Celtics' gambling is a dicey situation

August 24, 1997

Chris Wallace is a renaissance general manager. He knows how to gather his collection of tapes and CDs and spend an afternoon listening to classic funk or R&B. He knows Big East football. He knows Harry S. Truman (he named his son after him). He knows the difference between Henry James the athlete and Henry James the novelist.

If you're a Celtics fan, you had better hope the GM knows how to gamble, too.

Wallace and his boss, Rick Pitino, have done exactly that in the past two months. It would be understandable if they were doing this at a Foxwoods blackjack table. There, you can throw down a lump of cash, lose, and feel the effects for the next week or so. But if you have a bad hand in the NBA's free agent game, it could stick with you for, say, seven years and cost, say, $ 22 million.

Think about that last sentence. It has only one "if"; the Celtics, though, have at least six of them. One is named Travis Knight. Another goes by Chris Mills. There's also Andrew DeClercq. And so on.

The gamble doesn't stop there. Signing a free agent is chancy enough, but that isn't the Celtics' highest stake. Their biggest risks are in their planning.

Remember the late spring afternoon when Wallace was hired? He said the idea was to land the Celtics three All-Stars, the NBA prerequisite for 50- and 60-win seasons. A good idea? Certainly. Here's the problem: The Celtics have added eight new players since Wallace came to town; none is an All-Star. Scan the roster for a player who has participated in an All-Star Game and you'll find one. His name is Dana Barros. And based on what we've heard, the Celtics have shopped him several times in the past few weeks.

Is it just me, or did someone else hear a sobering "uh-oh"?

The Celtics must have altars and other spiritual paraphernalia set up in their Merrimac Street offices because they're hoping - praying - for a lot. They are saying that Antoine Walker could be an All-Star. They say that Chauncey Billups could be one of the top five point guards in the league. They say Mills and Ron Mercer (who, by the way, could pass for first cousins) are better than people think. They say Knight has upside. They say Bruce Bowen is a sleeper.

But that's all speculation. It's like a teacher telling B students that they have valedictorian potential. Well, yeah, maybe they do. But what's up with the current report card?

Now, that's not to say the Celtics signed bad players. You need guys like Knight and Mills to win a championship. They love basketball and, just as important, they can run forever. They're also smart. After Mills's rookie season in Cleveland, he called the team's public relations office and asked for pictures of every referee in the league. He wanted to learn each face and put it with a name so when a call went against him he could say, "Come on, Danny," rather than, "What was that, ref?" He was observant enough to know that such details lead to respect from the officials.

But for every four Chris Millses on your team, you need a Vin Baker, a Gary Payton, or a Scottie Pippen. Today is Aug. 24. The Celtics are loaded with unproven and mid-level professionals. They won't have salary-cap flexibility any time soon. They need a Baker or a Pippen and are hoping that one arises from a player on the current roster. If that doesn't happen? Well, the Celtics won't exactly be dogs. They'll just be the guys who take their 42-45 wins into the spring and then go home.

To their credit, Wallace and Pitino have been aggressive, albeit controversially. They got cap space by buying out Dino Radja, renouncing nine players (including the team captain), and dealing 25-year-old Eric Williams to the Nuggets for two second-round picks.

The Celtics will win more than 15 games. But ask yourself this: How many players and years are they away from a title? One and three? Two and four? Three and five?

"Oh, we're definitely not leaning our heads out the window screaming that we're ready for the Finals," Wallace said. "We're not wetting our finger, putting it to the wind to see which way the wind is blowing and then making decisions from there. We've got a long way to go. What we've done is added depth and quality to our roster so that we can be competitive."

Yet another good plan. What happens, though, if Walker does become an All-Star next year? He'll be one season away from free agency. He'll be on a team that traded away Williams, his best friend. He'll be facing the 1999 NBA, a league that will probably dictate that he be paid at least $ 8 million or $ 9 million per season. Would he stay if he had the chance to go home and become a member of the Bulls?

Or say that Billups becomes the next Payton by the year 2000. A team comes his way, armed with loot. Does he stay?

Wallace and Pitino have already gambled that Mills will be better than Williams. They have already gambled that a promising Knight is more important to the franchise than a proven Rick Fox. They have already gambled that their potential All-Stars will grow into actual stars. And if that happens, they have gambled that they can either re-sign those stars or find an acceptable alternative for them in a trade.

"The beauty of sports is that we can debate all this and have different opinions about it," Wallace said. "That's what keeps this all going; that's why sports are so popular."

Wallace and Pitino believe they have made the correct decisions. They didn't take their chances with cards and dice. They came to their game with pens, long-term contracts and hope. The contracts are signed. Only hope remains.

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