May 22, 2007
The main reference point was always the tragedy of Len Bias.
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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, 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
** CELTICS (19-31, fifth in Atlantic)
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
** SPURS (37-13, first in Midwest)
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)
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
** 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
** SPURS (60-22, first in Midwest)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
** SPURS (63-19, first in Southwest)
the team that finished just behind San Antonio with the league's
third-best record, catches the Spurs in the second round of the
** CELTICS (24-58, fifth in Atlantic)
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
** SPURS (58-24, second in Southwest)
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.