The adage that rookies should be seen and not heard was a
difficult one for the Celtics' Paul Pierce to abide by last
season. Pierce had every intention of making as much noise as
possible so the nine teams that bypassed him on draft
night--he'd been projected as a top-three choice--would come to
regret that decision. That's why, during preseason drills, every
time he knocked down a jumper, he would call out the name of a
player who was drafted before him.
Boston was stunned by its good fortune at snagging the 6'6"
Pierce, whose ball handling and shooting skills made him equally
formidable as a small forward or a shooting guard. The Celtics
were surprised further by his commitment to defense--he led the
team in steals with 1.71 a game. They were more than happy to
provide Pierce with the necessary playing time to prove his
point, and he responded by becoming Boston's most consistent
Pierce's instant success should have been nothing but good news
for a team that has not been to the postseason since 1994-95.
Instead, his performance left a few key members of the Celtics,
among them forwards Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer, and point
guard Kenny Anderson, puzzled about their roles. Walker led
Boston in scoring (18.7 points per game) and took the most shots
(17.5), but while Pierce became a fan favorite, Walker was
dismissed as selfish and immature: the anti-Pierce. The booing
Walker endured at home during the latter part of last season, in
which the Celtics again failed to make the playoffs, was
unprecedented for a Boston All-Star.
During his summer workouts in Los Angeles, Pierce says, "I
thought a lot about what happened. I was hoping it would make
everybody come back hungrier, and it did. We're fit, and we're
ready. The only big concern I have is how well we'll get along.
The talent is definitely there, but we'll have to see on the team
We'll also have to see on president-coach Rick Pitino's guarantee
that Boston will make the playoffs this season. Considering that
the Celtics finished 19-31 in 1998-99, Pitino's directive appears
to be a tall order, especially since his roster has undergone an
overhaul for the second season in a row.
Perhaps the biggest factor in determining whether Boston can
reinvent itself as Team Harmony is how well Pitino and Walker
coexist. The two banged heads on numerous occasions last season.
Pitino was, for example, unhappy with the lousy shape Walker was
in when the lockout ended, and he didn't hesitate to go public
with his displeasure. Walker, in turn, felt Pitino didn't back
him strongly enough when the masses turned on him. The two sat
down during the off-season and supposedly cleared the air. "It
was a hard year," Walker says, "but I'm trying to put everything
behind me and come into this year clean. Do I worry about our
team chemistry? Of course. But from the looks of it so far,
everyone is on the same page."
Mercer's future, which emerged as a distraction late last season,
is a moot point now, since Trader Rick dealt him in August to the
Nuggets for power forward Danny Fortson, small forward Eric
Williams and shooting guard Eric Washington. Though Pitino
appreciated Mercer's talent, including the damage he inflicted
from the perimeter, he wasn't willing to pay him the maximum
salary for those skills. In fact Mercer was on the trading block
for the better part of a year before Pitino made the deal with
The key to the swap for Boston was Fortson, a 6'8", 270-pound
wide-body rebounder whom the Celtics hoped would provide an
imposing presence in the frontcourt and enable Walker to get more
minutes at his natural position, small forward. Pitino likened
the 23-year-old Fortson, the league's best offensive rebounder
last year (4.2 per game), to Nets center Jayson Williams "without
the wisdom and the years. Danny goes after every rebound like
Jayson does and has the same tenacity." But Boston was dealt a
blow this week when Fortson underwent surgery to repair a stress
fracture in his right foot. He's expected to be out eight to 12
The Celtics thought they had acquired the physical presence they
were seeking last March, when they dealt Andrew DeClercq and
their 1999 first-round choice to the Cavaliers for center Vitaly
Potapenko. At 6'10" and 285 pounds, Potapenko had the necessary
bulk to clog the middle, but he proved to be an average defender
and a mediocre rebounder (career average: 4.2). The trade left
Pitino open to criticism, especially when Cleveland used the No.
