Pitino Year Two: The Celtics are Better

Pitino Year Two: The Celtics are Better

June 24, 1998

No matter what your opinion is of them, you would have to say they are better today than they were 12 months ago. Any observer, objective or subjective, can tell you that. Remember June 24, 1997? The Celtics still retained the rights to Frank Brickowski, who was known more for hanging out on a Montana ranch with actor Charlie Sheen than doing damage on basketball courts.

They had Nate "Grave" Driggers, who inspired Cedric Maxwell to wail, "He's not a basketball player; he's a boxer. He's playing the wrong sport." A shooting guard who couldn't shoot consistently, Todd Day, was making his case for additional minutes. And a man from a one-stoplight, one-movie theater town in northeastern Iowa, Brett Szabo, was listed on the roster as a center and part-time Clark Kent double.

So yes, they are better. But tonight at 7:30, when the Celtics enter the second draft of Rick's Reign - Year Two of the Rick Pitino Era - they will go in knowing that being better is not good enough. Maybe the very American attitude of keeping up with the neighbors is trite, but that has to be your philosophy in the NBA. Pitino, general manager Chris Wallace, and head scout Leo Papile realize this. This is the Internet NBA, where improvement is not enough. You may have something fast, but tomorrow someone is going to come by with something faster. That's why the Celtics aren't overwhelmed with staying in the No. 10 draft position. Can they get a good player there? Certainly.
But they aren't going to get anyone who will help them scale the Non-Playoff Mountain and get past the Nets, Knicks, Cavaliers, and Hawks.

"There is no question that we'll get better," Pitino said. "We'll improve on 36 wins, there's no question about that. But everybody is going to get better. New Jersey, Washington, Philadelphia, Orlando. They're all going to improve." When you are coach and president of a team, you don't have the luxury of thinking about yourself solely. That was evident just before last season's trading deadline. Pitino was standing in a Sacramento locker room and being asked about his team's trade possibilities. He said things were quiet. A few minutes later, he was told about the 76ers' acquisition of Joe Smith and Jim Jackson. Moments after that, he had a meeting with salary cap specialist Rick Avare, and that night the deal sending Chauncey Billups to Toronto for Kenny Anderson was completed.

Maybe the timing was coincidental. More likely, the Celtics were trying to keep up. And that's what they're doing right now. "The hottest rumor in the country is that Rick came out here to work out Michael Olowokandi,"said Bill Duffy, the California-based agent for the draft's top prize. "He didn't work him out. But that's interesting." Duffy added that the 7-foot-1-inch Olowokandi doesn't care where he plays. He'd be willing to run and trap in the Pitino Press just as much as he'd be willing to put a happy face on the perpetually sad organization that is the Los Angeles Clippers, who hold the No. 1 pick. The Celtics, in their quest to become a mid-level contender, are trying to wrest the top pick from the Clippers while creating some salary cap room for themselves.

"In order to take a quantum leap," Pitino said, "you have to develop your own players as well as make trades and bring in free agents." What the Celtics have asked themselves in the past year is, how will our own players'development help us? In other words, if Anderson, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker, Andrew DeClercq, and Walter McCarty play at their optimal levels for an entire season, is that enough to get the Celtics into the playoffs for the first time since 1995? Once again, the answer would have to be "no." The Celtics have a solid backcourt of Anderson and Mercer. But the Wizards now have Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond. If you conducted an All-NBA poll among NBA players, Strickland-Richmond would win out over Anderson-Mercer. The challenge, then, is to counter what the Wizards have done and what the Nets, Knicks, and Magic plan to do.

"Now when you're talking about moving up in the draft, you have to understand there is a price paid for that," Wallace said. "Last year the Nets and Sixers just didn't exchange the second and seventh picks. The Nets were able to get Keith Van Horn, but they had to take a lot of salary cap junk from Philly. There's always a price." The space junk the Nets had to absorb included the awful long-term contracts of Lucious Harris and Don MacLean. But Van Horn helped them get into the playoffs. Now they are thinking about 47-49 wins while the Celtics are trying to get to 42-44.

Word around the league is what you would expect. The Celtics are trying to move the contracts of Travis Knight and Greg Minor so they can create some salary cap breathing room. They also kneel down each night and pray that something miraculous will happen, resulting in another team taking Pervis Ellison. All of that could happen, but it's still contingent on someone else wanting what you have.

If the Celtics are left to improve themselves by themselves, they will probably walk away from tonight's draft with someone such as Pat Garrity or Keon Clark. Solid players, both of them. They will help the Celtics. But they won't bring Boston any cap flexibility for free agents. They won't make Boston a playoff team immediately. And in this super microchip, super baud world, they won't help fast enough.

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