The Pitino Files: Betting the farm on Vitaly Potapenko

(David Maxwell/Getty Images)

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 four entries of the series here that chronicles Pitino’s first offseasonfirst big trade of Chris Millswhy the Chauncey Billups trade was even worse than you remember, and Why the Antoine Walker extension changed everything Next up: Pitino identifies his center of the future: Vitaly Potapenko


The Setup
1999 lockout season (50 games): Year 2 of the Pitino era

The Celtics began Year 2 of the Pitino era with low expectations on the heels of a surprising 36-win season in year one. The team was projected to finish 12th in the Eastern Conference despite landing Paul Pierce at No. 10 overall in the NBA Draft. Barring a return by veteran point guard Kenny Anderson to All-Star form there was not a lot of potential upside here for the rest of the roster. Antoine Walker was already an All-Star and Ron Mercer showed promise but there was not much talent besides overpaid role players despite Rick Pitino’s constant wheeling and dealing.

The Celtics looked particularly vulnerable in the frontcourt as the season began. Tony Battie had been acquired for Travis Knight and won the starting job eventually but he was more of a power forward than a center in the 90s, lacking the bulk to battle true bigs. The same rang true for mobile center Andrew DeClercq who was in year two of a pricy five-year contract. Pitino attempted to add more bulk in the offseason with bargain basements deals for centers in Eric Riley and Dwayne Schintzius but both of those guys underwhelmed early.

With a condensed 50-game lockout season that presented countless back-to-backs that limited practice time, shaking up the roster by trading a future pick for the present was a risky proposition, especially for a team that barely had playoff aspirations in Boston. That did not stop Pitino from attempting to make a big splash after seeing his Celtics team open the 1999 season with a 7-9 record despite playing a soft schedule.

Vitaly Potapenko is looking for an extension in crowded Cavs frontcourt

The Cavs had drafted the 23-year-old Potapenko with the 12th overall pick in 1996. He had emerged as a solid backup center behind Zydrunas Ilgauskas but there was no room for him in Cleveland on a high priced deal after his rookie contract expired thanks to the presence of Shawn Kemp and Ilgauskas. That led to contract extension negotiations between Potapenko and Cleveland breaking down ahead of the March trade deadline.

“We had negotiated with Vitaly’s agent (Curtis Polk) up until a little while before the trade, and we decided we were still far apart,” Cavs GM Wayne Embry said. “Vitaly’s going to be a fine player… But we were unable to extend him.”

Potapenko had potential but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire for Cleveland in a starting role, averaging 7.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.8 APG and 0.6 SPG. The big man shot 46% from the field and 71% from the free-throw line during that time in his third NBA season.

Rather than losing an asset for nothing, the Cavs entered trade negotiations at midseason in hopes of securing a return.

Pitino knew he needed a big man and realized he didn’t have the resources to acquire one on the free-agent market after the season after tying up the C’s cap sheet with plenty of bloated long-term deals that didn’t pan out.

“We tried everything humanly possible to get a center,” said Pitino. “We looked at the free-agent list, and Olden Polynice is probably the best name on it, and he’s probably going to want more than the $2 million exception.”

That left the Celtics and Cavs in a bit of a staring contest as the trade deadline approached. The Celtics wanted their big man of the future but had no way of acquiring one unless it was a trade or the draft. The Cavs had a young big man they weren’t going to be able to afford after this season. Normally, this is a situation where the Celtics should have more leverage. They weren’t in win-now (or shouldn’t have been). There were going to be other centers out there. Potapenko was young and promising but hardly was considered an elite prospect by most. Why would a team give up much in order to give someone a fat extension?

All of this logic didn’t really apply to Pitino unfortunately. He was enthralled with Potapenko as his center of the future.

“It’s what we need,” Pitino told reporters. “We have to have a tough, physical banger. I tell you, this kid’s tough. We’ve researched him now for the last month, and he is a great guy like Andrew, but he is a tough, hard-nosed guy. Don’t mess with this guy…he’s 280 pounds. He can guard his own man without a double team. He may be the strongest player in the NBA.”

