncan and after that, (Nos.) 2 through 6 made no difference to me," said Pitino. "If I could do it over again, of course I would have liked to have had him with the No. 1 pick, but I'm certainly not discouraged with having the third and sixth picks.

"Anyone who's disappointed with the third and sixth picks doesn't understand the draft process or the long haul we're in here with the Celtics. The third and sixth picks will have enormous upside potential. Down the road they could be as valuable as Tim Duncan."

True, but even Pitino could not deny the lottery played squarely against his team's best interests. The Celtics' most glaring need is for a legitimate big man. Unfortunately for the locals, the same could be said for Philadelphia, which turned up with the second draft pick. That means Texas Tech's 6-foot-11 Tony Battie, the only big man in the draft with skills in the same area code as Duncan's, will likely be wearing a Sixers uniform next season.

"As you look at it now, Tony Battie is probably going to be the second pick, although there are no guarantees," said Pitino, who will spend the next few weeks evaluating talent and discussing draft strategy with his staff. "Philly might try to trade down, they might try to go after Tim Duncan and trade up.

"There are going to be a quite a few speculative things that crop up in the next week or two, and we're probably going to be in the middle of that speculation."

The speculation will initially revolve around San Antonio, which has a major trump card in Duncan. The All-American senior, head and shoulders above the rest of the college crop, could be a major asset playing for the Spurs - or fetch them plenty in a blockbuster deal. The Celtics, with two of the first six picks to offer - in addition to just about anyone from their current roster - will listen very carefully to any San Antonio proposals.

"It all sounds great, but I think you're going to have to offer them one heck of a deal for them to trade Tim Duncan," said Pitino. "Maybe we can do it. Maybe we can't. That remains to be seen."

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