Over the upcoming weeks here at BSJ, we will be shining a microscope on one of the most tumultuous eras in Celtics history: Rick Pitino’s tenure as coach and team president.
You can check out the first three entries of the series here that chronicles Pitino’s first offseason, first big trade of Chris Mills and why the Chauncey Billups trade was even worse than you remember Next up: Pitino goes heads into year two by striking gold in the draft and handing the keys to the franchise to Antoine Walker.
1998 offseason: Year 2 of the Pitino era
Year 1 of the Pitino era wrapped up on a bit of down note on the court. After a 23-28 start to the year, the C’s wrapped up the year with a 36-46 record following a 13-18 stretch despite trading rookie point guard Chauncey Billups for veteran Kenny Anderson at midseason.
There were some promising signs in the maiden Pitino voyage. Antoine Walker had developed into a surprise All-Star during year two. Ron Mercer produced a strong scoring rookie campaign averaging 15.3 ppg. Free agent minimum pickup Bruce Bowen showed capabilities of being a solid bench defender. After that? There was very little to get excited about from a talent standpoint after a busy year of wheeling and dealing for Pitino.
All of Pitino’s trade and free-agent acquisitions from year one underwhelmed in various ways. Kenny Anderson was the most expensive player on the team by far and only averaged 11.6 points and 6.2 assists per game before shutting things down due to knee issues. Walter McCarty looked like a solid role player in year two but still was a highly inefficient shooter (30.9 percent from 3), a far cry from the guy he was traded for (Mills). Travis Knight, Andrew DeClercq and Tyus Edney all underwhelmed after being signed in the summer of 1997. Dontae' Jones (added in Mills deal) barely played. Everyone else acquired via trade had already been dumped elsewhere (John Thomas, Roy Rogers).
Not only did Pitino tie-up pricy long-term contracts with a lot of these players (Knight, DeClercq, Anderson), he was left with a few ugly deals from a previous regime to make matter worse. 30-year-old Pervis Ellison still had two years left on his six-year, $12-million deal to sit on the end of the bench. Reserve Greg Minor had three years left on his contract for about $2 million a year and had regressed in his fourth NBA season. Dana Barros still had three years left on a $22 million deal signed in 1995. Dino Radja was still counting for $2.5 million against the cap as well after being waived the last offseason. Bad contracts of both the new and old variety left Pitino with a bloated cap sheet and limited assets heading into the 1998 offseason.
1998 NBA Draft: Pitino strikes gold
After Pitino’s win on opening night, this was easily the biggest bright spot of the Pitino era. The Celtics finished with the 10th worst record in the NBA at 36-46 in year one and held their spot after the Draft Lottery. Incredibly, projected top-five pick Paul Pierce fell to No. 10 overall with Boston, giving the C’s a future Hall of Famer at the end of the lottery.
“We were a little unlucky last year and we got very lucky this year,” Pitino told Celtics draft party attendees as the pick was being announced.
How exactly Pierce fell to No. 10 overall remains a bit of a mystery when you look at the nine names that went ahead of him. A closer look indicates that many teams drafted more for need instead of the best available player. Michael Olowankandi (Clippers at No. 1) was one of the biggest busts ever. Role players and busts like Robert Traylor, Jason Williams and Larry Hughes went in the 6-8 range, all ahead of Pierce.
The Mavericks pulled off the steal of the draft by not only landing Dirk Nowitzki but managing to pick up another draft pick (No. 19) by moving down from No. 7 to No. 9 to land him. The Bucks moved up to snag Robert ‘Tractor’ Traylor in the deal in what has to be considered one of the worst draft night deals in NBA history.
All of this created the perfect storm for the C’s to land Pierce at No. 10 even though they had their eye on Nowitzki as well if he fell to them.
“We were scurrying, thinking something’s wrong with Pierce, who was supposed to go two or three in the draft,” Pitino recalled as Pierce fell to the Courier-Journal. “Now everybody’s wondering, all these things come up of why he slipped.”
