Remember the Celtics last major rebuilding stage? A youthfully exuberant, brash and dapper college coach named Rick Pitino sat at a postgame podium after a loss to the Toronto Raptors on March 1, 2000, courtesy of a Vince Carter buzzer-beater. The once confident sideline pacer had a befuddled look, flushed face and defensive posture.
Pitino's frustration with losing on the pro level reached its boiling point, and he bluntly told the proud Celtics faithful the harsh reality of their current existence.
“Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans,” he said. “Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old. … And as soon as they realize that those three guys are not coming through the door, the better this town will be for all of us…”
When Pitino took over in 1997, the Celtics were in the midst of a 14-year playoff drought. The squad went an NBA-worst 15-67 the year before he arrived. Like current Celtics HC Brad Stevens, Pitino was the young guru who inherited a toxic roster featuring raw, immature players such as Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and stiffs like Andrew DeClerq. He was anointed the next “great” NBA coach and was expected to return the Celtics to former glory.
Pitino had already flexed a knack for re-invigorating franchises. In 1987 he took a Knicks team that won 24 games the year before he arrived to New York's first division title in nearly twenty years. But he had Patrick Ewing to hitch his wagon to back then. Pitino’s Celtics didn’t have a roster that could compete with Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, or Reggie Miller’s Pacers. During that era, Jason Kidd’s Nets and A.I.’s Sixers came up too.
With Boston fans (NBA-record 17 titles) unwilling to compromise their lofty expectations, it was a recipe for disaster from the jump. Pitino only made it halfway through his 10-year $50 million deal. When he bounced, he was in the midst of an unprecedented eighth-straight losing season. Overall, his 102-146 record with Boston will forever be recognized as the low point of Pitino’s illustrious coaching career.
Pitino was able to fall back into the college ranks and won the NCAA Championship in 2013 with the Louisville Cardinals, but he’ll never shake that Boston black eye on his resume.
Brad Stevens is Rick Pitino all over again. Stevens found mega success at the college level. He made Butler, the smallest school to play for an NCAA championship since Jacksonville in 1970, into a powerhouse. Under Stevens the Bulldogs made back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances losing to Duke in 2010 and Connecticut in 2011.
Stevens' college resume and his youth (37 years old) made him the rising star Celtics President Danny Ainge wanted to navigate Boston through the inevitable let-down following the high that The Big 3 1/2 (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo) had the city on. Those guys brought the Celtics back to NBA prominence.
Former Celtics HC Doc Rivers—the driving force behind this recent Celtics mini-dynasty—is now coaching a loaded LA Clippers squad. Pierce and Garnett are rocking with division-rival Brooklyn Nets.
Point guard Rajon Rondo is the last remaining soldier and franchise player. He carries the weight of Boston’s fortunes on his torn right ACL as heavily as Stevens does. Rondo, who has two-years and $25 million left on his deal, says he wants to stay in Boston and navigate this rebirth.
He kicked it with A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNN.com about his mission to revive the franchise along with his career as the game’s premier “pure” point guard.
“I love it here. The fans are great here,” Rondo said. ”And [president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] has been straightforward with me. This is my team. Why would I want to leave? Why would I want out?
“I never really backed away from a challenge. This would be a challenge. I’m looking forward to working with coach [Brad] Stevens. It’s a brand-new start for us as a team. A lot of new players and a lot of young guys willing to listen, so I’m very excited about that.”
The difference is, Rondo has a bailout plan if the rebuilding process gets too rough; Stevens is stuck with his chance of a lifetime. Rondo hasn’t felt the heat yet for the Celtics’ miserable start to this season because he’s not expected back in action until sometime after the first month. And speculation is rampant that he will want out, because babysitting some newbie ballers can get frustrating for a guy that can be ornery and is used to mixing it up for rings.
Right now, the Celtics are trying to survive in a talent-laden Atlantic Division with an out-of-position Jeff Green (16.8 ppg) as their leading scorer and Avery Bradley running the point. Bradley is cool defensively, but his swish game is saucy. After him, there’s shook rook Phil Pressey and shooting guards Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford, who are disasters at the point. Center Victor Faverani has been a surprise, leading the team with 7.3 boards a game and draft pick Kelly Olynyk has shown some promise, but none of that has equaled a win yet.
It’s pretty clear that Ainge thinks dumping this season and nabbing Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins —considered the best high school prospect since LBJ—is a quicker fix to this Celtics rebuild than enduring years of losing. Not even Ainge himself would survive that scenario.
However, the NBA isn’t the NFL, where the worst team gets the top pick. The lottery process causes for some pleasant surprises and some sick twists of fate. Stevens could get lucky like the Spurs did when they beat the odds and Tim Duncan fell in their laps in 1997. But let’s not forget, in that same draft, the Celtics and Pitino had the most chances to get the first pick and they fell to third, missing out on Duncan and Keith Van Horn, instead landing Chauncey Billups.
Luck will play a huge part in Stevens future as an NBA coach. Doc Rivers got lucky when the 2006-07 Celtics—coming off a 58-loss season and a mass calling for his dome—signed KG and Ray Allen, and won 66 games aong with the 2007-08 c’hip.
Something has to give either via free agency or the draft because the Celtics as currently composed are bringing super soakers to sword fights. That’s the only way Stevens can avoid re-living the Pitino pitfall, no matter how brilliant he may be on the sideline.