Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 1
Regular Season Record: 348-440
Regular Season Win Percentage: 44.1%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 16-21
For the first time in generations, the Celtics were veering into rudderless territory. The untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis derailed any smooth succession plan from the Bird-McHale-Parish core of the 1980s. With barely any worthwhile talent on their roster, Boston couldn’t swindle or fleece another team of their draft picks. Boston therefore decided the quickest road back to contention would come through deliberately losing as many games as possible. The prize, should they win the 1997 Draft Lottery, would be Tim Duncan.
With such a lucrative payoff, the Celtics were full-steam ahead for losing in 1996-97. They didn’t just secure the worst record in the NBA that season, Boston absolutely shattered the franchise record for losses and lowest win percentage. Their 67 losses easily eclipsed the previous record of 50 losses in 1978. The .183 win percentage was an abysmal depth below the previous record of .293 waaaay back in 1950.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder was rookie forward Antoine Walker. The versatile shimmy machine would be one of the only two players to make a serious impact for Boston during this decade. The other, unfortunately, was not Tim Duncan. Despite the losing, Boston fell to the 3rd slot and watched the San Antonio Spurs dance off with Duncan.
Dejected, Boston selected Chauncey Billups with their pick. The point guard would go on to a superb career, but Boston gave up on him 51 games into the 1997-98 season. Billups was traded, in essence, for veteran Kenny Anderson. That was a curious trade then and now for a team that was clearly years away from any legitimate contention. But for some reason, coach and personnel head Rick Pitino couldn’t discern the true, sorry state of the franchise.
In any event, Boston did finish with 36 wins in the 1997-98 season as Walker became an All-Star. Despite not tanking that season, Boston nonetheless found their second impact player in the 1998 Draft. Paul Pierce fell into their lap at the 10th pic. Suddenly, Boston had some hope for the future.
But over the next two seasons, Boston continued to mire in mediocrity under Pitino. Finally, in an act of mercy, Pitino stepped down as coach a third of the way through the 2000-01 season. Jim O’Brien took over as coach and guided Boston to a 24-24 record during his truncated tenure that season.
By this time, Pierce and Walker formed a formidably potent one-two duo. Together they averaged 50 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists a game. However, the rest of the roster was atrocious. A lot of players who were decent at their very best.
Yet, somehow, the combined power of Pierce and Walker catapulted Boston to 49 wins in the 2001-02 season. It was their best regular season campaign in a decade. In the playoffs, the achieved success not seen since 1988 by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent was the New Jersey Nets.
The highwater mark of the season – and of this era – came in Game 3 of the series. Tied 1-1, the Celtics found themselves down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter. From that point forward, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics on his back as Boston scored 41 points in the final period to win the game 94-90. Now up 2-1 in the series, Boston promptly lost the next three games. Considering where they were just a season before, it was a helluva triumph.
The triumph proved paper-thin, however.
Another bone-headed trade earlier that season crippled the Celtics. Promising rookie Joe Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Boston foolishly became enamored with the idea these two players could give them a potent core for immediate contention.
When the dust settled, Delk and Rogers played a grand total of 116 games for Boston and Joe Johnson has famously played in seven all-star games.
The Celtics steadily declined to 44 wins in 2003 and then 36 wins in 2004. A brief bounce came in 2005 when they won 45 games, but in the 2006 season they fell right back down to 33 wins.
By that time, Paul Pierce was a lonely, lonely man. Walker had been traded just prior to the 2003-04 season to Dallas for a poo-poo platter of flotsam: Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch plus a 2004 1st rounder that became the best part of the deal, Delonte West. The team’s leading players, besides Pierce, in 2006 were Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Mark Blount. Not exactly a murder’s row of talent.
In this rubble were buried some young gems. The aforementioned West, defensive swingman Tony Allen, the scowling Kendrick Perkins, and the offensively gifted Al Jefferson. However, they were young gems and Pierce was 28 years old in the absolute heart of his prime. He averaged 27 points that season and nearly 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game.
How long would he put up with putting up Herculean numbers for a team headed into a clear rebuild? Boston was again at a crossroads similar to where they were a decade before.
At least this time they did have a player of Pierce’s caliber to perhaps trade away and stock up on draft picks. Or maybe they should stick with Pierce and cross their fingers that another star would fall to them in the draft? Better yet, maybe they should repeat the 1996-97 season and deliberately lose in order to improve the odds of winning the lottery.
Whatever the decision, Boston unmistakeably found itself in a malaise heretofore unthinkable to the likes of Auerbach and Russel, Bird and Havlicek.
C – Tony Battie (1999-’04) – 336 Games
6.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 51.7% FG, 68.7% FT
F – Paul Pierce (1999-’06) – 605 Games
23.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 44.0% FG, 35.7% 3PT, 79.0% FT
F – Antoine Walker (1996-’03, 2005) – 552 Games
20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 41.3% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 66.2% FT
F – Eric Williams (1996-’04) – 398 Games
9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 42.1% FG, 73.1% FT
G – Kenny Anderson (1997-’02) – 241 Games
11.3 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.5% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT
F – Walter McCarty (1997-’05) – 494 Games
5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 39.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 71.1% FT
G – Dana Barros (1996-’00) – 227 Games
9.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.3% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 86.1% FT