The Trade Price

Pitino had just used the No. 10 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft to land a future Hall of Famer in Paul Pierce. Pitino didn’t know just how great Pierce was yet one month into his career but the small forward had showed enough in one month to be considered a top-3 player on the C’s roster already,

Despite this luck, Pitino was convinced a 23-year-old Potapenko was the answer over young talent to build with Pierce and Antoine Walker.

“I think that this team needs age, not youth,” Pitino said. “I think right now we’re too young. That’s been one of our weaknesses. Now we're going after age and trying to keep our young players intact if that’s possible.”

A 23-year-old Potapenko wasn’t exactly a veteran but he had a couple years under his belt, which was enough for Pitino to cough up one of the C’s best assets: A top-3 protected first-round pick.

The Celtics were projected to be a bottom-10 team before the 1999 season, so Pitino was essentially gifting the Cavs a lottery pick in exchange for an expiring rookie contract in Potapenko. The selection was top-3 protected for the 1999 NBA Draft but unprotected for 2000 and 2001 (Cavs were given their pick of what year they wanted to use it, another very favorable term). Days after the deal went through, the Celtics came to terms on an extension with Potapenko worth $33 million over the next six seasons, adding to a list of hefty long-term contracts (Walker, Anderson) that were on Boston’s books.

“I was happy to get (the pick) protected to three,” Pitino told reporters afterward. “That was the key. And the clincher was being able to sign Vitaly. I think he’ll be a Celtic for a long time. I feel comfortable that we’ll be able to sign him.”

The alternative for the Celtics here would have been waiting to see how exactly Potapenko fit into the C’s system for a couple of months before committing that kind of dough over the next decade. Yet, the Celtics meeting the Cavs’ high asking price with a lottery pick forced their hand early with Potapenko in negotiations. They couldn’t afford to let him walk anyway in the summer after giving up so much for him. They paid him above-average starter money for a guy who had started a handful of games in his career at the time.

The Aftermath

Bringing in a brand new starter in the midst of a frantic season with no downtime was a dicey proposition. Just like the Billups trade in 1998, the Celtics played their worst basketball of 1999 after dealing for Potapenko. The Celtics immediately lost four straight games after the deal was made and went 3-15 overall after starting the season 7-7. The dismal stretch essentially had Boston out of playoff contention by the midway point of the season, leaving the Green without a first-round pick and few other ways to improve the roster in the summer of 1999.

Celtics before Potapenko deal: 7-9
Celtics after Potapenko deal: 12-22

Celtics final record in 1999: 19-31 (12th in East)

Potapenko was not the sole reason for Boston’s struggles after the deal but he certainly failed to live up to expectations on the heels of the trade. He contributed 10.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.8 APG over 28.1 MPG but sadly those ended up being his career-highs during what was a very underwhelming Celtics career in which Potapenko only lasted as a starter for one more season before spending the rest of his career as an overpriced backup.

Meanwhile, DeClercq (making 33 percent of Potapenko annually), started at center alongside power forward Shawn Kemp and averaged a career-high 9.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 1.1 SPG in 33 games with the Cavaliers. He ended up being a short minutes starting center for the rest of his career, albeit at a fraction of cost at Potapenko.

What could have been at the 1999 NBA Draft

The Celtics held their spot in the lottery (8th overall) and the Cavs took advantage by taking the pick in 1999 in what was a solid draft class. Incredibly, three of the best five best players in the draft were taken at 8-10 spots overall as Andre Miller, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry came off the board.

Not only were all three lottery picks long-term contributors in the NBA but they all managed to become immediate contributors for their respective teams, putting together better numbers in their rookie year than Potapenko managed in a career season.

Miller made the All-Rookie First team for the Cavs after averaging 11.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.8 APG and 1.1 SPG in 82 games and 25.5 MPG. He won the starting job from Brevin Knight midway through his first season. With Anderson at the helm at point guard, Pitino could have gone with Shawn Marion at No. 8 who emerged as a starter and defensive weapon for the Suns immediately after being drafted as a 21-year-old.

A core of Pierce, Walker and one of Marion/Miller/Terry could have been the start of something promising for Pitino in the East. Throw in Billups in there over Anderson and the future would have looked even more promising. Without them? Pierce and Walker weren’t able to lift an underwhelming supporting cast anywhere close to .500 without Pitino.

Next up: Pitino makes the best move of his Celtics career