The 1997 season is full of what-ifs for the Celtics. The most obvious is what if the Celtics got the number one pick to select Tim Duncan. But there are plenty of others. What if the Celtics had gotten the 2nd pick and ended up with Keith Van Horn? What if they took Tracy Mcgrady with the 6th pick and moved forward with Billups and Mcgrady? Now for a pipe dream: what if they ended up with the 1st and 3rd picks in the draft – would the Celtics be going for banner 20 this year with Duncan and Billups? Banner 25? Would Rick Pitino still be manning the sidelines with a legacy as one of the top 3 NBA coaches of all time?
Nevertheless, as the draft shook out, the Celtics got the 3rd and 6th selections and chose Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. This created a nice young core when put together with Antoine Walker, the first round pick in 1996, who had averaged 17.5 points a game as a rookie. Yet before the trio had any time to gel and move forward, Billups was traded, only 51 games into his rookie season. Had the Celtics young nucleus had time to grow together, who knows how successful they could have been with those three plus Paul Pierce, the first rounder in 1998. This begs the question: what if the Celtics never traded Chauncey Billups?
Fans were cautiously optimistic going into the 1997-98 season with such a young but talented team. The optimism was rewarded when the Celtics beat the two-time defending NBA champion Bulls on opening night by outscoring the Bulls by 30 points in the middle two quarters on the way to a huge seven-point victory. Walker led the team with 31 points and the second leading scorer was none other than Billups, who in only 17 minutes off the bench had 15 points to go along with four assists and two steals in his debut. Billups was moved into the starting lineup after only three games and the Celtics seemed to have a great future ahead of them in Billups, Walker, and Mercer (who many forget averaged 15.3 points per game as a rookie).
It was not meant to be, however. After only 51 games, Pitino gave up on Billups and shipped him to Toronto for playground legend Kenny Anderson as part of a seven-player deal. Pitino gave many reasons for the trade but his overall message was that he could not pass up on a talent like Anderson. Little did Pitino know, Billups was quite a talent himself, and unfortunately that talent was never allowed to materialize in Boston.
After seeing the career Billups has had, it’s easy to look back now and say trading Billups was the wrong move. However, even at the time it didn’t make much sense. The Celtics were 23-28 when Billups was dealt, which was eight more wins than the team had the entire previous season. Even though Billups was young and very raw, he still managed to average 11.1 points per game to go along with 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals in his 51 games for the Celtics (as a rookie!), while Anderson posted similar stats in his 16 games with the Celtics that season with averages of 11.2 points, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals.
Let’s say Pitino keeps Billups instead of dealing him. It is safe to assume the Celtics would have continued on the same pace with Billups the rest of the 1997-98 season (they were 23-28 with him, 13-18 without him), meaning the Celtics would still end up with Pierce in the 1998 draft. That leaves the Celtics going forward with a young group of Billups, Mercer, Walker, and Pierce. Not bad.
After the 1999 season, Pitino dealt Mercer because of concerns he would not be able to re-sign him after his rookie contract. The Celtics traded Mercer for Danny Fortson, and then the next year traded Fortson for a first round pick in 2001 that was used on Joseph Forte…that whole sequence of events is a what-if for another time. The Celtics continued to tread water for the next few years, but kept developing their young core of Pierce and Walker.
By the 2001-02 season, Pitino was gone and Jim O’Brien had taken over the Celtics. Real buzz surrounded the Celtics as they had two true stars, and they both delivered – Pierce averaged 26.1 points a game while Walker threw in 22.1 a game. The Celts advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to the Nets in 6 games (including the comeback for the ages in the 4th quarter of game 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MI3sj3XKrQ).
Billups had moved on to Minnesota by that time and got his big break when Terrell Brandon was injured in the middle of that season. Billups burst onto the scene, bringing the Timberwolves to the playoffs (with a little help from his buddy KG) and broke out in the playoffs, averaging 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists on his way to a huge deal from the Pistons. Think the Celts could have used those numbers against Jason Kidd and company?
With Billups playing like that, the Celtics certainly could have defeated the Nets that year and made their first trip back to the NBA Finals in 15 years. Sure they would have had no chance against the Lakers, but a trip to the finals would have been much more rewarding than just a trip to the conference finals in the weak Eastern Conference. But then again, many said Billups’ 2004 Pistons team had no shot against that Lakers squad. Remind me who the MVP of that Finals was again?
Billups was never really given a chance with the Celtics. He has even said, "It was a recipe for disaster [in Boston]." Billups’ Timberwolves teammate Sam Mitchell relayed similar sentiments the point guard had shared about Boston experience: "He said in Boston no one ever tried to teach him the position. They just said, 'Look, we're going to bring you off the bench and, when you come in the game, shoot every time you get the ball.' So that's what he did."
Clearly, Billups was no fan of Pitino (and vice versa). But either way, when Billups started coming into his own in that 2001-02 season, Jim O’Brien had already taken over as coach of the Celtics. Billups has proven he is a fantastic player; he just needed the right coach and situation. That situation certainly could have presented itself in Boston had they given him more time. He was the 3rd overall pick for a reason – reasons he showed just a few years later. Fifty games is far too few to give up on a talent like that (unfortunately the Celtics didn’t learn their lesson and made the same mistake with Joe Johnson).
Pitino took over the Celtics thinking he was getting Tim Duncan. There is only one Tim Duncan, so no matter who he drafted he would have been disappointed with – even his former player at Kentucky was shipped out after only two years. Billups was a great player and just needed time to develop (or just needed to be developed by the right coach). The trio of Pierce, Walker, and Billups could have been one of the best if not the best young trio in the league at the time. Billups was clearly a better player than Kenny Anderson after a few years of seasoning and could have brought the Celtics to new heights in that era – places Anderson did not. The biggest blunder of the 1997 draft wasn’t that the Celtics missed out on Duncan, it was that they missed out on Billups as well.