Publish date:

NO.5 BOSTON CELTICS

Chauncey Billups gasped for air. A rookie point guard who has a
tattoo on his left arm that reads KING OF THE HILL, Billups was
trying to scale the mountain of conditioning demanded by Rick
Pitino. The climb was killing Billups--and this was only in the
preseason. "I thought I was in great shape," Billups said, "but
now I realize I have no idea what that means in this system."

The system Pitino will implement in his first year at the
Celtics' helm will be familiar to Knicks fans from 1987 to '89:
a blend of pressing, trapping and three-point shooting that
requires players to be in superb shape and to have infinite
patience. Pitino used this approach to coax 52 wins out of New
York in 1988-89, but there was one major difference between that
team and his new one: Pitino in New York had future Hall of
Famer Patrick Ewing in the pivot.

His center in Boston will be Travis Knight, a frisky second-year
pro who was lured away from the Lakers with a seven-year, $22
million contract. Pitino points to Knight's successful rookie
campaign with the Lakers as evidence that Knight has the tools
to thrive in a transition game. But in L.A., Knight played in
short spurts or, when he was at his best, alongside Shaquille
O'Neal. In Boston he'll often be shoulder-to-shoulder with
workman-like big bodies Andrew DeClercq, Walter McCarty and Roy
Rogers. This trio will provide Pitino with another commodity he
values: an abundance of fouls.

To rely on the unpolished Knight to score consistently from the
post would be pure folly. With Dino Radja hitting the road for
Europe after the Celtics bought out his contract, the closest
they can come to a bona fide inside threat is 30-year-old Pervis
Ellison, whose chronically sore knees have earned him the
nickname Out of Service Pervis. Still, Pitino regards him as the
key to his young team's success. "Pervis has big-time ability,"
Pitino says. "His defensive capabilities could shape our entire
team, if he's ready and willing to play. Time will tell if
Pervis is up to the challenge."

The same holds true of Billups, the third pick in the draft
after his sophomore year at Colorado, who faces a multitude of
demands in his role as Pitino's quarterback. He must, for
starters, push the ball up the floor hard. He must prove he can
hit the NBA three-pointer, as well as break down defenses off
the dribble. He must apply pressure in the trap. Oh, and by the
way, he must also find the open man in transition and he must
provide stability at a position he will probably be sharing with
Dana Barros.

"I know there's a lot of pressure on me to perform, but I'm not
going to run away from that," says the 6'3", 21-year-old
Billups. "Point guards represent some of the premier players in
the NBA right now, and I want to be one of them."

Pitino will probably limit Billups's offensive duties early in
the season and rely more on forward Antoine Walker. Rookie guard
Ron Mercer is the third of Pitino's former players at Kentucky
in the starting lineup, along with Walker and McCarty. Veteran
guard Dee Brown will be counted on almost as heavily for his
contributions in the locker room as for his three-point shooting.

Although Pitino told Billups before the draft that he fully
expected to take the Celtics to the playoffs this season, he
tempered that when his team continued to stumble along in
exhibition play. Another sign of his dropping expectations came
on Oct. 22, when Boston traded swingman Chris Mills to the
Knicks for point guard Scott Brooks (since waived) and forwards
Dontae' Jones, rookie John Thomas and McCarty. Only eight weeks
earlier the Celtics had signed Mills to a seven-year, $33.6
million deal. The swap was indicative of Mills's struggles with
Pitino's system and a desire to clear salary-cap room for
further rebuilding at the FleetCenter.

Boston will struggle mightily in the early months of the season
but may well reap some of the rewards of Pitino's frenzied style
in January and February, when other clubs become fatigued. The
playoffs? That's a dream for another season, when Billups is a
year older, a year wiser and a little closer to understanding
what a long climb it is to the top of the NBA.

--J.M.

COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS ON THIS GREEN TEAM, THE VERSATILE WALKER, ONLY 21, IS ALREADY A MATURE TALENT [Antoine Walker and Michael Jordan in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Dee Brown in game]

BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS Record: 15-67 (seventh in Atlantic)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points Rebounds Turnovers
per game FG pct. per game per game
(rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

Celtics 100.6 (5) .440 (22) 40.0 (21) 16.4 (22)
Opponents 107.9 (29) .503 (29) 44.3 (28) 17.6 (2)

NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP

Rick Pitino has turned an NBA team around before. In 1987 he
inherited a 24-58 Knicks club and improved it by 14 wins, to
38-44 in '87-88. The 15-win Celtics present a bigger challenge,
but all 10 times a coach has taken over an NBA team with fewer
than 20 wins the previous year, the team improved the next season.

NEW COACHES ON NBA TEAMS THAT WON FEWER THAN 20 GAMES THE
PREVIOUS SEASON

PREVIOUS COACH'S FIRST
SEASON W-L SEASON W-L IMPROVEMENT

Dick Motta,
Mavericks 1993-94 13-69 1994-95 36-46 23 wins

Gene Shue,
76ers 1972-73 9-73 1973-74 25-57 16 wins

Bill Fitch,
Rockets 1982-83 14-68 1983-84 29-53 15 wins

Charles Wolf,
Royals 1959-60 19-56 1960-61 33-46 14 wins

Fuzzy Levane,
Hawks 1951-52 17-49 1952-53 27-44 10 wins

Tom Nissalke,
Cavaliers 1981-82 15-67 1982-83 23-59 8 wins

Scotty Robertson,
Pistons 1979-80 16-66 1980-81 21-61 5 wins

Gene Shue,
Clippers 1986-87 12-70 1987-88 17-65 5 wins

Jack McCloskey,
Trail Blazers 1971-72 18-64 1972-73 21-61 3 wins

Quinn Buckner,
Mavericks 1992-93 11-71 1993-94 13-69 2 wins

NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND

In the preseason coach Rick Pitino went out of his way to laud
veteran guard Dee Brown (right) for his attitude and
conditioning. Then he named Brown co-captain alongside Antoine
Walker, which gratified Brown, stripped of his captaincy the
previous year by coach M.L. Carr. At the same time, Celtics
sources say, Pitino has been trying to deal the new-look Brown,
hoping his value increases with each compliment.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1996-97 STATS
Coach: Rick Pitino (first season with Boston)

STARTERS

G PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3FG%

PG Dana Barros 24 12.5 2.0 3.4 1.08 0.25 .435 .860 .410
SG Ron Mercer (R)[*] 40 18.1 5.3 2.4 1.65 0.25 .493 .781 .348
SF Walter McCarty[*] 35 1.8 0.7 0.4 0.20 0.26 .382 .571 .286
PF Antoine Walker 82 17.5 9.0 3.2 1.28 0.65 .425 .631 .327
C Travis Knight[*] 71 4.8 4.5 0.5 0.44 0.82 .509 .620 0 att.

RESERVES

F Pervis Ellison 6 2.5 4.3 0.7 0.55 1.50 .375 .600 0 att.
G Chauncey
Billups(R)[*] 29 19.1 4.9 4.8 2.14 0.14 .413 .854 .401
F-C Andrew DeClercq[*]71 5.3 4.2 0.5 0.46 0.38 .520 .603 0 att.
G Dee Brown 21 7.6 2.3 3.2 1.48 0.33 .367 .818 .308
F Roy Rogers[*] 82 6.6 4.7 1.8 0.26 1.98 .505 .574 1.000

[*]New acquisition (R) Rookie (college stats)