The surprise sent Pitino searching for red flags regarding Pierce’s health.
“Somebody called Roy Williams right away (and asked) ‘Is there any problem with Pierce?’ He had a clean bill of health,” Pitino said. “We were very excited that Paul Pierce slipped to 10.”
“This was a hell of a Plan B,” said assistant GM Chris Wallace. “I felt Paul was one of the three best players in the draft and it just shows you it’s better to be lucky than good. I’ve been doing this a long time with seven teams and 25 years and that was one of the greatest dealings I’ve ever had in the NBA. I never dreamed we’d get Paul Pierce.”
Looking at this situation in hindsight, it's crazy to think just how bad shape the Celtics would have been in during the Pitino era without Pierce. The Truth was easily the second-best rookie in the NBA that year and the highest-level scorer right away next to Vince Carter. Had he not fallen to Boston, the C's would have been left with their choice of bench players (Michael Doleac, Bonzi Wells, Keon Clark), not of which would have moved the needle.
Pierce was the only pick the Celtics ended up making in 1998. They had a high second-round pick (No. 38 overall) but that pick had been included with Chris Mills and sent to the Knicks in exchange for Walter McCarty and three other guys that were no longer with the C’s. The Knicks ended up taking a nobody at No. 38 (DeMarco Johnson) but there was still some serious talent left on the board at this spot as Rafer Alston (No. 39) and Cuttino Mobley (No. 41) ended up being among the top 15 players in this draft class.
With Pierce in tow, the Celtics headed into free agency which didn’t end up coming for six more months as the NBA entered a lockout in the summer of 1998 that wasn’t resolved until January 20th.
NBA Lockout delays season until January 1999
By all accounts, the owners won the most concessions during this lockout. Max salaries were introduced based on experience. A luxury tax was reintroduced as well as a rookie pay scale based on draft slots. A mid-level exception for teams also came into play as well, which was important for the Celtics as a capped out team.
The new salary cap after the lockout was set at $30 million and that wasn’t good news for Pitino. A look at his payroll heading into a very quick free agency period (two weeks) before the season started.
Celtics 1998-99 Payroll
Kenny Anderson: $5.8 million (five years left on deal)
Dana Barros: $3.5 million (two years left on deal)
Greg Minor: $2.5 million (two years left on deal)
Dino Radja: $2.5 million (buyout — still counting against cap)
Pervis Ellison: $2.4 million (two years left on deal)
Travis Knight: $2.4 million (six years left on deal)
Antoine Walker: $2.1 million (one year left on deal)
Ron Mercer: $2 million (two years left on deal)
Andrew DeClercq: $1.4 million (four years left on deal)
Paul Pierce: $1.1 million
Walter McCarty: $975,000
Dontae Jones: $953,000
Bruce Bowen: $507,000
Total: $28.2 million
That didn’t leave Pitino with any significant cap room heading into free agency. More importantly, there really weren’t any appealing assets in here beyond the team’s young core in Walker and Mercer. Outside of the overpaid Anderson, none of the team’s top six-paid players averaged more than 9 ppg. Radja was dead money. Ellison was out for the season with knee issues. Everyone else had long-term money attached so options were limited to improve from a 36-win team.
Walker gets the biggest extension in Celtics history
With no future cap space in sight for Pitino, the head coach needed to ensure that one of the few talented pieces he had was not going anywhere upon hitting free agency. Fresh off an All-Star appearance in year two from Antoine Walker, the C’s had a negotiation window with the forward ahead of his rookie deal expiring in the summer of 1999 (similar to Jaylen Brown signing extension before last season). Pitino handed Walker a six-year, $71-million extension that would begin during the 1999-2000 season. Not only was it the biggest contract in franchise history, it made Walker one of the highest-paid players in the NBA. The deal essentially made the franchise committed to building around Walker for the foreseeable future.
Giving this contract to Walker at age 22 was actually one