8 pick to take Utah point guard Andre Miller. Pitino countered by
saying that he didn't need more rookies, no matter how talented.
If Fortson can return to form and fill the void up front, the
Celtics may be able to push the ball. Anderson, who endured one
of the most disappointing seasons of his career last year, will
be charged again with controlling tempo. His play is critical to
Boston's chances, especially since his backups are Wayne Turner,
a rookie free agent from Kentucky, and veteran Dana Barros, who
is better suited to shooting guard. Is Anderson willing to take a
backseat to Pierce and Walker? Anderson dismisses the notion that
he would refuse to play a secondary role as "ridiculous."
Pierce, meanwhile, made it clear in training camp that he won't
be a silent contributor. "Paul is the real deal," Fortson says.
"He can shoot the ball, put it on the floor, jump into passing
lanes. I knew he could do it all, but what impressed me most is
that he's a leader on the floor. For a second-year guy to take
over like he has, that's pretty impressive."
Pierce would consider the season a failure if the Celtics don't
reach the postseason and claims he and Walker are ready to
reverse Boston's fortunes, regardless of who takes the last shot
on any given night. "I can see it in Antoine's eyes," says
Pierce. "A lot of what happens this year is going to be on me and
him. We both know that. We're in this together."
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON/NBA PHOTOS UP-FRONT GUY Pierce has explosive talent but admits Boston has unstable chemistry.
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE BABINEAU/NBA PHOTOS TURNAROUND? Anderson will try to bounce back from a discouraging 1998-99 season.
STARTING FIVE [3 stars]
BENCH [2 stars]
COACH [3 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 stars]
By the Numbers
1998-99 record: 19-31 (12th in Eastern Conference)
Coach: Rick Pitino (third season with Celtics)
1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)
CELTICS 93.0 (10) 43.6 (16) 42.8 (10) 16.1 (23)
OPPONENTS 94.9 (22) 44.3 (18) 43.7 (27) 16.8 (3)
Rick Pitino is in danger of becoming the first coach in the
Celtics' 54-year history to suffer three straight losing seasons.
Boston's current streak of four playoff-less seasons is already
the longest in franchise history.
STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS
SF Antoine Walker 19 18.7 ppg 8.5 rpg 3.1 apg 41.2 FG%
Tailed off in scoring, rebounding and assists after sophomore
surge of '97-98
PF Tony Battie 208 6.7 ppg 6.0 rpg 51.9 FG% 1.42 blocks
Could be first Celtic with 100 blocks in a season since Robert
Parish in '92-93
C Vitaly Potapenko 159 10.0 ppg 6.6 rpg 1.5 apg 49.5 FG%
Scoring and rebounding improved after midseason trade from
SG Paul Pierce 26 16.5 ppg 6.4 rpg 2.4 apg 43.9 FG%
No. 10 pick was unanimous selection for NBA's all-rookie first team
PG Kenny Anderson 94 12.1 ppg 3.0 rpg 5.7 apg 45.1 FG%
One of few NBA veterans to achieve career-best FG% last season
BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS
PF Danny Fortson[#] 140 11.0 ppg 11.6 rpg 0.6 apg 49.5 FG%
Will miss first two months of season with stress fracture in
F Eric Williams [#] 145 7.3 ppg 2.1 rpg 1.0 apg 36.5 FG%
Averaged 13.0 points in earlier stint with Boston, from '95-96 to
G Dana Barros 209 9.3 ppg 2.1 rpg 4.2 apg 45.3 FG%
Career 3FG% of 41.3 is second-best alltime among players with 500
G-F Calbert Cheaney [#] 250 7.7 ppg 2.8 rpg 1.5 apg 41.4 FG%
Career 71.0 free throw shooter hit just 49.3% from foul line
G Wayne Turner (R)[#] 291 10.5 ppg 2.8 rpg 3.9 apg 49.6 FG%
Undrafted two-time national champion signed with his former
[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)