Over the past few weeks here at BSJ, we have shined 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 several entries of the series here that chronicles Pitino’s first offseason, first big trade of Chris Mills, why the Chauncey Billups trade was even worse than you remember, why the Antoine Walker extension changed everything, betting the farm on Vitaly Potapenko, a Ron Mercer trade that actually worked for Boston and taking one of the biggest draft busts in Celtics history
We know wrap up the series with a final entry: A goodbye and a surprise turnaround
Pressure was at an all-time high for Rick Pitino heading into the 2000-01 season and a lack of buy-in from his players was on full display after the team stumbled following a 7-7 start. The loss of Kenny Anderson decimated the point guard depth and things went haywire in a hurry during Pitino’s critical fourth season at the helm.
The lowlights were numerous once the Celtics started reeling. There was an embarrassing 18-point loss at home to the 2-18 Bulls. Another double-digit loss to the Warriors on the heels of Pitino calling it a must-win game in December.
Eventually, the writing was on the wall and Pitino began to prepare his exit. He put his Boston townhouse on the market while whispers started circulating about college jobs. Things came to a head in January after five straight losses and eight of nine defeats overall for Boston, dropping the C’s to 12-22. All of those losses came by eight or more points.
On the heels of a 112-86 blowout loss in Miami during which Pitino was seen hugging Paul Pierce as he came off the floor, the head coach stayed back at his Miami home while the team traveled back to Boston without him. Pitino spent a Sunday thinking about his future as multiple reports popped up that his departure was a done deal. He would be leaving with two months severance pay, leaving $27 million on the table in the process from the final six years of his contract.
Ultimately, Pitino finished that season with a 12-22 record, leaving Pitino 102-146 overall during his three-plus years on the job. Pitino’s long-time assistant coach, Jim O’Brien, took over as interim head coach.
"It has been a great privilege to coach the greatest basketball tradition in sports," Pitino said upon resigning. "I wish we could have accomplished more between the lines, but I am proud with the efforts of my staff and players."
The Celtics did very little tinkering to the roster in the final 48 games but they clearly found a stabilizing force in O’Brien who was far easier to play for. The pressing disappeared, roles became more established and the Celtics started getting better results almost immediately. After losing his first game at home, the Celtics won 12 of their next 17 games extending past the All-Star Break, moving them into a position to push for a playoff spot in the East for the first time in nearly a decade.
Injuries kept the Celtics from sustaining the moment during the season’s final two months, however, as the C’s stumbled with eight losses in their final 11 games to finish the season with a 36-46 record. O’Brien’s performance at the helm (24-24) was enough to earn him the full-time gig, paving the way for an even bigger turnaround during the 2001-02 season.
Perhaps, the biggest indictment on Pitino as head coach was the job O’Brien did there that next season. The capped-out Celtics had no real salary flexibility in the summer of 2001 so they essentially ran it back with a bunch of hefty contracts that Pitino left this group with. Point guard Erick Strickland was the only notable free-agent signing (for the league minimum). Starting shooting guard Bryant Stith walked for nothing. Rookie bust Jerome Moiso was traded away for a future first round pick.
Chris Wallace took the reins as the top decision-maker with Pitino out of the picture and while he doesn’t get nearly as much flack as Pitino did in this city, he deserves some after a few costly choices starting in 2001. The first was with the little draft capital that Pitino had leftover from his tenure. A first-round pick from the Nuggets acquired for Ron Mercer nearly two years earlier. The Celtics had the option to roll that over one year (or longer) for a Nuggets franchise on the downturn but Wallace was eager for assets and exercised it when the Nuggets had the No. 11 overall pick. He ended up taking Kedrick Brown in that slot to go along with Joe Johnson (C’s own pick at No. 10) and Joe Forte (No. 21 via Utah in Danny Fortson trade) for an impressive first round haul.
Those rookies didn’t make a much of a meaningful impact right away in the 2001-02 season, but O’Brien managed to coach essentially the same roster to a 29-21 record in the first 50 games of that season. The growth of Pierce into an All-Star player along with improved health for Kenny Anderson were big factors but this was also a group that was clearly buying into O’Brien’s scheme, something that never really happened with Pitino after his early days.
We will get more into the quick ascent and rapid dismantling of the early 2000 Celtics in the days to come as Danny Ainge arrived in Boston but, for now, a few final lessons learned from the Pitino era. Growing up through this timespan as a teenager, I didn’t quite grasp how damaging some of his moves were for both the short and long term, but there are a few key takeaways from this span.
1. Letting Rick Fox and David Wesley walk for nothing: Pitino’s first and only crack at major cap